11 Free and Open Source Software for Artists

There’s an adage which goes, “The tool does not make the artist.” While this statement maybe true, it matters whether the artist has access to any software tool in the first place! Nowadays, it’s too easy to be tempted to try out piracy or bootleg copies of commercially available software, but that doesn’t really help the creative and technology industries grow. Adobe Creative Cloud may have transitioned to a subscription basis making it much more affordable in the long run, but nothing beats free!

While the title suggests that the list is for free and open source software (abbreviated as FOSS), it’s not just limited to those that provide access to the back-end for modification and distribution, but essentially any and all that are licensed to be free to download and use.

Speaking of free software, there are of course a lot of downsides to their usage such as limited cross-compatibility of project files, irregular (to non-existent) updates, difficulty of access to technical support, and in most cases, the lack of a refined user interface design, but hey, if it works, it works.

The upside is that if the overall experience and functionality of the software outweigh the initial challenges, these software could end up having a large, sustainable online community of users and developers that help in maintaining the software, as well as in creating documentation and tutorials that new users could benefit from.

Here’s my list of free and/or open source software for artists this 2017, categorized under Design and Illustration, 2D and 3D Animation, and Miscellaneous.

Design and Illustration

1. Inkscape – Scalable vector graphics editing

Inkscape is best to use if you need to create logos, character illustrations, or even complex graphic patterns or textures in scalable vector graphics or SGV.

2. Krita – Digital painting tool

Krita is a good alternative to the paid software, Paint Tool Sai. It has a lot of digital painting tools, brushes, and settings to help you achieve that “painterly” look.

3. GIMP – Photo and raster graphics editing

GIMP has been around for ages and is the go to alternative for Adobe Photoshop. From photo enhancement, manipulation, to layout and typography, the tools you need are all there.

4. Alchemy – Experimental drawing and design prototyping

Alchemy is a maverick in this list because it’s something that you could rely on in the conceptualization phases of design. It uses symmetry, mirroring, and randomization to create amazing pieces of work.

2D and 3D Animation

5. MonkeyJam – Stop motion image-capture and editing

To start off with animation, MonkeyJam is a reliable stop motion software that allows capturing images from an external camera such as a webcam or DSLR, to grab individual frames. It can then stitch those animation frames and render them into video files.

6. Pencil2D – Traditional and digital 2D animation

Pencil2D would be a great alternative to Toon Boom Harmony, an industry standard “tradigital” animation software. While Pencil2D may lack some of the more advanced features, it makes up for it with simplicity and ease of use.

7. Sculptris – 3D digital sculpting

Sculptris is a new free software offered by the developers of ZBrush, a digital sculpting tool that allows the free-flowing sculpting of 3D models, great for character designs. Unlike ZBrush, it may be lacking in a few tools here and there, but it’s a great way to start getting into 3D sculpting using a mouse or tablet.

8. Blender – 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and game development suite

Hands down, Blender is one of the most advanced and well-supported free and open source software out there, and is the technology behind some really amazing short animated films like Elephants Dream, Big Buck Bunny, and Sintel. The interface might be a bit daunting for some, but it has an ever increasing list of capabilities with game development as one of the new tools under its belt.


9. FreeMind – Brainstorming and mind mapping

If you’re the type that needs to jot ideas down and create thought bubbles or “clouds” to clarify thinking, FreeMind would be a great tool to organize and clump words together. It has all the necessary tools you need to do digital Mind Mapping, an awesome way to brainstorm developed by Tony Buzan.

10. CamStudio – Video screencasting

If you’re the type that likes to share your works in progress or even the actual process of your work on the computer, then CamStudio is a must in your arsenal. It allows you to capture continuous streams of video of your screen while you work or if you want to develop tutorials to help others out.

11. Audacity – Sound and music editing

Audacity is a little offbeat (get it?) in this list of visual tools, but hard to pass by simply because if you’re into creating animations or videos, then sound or music would be the next step to complete the package. Audacity provides a myriad of standard audio production tools and settings to help you create sound effects or background music.

There’s a bunch of software in this list that both Windows and Mac  (and Linux!) users could enjoy. They’re all free to use with the exception of some being open source too. I regularly tell my students to try out new things especially if it could help their creativity and productivity grow. These are all proven tools for digital art, but for those looking to start working in the digital space to augment or supplement their “traditional” art practice–whether for drawing, painting, sculpture, or installation–any of these tools would be a great addition to an artist’s skill set.

What do you think about using free software? Do you know of other useful free and open source software for artists? Let me know in the comments section!