Open Source Software for Artists: Why You’ll Never Pay for Art Software Again

Published on Jul. 11th 2008

Open source software is an excellent way for all artists to start working digitally, whether you want to edit your photography, create a 3D animation, or make a digital painting right on your computer screen.

And if you’ve ever thought about going digital but haven’t wanted to purchase all that expensive art software, open source software is the affordable solution. Actually, it’s more than affordable. . . it’s absolutely free!

A short history of open source

Way back in time when a company wanted to sell a computer that filled a room, they gave you the software you needed along with the big machine you paid a fortune for.

When computers became smaller and more affordable, those companies needed to keep the money rolling in so they started selling all the software separately.

Eventually everyone was using computers, and different buyers had different needs—the accountant didn’t need graphics software, for example. To meet those needs, companies other than the computer manufacturer started writing and selling computer programs too.

But there have always been computer programmers that write code like some of us paint. They’re good at it, it’s easy for them, and even fun.

Richard Stallman was one such programmer who decided to change the way people used software by coming up with the GNU General Public License (GPL). Software created under this license is available to anyone; it is free and cannot be sold. Anyone (that knows how to write code) can add to the original code for personal purposes and sometimes their contributions are even included in the next version of the program.

Stallman calls this form of licensing “copyleft” because it focuses on the rights of the user vs. the creator.

Another programmer, Linus Torvald, wrote his own operating system while he was in college (instead of using Microsoft Windows). He wrote it in a language called UNIX and since his name is Linus he named the operating system Linux.

In November 1998, When Microsoft was accused of having a monopoly on operating systems, the lawyer held up a box of Red Hat Linux and said “No we don’t!” That day millions of copies of Red Hat Linux were downloaded.

Since then, dozens of programs have been written that are available for free use as long as you don’t sell it. Often you are simply encouraged to donate to the author or purchase books on how to use the software—both of those actions help open source software stay alive.

Why should artists consider open source software?

Really, it all comes down to the price. Like any business person you might want to choose GIMP to edit your photos (GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program) and use the $650 you would have spent on Photoshop CS3 elsewhere—for supplies, marketing, food or gasoline.

Open source software is used in the corporate world too. My employer couldn’t budget in the cost of the latest 3D animation program, so we’re using Blender instead of Maya and Lightwave (saving us around $3000).

And today there’s open source software for everything—if you wanted to manage your own on-line education courses you could pay $7200 for Flex Training, $1000 for Mind Flash, OR just use Moodle for free.

Open source tools for artists

The following open source art programs are used by professionals and amateurs alike. And just because they’re free, that doesn’t mean they’re lesser quality—they can do just as much as the expensive art software they’re replacing.

GIMP instead of Photoshop (photo and graphics editing)

Blender instead of Maya or 3ds Max (3D rendering and animation)

Inkscape instead of Illustrator (logos and vector artwork)

Monkey Jam instead of Lunchbox DV (pencil animation)

Jahshaka instead of After Effects or Final Cut Pro (video editing)

Open source programs for general use

Once you get hooked on open source you might look for programs to use in everyday life. Here are a few of the better options.

OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office (word documents and spreadsheets)

7-zip instead of WinZip(file compression and extraction)

Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer (internet browsing)

Audacity (music and sound editing)

Juice (podcasting)

Filezilla (file uploading)

Need more? There’s plenty to go around.

A comprehensive list of popular open source windows software (complete with pretty icons) is at

There are also thousands of open source programs at

If all this free software sounds appealing but you’re not sure how to use it, don’t worry. Next week I’ll show you how to install GIMP and kick off a long series of open source software tutorials. Stay tuned!

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