Five must-have free software for design and art

You can make art and designs on your computer without spending a dime!

While, these days, an increasing number of software products have adopted the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model based on monthly or annual subscription fees to use and keep using, the following are free to use as long as you’d like.

Vector drawing

As a designer, it is very important that you know the difference between vector and raster images. If you are making something that can be resized and reproduced at various sizes, you are making a vector graphic. On the other hand, raster images are collections of pixels and if you enlarge them, they will look like a blurry quilt-like picture.

Inkscape (open source)

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Inkscape is a robust, full-featured drawing and illustration software that produces vector images. It is ideal for technical illustrations, maps, diagrams, infographics, logo designs, and more.

Available for GNU/Linux (Ubuntu repository, Snapcraft, Flatpak), Windows, and macOS X.

Gravit Designer (free, proprietary)

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Gravit Designer is a free software from Corel and it works much like Inkscape. Beginners may find this one easier to get used to, as the user interface is a lot simpler than Inkscape and there is a less learning curve. The advanced functionalities are not as rich as Inkscape, however.

An added benefit is that Gravit Designer comes with a free cloud storage to save and backup your artwork.

Available for GNU/Linux (Snapcraft), Windows (also as a portable app), Chromebook, and macOS; it also has a cloud version that can be used inside a Web browser.

Raster drawing/painting

It is possible to use your computer to create works of art that looks like watercolor paintings or charcoal drawings. The following is a raster image software, that is, your artwork is saved as a collection of pixels just like a photograph.

Krita (open-source)

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Krita is a digital art software for painting, animations, illustrations, and graphic novels. To use Krita properly, you will definitely want to invest in a used Wacom tablet (fairly easy to find on eBay or on Craigslist for around $40 to $60).

Available for GNU/Linux (Flatpak), Windows (also as a portable app), and macOS X.

Photo editing

GIMP (open-source)

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GIMP stands for “GNU Image Manipulation Program” and looks and acts pretty much like Adobe Photoshop. You can “photoshop” digital photographs, ranging from simple tasks such as resizing and cropping a picture, to a full-scale doctoring of photos.

Desktop publishing

Creating a flyer, a poster, newsletters, postcards, and business cards is still important for promoting your business. Do not use word processing software (such as Microsoft Office or LibreOffice) for this task! Get a real desktop publishing software that generates a professional grade, press-ready PDF files that professional printing companies accept.

Scribus (open-source)

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Scribus is a somewhat cranky (an antiquated user interface reminiscent of QuarkXpress circa the early 2000s) but robust desktop publishing software. You can import texts from ODT (Open Document Text format, used by LibreOffice word processing), as well as both vector and raster (photos, for example) images, and do the layout. Finished products can be exported as PDF files for downloading and for professional printing (colors converted into CMYK spot colors, etc.).

Available for GNU/Linux (Ubuntu repository, Flatpak), Windows (also as a portable app), and macOS X.

Extra: my favorite Web-based app

Canva (free, proprietary)

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Many people in small business and digital marketing swear by Canva. While Canva is no substitute for a full-featured desktop design software such as Inkscape, it is a great tool if you are just making a quick graphic for social media or email newsletter!

Canva is extremely easy to learn and use, even for beginners!

Available on the Web only (desktop computer required).

And finally, a special operating system just for artists!

Many people say macOS is historically the operating system for the creative types. But Apple products are expensive.

Ubuntu Studio is a special desktop computer operating system developed with artists, designers, videographers, and musicians in mind. Based on the latest version of popular Ubuntu GNU/Linux desktop operating system, and is officially sponsored by Canonical Corporation, Ubuntu Studio comes bundled with all kinds of multimedia production software suites (including the ones mentioned above, except for Gravit Designer) and optimized for heavy hardware usage inherent in such activities.

Ubuntu Studio is free to download and free to use (system requirements: minimum 1 GB of RAM, 32- or 64-bit Intel or AMD processor, recommended 100 GB hard disk space).

So you won’t get frustrated quickly

As with everything in life, there is a learning curve. I have been using these software for over a decade, and I am still learning new tricks along the way. Practice makes perfect. You won’t be able to create a masterpiece in just a matter of a day or two. True mastery of an art, even on a computer, takes many years to achieve. Be realistic about your expectations and keep learning.

There are many excellent tutorials available on YouTube. I suggest that you look for them.

Tutorial videos for beginners (links to YouTube search results)

 

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