I am an avid Digital painting fan, and I just love, spending my time twiddling the Wacom Pen, watching the results appear on screen. Unlike in reality, you don’t need to keep track of the number of papers you’ve wasted on your last sketching marathon, or worry about the increasingly vanishing coloring material. It never gets boring painting on the screen; you can keep it coming on and on- whether its just a conceptual sketch of the character design you wanted to do, or a fully fledged texture painted scene, filled to the brim with emotion and a little story. Although there are a lot more advantages than disadvantages when going the Digital way, there is one thing that may actually limit your creativity; Software.
The thing I dislike most about Digital art, is how much a software can actually stop you from doing what you wanted it to do. Ask someone which software you’d like to use to paint, and you’d get the names of the obvious kings, like Corel Painter or Photoshop, tossed around. Even though they are the big names when it comes to media creation, they are almost actually unfriendly. In a sense, you have to go through a lot of learning to actually initiate anything worthwhile. Honestly, I never really liked using either to paint; they never plugged any sort of inspiration to actually finish a painting, mainly due to their interface, complexity and the learning curve. Even free stuff like Gimp Paint Studio nor MyPaint comes close to giving you complete creative freedom (MyPaint is pretty good and looks very promising, but still has a long way to go) and flexibility that you’d like to have. Hence, I searched around for some stuff that’s much more easier, yet something that has the potential to give satisfying results. And I found two great contenders;
Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, been using this for quite a while, and Ambient Design’s ArtRage, something that I’ve heard of a lot, but never used, until now.I pitted both against each other, not to see which one had more features or which one was better than the other, but to decide which one worked better for me; both has its own share of advantages and disadvantages. So, I decided to share my sightings and my experiences from both to help you decide which one might work for you, in the form of this review. I will not be putting up points for the winning software or anything, since I think that’s the most terribly lamest thing you can do. Its one thing that can shoo away potential users from using the ‘losing’ software, when it actually may be a good piece.
For the record; the versions I’ve used during the review are Sketchbook 2010 and ArtRage 2.5.
One of the things that matters to me most, especially when it comes to media creation softwares, is the GUI. If the GUI doesn’t feel great for you, then you might want to try something else (But yes, you can get used to any GUI). But since these specific softwares are intended for the core creative artists who don’t want to spend ages learning different tools and options, they must be user friendly, and easy to figure out.
Shooting up Sketchbook (SB), you arepresented with a completely minimalistic interface – pitch-blank unlike usual softwares, it reminded me of the classic MSPaint. All there is, is a ‘Lagoon’ that resides in the bottom left corner of the screen. This ‘Lagoon’ is menu-like feature that gives you access you to all the features and sub-menus SB has to offer. The selection of the tools are intuitive; holding left mouse on a button on a menu opens way to a set of sub-tools, in a circular pattern; You are to click, drag and release on the option you’d want to select. In my opinion, this is one of the most innovative ways of interacting with a painting software; its very easy to collaborate this with a Wacom Tablet. Holding the right mouse button on the canvas reveals a set of handy tools like rulers, symmetry enablers and few others that surely should be there, and are there. A few clicks on the options in the Lagoons, and you soon get other invaluable tools such as Layers, Color Palettes, Brush Editors and so on. I must say, a lot of thought has been put out to design the interface of this software; its very intuitive and is a breeze to use. There is a level of customization too; you get to choose where to put which menus, what the icon of some buttons should be. I think its a pretty neat feature.
Upon launching ArtRage (AR), a Sleek and cool interface shows up. Its so cool, it actually gave me some kind of inspiration to start painting right away! The first thing that crossed my mind is how much stuff seemed to be there in this software. Here, there are menus residing on every side of the window; and the bottom menus actually look like the Lagoons from SB. Although it stands mostly as a graphical replication of standard buttons, its actually very handy, and gives you everything you need to paint; nothing clever or fancy like the ones in SB. You get every option clear and clean, and its easy to blast off with creativity without as much as looking at all the options. Like SB, you get a certain degree of customization too, but its pretty much limited to positioning the tool bars. AR has a GUI different from the default windows interface too, introducing custom buttons; while attractive, it gets the job done perfectly well. I’ve noticed a slight lag in menu selection when quickly shifting between menus though; but it is too minor a problem and only happens at certain times. AR does not eat much RAM too, much lesser than I imagined it would have.
Features and Toolsets
SB has pretty much only, well, that much. You don’t really have a lot of tools at your disposal – there’s the Pencil, Pen, Marker, Paintbrush, Airbrush, Felt Tip pens, Fill, the standard Eraser and some modification options like Smear, Blur and Sharpen. There are no effects you can apply, no elements of post-production and no kinds of Blending modes – you’re limited to exporting the scene to an Image Editor if you would like to add some effects, but then, that isn’t the target of this software anyway.
AR, however, has a lot more to offer in comparison to SB. You have several more tools to help you in painting. These include several tools similar to SB, holding more such as Palette Knife, Chalk, Paint Tubes, Paint Rollers and Crayons. You also have ways to texture your image using the Texture Patterns in the Options menu; you can mimic drawing on paper, canvas, crumpled paper, or cellulose cels (my favorite); each of them can vastly differ your final painting. AR also offers many kinds of Blending Modes, including Bump Modes, that can give an effect of depth in your paintings. And there are several great bonus tools too; like stencils, reference image and tracing abilities. In short, there’s a LOT.
The Actual Painting Arsenal and The Experience
Even if Sketchbook suffers from lack of tools, in makes up in another way; quality. Most of existing tools are brilliantly done – the Pencil especially. SB’s pencil tool is second to none in my entire painting-software-experience span; its so perfect and so elegant, you’ll not be able to put the pen down once you start sketching. Its so fluid and lifelike, it could be mistaken as of drawing directly on screen. It acts just the way it should, as in real life, and depends a lot on the pressure you put on the pen. Similar to the Pencil tool, the Ballpoint and the Felt Tip pens also share similar traits; and I must say, they’re the best ever sketching / outlining tools I’ve ever used. Apart from these sketching tools, we have the Airbrush tool (which I personally use for almost all my paintings) and the Chisel tip. There isn’t much to say about them in detail, except that they get the job done. SB also offers you a reasonable rate of Brush Editing options (but never in the crazy range of MyPaint) and allows you to make custom brushes including textured brushes, giving you control over the pressure sensitivity, opacity, slant roundness and a few more. You can have as many number of Custom Brushes as you want. One drawback I noticed especially while painting with huge-sized brushes was the slowdown it could bring in – I recommend not to use the brushes with the values turned up crazily high; use the fill tool instead, if you wanna cover large areas.
On the downside, the Paintbrush is utter crap; its better off being called a Marker or something, because it is actually a larger form of a standard pencil and it works only to that effect. It has no characteristics of any actual Paintbrush at all.
SB crashed at times too, especially when using large brushes. But maybe, it must be because I’m on a 64bit OS, and I’m using the 32bit of the software.
In AR, the brushes react so well to the Pen rotation and pressure; its such a joy to work with. The multitude of tools and features available to the raw user show how much colloboration there is between the guiding artist and the programmers; its very much made to be an ultimate painting program. The tools work so lovely, its like in real life – you can mix and blend in colors like you can in Corel Painter, you can blend it to the layer beneath for a special effect or you can scratch all over the painting using the Palette knife for a unique effect. The Airbrush also responds well to pen rotation, its like you’re actually blowing onto the screen. The paint tubes work awesome and cool too; you splash in a couple of tube dabs, and mix it away using ANYTHING!
The pencil, however, does not feel as how it is in SB. It feels like a normal painting program with some amount of pressure reaction and simulation, but isn’t fun like the one in SB. Well, you can’t have it all right? And funnily, there’s no obvious Fill tool in AR! Or atleast, I haven’t found one.
I’ve been using Sketchbook since quite a while, around more than a year or so, and I’ve been completely happy with it, that is, until I used ArtRage. ArtRage has changed the way I paint Digitally now, and its tools, so flexible and close to perfect, is a blast to use, and I’m having a great experience with it. After using ArtRage, I wonder how the $120 of SB is justified in comparison with ArtRage’s retail price og $40. (The one I’m using costs $40, the Studio version)
However, in the end, neither of them will come close to big daddies like Painter, TwistedBrush or Photoshop; these are meant for a totally different league altogether and they do just what they say they can do. But still, I’ve seen people do great wacky stuff in Sketchbook too!
Personally, I will not dump any of them for the other. Sketchbook suits my concept creations and quick sketching, with some basic color blocking and shading; and then I can export to ArtRage to complete it. Both of them are great, and they work wonderfully for me depending on my momentary needs, and hence, I recommend giving both a try. Also, ArtRage has a great following behind it; you should have no problems getting answers for any doubts, but hey; this software is SO simple, you won’t have any doubts at all!
I hope you enjoyed this article – Happy Painting People!
PS: If you’d like to, you can check out a few of my works done in Sketchbook over at my Deviant page at agentmilo.deviantart.com.