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Animation. Graphic Design. Game Art.

Top 20 Most Essential Software for Artists and Designers

Written by Tom FronczakSeptember 4, 2013
Did You Know.....Full Sail University offers online degree programs in computer animation, game art, and game design? Learn more about Full Sail University's online programs.
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I’ve been professionally writing about the game, film, and tech industries for seven years. With a degree in 3D graphics for game art and design, I have seen, studied, and experienced every aspect of the 2D and 3D video game industry. Over the years I’ve seen how no amount of impressive software can replace impressive individual skill, but in a competitive digital world where every artist has to fight to be the best, it’s imperative to have every possible advantage and always seek more experience in new software and techniques. These are the twenty essential programs that every artist needs to consider training in to become the best in their industries.

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20. Poser Pro 2014. Basically, Poser tries to solve this problem: “I’ve got 99 assets but an animation ain’t one.” If you want to make a 3D animation, steps 1 through 99 often all involve the advanced and tedious tasks of making the 3D characters, scenes, props, textures, lighting, and plenty of other lengthy dropdown menus that get in your way if all you want to do is animate. Poser gives you all of the 3D supplies you need, and the rest is up to you. While it might not hold immense clout in the various animation industries, if you’re someone who is considering a related career path and don’t want to spend thousands of tuition dollars or hundreds of hours watching tutorials to find out if 3D animation is something you’d actually enjoy, then Poser is absolutely essential.

19. GoAnimate: This Web software is a do-it-yourself animation package that has over five million users, and I’d bet half of them don’t even consider themselves “artists” because that’s how damn easy GoAnimate is to use. Sign up to their site and you have access to thousands of character models, scene backdrops, audio recording, lip-syncing features, and art asset props. Some users have become so famous in its community that they can even make a living by selling their art props back to the community for widespread use. Be it YouTube, Vine, or video ad popups, video content continues to rise as a top form of communication on the Internet, and GoAnimate hopes that Internet users – not just “artists” – from all walks of life embrace their tools to join in on the fun.

18. SketchBook Pro. Yes, Autodesk isn’t just dominating the 3D industry anymore, and with a few SketchBook Pro iterations under their belt in the past few years they’ve quickly assembled a digital drawing and painting application that’s essential for every form of 2D artist. It still needs a few more versions of updates to propel it to the top of the charts against its competition, but it’s well on its way. What it currently lacks in true power, it makes up for in speed. This is a program that really understands that a good artist doesn’t need 50 brushes and menu options to make good art, and that the most important thing for a new concept is to let an artist draw as much as possible as quick as possible. With its simple brush setup, awesome steady stroke tool, and incredibly helpful magnetic shape guiders, it’s hard to believe how much you can accomplish with a limited time budget. Throw as much on the screen as you want without a single stutter. You can zoom all the way in, all the way out, and rotate the entire screen’s canvas exactly how you want in the middle of your workflow without any hiccups. If it can keep up those speeds while continuing to add more presets and tools, SketchBook Pro will quickly be competing for the throne.

17. Mudbox. As the 3D art industry began to boom a decade ago, the software companies had to adapt to new and grandiose demands from the studios that were redefining what digital art was, and what it was capable of accomplishing. Polygon limits were quickly evaporating as computer technology removed render restrictions and Weta Digital created Mudbox to help them make the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Originally called Skymatter, it later made its sculpting and texture painting tools available to the public as a revolutionary solution for the time consuming tasks of making displacement and normal maps. Then in 2007, Autodesk acquired Skymatter Inc. in their ongoing mission of dominating all of their competition in the industry. This powerful software impresses artists the very first day they use it, so why not try the 30 day free trial of Mudbox? If you love it but don’t like its price tag, then I’ll let you in on a secret: xNormal v3.18.3 is rapidly becoming just as good, and it’s 100% free. Given the 3D industry’s habit of swarming towards hot new tools, xNormal’s demand continues to grow by the month.

16. Blender 2.68a. Blender is the perfect introduction to all that 3D software has to offer animators. It has most of the features you’ll find on the top-of-line 3D modeling programs’ bullet point boast lists, but it’s 100% free. There are no extra features that have price tags or any other forms of financial trickery; Blender is free. It’s also small in size by comparison to its competitors, and its gigantic online community has hundreds of tutorials available publicly, which are also all free. Speaking of free, anything you make in Blender, ever, is yours and you’re free to use or sell it without paying licensing fees. If I haven’t convinced you yet, maybe this famous 1080p short film that was made entirely from Blender years ago will: Big Buck Bunny. Hooked yet? Good! Blender even has its own Blender Institute with certified trainers that can teach you in-person or online about every advanced aspect of the software for far less than standard tuition fees.

15. FlipBook 6.86: So you just clicked on that link and think I’m crazy. A site that ancient looking can’t possibly have a product that’s worth using in today’s art industry? You’re wrong. Don’t let DigiCel’s outdated looking Web site for FlipBook fool you; they’re convinced in the belief that if something isn’t broke, then there’s nothing to fix. While every other art program you’ve used over the years sees consistent annual updates that change every inch of the user interface, FlipBook still looks mostly the same as it did over a decade ago. If you’re a 2D animator then you’re limiting your career and your creations if you don’t try FlipBook.

14. Easy Paint Tool SAI. A few years ago, when asked how I felt about “Paint SAI”, I told friends it wouldn’t catch on and in a few more years no one would remember SAI. I was wrong. Since then, I’ve ditched the mob mentality that relies too heavily on industry standards or what online community opinions on popular topics or trends. With that in mind I highly urge every reader to not skip over software just because it’s not on this list. These 20 programs should be your guidelines to start from, and you should be your own judge if your employer gives you that freedom. So what helped Paint Tool SAI catch on? In a sea of simple paint programs that have an abundance of interface and brush customization options, SAI had more or better choices than most competitors. A digital artist’s previous, current, and next painting project often differ drastically from each other, and when immense flexibility is needed, Easy Pain Tool SAI is the chameleon of paintbrushes.

13. FL Studio 11. When’s the last time you watched a TV show or a film without the audio on? Musicians are just as integral to the entertainment industries as the visual artists are, and FL Studio gives them unlimited tools. Originally known as Fruity Loops, it began in late 1997 as nothing more than a MIDI program, and slowly underwent several huge updates that gave it legs to compete with the industry’s top names. However, the community consensus was still that it was more of a beginner’s software than a fully developed professional set of tools, but that didn’t stop Fruity Loops. It changed its name to FL Studio and underwent another round of updates that, in recent years, has catapulted it to the top of the industry. The best part? While other companies on this list like Adobe have shifted towards subscription-based fees that charge you endlessly to use the programs you need to use over the span of your entire career, FL Studio instead has lifetime free updates for its programs. Yes, you read that correct, and “all FL Studio 10 customers will be able to update to a fully functioning version of FL Studio 11, 12, etc, for free.” One whole version later, and they’re still staying true to their word. This is a piece of software that’s not only worth knowing and using for years to come, but it’s also one that will be the cheapest to use over the course of your entire career!

12. Flash Professional CC. Flash used to be owned by Macromedia back when it exploded in popularity in the early years of the Internet, which is exactly why Adobe eagerly bought Macromedia. Despite being immensely popular, its ubiquity only heightened as Internet speeds rose across the nations, with Flash gaining more exposure and value as each year passed. As the 3D animation industry continues to dominate several corners of the market, Flash simply finds new outlets to thrive in, whether it be viral YouTube animations or pesky pop-up ads. Artists with Flash experience on their resumes are still in high demand across America, and it’s not too late to find huge success from training to be an expert in Flash.

11. Painter X3. The best way to describe Corel’s Painter programs is to just let someone try them. It’s too easy for digital artists to get wrapped up in menus and interfaces and making it all about the pixels. With Painter the monitor melts away and it truly feels like you’re using real paint on a real canvas, and that no amount of math or computer code could ever create each and every realistic and messy brush stroke you make. And yet, this powerful software accomplishes exactly that, and the illusion of painting in Corel Painter is just as surreal as the art you can make with it. It oozes with style and wonder and all the other things that make each artist different from every other artist. With that in mind, if you choose any two painting programs from this list, make sure it’s Painter and one other piece of software.