• An EduGeek round-up of free art packages

    The question ‘What is the best free art program for my primary/middle/high school?’ seems to be cropping with increasing regularity on the forums here at EduGeek, and, as ever the same names get trotted out, so I thought it would be best if we created a little guide to let you all see what is available out there.During my research into this I was quite surprised to see just how many free packages there are, but surprisingly most of these are in the ‘high end’ bracket with little for early years children beyond the favourite of Tux Paint. I also had to set up a block on art packages that begin to span different areas such as 3D modelling and animation (although I shall look into a guide for these at a later date) as the list could have got quite large and I’d end up out of my depth.

    I also took the step of leaving out several quite popular but older packages which have not been updated in quite some time, such as Project Dogwaffle which is still on its 2004 1.2 release and will probably never be updated again. Left out too were the ‘free’ cut down versions of commercial packages after one simply nagged me to death to buy the full version every time I clicked on a button and required schools to licence every installation of the software separately, or simply had a lot of greyed out options that would frustrate pupils and teachers alike if they tried to click on an item and have a box declare that this option was only available in the ‘full’ version. It simply is not worth the effort and distraction in using these when there are other free packages that do not do this.
    So without further ado, let’s dig in to this bunch of creative lovelies.

    Tux Paint is possibly the daddy of early years drawing packages, small and simple to setup with a lovely interface that almost anyone can get to grips with straight away. The layout gives ready access to the drawing tools, brushes, stamps, shapes and other items with large easy to recognise icons. If I do have any gripes about it is that you do have to configure the default save location (especially important on a school network) using the configuration utility to ensure all work is saved to the correct location, and it only saves in the PNG file format. It also has two running modes, full screen and windowed and it runs the windowed mode by default. I would suggest switching the shortcut for the full screen version. Also of note is that the setup now invites you to install the Google Toolbar, so watch out for this if you are installing it individually on multiple machines and are clicking ‘next-next-next-install’. That aside, this is possibly the best free program to bring out the creative instincts in younger children via their computers.

    • Small installation size
    • Easy to use and understand interface for all ages
    • It looks fun (no mean feat with educational software!)
    • Multiple platforms supported

    • Lack of file type choice when saving pictures
    • Requires some configuration when setting up for network use
    • Inviting you to install the Google Toolbar on setup

    Download: www.tuxpaint.org
    Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

    Paint.net is a great little package taking up a mere 30MB of disk space on installation and has been around for some time now. It has a well laid out and deceptively easy looking interface that utilises 'common' icons to make locating tools and features simple, and it is this 'easy' interface that belies the power of this program. With a full feature set of layers, effects, image adjustment and support for a huge array of free plug-ins it makes a great stepping stone for learning the basics of how modern image editing software works before moving onto more fully featured packages such as Photoshop or GIMP.

    • Great feature set
    • Easier to use than Photoshop
    • Support for major file types such as JPG, PNG, BMP,GIF and TIF
    • A large array of free plugins

    • Not strictly an ‘art’ tool but more aligned to photo editing
    • No batch processing

    Download: www.getpaint.net
    Platform: Windows only

    I found SmoothDraw rather by accident and feel it should get a mention here as it seems perfect for many schools. SmoothDraw is a ‘freehand’ drawing package that allows users to select from a variety of drawing tools such as pens, pencils, felt pens etc. and draw images without the need for perfect curves and lines etc. It also has additional tools to add watercolour effects and smudging etc. The interface is basic and has all of the tools ready to hand to get creating images straight away, but for more advanced users there are more in depth colour and light handling tools hidden in the ‘Effects’ menu, as well as some tablet support for pressure/hardness. The only thing I would have liked to have seen is the ability to select and rotate parts of the image which I was unable to do. You can rotate the canvas/whole image but not a selected area. That aside, it’s a great basic drawing package that holds more interest than MS Paint. I highly recommend you take a look at this as it fits a gap between Tux Paint and more advanced packages.

    • Saves to common graphic formats such as BMP, JPG, PNG, GIF and TIF
    • Very easy to use
    • Lots of drawing media to choose from

    • Limited image handling/manipulation options

    Download: www.Smoothdraw.com
    Platform: Windows only

    Inkscape bills itself as a free vector graphics package akin to Adobe’s Illustrator, and it does indeed possess very similar capabilities. The interface is, and I have to be frank here, dating a little, but that is just me being picky as all of the tools you would require to crack on with creating vector art are bundled as standard. What I do find particularly impressive is the huge range of format options to save your work as. From SVG to EPS and even Desktop Cutting Plotter (DCP) the 23 file types it can handle show just how advanced and capable this package is. As with Paint.net it also has a large amount of free plugins to enhance the package. There is nothing that comes close to Inkscape when it comes to vector graphics in the free software world.

    • Very fully featured
    • Multiple platform support
    • Large array of free plug-ins
    • Mature product with lots of online tutorials and support

    • Steep learning curve
    • Starting to look a little dated

    Download: www.inkscape.org
    Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

    And we finally get to what could be the current pinnacle of free image manipulation/creation software. GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) has been around for 15 years now and is a very powerful image manipulation/creation utility which can be compared (somewhat) to Adobe’s more powerful Photoshop, but with a download of less than 20MB and taking up only 112MB when installed it is a lot more svelte than its commercial counterpart. Once installed, GIMP can also confuse new users with its ‘floating’ menus and work spaces which are divided up into the main image screen, toolbox menu and layers menu. You can however, can obtain variants such as ‘Gimphoto’ which try and give GIMP a more Photoshop look and feel, but with a little training the interface reveals itself to be very intuitive and easy to use. All in all, GIMP is a solid, reliable and well supported package with a huge user and development base. Just don’t expect staff and pupils to be able to get to grips with it without some training!

    • Very fully featured and mature product
    • Extensive image editing/manipulation features
    • Powerful
    • Huge array of free plugins, extensions tutorials and support
    • Multiple platform support

    • It’s not Photoshop. Don’t expect it to have the latest features that Adobe include in their package
    • It takes time to learn
    • The name!

    Download: www.gimp.org
    Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

    And that about wraps it up. We hope you have found this list useful and if you can think of a package we have left out of this little round-up please let us know and we’ll take a look with teh possibility of updateing the article in the future, but please note that packages should be not trialware or limited functionality ‘free’ editions of commercial products, they must be free to use fully functioning utilities. Enjoy.
    Comments 25 Comments
    1. MrEd's Avatar
      MrEd -
      Thanks very much! I'll pass it on to our art department.
    1. Grazza's Avatar
      Grazza -
      Hi, does anybody know of a more uptodate/alternate version of Tiny Paturn?
    1. Dos_Box's Avatar
      Dos_Box -
      I've never heard of it. Link?
      Or perhaps it is better to post this as a new thread in the Educational Software forum.
    1. steve_nfi's Avatar
      steve_nfi -
      How about Photobie
    1. Dos_Box's Avatar
      Dos_Box -
      Quote Originally Posted by steve_nfi View Post
      How about Photobie
      Just had a play with it. It has a few nice features, but they really need to go back to school when it comes to design and layout!
      And why do they have a Yahoo! email address when they have their own domain!
      C- Needs more work.