What Software Do Digital Artists Use?

Art has come a long way since our pre digital days. Artworks that were once created using ink and paper, paint and canvas, can now be replaced by the much faster digital art mediums of tablets, computers and software. In this article, we’re gonna focus on that last one – Software! (The glue that binds the digital artist and their hardware together). So what software to digital artists use?

Digital artists predominantly use Adobe Photoshop for pixel graphics and Adobe Illustrator for vector graphics. More recently, Affinity Photo and Designer have entered the market as alternatives to Adobe’s Software. If working on an iPad, digital artists mostly use Procreate. There are also many other free and premium software on the market available today.

In this article I will give you the low down on these Adobe products as well as a few others which I have recently started using as well – Autodesk Sketchbook, ProCreate and (and my allllmost favorite) Affinity Photo.

Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop was developed way back in 1987 and has fast become the industry favorite for digital art, illustration and cartooning. Photoshop can be found in classrooms, design houses, major movie animation studios and any decent computer game company (I didn’t check every single classroom and company, but I won’t tell you that).

The Pros

It’s super easy to use

Photoshop might seem a bit intimidating, but it is very easy to use. Sure, there are countless features and filters, but for digital art, you only need a handful of these. I use the following:

Brush Tool

If you have the correct brush settings, you will be able to create spontaneous and organic lines which will rival that of traditional pen and paper.

Personally, I sometimes got frustrated with some of my wobbly lines when inking my pictures, but in recent years Photoshop has introduced the smoothing feature, which allows the user to create smoother, more natural looking lines.


If you make a dodgy looking brushstroke, you could usually do a quick ctrl+Z to undo your mistake. But if you have made a brushstroke that only requires slight modification, this is where the eraser can come in handy!


Photoshop layers, like many things in life, can be good for you in moderation! All you need is two or three layers to get a good cartoon on your digital page

Okay, okay, we can all sometimes get a bit carried away with layers, but in its most simple form, all you need is a layer on top for your line work, and then a layer underneath for your colors.

You Work in Pixels (Raster Graphics!)

Photoshop is pixel based, which means you literally have control of every single dot on your digital canvas. Are one of your lines a bit too thick, for example? Then simply zoom right in and cut it back a bit with your eraser!

The Cons

Your Images Won’t Be Scaleable

Okay, the advantage of working with raster graphics is also its con. If you work in pixels, then you won’t be able to scale your image up to large sizes.

How do we work around this? Simply take the time before you start to set up your canvas to the correct dimensions. Remember that it’s always safer to start at a higher resolution or higher size and scale down later!

Not the Greatest if You Need to Work with Fonts

There are other Adobe products that are more suitable for creation and manipulation of text. But if you’re in a pinch, Photoshop will still adequately incorporate text into your images. (For example, adding words to a cartoon’s speech bubble). So ultimately, you can work with fonts, but it aint its most amazing feature.

On that note, let’s move onto the next program: The not-so-pixely Adobe Illustrator!

This ain’t free

This might be a deal breaker for some people, but personally I’ve blown a whole lot of money on Adobe over the years and haven’t regretted it. Especially with how their products allow creative folk to make money.

Cha-ching baby!

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is the night to Photoshop’s day. Illustrator has a lot of similarities to Photoshop: It has brushes, layers and filters. The main difference between the two is that Illustrator is a vector based graphics program. Which can come in handy if you are creating cartoons or illustrations for logo design or large scale printing.

The Pros

You can scale your illustration to the size of a building

The best thing about working in vector graphics is that you can scale up your image as large as you want without ever pixellating your image. The reason for this is because a vector image is made up of a huge cluster of straight lines linking between points (like connect the dots!). Whereas raster images are made up of pixels, which becomes quite apparent if you click the zoom button a few times!

Converts Raster to Vector

llustrator has this incredibly helpful function known as ‘Live Trace’, which converts raster graphics into vectors. This is extremely useful but only IF your raster image is in an appropriate format. I always make sure I get my digital line art as finished as possible in Photoshop and then I import it (as a high quality line drawing) into Illustrator to convert it to a scaleable vector. This has been very useful whenever I have had to create an illustrated logo for a client.

The Cons

Not quite like the real thing…

If you want your digital art experience to be as close to pen and paper as possible, then Illustrator ain’t for you. Personally, I find that if I make a fast brushstroke in Illustrator, it will auto correct my line and put it on a slightly different path. If you’re like me, then you might prefer working in pixels instead.

On a positive note, I have found Adobe Illustrator very useful when I’m in the final stages of a logo design in Photoshop and I want to make it super crisp and scaleable. (Thanks to the incredibly helpful ‘Live Trace’ function!).

Ya Gotta Pay!

Again, Adobe is a business, so no free lunches for you! (Buuuut they do have a free seven day trial, which is great!)

Autodesk SketchBook

SketchBook is a (now free!) drawing program from Autodesk designed specifically for drawing and concept art. It’s a beautifully minimalist interface consisting of a blank canvas with a neat array of brushes, pens and smudging tools.

The Pros


After years of being a premium paid-for product, the tremendously decent folk at Autodesk decided to make SketchBook free. Thanks Autodesk!

Great for Sketching

I would be worried if a program called SketchBook had a rubbish sketching experience. But as it happens, this program’s pencil tool is really great for doodling and coming up with ideas for your illustrations or cartoons.

The Cons

Who Cares!? It’s free!

I don’t know if it’s all my years of Photoshopping, but I find Photoshop easier to use. However, SketchBook is free and you should definitely try it out for yourself – overall it’s a great little program.


In recent years I have noticed many digital artists posting pictures and time lapse videos made in Procreate onto their Instagram accounts. I’m more of a keyboard and monitor kind of guy, but Procreate (combined with an iPad) is an excellent tool for digital artists on the go.

The Pros

Feels Pretty Real!

Procreate on iPad is extremely responsive with no lag when creating your lines. Also, there is very little parallax (when the strokes on the screen aren’t exactly in line with the stylus)

It’s Cheap

Unlike Adobe Creative Cloud’s subscription service, Procreate (at the time of me writing this) is only a one-off payment of US$9.99.

The Cons

You’re gonna need an iPad

Carrying on from my comment above – Procreate is cheap, but be mindful that you need to splash out on a fancy shmancy iPad before you can use it!

Takes Some Getting Used To

If you have become accustomed to working on a desktop or laptop, then you will have no doubt devised an efficient way to use shortcuts to select your brush, eraser, colors etc. Working on a tablet will take some getting used to and might be a bit slow at first.

Serif Affinity Photo

Affinity Photo is something that I only heard about in mid 2019 when my non-arty big brother told me about it. I don’t know how many digital artists are working with this program, but I just reeeeally wanted to add it to this list because I have been incredibly impressed with it. And no, sadly they aren’t paying me to say this :(.

Affinity Photo was created by Serif, and clearly these people are trying to disrupt Adobe!


Because I am able to import my .psd Photshop files with ease, and once I’m in there, about 80% of the shortcuts I’m used to are exactly the same. (These folks are so thoughtful).

The Pros

Ridiculously Good Pen Control

Affinity Photo has a function called Rope Mode, which allows your brush to be dragged along the canvas like a rope. The purpose of this function is to create beautiful, controlled, rounded lines while also allowing you to create quick, sharp corners. Brilliant!

Ability to Work Between Affinity and Photoshop

If you open a .psd Photoshop file in Affinity Photo, it will import all layers and fonts. Conversely, you can also open Affinity Photo files in Photoshop. This may come in handy if you are working in Affinity Photo and need to send to other people who are using Photoshop.

Personally, I prefer Photoshop for coloring my digital artworks, so I often start with my linework in Affinity Photo and then move the file over to Photoshop to start my coloring. Whatta cute couple!

Much Cheaper Than Photoshop

At the time of me writing this, Affinity Photo is just one payment of US$49.99. Long term, that’s a whole lot cheaper than a subscription service!

The Cons

Ain’t the Best at Handling Large File Sizes

I have noticed that if I import a large .psd Photoshop file into Affinity Photo, it will slow the program wayyyy down. For my purposes this is okay because I usually start my work in Affinity Photo and then move to Photoshop later on in the drawing.

Conclusion (A.K.A: My Biased Opinion)

SketchBook is free. Procreate is cheap. Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Affinity Photo all come with free trials. All these programs are very good and I recommend you try out all of them to see which one you prefer.

Personally, I don’t use Procreate and SketchBook, but I have seen many great artists online who use these programs over the ubiquitous Photoshop.

If you are needing to polish up an illustration for a logo design, then Illustrator is your best option. If you are working on character design or comics, then any of these other programs will do the job fine.

In my opinion, if I had to choose only one of these programs, it would be Adobe Photoshop hands down. Long term it is expensive, but as long as it helps you make money, then why not drop a few bucks a month on a great investment?

What do you think about this list? Leave a comment below telling me if you agree with me or if I’m dead wrong and I’ve left out your favourite program!

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you are ready to get started with illustration, feel free to check out one of my most popular courses here: How to Draw Faces – Cartooning for People Who Can’t Draw!

If you’d like to browse my other courses, you can find them here: https://www.discovercartooning.com/courses/


Malcolm Monteith

Melbourne, Australia

1 thought on “What Software Do Digital Artists Use?”

  1. Pingback: How to Become an Illustrator [The Ultimate Guide!] - malcolmmonteith.com

Leave a Comment