Top 20 Most Essential Software for Artists and Designers
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.
10. ZBrush 4R6. Pixologic’s ZBrush took the industry by storm in the early 2000’s. Its vision of the rapidly approaching future was filled with millions of polygons on our screens, and their solution was a program that could handle the elaborate needs of advancing computer technologies. Almost overnight ZBrush was seeing use in high budget films, including the VFX in the Lord of the Rings movies. Back when tight polygon limits were still plaguing the game industry, ZBrush was already ditching the “modeling” term for “sculpting” and setting its sights on different ways to handle complex object topologies. While its competitors have branched out and catered to artists’ every feature demand, ZBrush instead keeps its focus on high quality 3D objects while ignoring animation and other industry needs almost entirely. ZRemesher is a great step forward in making the software work the way the artist wants, and not the other way around, but only time will tell if ZBrush moves up or down the list.
9. Cinema 4D Prime. “Cinema 4D R15” as it’s currently known by many, is Maxon’s 3D modeling, animating, and rendering software that’s had the pleasure of not changing hands of ownership with any other company since its inception. The perks to that definitely show: Cinema 4D boasts enough features to allow it to stay neck-and-neck competitive with all other software juggernauts in the 3D industry. If you’ve seen a movie in theaters lately, you’ve probably seen Cinema 4D in action not only in the film, but also in most of the trailers for the film previews as well. One of the aspects that make it so appealing to artists is its ability to easily take objects from one program to the next (such as Element 3D) so that a 3D project’s renders are never limited by just one piece of software’s capabilities. Look what it can do with Artists who are skilled in Cinema 4D aren’t limited to any corner of the VFX industry; they have the freedom to adventure into every single path that the entertainment industry has to offer. If you want to make any graphic that’s going to move around on a screen, Cinema 4D is an essential program worth learning.
8. Maya. It was originally focused on just 3D animation above all else, but after years of competing with Autodesk 3ds Max it changed hands a few times before getting acquired by Autodesk in 2005, and has been expanded regularly ever since. In the past decade it’s continued to advance 3D the animation industry every year and has been involved in dozens of Academy Award winning films along the way. If you want to be the best 3D animator you can be, and are willing to learn all there is to know about modeling, skinning, rigging, cloth, fur, fluids, physics, and particle effects, then there aren’t many paths through the industry that don’t lead through, or stop at, Autodesk Maya.
7. Toon Boom Studio 8. So, you want to be a professional 2D animator? Sometimes it’s as easy as figuring out what software the pros use, and then training and practicing with the programs for a thousand hours until you’ve become an expert. It’s no secret that Toon Boom Studio is prevalent in the 2D animation industry, and hundreds of famous shows and films have already used this essential software to bring their creations to life. As the years pass the list will only grow longer, as will the amount of available jobs out there for you to fill! What are you waiting for?
6. Illustrator CC. If there’s one piece of software that has a borderline monopoly stranglehold clutch on an industry, it’s Adobe Illustrator. The entire graphic design economy lives and breathes with this pile of code that lets artists make any vector based graphics they can imagine for their advertising clients, and it’s so damn good that it’s rarely an option which program you use in related career paths. What’s even better is that as Adobe transitions into their monthly and annual subscription based model over a one-time price tag, Adobe Creative Cloud is actually most appealing to graphic designers who need an unending flow of new art assets for each project.
5. Premiere Pro CC. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Premire Pro is “a beastly piece of software that is one of the few programs you can ever put on your computer that has the ability to push your PC to its processor limits. If you want to be a digital video editor there are plenty of software options, but when it comes to which is best when price is not a concern, it’s hard to argue that anything other than Premiere Pro [CC] sits at the throne.” Add in its powerful sister program, Adobe After Effects CC, and you have the most prolific pair of digital video editing software the industry has ever known. Why settle for less?
4. Unity Pro 4. The game industry has overtaken the film industry in the past decade in terms of overall profits, and recently it’s only expanded even more rapidly as phones and tablets have shaped new markets for the future. From the simplest of iOS or Android games to the most complex 3D game for the PS3, Xbox 360, or Wii, Unity has tackled every inch of the industry. Not to mention it single handedly evolved the indie game development market in less time than it takes to get a college degree in any of these industries. It’s no longer an interesting and appealing game engine; its domination and ubiquity makes it absolutely essential for every artist in the game industry. It doesn’t matter which branch or chain of art assets you’re responsible for within your company’s hierarchy of tasks; if you’re an artist in the game industry then it’s only a matter of time before you’re required to plug art asset files into Unity and play test the most recent build of your project.
3. Mari 2.0v2. Mari is the 3D texture painting software that’s been used in Avatar and countless other films in the recent era of VFX. From the words of the Creature Art Director at Weta Digital: “Mari is very user friendly, allowing artists to spend more time painting and less time grappling with technical issues.” When the art industry evolves into a 1080p playground where every detail counts and no mistake on screen will go unnoticed, it’s not surprising that many of the industry’s top studios aren’t just relying on 3D modeling software’s prepackaged texturing options. When 3D scenes are filled with millions of polygons that need to all look exactly right or risk ruining an entire screen of pixels, Mari is the industry’s essential software to meet those high expectations. When Mari is being used by some of the largest budgets in the history of the film industry, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Mari is the best texturing program that money can buy.
2. 3ds Max. Find me one thing that Autodesk’s 3ds Max doesn’t do in the 3D industry, and I’ll find you an incredibly expensive program that only does that one thing and nothing else, and if you wait a few more years, Autodesk will probably buy the company who makes it. It’s not even that it’s a monopoly; it’s just that it’s unstoppable. Usually computer hardware improves and software tries to catch up, but for almost two decades 3ds Max has been a pioneer program that’s challenged what every computer on the planet was capable of achieving, and then pushed future technologies to do the impossible tasks of yesterday. When your program is limited by the tech industry’s top hardware, you know you’ve found an absolutely essential piece of software that you’ll be using for the rest of your life as a 3D artist.
1. Photoshop CS6. That’s right; I’m choosing Photoshop CS6, and not Photoshop Creative Cloud. With its birth in the late 80s, Adobe Photoshop is quickly becoming older than most of the professional artists who use it these days in the digital art and entertainment industries. While we were busy growing up and going about our nonlinear paths in life, Photoshop has spent a quarter of a century only moving forward. It’s improved and perfected itself so that it can provide every possible solution to every possible problem. But you know what happens when your software gets close to perfection? We might not need the next version of it. It’s really not a bold or revolutionary concept, but it’s one Adobe doesn’t want you to think of or believe in for a second. Instead, they want to charge you a monthly fee to use the successor version to CS6, with Photoshop Creative Cloud being the program that you’ll have to pay for every year for the rest of your life. No thanks.
I’m not saying it won’t be necessary to eventually upgrade, but it certainly isn’t a need yet. Sure, if your company foots the bill then what do you care, and heck, more than half of the programs on this list use Photoshop to function at their full potential, so as their needs change you might have to upgrade to continue working smoothly and stay competitive, but in 2014 the vast majority of artists will need to know and use Photoshop, but don’t let any online list – including this one – bully you into thinking you’re hurting your career by not spending hundreds of extra dollars on the newest releases of software instead of using a slightly outdated version. Photoshop is essential, but you should be the one to decide which version is right for you.
Be well, beloveds, and be grateful.
Live a life that’s muzic to your ears!
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