Digital Art Software I Have Tried

Earlier this week I compared two similar digital art programs, Artrage 5 and Rebelle 3. Rebelle 3 has just been released. Those are my top picks for illustrators who don’t want to fork out the big (ongoing) bucks for Adobe products or for Corel Paint (which I didn’t like anyway, last time I used it).

Here are my thoughts on some other art software.


Glue chin to neck

If you have an iPad with an Apple pencil (so, an iPad pro or the latest one), Procreate is the way to go. My old iPad can’t support it, but apparently their latest update was amazing. Procreate has excellent gesture support. They’re setting the industry standard on that. There are illustrators who use Procreate and only Procreate to create professional work. There’s a lively and active Procreate community and plenty of brush specialists creating awesome resources for sale. You can even ‘go native’ on an iPad pro and get rid of your desktop if you want.

UPDATE: I have since started mucking around with Procreate on my new iPad and an Apple pencil. The interface is very nice, though I kept accidentally touching the sidebar. Shifting it over to the other side fixed that problem. (You get to choose set up for ‘left handed’ or ‘right handed’ — I’m actually right-handed but choose the left-handed set up.)

The big problem some Procreate users have right now: There’s no CMYK in the page set-up. That stops professional artists from using it, unless they’re creating solely for screen. I know professional artists are really wanting to go native with an iPad Pro and Procreate, so if this Tasmanian company is smart, they’ll sort that out very soon. Instead, they are telling users to just switch to CMYK from RGB in Photoshop or similar. This never works well.

I have a smaller iPad, so at this point I prefer to use Procreate to do rough and free sketches rather than tight careful work, but you certainly can use it for that! (I’m trying to loosen up.)

Not quite there yet but amazingly impressive:  PaintStorm Studio. Like Artrage, this is one man’s passion. That man happens to be Russian. He has not released an instruction manual (in any language, from what I can gather) and GOOD LUCK learning how the brush engine works through boneheaded experimentation, because his set-up is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Basically, every functionality has been rolled into the brush engine. Hard to explain until you see it in action. Fortunately, there are YouTubers who’ve published excellent reviews of PaintStorm Studio and your best bet for learning how that software works is to watch one of those. Paintstorm is officially in beta mode. It’s been in beta mode for ages. It’s amazing what the Paintstorm guy has done (mostly? entirely?)  on his own, and he has made some really excellent decisions, taking the best of many different programs and pulling them into a new passion project of his own. The ability to pick up paint from lower layers is really awesome. He’s also taken Krita’s seamless pattern functionality (Krita calls it Wraparound) and for me, it was worth buying Paintstorm just for that. And also because I’d like to see that guy financially supported.


Speaking of Krita, your free, open source alternative, I deleted that from my computer after discovering PaintStorm because I only used it for the wraparound functionality, and Krita is — at present — lacking naturalistic paint mixing capability. It does not work well on my old Mac.

In 2013 I bought Mischief on the Apple store. I was interested in its very unusual ability to create a never-ending canvas, and the ability to zoom in and in and in until you have a mise en abyme image. Look at one of their promo videos to see how cool that is. Thing is, I’ve hardly used it. I thought I’d use it for character design sheets and whatnot, where there is no real need to choose a certain size of paper, because you’re in total creative mode and you can hypothetically keep going every which way. I find the lack of margins strangely disconcerting. Turns out I’m old-school when it comes to margins. I like my paper to end. I am someone who gets lost at the mall. So if I need to drop pins to get back to where I was, I’m going to get hopelessly lost. Without even leaving my own desk! More to the point, the user interface never appealed to me. I didn’t stick with Mischief long enough to memorise the shortcut keys and now it’s just irritating. Mischief have not done anything obvious with their software since I first tried it, and though a professional artist can use any software and create excellent stuff with it, without naturalistic paint mixing, Mischief is not a contender for me. I would recommend Mischief to people (especially students) who love to make their own hand drawn mindmaps, because the one thing that pisses me off about mindmaps is, you always end up wishing you’d started somewhere else on the page. You won’t run into that problem with a never-ending canvas.


Here’s another interesting but underdeveloped passion project: Verve, described as ‘experimental fluid dynamics fluid software. It’s completely free, but available only on PC. Verve has a band of loyal supporters on the forum, but the UI is very odd. If you keep playing, you’ll work out how to make certain effects on purpose (rather than by complete happy accident). If you’re into dragging needles over dye in water (I forget what that is called) then you’ll be impressed by Verve. My programmer husband contacted the developer about five years ago and asked if he wanted to collaborate on an iPad app aimed at the preschool set. We saw amazing potential for this gooey, squishy, sandboxy physics engine, which Taron says he stumbled on by accident. Taron wasn’t interested in a collaboration — fair enough — no one wants to give up their code that easily, especially since software physics belongs to the dark arts, and happy discoveries happen once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Taron replied that he has big plans for Verve, and plans to develop the UI himself. Five years later, nothing’s changed. We contacted him again a few months ago, but Taron says he still has big plans to develop the UI and is still not interested in a collaboration. He’s probably got a number of such emails over the last few years, and he’s probably been developing it quite a lot without making a release. However, I suspect Taron has missed the boat. Five years ago, the physics engine of Verve made your eyes pop. It felt really exciting. Through sheer hard graft and a whole heap of startup funds, other, bigger companies have discovered these physics engine secrets, knowing they were there to be discovered.


Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo are genuine competitors to Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. If you’re migrating over, the thing that will disappoint you is that you can’t migrate all of your Adobe resources over. All of us have years worth of carefully curated brushes which are as individual to the artist as style itself. I understand why Adobe have gone subscription model, but they’re disproportionately expensive for most indie illustrators, whose paychecks have been decreasing, not increasing over time. If Adobe worked like some of the 3D software developers and charge subscriptions based on the size and income of the company, that would be fair. Also, everyone who pays for a creative cloud subscription seems to have a love/hate relationship with the products — ‘too bloated’ is a criticism you’ll hear time and again. Like Microsoft Word and iTunes, Photoshop needs rebuilding from the ground up. Affinity products do not suffer from that problem. They’re lightning quick, schmick and slick. Also a little buggy. Just in the last few months, I’ve been having more and more issues with Designer. I have no idea if it’s my computer or them. I suspect a bit of both.

There’s one issue with the eraser which renders Affinity Designer almost unusable for me at the moment, and now it’s doing something funky with pixels on the edge of a page. (I’ve got a workaround for the weird pixel thing — I turn every page into an Art Canvas.) Go to the forums and you’ll see regular  users with laundry lists of bugs, all of which seem individual to each user, and which may eventually get squashed as new ones arise. I made a suggestion about the sticky settings for new documents and they appreciated the feedback. In their response they said they’re in the process of sorting sticky settings out. Not a lot of thought went into them. So that gives you some idea of where they’re at. They’re responsive on the forums, but like the other smaller players, they’re overwhelmed by their to-do list.

They’re also working on an alternative to Adobe InDesign, which I will buy, and be frustrated with. They’re already behind their original schedule (by about a year), saying they’d rather put out a stable program than a crashy one. If their previous track record is an indication, their next product will be fast and stable, but full of niggly little annoying things, at least for a while.

As for the user experience, Affinity Designer do a really interesting thing by separating their vector functionality from their bitmap functionality. It’s excellent for working with fonts. I love that you get live previews of blend modes as you hover over the selection before selecting it, which will improve your blend mode learning curve no end. (This knowledge transfers nicely to every other bit of art software.)


This bit of software isn’t cheap but it’s fun if you’re into that kind of thing. I treat it as a game. You build a house, put up wallpaper, furnish it with items from the library and then you can ‘walk through’ it, and even make a video if you like. You can view your house in dollhouse view, as a cross section, in watercolour, as vector lines, or with photorealistic textures. Bear in mind, you need a good graphics card for it to work properly, otherwise you won’t be able to toggle shadows and reflections at the same time.

What’s the point of going to all this effort? Well, if you’re illustrating a children’s book (or series) set largely in a single house (e.g. something like Dogger or our own Midnight Feast), then you’ll be wanting the house to feel like a real house. There’s a huge benefit when you’re able to look down into a room or up at the ceiling from any angle. You can play much better with viewpoint when you’re taking screenshots of your model house. This is way more fun (for me) than mucking around with perspective rulers.

Home Designer is used by professional architects, though they’d use the more expensive version. I use the middle one, which does everything except fancy windows and unlimited storeys. There are much cheaper options available as apps. I started off playing around with a few of the apps that are out there and got addicted to building digital houses that way. I started to get frustrated that the apps weren’t as customisable as I wanted them to be.

As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a bit of a learning curve with Home Designer, but no more than your average game. I do find I have to relearn a few things if I haven’t been in for a while.

bathroom screenshot
Screenshot from the upstairs bathroom in my entirely digital fantasy house
bathroom illustration
(A washed-out flashback) illustration created quickly using screenshot as a tracing image


Speaking of 3D, art teachers will advise you to make a structure out of boxes, set up a lamp and learn how shadows work. The modern equivalent of that is downloading (the totally free) Sketchup Viewer, jumping onto Trimble 3D Warehouse and downloading some (totally free) objects that other people have uploaded and manipulating the objects in Sketchup. You can rotate most objects to any angle, and adjust shadows for time of day. Even if you can’t find exactly what you want to draw, it’s amazingly handy.

Below is an illustration I did utilising objects I found on Sketchup: The TV and the tea trolley are from Trimble 3D Warehouse. In Sketchup Viewer I angled them as needed. The deep fryer on the TV screen is from the 3D warehouse. I even modelled the food on the tea trolley on some 3D digital food. I still have to draw the character from my head, but that’s okay. I do find if I use real life examples — even models of real life examples — I get a level of detail in illustration which is absent if I’m relying only on images inside my head.

illustration created from 3D models


If you’re into 3D models, there’s Poser from Smith Micro (creators of Rebelle). The free alternative is DAZ Studio, and some artists prefer DAZ Studio. DAZ is on my computer, but I find it intimidating. It makes me log onto my DAZ account every time I open it, and this has been giving me grief. I need to get over my reluctance to make use of an actual 3D software, given how partial I am to using 3D digital objects as reference. I wish I knew how to use DAZ properly.

Alternatively, I’m more and more interested in Clip Studio Paint, which in earlier iterations was called Manga Studio. (It’s a Japanese company.) Clip Studio is tailored to comics and cartoon creators, and is therefore excellent for graphic novels, but is also very good for creating a picture book. No matter the length of the project you’re working on, the program only loads one bit of the project at a time (the bit you’re working on), so you don’t get endless spinny wheel, which is what I’m dealing with in Apple Pages as I create a 200 page hybrid novel on my Mac

I’ve been doing my homework and now I’m waiting for one of their regular sales:

  • There’s a focus on line art. There are two different kinds of line correction, which you may like if you’re not someone who wants complete control over your lines.
  • It’s also set up for easy filling. You set up a line layer as the fill layer and then draw rough outlines around objects. It automatically fills, with good gap detection. This makes filling a lot quicker than colouring objects in by hand. Colours can run under lines, which can be a cool feature if your lines are semitransparent. (Think Peppa Pig, where the outline colours are related to the fill colours, but darker.)
  • The brush engine is very powerful — more so than Photoshop. You tag your brushes with search terms, which is an example of how this software expects you to create a whole heap of brushes (and can handle it). As an example you can do ‘tape drawing’ (also a feature of Affinity Designer) — drag out a brush to create a bunch of images that looks like decorative craft tape.
  • It is stable. It doesn’t glitch or freeze — compared to other digital art software, and considering how intensive it is on your CPU. (Photoshop crashes more often.)
  • ‘Transparency painting’
  • Correction layers to fine tune colour, like Photoshop.
  • File objects — create an object, put it on the canvas, but edit it separately — which edits them all, even though they’re already on the canvas.
  • Sophisticated perspective rulers, as well as multi-point symmetry. Most programs have this. But Clip Studio also has a curve ruler, where you draw a curve then the pen follows it exactly. There’s also a parallel line ruler. Define a direction and everything else you draw on the canvas will run parallel to this guide. Think speed lines. Parallel curve tool is basically the same but allows you to draw a few curves that follow each other perfectly. Focus line is when you draw a curve, then everything you draw duplicates that line. The concentric circle is great for sketching a character’s head, if you are drawing that kind of art. You can draw any size circle you want, in any perspective (squashy, long etc.) If you know how to draw using six point perspective, you can.
  • To transform an object, you don’t have to group those layers and then transform the group, as you would in, say, Artrage. You draw marching ants around the part you want to change, then tick the layers that will apply to the transformation.
  • Massively, there is also a 3D library within the software and it looks very fun. It reminds me of Sims, the way you create a character and dress them and whatnot. You could technically use a Sims character as your character reference, but you’d be pretty limited by comparison, and the Sims body language is too specific to that game. In Clip Studio you create characters and pose them to look how you need them to look.
  • Some of these things need to be paid for but there’s a lot available for free. (You do have to sign up for an account even for the free stuff.) The language and descriptions are in Japanese. There’s a translation tool in the library but Japanese doesn’t auto translate very well to English. (I knew there was a reason for that 10 years I spent learning Japanese. Finally, I may have found it.)
  • Like Affinity Designer, this software allows for both raster and vector drawing (and erasing). While Affinity Designer focuses more on vector, Clip Studio focuses more on raster.
  • It creates frames, which at first glance looks like a simple box, but the box is a layer mask. So basically, this software takes everything you need from InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, tailored to comic artists. You could also use these frames to make thumbnails for a picture book. The divide frame tool cuts an entire page into nice segments. You can resize these panels by dragging a control point and the other boxes resize automatically. (It works well most of the time.) Using this tool it’s impossible to draw in the wrong panel — it won’t let you. You can also hand draw boxes, as long as you do it in a single stroke.
  • Automatically generated comic book movement conventions like streamlines and sunbursts. You can also use this tool to create rain. Screen tones are another big one. (Dots) You can edit these effects on the fly. You can create gradients and greyscale with these screen tones. You can turn these dots into lines/lozenges or any image at all.
  • As you’ve probably guessed by now, the text tool in Clip Studio is awesome. The software automatically links the text to the bubble. It can also group different text bubbles together, realising they belong to the same ‘conversation’. Overlap them and they’ll join together. The software can link between bubbles automatically. The tail tool creates the call out. What you can’t do is layer effects applied to vector text. All you can do is change the size and stretch it a bit. In order to freely manipulate the look of text you do have to rasterise the layer.
  • You can create your own groups of fonts, which is kind of like having RightFont within the software. You can sort your fonts into ‘dialogue fonts’, ‘effect fonts’ or project fonts.

There’s Paint Ex (full feature version) and Paint Pro (fewer features). The company has already switched over to subscription model for their iPad (pro) version of the software, in which it’s about $9 a month after a six month free trial, so I expect that’s where they’re going with their desktop software, too.


I recently heard some advice for SCBWI members uploading their portfolios for consideration: Don’t make your influences too obvious. Apparently, art directors see far too many portfolios where the influence is obviously Disney and/or manga. A lot of artists who come to Clip Studio are there because of a love for manga and anime, which is cool, but it’s worth pointing out — something formerly called ‘Manga Studio’ doesn’t have to be used to create manga-looking art. As software makes it easier and easier to create art using 3D libraries, with perfectly symmetrical faces, it’s probably even more important now, to develop your own personal style, recognisable as only yours.

Artrage 5 or Rebelle 3? Software Review

make a massive mess

Artrage by Ambient Design, and Rebelle, by Escape Motions, are similar. They are both excellent, lower-priced digital art software which replicate real-world media and painting techniques. With both, you can pick up your pen and start drawing right away. If you have to choose, which should you buy? In my case, would I get much use out of Rebelle when I’ve been an Artrage fan since 2011?

The short answer is yes, I’ll definitely buy Rebelle. Nothing matches Rebelle 3 for digital watercolour simulation.


  • If you already know one of these programs you’ll easily learn the other, because they are very similar in many ways. The Rebelle team seem to have made careful study of what’s out there. They utilise the best  UI features from Artrage, Paintstorm Studio and Adobe products. But this is no copycat mashup — Rebelle does its own thing, too.
  • Artrage features some interesting lighting effects which allows for metallic textures and glitter.
  • Artrage does a bit more (e.g. text, some layer effects, plug-ins), but Rebelle does fewer things better.
  • Rebelle does more with the paper. There is a genuine, physics based interaction between paper and media.
  • Rebelle is therefore better for watercolour, a medium which is heavily influenced by the thickness, wetness and tooth of the paper. You could do any watercolour course and apply the realworld techniques digitally, without spending a fortune on paints and papers. I’m pretty confident the skills you learn in Rebelle would transfer back into the real world, where you’re painting on real watercolour paper. That’s how good it is.
  • While both programs aim to emulate the experience of painting in real life, the developers have made slightly different decisions about when to emulate real media and when to utilise the advantages of digital.
  • Colour selection and mixing  is more complex and powerful in Rebelle.
  • If your computer is more than a few years old it won’t cope with Rebelle 3, in which case go with Artrage (which will run slowly, but it does run).
  • Although Rebelle shines in realistic watercolour, take one look at their forum and you’ll see Rebelle used to create all sorts of different types of art — from washy and bleedy to hyperrealistic.
  • I think Rebelle is particularly well-suited to children’s illustration, which is what I’ll be using it for.
  • If you want a whole lot of image based brushes which you create yourself from scratch, I think Artrage is for you. But I haven’t tried out Rebelle’s brush engine yet. It may be just as powerful, for all I know. To be continued.



First up, Artrage also has watercolour functionality. For a while they were probably leading in this field. Artrage Andy has said in a Reddit AMA that he does know how to make brilliant and naturalistic watercolour, but he’s waiting for everyone’s computer processor to catch up. (I’ll believe him, thousands wouldn’t, haha.) Artrage has a foot in the mobile computing camp, so they’re probably held back by the need to support that, at the moment. Rebelle, on the other hand, is avoiding the mobile market for now, in favour of producing powerful desktop software which will work best with — wait for it — 16GB of RAM(Is it just me, or does that make you feel like you’re living in the distant future?)

Rebelle Minimum: Intel i5 or equivalent AMD, 4GB RAM, 200MB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 1GB RAM, Windows 7 (64-bit or 32-bit) or Mac OS X 10.11. Recommended: Intel i7 or equivalent AMD, 16GB RAM,1GB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 4GB RAM, 64-bit system Windows 8, 10 or Mac OS X 10.12 and newer, Wacom or Surface compatible tablet.

In contrast, here’s what Artrage says about compatibility: You can install ArtRage 5 on any desktop, laptop, or touchscreen device that runs a supported operating system. Please try the demo before purchasing if you have any concerns about performance or compatibility.

We all have our own idiosyncratic favourites, partly based on what we’re used to. Artrage was one of the first art programs to offer naturalistic squidgy paint blending, which is what made me settle on Artrage as my main software. Apart from that, Artrage has a simple, intuitive interface which lets you get straight to art without a huge software learning curve a la Photoshop. Advanced settings are behind the scenes, which means you might not ever find them, to be honest. Artrage was ahead of its time for a while. At $79, Artrage has always punched above its weight. I won’t hear a bad word about it.

Now for a bad word about it. Andy, who codes it (a Kiwi compatriot), has an idiosyncratic, creative approach to programming which I recognise as a ‘number 8 wire’ attitude. Self-taught, passionate and able to solve very complex problems, I have a heap of respect for that guy. However. That same attitude comes with: ‘I don’t look at what other developers are doing, here’s what I’m doing”.

To give an example, if you know how to make your own brushes in Adobe, you’ll have a brand new learning curve in Artrage because custom brushes are crated quite differently. They’re not even called brushes in Artrage. They’re called stickers. There’s no masking in the traditional (digital) sense, just weird-ass workarounds which involve selecting paint on a layer and making a ‘stencil’ with it (which actually looks like the stencils I used in the eighties — but do kids still use those?). With the aim of hewing as closely as possible to real-world media, Andy and his small team say nah to a bunch of REALLY USEFUL things which aren’t really all that difficult to grasp, conceptually.

As a result, each time Andy issues a big new update I wonder if he’s FINALLY going to give us a few ‘industry standard’ digital art basics. When Artrage 5 came out and he  still didn’t give us eraser functionality on every kind of brush, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But you know what? Andy’s individuality is starting to look a lot like plain ole contrarianism. Can you buy erasers shaped like any kind of brush in an art supplies shop? NUP. Therefore we ain’t making any. Okay, he hasn’t actually said that exact thing, but that’s the general philosophy if you’ve been hanging about on the Artrage forums.

(You can actually get putty-like erasers which can be moulded into many different shapes. They’re called ‘kneaded erasers‘. Good for working out your frustrations.)


kneadable eraser

Artrage 5 did come with some cool updates, which made the paid upgrade worth it. Mostly it felt like performance improvements, which actually makes upgrading mandatory, even if you have no interest in the new custom brush, which is like stickers… but with blending. Which is awesome. The huge downside of the Artrage stickers was always the inability to blend them. Now, it’s possible to make some truly awesome brushes in Artrage. I have noticed in general that some artists are into that kind of thing — brush-making as an art in its own right — while others are more interested in using software as a means to an end. I’m in the latter camp, so I haven’t spent a solid week mucking around with custom brushes. You could. Oh, you could.

The forums are pretty quiet these days. I do wish more people used (and paid for) Artrage, because then more stuff might get done more quickly. It’s a very powerful piece of software. Artrage 5 doesn’t come with a PDF user manual, probably because I’m one of the five people who likes to read those things from cover to cover. (I asked for one and they said it’s coming.) For now there’s an increasing amount of documentation on their website, designed to be read on a need-to-know basis. The documentation is written in very good, plain English. I was impressed by that. In one solid weekend you can get a good handle on what’s under the Artrage hood.

  • Artrage ships with a greater selection of readymade options for each tool, with more difference between each one, though this advantage diminishes as you create your own collection of brushes with the brush engines.
  • A weird tool specific to Artrage is the gloop pen. Other artists have said on the Artrage forum that they never use such a thing and it should be taken off the main tool panel and added to the custom brush panel, but I do use it. I use it because it is so specific to Artrage, and creates an effect most digital artists don’t have access to.
  • Bump blend modes. The bumpiness of layers can be added to each other to create quite a high level of bumpiness, as if you’ve glued a whole heap of glitter to the page or used very thick oil. (For even thicker oil, check out Verve, where it can look like someone dropped a lump of putty onto the page.)
  • Speaking of oil, Artrage shines (literally) in its oil painting. (Which could just as easily be called ‘acrylic’.) Rebelle calls their textured brushes acrylic, and that’s pretty good too. Rebelle lets you set ‘impasto depth’ on an acrylic brush. At this stage, if I wanted to create something that looks like oil, I’d go with Artrage. Artrage has a more obvious lighting effect, which you can fiddle around with to create glazed oil versus matte.
  • Related to that, Artrage has a metallic setting which can be applied to any painting/drawing tool. This is affected by the canvas lighting. Metallic media have a ‘crackly’ texture which is really kind of cool. Though it’s a little like the gloop pen — professional artist types don’t seem to use this much. A bit gimmicky, perhaps? My kid loves turning the metallicity up to max, which gives you an idea of who uses it. (Crayolas come with metallic crayons, but professional sets don’t.) She also covers the Artrage canvas in ready-made stickers and ends up with this crappy looking rubbish — I end up kicking her off Artrage and giving her the Crayolas, and this is a kid who’s really quite an accomplished drawer. These extra features of Artrage can be cool, but in practice, will you use them? Kids enjoy Artrage, and I’m guessing they’d tell you they prefer it. But is it better for learning how to paint? That’s a different question.
  • Artrage has a text tool. It’s pretty basic, though. It actually cuts part of the text off if I’m using many of my fancy fonts. I end up doing text in Affinity Designer.
  • To create ultra realistic paintings, your best bet in Artrage is the blending felt pen tool. The marker is not what I’d use in Rebelle — my guess is that you’d be making use of the airbrush for that. I do really enjoy using the felt pen tool, going in afterwards with a blender. The felt pen is my go-to tool in Artrage, so it’ll be interesting to see what I settle on in Rebelle.
  • Artrage is not great with colour palettes. You can’t use an imported palette, so I make my own workaround by creating a png swatch in ColorSchemer and importing as reference image. Also with Rebelle’s colour palette, you can choose to show the names of the colours. This is especially useful if you’re working with an analogous palette. You can also create a colour set from a text file, which looks like a minor pain in the neck, but good to have that option.
  • The pastels in Artrage don’t blend very well. I’ve never warmed to them. (This isn’t an issue if you use a pastel brush in the custom brush functionality of Artrage 5.)
  • Artrage features some layer effects you’ll recognise from Photoshop, like shadows and glow.
  • In Artrage there are so many tools that you can keep your favourites in a ‘tool box’. This tool box resets when you reopen the application, so make sure to export it if you’re working on a big project with more than one document.
  • The workspace can look quite busy, especially since the palettes aren’t dockable in the Adobe sense, so you can hit a key and enter work mode, which gets rid of everything except the canvas and your current tool.
  • I really love the navigation of Artrage. I set my upper Wacom pen button to ‘right click’ so I can hold that and move the canvas. (I don’t like flipping my pen to erase, so my bottom button is set to erase, although my erase button has not clicked off eraser mode in Artrage for a long time, and I’ve been unable to successfully troubleshoot, even with their help.)
  • There’s no navigation panel, but I’ve never found it a problem to zoom in and out. Flipping to check on your perspective skills is really easy — just hit H. The canvas flips right back as soon as you take your finger off the keyboard. This ease of flipping encourages a good habit.


For watercolour artists, the latest release of Rebelle  by Escape Motions is hands down the most impressive (and mesmerising) thing I’ve seen on a screen.

Others have made videos so I don’t have to. Aaron Rutten made a comprehensive video focusing on its new features. Rebelle is totally new to me, but this is a good intro nonetheless:


You’ll also need an excellent graphics card. Thanks, bitcoiners, for pushing the price up on those damn things. Basically, Rebelle 3 requires a gaming computer. Discussions I’ve had in forums with other digital artists indicate a swing away from Apple (favoured by designers) back to PCs, for graphics card reasons. (My five-year-old desktop Mac runs silently, but has a mobile graphics card in it. Which can’t be upgraded. A moment of silence, please.) But! Now that I have a brand new gaming PC, I plan to get the most out of my RAM and my schmick new graphics card. Rebelle 3 is officially the most hardware intensive software I plan to install. (For now.)


This is based on my trial version of Rebelle, so this will be an incomplete list.

  • As everyone mentions, super realistic watercolour. I could leave this list at that, but more specifically, the canvas texture of Rebelle 3 means something. It’s not there for aesthetics. Okay, so the canvas texture does mean something in Artrage too. The pencils and pastels adjust their appearance based on the size of the tooth, but it’s done differently. I’m not a coder so I couldn’t be more specific about that. In Rebelle, watercolour paint is heavily influenced by the toothiness of the paper, and this becomes especially evident in drip mode. If you’re a watercolour artist this is huge. You can also randomise the position of the grain relative to the brush mark, which is partly what makes it look more realistic.
  • Part of this is to do with settings like degree of edge darkening. Artrage has been mucking around with this, utilising it in the gloop pen tool, but not in the watercolour toolset, as yet.
  • Ah yes, the amazing drip mode, dependent on the ‘tilt‘ mode. Artrage does not have anything like that. I believe if you’re working on an iPad Pro using Astropad (a subscription service which allows you to mirror your desktop software onto an iPad), Rebelle 3 makes use of the accelerometer, so physically tipping your iPad will mean the drips flow in that direction according to actual gravity. I don’t have an iPad Pro with Astropad myself, so I can’t comment on its compatibility. I’m not sure the extent to which the Rebelle team worked with the Astropad team to get that up and running. You can also blend with your fingers in Rebelle if you’re using a touchpad. So that’s pretty cool. (My art teacher never let us smudge with our fingers. He said it’s for amateurs who fix problems the wrong way. But he never said anything about BLENDERS.)
  • Rebelle features a blow tool, also part of what they call the DropEngine. It blows wet paint. On dry areas it creates dripping effects.
  • Amazing blending. Artrage also has excellent blending (which was truly amazing before even simple apps started offering it, which changed just recently). But in Artrage, as soon as your Wacom pen lifts from the tablet, the paint stays where you have put it. This can be good. It can be just what you want, and you can work like this in Rebelle, too, by turning off the drip mode and setting the paper up to not influence the paint as much. But watercolour artists on the Artrage forum have long complained that watercolour does not work realistically in Artrage. (Their gripes were a little unfair, because computers had yet to keep up.) Basically, if you are a watercolour artist, Rebelle is for you. Hands down.
  • Rebelle has this ‘blue’ mode where you can wet the canvas. In Artrage you can choose to paint (well, blend) using only water, but there’s no option to wet the canvas beforehand. Adding water is something you do after you’ve painted. So you’re really limited in your wet effects in Artrage. Some artists make a background with real media then finish off in Artrage, but with Rebelle they wouldn’t have to do that.
  • Instadry means you don’t have to put paint on separate layers to avoid smooshing them together. I’m so used to making new layers I’ll probably keep doing that out of habit. However, the instadry functionality is essential because of the DropEngine. You want some control over when the droplets stop dripping and dribbling.
  • Rebelle lets you choose either cut and deckled edges on your canvas, which you can turn off and on again, because the deckled edge functions like a mask.
  • In general, the language used within the software hews more closely to the language of watercolour artists. Rebelle talks about hot/cold pressed paper, for instance.
  • Rebelle’s UI is a bit more similar to Adobe’s. There’s the obvious dark colour scheme, but Adobe has other advantages too, like a more intuitive way of making your own brushes. You’ll soon pick up how to change the settings. By comparison, the little circle and grid system of Artrage, with its negative and positive values, feels very specific to Artrage. Learn the ins and outs of that and your skill set won’t transfer. (And you’ll wonder how an entire week went by… .and six months later when you go to make some more brushes, you’ve forgotten…)
  • The filters on Rebelle seem a bit more powerful. It’s mostly there in Artrage too, but I do finish off colour correction in Affinity Photo rather than in Artrage. I’m yet to see if I’ll need that final step after creating in Rebelle.
  • In general, Rebelle is more ‘drag and drop’ than Artrage. Artrage does have a bit of drag and drop functionality but feels all menus, clicking and typing compared to the most modern programs. For instance, you can expand (or shrink) a Rebelle canvas by dragging the corner. In Artrage you have to go into the menu to do that. In Rebelle you can even drag and drop an image into the colour set panel and Rebelle creates a palette from that image. Genius. I am so impressed by that small thing.
  • Speaking of colours, Rebelle’s colour picker is pretty sophisticated. When you hit the eye dropper tool you’ll see not just a single colour but a dual-coloured ring pop up. It allows you to mix colours — the current colour and a new one. It allows you to precisely select how much of the previous colour you want in proportion to the new. This is a decision you’re constantly making in real world media, so it’s interesting what Rebelle has done to emulate colour mixing with a brush and artist palette. I’ve never seen this in other software. I’ve yet to muck around with it and learn how it properly works.
  • Rebelle also lets you pick colour from your screen (on Windows)
  • Rebelle uses Adobe’s concept of primary and secondary colour. Artrage doesn’t use that concept. In Artrage, your colour is your colour and that’s it. This concept is important for reasons explained above, though colour behaves more simply in Artrage, which may be what you’re after.
  • I haven’t tried out the transform tools because the trial version won’t let you, so I’m yet to comment on how well it transforms. Does it lose any quality? Artrage has not been great in this area. You want to avoid transformations in Artrage because each time you move something it gets more pixellated. Artrage 5 improved heavily on that, but it’s still not great.
  • Both Artrage and Rebelle have their own way of masking. You’d think Artrage would have utilised the real world medium of masking fluid, but strangely — given Andy’s philosophy — he went the digital route with ‘lock transparency’, selection tools and ‘select all paint on a layer’. Rebelle has those tools as well, but includes a masking technique which mimics the real world application of masking fluid. That said, masking fluid in Rebelle doesn’t work exactly as it would in real life — in real painting an area of paper is either fully masked by fluid or it’s not. But in Rebelle you can set the opacity of your masking fluid to create subtle and unusual effects.
  • If you’re familiar with Adobe/Affinity, this is important:. In Rebelle white is concealing and black is revealing. That’s the inverse to how Adobe and Affinity products work. Honestly, it makes more sense to me. I’ve always felt intuitively that Adobe have black and white the wrong way around. Probably because I grew up using white out fluid, and subpar erasers which rip a hole in your paper (metaphorically creating a black hole). Let’s not get too existential about that. In any case, this decision should be easy to get used to. Artrage avoids this kind of masking altogether. Artrage also has some weird behaviours which I have brought up on the forum, and which can’t easily be fixed. For instance, when you lock transparency for a layer and paint over an object, the edges of that object end up the colour of the canvas (which is white, unless you change it.) This is actually a real problem if your mode of working is to slap down paint, then lock the transparency to put in the detail. Which is how I learned how to paint digitally, avoiding the main problems which come with using a tablet like an Intuos, which is not great for freehand drawing no matter how adept you become at manipulating the pen.
  • Rebelle 3 has some amazing perspective rulers. I haven’t made use of them yet. They’re built for people who have studied perspective drawing — they won’t be useful unless you’ve done that. Even the simple ruler has an inventive functionality. The ruler in Artrage works like a real world ruler, which you can drag and pin onto the page. This one doesn’t look like a school ruler but a digital equivalent, and it snaps horizontally and vertically without you having to hit control on the keyboard. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but then you understand its usefulness.
  • There’s a navigator panel. (Similar to that in PaintStorm Studio)
  • You can save custom UI layouts, though it looks like you have to import that setting.  Are your previous settings sticky when you open a new document? With the trial version I can’t tell.
  • Artrage refuses to tell us how big the canvas can get, because they don’t want people trying it out and proving them wrong! Rebelle is similar. We’re told the maximum canvas size depends on the power of our computers.
  • The problem with all these digital tools is, you can easily slip over into creating something which looks digital. In the name of skeuomorphism, you can deliberately make wobbly but straightish lines by turning on ‘freehand mode’. This is especially useful for those of us using something like the Wacom Intuos, which is much better for painting strokes than for drawing line art, because you’re drawing down here while looking up there. I’ll definitely be making use of that.
  • Rebelle 3 does have its own PDF instruction manual which comes free with the software, if you’re into that kind of thing. You can check it out before you buy. I read it and it’s easy to understand. It’s a lot shorter than any of Artrage’s earlier PDF manuals, which speaks not only to the extra tools in Artrage but also to the (unnecessary, imo) complexity of Artrage, especially concerning the making of brushes. Sorry, stickers.
  • I’m not sure how easy it is to rotate the canvas in Rebelle because I haven’t found that shortcut yet. There is a rotate button in the navigator panel, but if you often rotate, this is a bit of a pain. The Rebelle navigation is really nice, except that one thing. However, I do have an Intuos touch, so I’ve decided to turn that on and use one of those gloves. Rebelle works really well with the touch functionality of my tablet. I can rotate and zoom by pinch and expand method. Finally I’m getting some good use out of my tablet’s touch functionality. Apparently you can rotate by holding R and left-clicking, but since my Wacom pen is set to right-click, this is a pain. I’d be changing that in preferences.
  • Rebelle’s stencil functionality is very similar to that of Artrage, but with the added benefit of extending a stencil out to prevent accidental painting over the edges.
  • You can also tile the stencil. Now this is pretty cool. It allows you to make patterns (though not seamless patterns — for that I recommend PaintStorm Studio). There’s a reason why you wouldn’t necessarily want to use Rebelle to create seamless patterns — the huge advantage of the tiled stencil is that you can create a wallpaper in which each separate object has a slightly different (or vastly different) watercolour fill.  Artrage also has a pattern fill option attached to its paint bucket, but it’s not useful. All it does is repeat an object, which you could previously achieve by importing a tracing image and selecting a tile fill. I do think both Artrage and Rebelle could benefit from a wraparound function like that in (open source) Krita and PaintStorm Studio. I acknowledge that seamless patterns are not the main point of this stencil tiling option — use it to make a wallpaper when you already know what dimensions you need. Then you can create something amazing, with individuated objects.
  • Rebelle is great for artists who do line work on white paper then scan it in. Rebelle can remove white. At present, I use Affinity Photo to do this step. Being able to do it within Rebelle is convenient.
  • Rebelle saves in the background. This is huge. I can’t tell you. On my Mac, Artrage is extremely slow to do a save. I work with many layers, and when I get over 10 or so layers it can take over a minute. I think it’s worse if you make use of blend and bump modes. It really takes you out of the flow. I hope Artrage Andy does something about that soon.
  • Artrage does do iterative saves, and Rebelle offers this too. (Not sure if it’s by default.) This is something Artrage implemented just recently. (I’ve been burned badly several times — when Artrage crashes, it sometimes saves only your bottom layer, and sometimes saves nothing at all, whith otherwise REPLACES your previous save.) I highly recommend iterative saves. Developers offer it for a good reason… They’ve seen what can happen!
  • Related to crashing and whatnot, Rebelle allows you the option to choose how much of your computer’s memory it uses. I know that for developers, that choice between functionality and memory is a fine balance and a constant frustration.
  • Rebelle are experimenting with a GPU brush engine. I’m looking forward to finding out what that even is. I do know that the latest version of PaintStorm implemented this, and it was a game changer. Online I’ve seen reviewers get super excited about it.
  • I don’t know if you can group layers in Rebelle. I can’t find that option anywhere in the instruction manual. Rebelle is set up so that you’ll require fewer layers in the first place, with its masking layer influencing the one underneath and so on, but I use lots of layers, so that’s important to me. Artrage lets you group, though it’s a bit fiddly taking a layer back out of a group if you’re rearranging layers. (An ungroup layer option in the dropdown menu is on my wishlist.)




Great Gifts For Young Artists

I have a nine-year-old daughter who loves stationery. As a kid I loved stationery too, and now I am an illustrator. These days, if I’m buying for a young artist I give great gifts. (A #lessersuperpower?) I love buying art supplies almost as much as I love using them.

Reason for this post: Stationery is never-ending in variation and as a consumable nothing lasts forever, yet I have been asked for suggestions on what to buy my stationery loving kid as a gift. It’s a fair question: Young artists living in rich countries with robust gift-giving cultures probably have an oversupply of pencils and markers.

Here are some gift ideas for young artists which are slightly off the beaten track. You won’t find these in big box stores, but you can find them easily online. I won’t add vendor links though. (Most readers of this blog don’t live where I live.)

1. Skin Tone Pencils

Most young artists have a proliferation of pencils already, because pencils don’t wear down as fast as pencils are gifted. But! They may not have a curated selection of dedicated skin tone pencils.

I like a box set because they encourage White kids to consider a wider spectrum of skin colour and incorporate diversity into their drawings. This is a long way from earlier childhoods, where the ‘flesh colour’ was peach. (Crayola have since changed the name.)

Derwent skin tone pencils

From a colour theory point of view, this set of pencils from Derwent is also good for encouraging young artists to think about all the different tones underlying skin. Who would naturally think that blue is a skin colour? Yet professional artists make use of blue to build up colour. Most coloured pencil manufacturers release a skin tone set — it doesn’t have to be Derwent.

2. Graphite Pencils

Continue reading “Great Gifts For Young Artists”

Introvert and Extravert Writers

Here’s the kind of introvert/extravert stuff you find in your feed and dismiss as oversimplified “research” clickbait:

If you like sci-fi movies, hate pool parties and watch “The Walking Dead” then chances are you’re an introvert, according to new research.

New York Post

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of personality dualities. That aside, these broad narrative tastes do line up nicely with the intro/extraversion of my own friends and family. So let’s roll with this as a thought experiment. While I can’t work out how the researchers defined introverts vs extraverts in the first place:

  • Extroverts identified excitement as their driving emotion
  • Introverts can be found watching a thriller like “The Walking Dead” or a crime drama like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Law & Order: SVU.”
  • Extroverts prefer reality-based entertainment. They can be found watching the latest episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” “The Bachelor/Bachelorette,” “The Voice,” and “America’s Got Talent.”

When it comes to writing, do introverted and extraverted writers face different issues? I don’t mean ‘sitting in a room alone for months’ versus ‘marketing the hell out of a published book’, which is a painful disconnect covered elsewhere. I mean, at the story level, might introverts and extraverts be more prone to certain pitfalls?


Bubbly Best Friends Stealing The Spotlight

I’ve seen literary agents post things like this:

Bubbly best friend

Cheryl Klein continues her thread:

We have all these loudmouth, confident girls in MG — Clementine, Dory, Fantasmagory, Cleo Edison Oliver. Where do they go in YA? Am I just missing them? I asked a writer about this once — I said, “I love this best friend; write a novel about her!” — and she said there wasn’t enough ‘there’ for a novel, int he kind of novels this writer wrote. But I thought (and still think) that’s unfair to the loudmouths. Even loudmouths have things they don’t say; everyone can change with the right kind of pressure. And that’s all you need to build a novel. Or even better: the loudmouth will say the thing that she shouldn’t say, again and again, and that makes a GREAT novel.

This hit home because I am currently workshopping a YA novel about a teenage girl who has a bubbly best friend. Part of her character arc is that she becomes  individuated and self-driven, but my critique group has encouraged me to make my ‘main character’ less of a ‘viewpoint character’ from the beginning. I honestly didn’t mean for the best friend to be more interesting, because I get rid of her partway through the story. When I think back to high school, I was definitely the introverted half of an intro/extraverted pair of BFFs. I, myself, am a viewpoint character.

There’s another issue here, of course: How do you even define a main character? This isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. If I’m ever having trouble working ithis out I ask ‘Which character changes the most?’ but even then, that can be too simple:

  • If the best friend is the offering commentary on the bubbly best friend, doesn’t that still make the best friend THE main character, kind of like what Fitzgerald did with narration in The Great Gatsby, or by Joseph Conrad before him?
  • The character who changes the most might change via the telling of the story itself. In fact, that’s the raison d’être of a storyteller narrator — they come to some sort of realisation because they’re telling this particular story.
  • Viewpoint characters tend to have more reflective personalities, and are therefore more open to development than an interesting but boneheaded character who keeps on keeping on. So defining ‘main character’ cannot be about ‘range of change’, but — to borrow a Yahoo word — ‘range of ‘interestingness’.

In short, introverts might identify more keenly with the quieter, viewpoint people in real life, but these sorts of people don’t make for the most interesting fictional characters. Exception being: If the quiet character is plunged into a super interesting world or situation.

But if we’re writing a story using a viewpoint character as introverted best friend (a not-so-secret proxy for ourselves), then we need to know we’re doing this. If the most interesting character in your story doesn’t have a fully realised character arc, that could be a problem for readers.

Comfortable But Passive Scenes

Another issue which may or may not be related to introversion (I suspect it’s also related to age, gender and writing experience): Boring sitting-down-drinking-tea scenes. I wrote about that last week in my analysis of The Cat Returns. Some tea-drinking scenes are almost culturally compulsory, as in anime out of Japan, but The Cat Returns writers get around this by combining a static tea-drinking scene with slapstick action and witty dialogue.

These passive scenes often crop up as a Chapter Two. Most of us have done it, I’m sure:

  • Chapter One is an action scene with witty dialogue and an interesting situation. We use every tool in our belt to hook the readers in.
  • But then we need to introduce the family. So we show the character at home.
  • Maybe the character sits down to watch TV or makes a cup of coffee or goes out the back for a smoke with a cop colleague.

I’m not sure if introverts are more likely to write these passive and safe Chapter Twos, but I do think introverts are more comfortable in these scenarios in real life. So it’s probably tempting for us to take an emotional break — as writers — by rescuing our main characters and letting them enjoy a cuppa in peace before moving onto the next uncomfortable situation. But that’s not what will keep readers turning the page. Not even introverted readers, many of whom apparently like The Walking Dead! (One action scene after another, judging from the season I endured.)

Tea Drinking Scenes are sometimes necessary when writing realism, and I’m not advocating for getting rid of them at all. An example of a Tea Drinking Scene fraught with tension and quiet conflict can be seen in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro. Even the objects in the kitchen are described in dramatic terms.

Films are all about dialogue. It’s not inherently interesting to watch character sit around and talk, so filmmakers have an arsenal of tricks up their sleeve. Some of them are described in this video.


Too Much Excitement

I can’t identify with extraversion problems myself, but here’s one for consideration: If extraverted writers are indeed drawn to excitement, it may be the more extraverted writers who propel their readers into sturm und drang before setting up the main character’s psychology (weakness/need/desire).

It may be extraverted writers who forget to juxtapose action and dialogue heavy scenes against the quieter ones, allowing the reader to take a breather and to offer a change in tone.


What do you think?

The Cat Returns Storytelling Notes

The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns is a 2002 feature-length anime about a teenage girl who is transported against her will into a feline fantasy world after saving a cat’s life. Writer Aoi Hiiragi also wrote the script for Whisper of the Heart. This is a sort of sequel to that, where the main character writes this story. In written form, this is an ‘urban fantasy’, which literary agents have recently started to call grounded, contemporary fantasy (I believe it’s a rebranding thing).

Like a number of animated cartoons, The Cat Returns started out as a comic book series, though the film is quite different.

Japanese Title of The Cat Returns

Neko no ongaeshi DVD

The Japanese title is Neko no ongaeshi, which literally means ‘The Cat’s Favour’. But that’s not a great translation because there’s no exact equivalent of ongaeshi in English:

It means ‘to return a favor’ or ‘to prove a gratitude’. In Japan, the word is perceived as rather antiquated and poetic and describes the space between action and reaction of gratitude. In this context ‘action’ can be described as: an invitation for a project, assistance to a solution for an abstract problem as well as direct support at the workspace. All this leads to a ‘reaction’ which may occur later in time, or have a different context. Even in Japanese it is difficult to comprehend this word which makes it open to imagination and potential.

Ongaeshi Artist Exchange

‘The Cat Returns A Favour’ isn’t exactly catchy, so I suppose that’s one reason we got ‘The Cat Returns’ in English. It’s also a sequel, so.

Continue reading “The Cat Returns Storytelling Notes”