Paint Tool Impressions

Since my last entry, in which I found myself at a development crossroads, I’ve taken some time to explore different paint tools. For Horde Rush and parts of Number Crunchers, Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 (PSE9) and Paint.NET were my tools of choice, because I was most familiar with them, and I already had a license for PSE9. When you’re a starting indie developer, you typically need to go with what you know rather than spend hours or days trying to learn something. That said, I’m not a fan of the results I generated, overall. It simply got the job done. And when I look at some AAA art from games like Warcraft (or anything from Blizzard for that matter), indie art like Bastion, Pinstripe, and Cuphead, and basically, ANYTHING on ArtStation, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something; well, besides my lack of practice and experience in the last decade or so.

With some of the tools I mention here, I went through the entire process, from sketches, inks, to paint and background, using the hero character in Horde Rush as the subject. Unlike other review articles, I spent the most time with the tools that continued to vibe with me, and only spent as much time as I wanted with the other tools until I was unsatisfied with the experience. So yeah, not objective at all. These are pretty much my early impressions, and nothing more.

Photoshop Elements 2018

I’ll be honest. The only reason why I jumped onto PSE2018 (and this entire research project for that matter!) is because Adobe had it on sale. Since I’m using an old version of PSE, I decided I’ll update to the latest version for a fraction of the original price.

In all fairness, of the tools I’m comparing, PSE is definitely a photo editing tool, and not really meant to be a paint tool. Regardless, I’ve used it as my primary paint tool throughout Horde Rush development. As such, it will continue to be my all-in-one graphics tool, but not necessarily my favorite. Also, it is in the same price range as the other tools, so that’s the reason I have it in consideration here.

I’ve never really been completely happy with the results I got out of PSE. But with PS being the industry leader, blah blah blah, I have stuck with the brand. Well, it’s lighter, less powerful version, at least. I used to play around with an old copy of Photoshop 6.0, before Elements was a thing, so I’m fairly comfortable with the user experience. I get by with doing game development artwork with PSE, yet I still miss the pen tools in PS. On top of that, I’ve never been too knowledgeable about Photoshop’s plethora of brushes, so I’ve only really stuck with the basic tools.

Once I fired up PSE2018, I was immediately reminded that this program is for the novice-intermediate photographers, scrapbookers, and other such hobbyists. The interface is significantly more basic than previous iterations. But at least it’s clean. PSE2018 still has that annoying eLive/Quick/Guided/Expert menu bar that occupies valuable vertical real estate, and I doubt Adobe is planning to make this collapsable or movable any time soon. The first thing I did was click on the “Expert” link at the top, and my mind was eased a little bit, as I got back a number of controls and menus. As I started painting with my Wacom tablet, I noticed immediate unresponsiveness. Fantastic! Just what I’d expect from Adobe! Sarcasm aside, I knew that I had to go through all the Windows 10 Pen and Tablet and Touch settings, to try and disable that insidious circle icon that appears whenever you start drawing. Just remember to disable Windows Ink anywhere you can. There’s a setting in the Wacom Tablet Control Panel for this as well. It was a bit frustrating because I have been using PSE9 on the same machine without any issues, and I had to go back into my tablet settings to fix the issues for PSE2018. After that, I felt a lot more at home with PSE2018.

Photoshop Elements 9. From upper left to lower right: sketch, ink over sketch, ink, paint, ink over paint, ink over paint on background

So, I didn’t draw/paint the above image with PSE2018. That was in PSE9. Turns out that PSE2018’s brush tool isn’t using the Wacom tablet’s sensitivity settings. After doing some Google searching, it turns out that this is a big issue with Photoshop/Elements users. Toggling the Wacom Windows Ink setting helped some people, and for others, like me, it did not. I spent hours fiddling around with trying to get it to work. There should be no reason why PSE2018 is the ONLY paint program installed on my machine that does NOT use pressure sensitivity. I had just bought it… PSE2018 was a big fail for me, so I’m sticking with PSE9, since I didn’t observe any advancement in PSE2018, and I’ve requested a refund from Adobe.

SAI Paint Tool

This tool blew my mind. I never heard of it until I did some searches and watched on youtube some of the incredible artwork that was getting generated.

I’m still on the 30 day trial, but the asking price of about 50 bucks (converted from Japanese yen) is quite reasonable. At first glance, the interface is antiquated, in a “Windows 98” sort of way, but very efficient and functional. Everything you need is where it should be, or where you can easily find it. The installation process is also pretty outdated, as it doesn’t get installed in the typical Program Files directory, and probably doesn’t even use the /Users directory. But sometimes, the old file structure is a good thing, because it’s certainly more up front to the user. You don’t have to deal with registry settings etc.

I noticed absolutely no lag when I was using the tools. Of all the tools I’ve been playing around with, applying strokes in Paint Tool is as smooth as cutting warm butter. And I especially like the results I get with Paint Tool’s watercolor brushes. Also, the magic wand selection reminds me a lot of the quick mask tool  in Photoshop; something I’ve always liked.

SAI Paint Tool. From upper left to lower right: sketch, ink over sketch, ink, paint, ink over paint, ink over paint on background

I’ve read somewhere on the interwebs that Paint Tool has some memory limitations as far as canvas size and brush count, but I can’t confirm this. One other possible red flag is that the tool hasn’t been updated since April of 2016. As much as I like the tool, lack of updates may turn me away, especially in a production environment.

Corel Painter Essentials 6

This program is a little bit more of a challenge to get comfortable with compared to the others. I really wanted to like this, and I was ready to drop my 240 bucks on Amazon for the full version instead of the Essentials, and that’s even the sale price ($400+ original price)! Unfortunately, as I continued to use Painter Essentials, the more I was disliking everything about it. It took me a while, and I’m glad I didn’t immediately drop my 50 bucks on it.

I think my problem with Painter is that it’s WAY too close to traditional media. Having to choose the paper surface is a little bit too much for me as a game developer. It might be good if I was creating a Paper Mario knockoff or Kirby’s Art Paper Adventure, but otherwise, I just felt really hindered by its UI. It’s like Corel took every aspect of traditional media and included all the inconveniences of it too. The UI is just short of having a turpentine bottle and a moldy washcloth object to use in between brush selections.

I managed to settle in with a select few tools, but the brush selection can sometimes be daunting to anybody who hasn’t used the equivalent traditional media in the past. However, I’ve tried Painter a few times before and have always liked the mobility of the color picker, so there’s that.

Painter Essentials 6. From upper left to lower right: sketch, ink over sketch, ink, paint, ink over paint, ink over paint on background

Every time I laid down a stroke, I felt there was a bit of lag, but of course, it depends on the brush too. I just felt like I was fighting the drawing tools, and it wasn’t providing the results that I wanted. Perhaps it was the default settings that turned me off. But, how then, can every other paint program provide decent defaults?

Painter is probably great for game concept artists, or traditional artists that are planning to transition to the digital medium. It just wouldn’t immediately fit into my gamedev workflow.


And now the tool I’m gonna gush over. I’ve tried Krita on an older laptop a few years ago. The results looked fantastic, but the performance was horrible. I wasn’t sure if it was more the laptop or the program. I didn’t want to spend time learning Krita back then, but now, the software has had time to mature, and it’s been established as a paint tool for artists, as noticeable from the amounts of community-created resource bundles, and its UI is very navigable and efficient. I especially like the rich context menu, which gives you quick access to common brushes and a color picker. I also like that the keyboard shortcuts can be set up for Photoshop or SAI Paint Tool users. It also has animation! I haven’t used it yet, and I doubt it’s as good as Toon Boom for that purpose, but it’s cool that it’s included. And on top of all that, it’s open source! What’s not to like about this program!?! Well, there are still performance issues, especially compared to the speedy UI in SAI Paint Tool. Fortunately my rig is powerful enough to not show these issues much. I also had to download a third party watercolor brush set, and it’s still not as impressive as SAI Paint Tool’s, but I think it’s still pretty good. I would like to start incorporating Krita into my normal game dev content creation workflow.

Krita. From upper left to lower right: sketch, ink over sketch, ink, paint, ink over paint, ink over paint on background

Autodesk Sketchbook

And finally, Autodesk Sketchbook. Nope. Not gonna do the subscription model. As much as I respect Autodesk and all that they’ve done for the digital creative arts, once they’ve switched to the subscription model, my consideration for any of their products has considerably dropped off. Sure, software nowadays is more of a service than one-and-done, release/repeat products, but as I see it, as a part-time indie developer, I will never be in front of any of these tools on a consistent basis, so why should I pay consistently? But… I’ll give it to Autodesk for releasing Sketchbook on mobile. I love it on my old Samsung tablet, even though I didn’t make full use of it. And even then, I sometimes switch over to Art Flow. Bottom line for Sketchbook Pro, I never even downloaded the trial due to the subscription model.

Other Tools That I Haven’t Mentioned Above

GIMP – I haven’t used GIMP lately, but if you need some paint program, I guess it’s functional. Last time I used it, in fact, every time I try it, I find it clunky, slow, disjointed, graphically buggy, but again, it gets the work done if you have no other options. Its feature set may be as rich or almost as rich as Photoshop, but good luck using it in a flow that makes you efficient and that doesn’t break your creative rhythm. But hey! It’s open source, so there’s that!

Paint.NET – This is my tool of choice for lightweight, quick edits that don’t require a lot of complexity. It will not necessarily allow you to produce fantastic art pieces, but it’s functional for doing graphical fixes and touch-ups without having as annoying an interface as GIMP. Its feature set is limited and is closer to MS Paint than Photoshop, but sometimes you need that simplicity. I sometimes refer to it as “MS Paint with Layers and Plugins”.

So there you have it. A comparison between four paint programs. I’m definitely leaning towards Krita because it’s powerful and free. How can you beat that? Photoshop Elements still has its place in the development workflow, though, as a general graphics editor; something that the more artsy focused paint programs may not necessarily be good at. But whatever paint tools you use for your game, remember…

Make it fun!


  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 2018
  • SAI Paint Tool 1.2.5
  • Corel Painter Essentials 6
  • Krita 3.3.3
  • Wacom Intuos3, 8×6
  • Windows 10
  • ASUS ROG GL753VE, Core i7, 4GB GTX 1050Ti
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