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Software for Artists for Free

By Paul Watson on .

Software costs money. Actually that’s not true – there’s plenty of free software out there for artists, and the ones detailed below are just as good as the expensive versions.


Web browsers are usually free (or their costs are “hidden” within the cost for the operating system, as is the case with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer) so this is an easy place to start.

There are two main browsers that will work on Windows PCs, Apple-Macs and Linux PCs:

I prefer Firefox, but Opera is just as good. You can also find some browsers which work on some, but not all, operating systems.  These include Apple’s Safari (Apple & Windows only) and Google’s Chrome (Windows only).

But free software doesn’t only stretch to web browsers…

Graphics Software

Adobe Photoshop is great, but it comes with a huge pricetag of around $699/£557 for the initial software and then additional costs of around $199/£160 per upgrade to keep up with the latest version.

If you’d rather spend that money on other things (art materials, rent, food, beer…) then there is an alternative, the strangely named GIMP.

GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed program for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring.

It has many capabilities. It can be used as a simple paint program, an expert quality photo retouching program, an online batch processing system, a mass production image renderer, an image format converter, etc.

GIMP runs on Windows PCs, Apple-Macs and Linux PCs and is completely free (as are all the upgrades). In addition it can read and write most Photoshop native PSD format files

There’s also an official site called the GIMP Plugin Registry where you can download hundreds of plugins to extend GIMP’s functionality.

There is one major area where GIMP falls behind Photoshop:  CMYK color space – the GIMP only handles RGB. Actually there is a plugin that offers basic CMYK support, but it’s certainly nowhere near the full support that Photoshop offers.

This is fine if you’re creating images for the web or for printing on your own printer, but if you want to send images to a professional printhouse then it’s a problem.

Other people have different issues and opinions.  If you want to see a range of opinions and more detailed comparisons (interspersed with the occasional silly flamewar) then just Google “GIMP vs Photoshop”.

There are other free graphics packages aimed at vector graphics and page layout – if there’s sufficient interest I’ll do a write-up of them in a future post.

Office Software

Word Processors and Spreadsheets are a necessity, whether you’re writing letters to galleries, typing up your artist’s statement/bio, or laying out budgets for grant applications.

If your use of Word Processors and Spreadsheets doesn’t involve many specialist features then it might be worth not installing any specialist software and instead using Google’s GoogleDocs – a free web-hosted application that allows you to create and edit your documents from anywhere in the world on any computer.

You can upload your existing documents to GoogleDocs – it will import and convert files created in Microsoft Word, StarOffice, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft Excel, as well as PDFs, RTF files, and plain text files.

If you use some of the more advanced features on Word Processors or Spreadsheets then you probably need Sun’s free suite of software. is a more traditional suite of office software, comparable to Microsoft Office, that includes Writer (a word processor, like Microsoft Word), Calc (a spreadsheet like Excel), and Impress (PowerPoint-like presentation software).  It also comes with Draw and Base – Draw is a basic drawing package, a little amateur for artists, and Base is a database package.

As with GoogleDocs, you can open all your Microsoft Word and Excel documents in, and you can choose to save documents in Word/Excel formats if you need to send them as .doc or .xls files to galleries or funding agencies. is available for Windows, Apple OSX, and Linux platforms – and it’s all completely free.

Going the whole way – Linux for Artists

A few years ago I decided to ditch Windows and switch to Linux. It felt like a huge decision, but it was actually very easy.

Linux is an operating system – like Windows or Apple’s OSX. The difference is that it’s completely free of charge. And, in my opinion, it’s better than the others.

There are plenty of different types of Linux (each with their own advocates).  I’m going to recommend a flavour that I use, and one that’s becoming very popular for its ease of use.

Ubuntu and Kubuntu are two different flavours of the same Linux operating system.  The only real difference is the actual desktop – Ubuntu uses something called Gnome and Kubuntu uses something called KDE.  My preference is Kubuntu, but that’s just a personal preference.

There’s also a version called Ubuntu Studio which is specially pre-loaded with everything an artist could want:

Our aim is to assemble suites of applications aimed at creative people. Suites including the best open-source applications available.

For instance, Ardour 2 – A multitrack recorder/editor geared toward people familiar with Pro-Tools.

Graphic design and modeling applications including The GIMP, Inkscape and Blender. Along with plugins like dcraw to help with RAW camera files and wacom-tools for people with Wacom drawing tablets.

PiTiVi, Kino, Cinepaint are included for video creation. We hope to provide a creative environment to people as well as give a spotlight to some amazing open-source applications.

Let the creativity fly…

You can get all these software packages on Ubuntu or Kubuntu as well – Ubuntu Studio just has them all pre-installed for you, which might be handy if you’re just starting with Linux.