Drawing apps, still meh

Once again it’s getting time to renew my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, and once again I really don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars for another year of access to Photoshop. So as usual I’ve looked at other drawing programs to see what the state of affairs is for my uses, and boy howdy is it still pretty dismal.

Adobe Photoshop

This is what I’ve been using for comics since 2004. Obviously I’m biased because this is what I’m used to, but it has done everything I’ve needed in a drawing app:

  • Decently customizable brushes (and as of a couple years ago the provided brushes got way better)
  • Really good keyboard accessibility, with complete customization
  • A fast flat-fills workflow (the one I use: magic-wand a selection, keyboard shortcut to expand selection by a few pixels, hold down the eyedropper key and click on the reference color, alt-backspace to fill the selection)
  • Comprehensive text layout, including per-character baseline, tracking, width/height adjustment, ligature support, and so on, as well as text that follows paths
  • Support for composite Bézier curves (for speech bubbles) with strokes that surround the union of the curve
  • Easy layer style/effect copy-paste
  • Customizable UI with dockable palettes, multiple palette/brush sets, rapid brush customization, etc.

All of these things are necessary for me, primarily from an accessibility standpoint; while one could do the same things without it, it takes a lot more work, which for most people just takes more time, but in my case means the difference between being able to do things and not. Every time I have to switch between tablet/mouse/keyboard, or do a fiddly clicking motion on a small click target, or click on a tool palette or button or whatever, it eats into my pain budget, and I’ll eventually hit a wall where I can’t continue.

Photoshop makes it possible for me to at least try to finish a comic in one or two days (if I’m doing nothing else).

Manga Studio/Clip Studio Paint

This drawing app is actually really close to perfect for me. Not only does it provide almost everything Photoshop does, it also provides a bunch of stuff Photoshop doesn’t, like really good pattern brushes (really useful for making backgrounds quickly) and an even better flat fills workflow (being able to quickly set a color and floodfill without having to make/expand a selection, and with some intelligent “plug the gaps” stuff too so you don’t have to do annoying workarounds). It also has better brushes than Photoshop, and while the UI is a bit fiddly and full of land-mines it’s always getting better with every release I look at.

But! Its text tool isn’t good enough for my uses.

It’s designed around Japanese comics, which have a different set of requirements for text. From what I can tell it does a really good job of Japanese text. But when it comes to laying out English text, with English comics rules (conforming text to your speech bubbles, micro-adjusting baselines/tracking/size/formatting, etc.) it falls flat on its face. In a lot of my comics I also end up creating my own conlang typography, and so for example in Lewi it becomes really necessary to do these fiddly adjustments because of the particular typography rules of Drakun (its conlang).

I could just hand-letter that stuff, but those are tiny fiddly motions that eat into my pain budget very quickly.

If CSP’s text tool were a bit better I’d probably just switch to it.

Krita

Good brushes. Decent enough shape layers. Its text tool is garbage.

Paint Tool SAI

Windows-only; no it doesn’t work in WINE (at least, not for me), and from what I’ve seen, people who do manage to get it working there don’t get tablet pressure. And I hear its coloring workflow is just Okay and its text tool is also bad.

GIMP/GLIMPSE

Ha ha ha ha no.

Pixelmator

I bought Pixelmator when it first came out, hoping that would help fund development of an app that would replace Photoshop.

This has all of the functionality of Photoshop, but its UI is very mouse-oriented (pain budget) with very poor keyboard access. I haven’t figured out a good flat-filling workflow on it; the paint bucket tool doesn’t allow for expanding underneath the ink layer (so I’d have to draw around the edges, eating into my pain budget), and the “modify selection” tool is probably the most keyboard-hostile I’ve seen – there’s no keyboard access to it at all and once you do bring it up you can’t even enter a number directly, instead you have to drag a slider by a very precise number of pixels! This is ghastly for me, and requires switching to a mouse because tablets simply aren’t that precise (both because they lose precision near the edges of the screen and because they’re really intended for large, flowing motions, not for pixel-precision).

Now there’s “Pixelmator Pro” which I haven’t tried but from what I’ve seen it still has the same UX problems for me.

Acorn

I bought Acorn when it first came out, hoping that would help fund development of an app that would replace Photoshop.

It has much of the functionality of Photoshop. Brushes are a bit laggier, but I can work with it. The text tool is pretty decent; not as flexible/fast as Photoshop’s, but all the basic functionality is there.

The problem is that it doesn’t even try to support things necessary for a flats workflow; there’s no way to have magic wand or flood fill consider all layers (it only works on the current layer), nor is there a means of expanding a selection by a few pixels to bleed under the ink layer. A possible workaround is to duplicate the ink layer and then use that for the flats, but that’s annoying and makes revisions much more difficult, and it still doesn’t fix the lack-of-bleedthrough issue.

Also the last few versions have required completely new re-purchases, with no upgrade pricing; that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Affinity Photo

I bought Affinity Photo when it came out, hoping… okay you know the rest.

Its UI is quite comprehensive. It has all of the functionality I need. It supports a Photoshop-esque flats workflow (albeit with more keypresses involved, since you can’t hold-I-to-eyedropper-once, and the expand selection tool requires a few more keystrokes to actually do the expansion).

But the UI is overly complicated and full of land mines.

  • Creating a new layer sometimes puts it where you are in the stack, sometimes puts it at the top of the stack, sometimes puts it as subordinate to the current layer (using the current layer as a clipping mask). I haven’t figured out the rhyme or reason to it. Correcting this requires a very fiddly set of tiny mouse motions that aren’t tablet-friendly.
  • Sometimes when you start drawing, the “assistant” decides to just create a new layer for you, and where it ends up? Who knows.
  • The tool palettes are fiddly and obnoxious and easy to lose. They also require fiddly, tiny mouse movements.
  • Not all keyboard shortcuts can be remapped. Sometimes if you do remap them they don’t actually change.
  • There’s a lot of inconsistency between how magic wand works vs. paint bucket, especially in terms of whether you can have it sample all layers/current layer/current and below. Magic wand also doesn’t let you select multiple regions at once without clicking a tiny click target to set the new/add/intersect/subtract mode button on a tool palette – this eats into my pain budget and is also really cumbersome. (Photoshop just lets you use modifier keys for this.)
  • It’s rather capricious about whether it even keeps your settings between drawings, or what settings get kept; I seem to have to reconfigure my brushes every time I open it up, for example, and I’ve tried paving over some of the workflow issues with macros but those don’t seem to keep on working between sessions either.
  • A lot of the UI has incredibly tiny click targets, and usually around the edges of the screen, where, again, tablets lose precision. This eats into my pain budget.
  • The color picker sucks. And never works consistently. And I’m never sure if I’m setting the primary or secondary color. Or whether the tool is going to use the primary or secondary color. Or whether switching colors is going to switch which color is used, or what.
  • I haven’t figured out a way to get the color swatches to import a Photoshop ACT file, or derive one from an existing image. Both are very useful ways of setting up color palettes, especially when…
  • …you can’t just select a color without switching tools. You have to switch to the eyedropper and back. This eats into my pain budget.

Not only did I buy this on Mac, I also bought it again on iPad, where there’s no trial version, and where the UI is still really bad, and the text tool is lousy in all new ways.

I also feel like its user community is kinda bad. Like, every time I post a question/concern/complaint, it feels like I’m being dismissed as “not using it right” or “why would you want to do that” or “it works for me.” Or people just completely misinterpret what I’m saying and tell me I’m using the wrong words for things, what I really mean is [complete opposite of what I mean]. That’s not necessarily the software’s fault but it doesn’t make it pleasant to seek help in using it.

Illustrator

Not only does this not solve my “not paying Adobe for subscription software” issue (and it actually costs more than Photoshop!), but its workflow doesn’t mesh well with my brain. I know it’s possible to make really good comics with it (as both Peggy and Mark show) but I’ve tried many times and it just never works for me. I’d have to completely change the way I think about making art, and for something I’m doing as a hobby for fun rather than a career, that’s too big a pill to swallow.

Inkscape

All the problems of Illustrator, plus a garbage UI that’s laggy and slow on macOS.

ProCreate

I bought this on iOS when it first came out. It’s great as a sketchbook. It’s great as a natural-media drawing app. Heck, I’ve even done a comic in it. But it doesn’t support a flat-fill workflow (no flood fill at all!), there’s no text tool, as far as I can tell no way to make clipping masks or mask layers, and all of the UI is hidden behind layers of “mystery meat” all for the sake of making it feel more like a physical sketchbook.

Corel Paint

Same problems as ProCreate, really.

Update: I went ahead and bought the 2019 version as part of a Humble Bundle sale, and tried it out. It’s come a long way since I last tried it, but it’s still not particularly suitable for me:

  • I can’t find any way of doing composite Bézier curves or otherwise getting a single stroke around a compound shape
  • The text tool is not great
  • All of the shaping tools are incredibly slow to work with
  • It does at least have magic wand and flood fill, but as far as I can tell it will only sample the current layer, so… no flats workflow
  • Really designed for natural media rather than being digital art at all, which is fine if that’s your thing but it’s not mine
  • So, yeah, same problems as ProCreate, really

“Just use [foo] for drawing your inks and then do your flats/text in Photoshop!”

Not only does that not actually solve the problem of not wanting to pay a subscription fee for Photoshop, but it only makes things worse because I lay my text out first and like to be able to refine/revise it as I go. Props to anyone who’s able to properly lay out a panel knowing exactly where the text will go first; that doesn’t describe me at all.

“Just use an old version of Photoshop that doesn’t use a subscription fee!”

Unfortunately, the last permanently-licensed version of Photoshop (CS6/13.0) doesn’t work reliably on modern versions of macOS, or at least I couldn’t get it to work last time I tried. I remember the main sticking point being HiDPI/retina support, although apparently they did eventually release a patch for that so maybe it’s worth trying again.

That does mean giving up the newer brushes that came with CC, but maybe I can live with that.

stfu mac user, switch to linux you n00b

Nah.

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