Many of my friends already know this, but I am a fan of open source. I haven’t gone as far to live my life Microsoft free (mainly because I have never gotten the hang of Linux), but most of my work is done on free and open source software. Art, office documents and even this website all run open source software.
Being a Windows user, this sort of software was hard to find since most of it was only available on open source platforms like Linux. In recent years though, more and more of the software has been written multiplatform. Most popular applications work on almost any current system including Windows and Mac OS X. A lot of them even open popular file formats like office documents and Photoshop files.
First, I will go through a few image basics before I mention the software. This all may be stuff you know, but it never hurts to mention it.
Working in 2D
We will first start with the one format most people are familiar with, and that is raster. Raster is basically pixel level editing. This is the sort of editing you would be familiar with in software such as Adobe Photoshop or Painter. It allows for a lot of subtle and detailed coloring and editing with a wide color pallet. This method makes it very easy to ad lots of variation in color with simple strokes of a mouse of tablet.
The drawbacks of this method are it’s large file size and limitations in scalability. In order to have a printable raster image, it is a must for the resolution to be set to 300ppi minimum. You can always size down a raster image, but you can’t make it bigger. Even when you are talking about and image intended to be the size of a standard piece of printer paper the space the image takes up is rather big. There are several compression-based file formats to help with the size issues, but the more you compress an image, the more the quality is compromised. Never save original work in a jpg or gif format. It is fine for putting a copy up on a website, but not for storage.
The second format is vector. In short, this method takes mathematical curves to make perfectly smooth shapes at any resolution without a large file size. The most popular software used for this method is Adobe Illustrator. All in all, a very cool format.
Vector’s biggest limitation is getting subtlety in color. Vector software has gradient features to allow blending of colors, but it can be very difficult if not impossible to attain realism in the format. With raster you can just mix pixel colors like you would with paints and a canvas. Vector images are limited to an assembly of filled shapes that cannot be mixed together. Sometimes one can mimic this by controlling layers of images and fine tuning levels of transparency and gradients, but it is usually simpler and more efficient to use raster.
That being said, the formats can be mixed and matched in art using their strengths. Raster is most likely the choice for mimicking realism and painting styles. It is just a good idea to plan ahead and think about your maximum dimensions of the image and plan accordingly. If you are into line work and comics, vector may be a good choice. It handles flat colors wonderfully and is flexible enough to handle printing resolutions for that impending book deal.
Enough already, where is my software!
Now for the information you started reading this article for in the first place:
This is the big dog in the open source raster graphics field. Despite what you may think from the name, there is nothing dirty about the program. It is a very powerful tool and is improving everyday. For most users, it can do damn near anything Photoshop can.
Vector graphics is a newer field in the open source field. The software itself is quite young (it hasn’t even hit version 1.0 yet). Despite that, users have used this software to create some pretty stunning images. I have also found its bitmap tracing to come in very handy for making my line work into vectors. It is still a far shot from Illustrator, but its full feature set has not been completely implemented yet either. It is still very useful.
For those of you into three-dimensional graphics, this is good software to start with. Its user base is growing everyday and so is it’s feature set. It was even used to make an entire short film. Again, not quite as powerful as other commercial 3D applications, but is making progress by leaps and bounds. It will only be a matter of time before it catches up.
If you are planning on publishing your work in book form, you will need to get properly laid out. This is the tool to do it. It supports all that stuff the printers are looking for including CMYK color separation.
In terms of industry standard software, there are aspects of this aforementioned software that may not match up. You must remember that the nature of open source is to improve and evolve. You may even notice that the previous mentions will more than fit your needs. If it does, why dish out hundreds and thousands of dollars on software that will really offer no extra benefit.
If anything, this software will give you a start in pursuing your artistic ambitions. Now you don’t have an excuse to not start. It also beats the hell out of pirated software.