Our group test of six digital painting apps will help you unleash your inner artist

Natural media painting software (software that lets you replicate the look and feel of real materials in some way or another) is a brilliant way to express your artistic flair without getting your hands covered in oils, watercolors, or messy pastels. Digital painting is now more sophisticated than ever, and with Wacom graphics tablets cheaper and more accessible, there’s no reason not to start painting on your Mac.

This group test covers a few types of digital painting apps. All-out painting apps Corel Painter 12 and ArtRage Studio Pro 3.5 are dedicated to simulating the look and feel of traditional art materials. SketchBook Pro is aimed at getting ideas down quickly. Adobe Illustrator isn’t generally perceived as a digital painting app, but it does have many brushes and tools that can reproduce the look and feel of paint. The brushes in Adobe Photoshop have been used by professional digital artists for years. Its highly customizable brushes come with a huge image editing toolset. And Studio Artist 4 stands out by automating the painting process to some extent.

Test One: Real Media
How realistic are the results in these applications?

While all of these applications can replicate the look and feel of natural media, one app stands out from all the others. You name it, and Painter can reproduce it digitally. From thick oil paints that you can thin with turpentine, to watercolor that bleeds differently depending on what type of paper you’ve chosen, the results you get are truly stunning.

Painter can replicate oils, watercolors and any other medium you can think of.

But a close second is ArtRage Studio Pro. The Oil brush is probably most impressive, laying down thick, textured paint that can be blended with ease. Squeezing out a blob of paint with the Paint Tube and then spreading it across the canvas with the Palette Knife also produces incredible results. Studio Artist is also capable of some wonderfully realistic natural-media effects, especially when it comes to turning a photo into a painting.

ArtRage lets you paint with the Palette Knife, just like Bob Ross.

SketchBook Pro, Photoshop, and Illustrator all produce results that feel realistic enough, but nothing on the level of Painter or ArtRage.

Test Two: Range of Tools
How many are there? What about unique features?

The app that stuck out in this test is Studio Artist, a brilliant piece of software aimed at users without a lot of experience painting. Rather than using traditional brushes, it uses presets–including sketch effects, oils, and any kind of media you could imagine. It uses these to repaint a photo automatically, or you can apply strokes manually. Studio Artist is much more than this, though–it’s also a vector app and an animation app.

Studio Artist has a plethora of presets to let you generate a painting from a source image.

More traditionally in terms of software, Painter has a huge number of brushes and tools. It boasts everything from pencils to acrylics, chalks, and pastels.

SketchBook Pro has myriad options for customizing and creating your own tools. ArtRage Studio Pro has oils, watercolors, various ink types, and lots more.

Painter’s wide range of tools will make you feel like a kid in an art supply store.

Photoshop’s highly customizable brush toolset is powerful in the right hands, and Illustrator is fantastic for creating natural media strokes that are infinitely scalable.

Test Three: The Interface
How do the different interfaces measure up?

The interfaces of SketchBook Pro and ArtRage Studio Pro feel very similar, nestling their small, context-sensitive tools in graceful arcs in the corners. ArtRage’s icons are large, and its icon-based palettes enable you to quickly access features such as layers. But SketchBook Pro’s highly accessible interface is its killer feature, outclassing all other apps here when it comes to digital painting and sketching.

SketchBook Pro’s interface is clean and simple, so you can concentrate on sketching.

The interfaces of Painter, Photoshop, and Illustrator are also very similar–and very standard. But Painter 12’s new Temporal Color Palette is usefully placed, floating above your canvas and allowing you to select colors very quickly.

Studio Artist has its own unique interface, which can take a lot of time to get used to. The basics are easy–click the Action button after assigning a preset, for example–but as you progress through the application, some of the dialogs become hard to fathom. Luckily, there’s an excellent manual.

Test Four: Ease of Use
How easy is it to get started?

Of all the apps in our group test, ArtRage Studio Pro is the easiest to get started with. The wonderfully designed interface and easy-to-use tools make it a cinch to start painting right away. And it’s rewarding, too. The way the app lays down watercolors, oils, and so on makes it feel like you’re getting somewhere with your digital art. Even if you can’t paint at all, ArtRage somehow makes you think you can. You don’t need any kind of manual–everything is put together intelligently and it just works.

ArtRage Studio Pro makes it simple to just open up a window and start painting.

SketchBook Pro is a little trickier. While its interface is undeniably genius, it can take a little while to get used to. Photoshop, Illustrator, and Painter do take some time to master–the sheer number of tools they offer can be intimidating to beginners. But with Photoshop and Illustrator, of course, you get more than a painting app. That’s a boon if you also dabble in photography or graphic design, but if all you want to do is paint, they can feel like overkill.

Studio Artist is hard to judge. It’s easy to get started creating paintings from your photos, but its wide range of presets and options can be confusing.

The Winner: Painter 12

As an all-around imaging tool, Photoshop is the best there is. But when it comes to digital painting, its brush set isn’t as comprehensive as that of Painter 12. And Illustrator, although taking a bit of a back seat in this test, is an amazing tool for creating fluid brush strokes.

ArtRage Studio Pro and SketchBook Pro never fail to impress, thanks to their intuitive interfaces and ease of use. Studio Artist can help you create incredible artwork–it just takes a while to master. But in the end, the winner has to be Painter. The original natural media painting app has gone from strength to strength under Corel, and version 12 is just excellent, with an amazing array of brushes and tools that make it a must-have for any digital artist.