Article 3: Linux For Graphics Artists

Why Use Linux for Graphics?

Although Mac OS X is generally the operating system associated with computer graphics, Linux is in fact just as much or even more capable. With an efficient operating system, the user can customize it for the purpose of graphics, rather than using a regular desktop operating system. The ability of being able to run the operating system without running a window system is also a must for resource engulfing rendering tasks.

Stick with Kubuntu

Although there are several distributions specifically for graphics artists, it is a better choice to go with a distribution like Kubuntu that is well supported and has a huge community. Kubuntu has the advantage over the regular Ubuntu for graphics artists because Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop environment rather than Gnome. Both KDE and Gnome are incredibly capable, however certain applications run more smoothly under KDE than Gnome, including several high quality graphics applications. Kubuntu is also known for ease of use, as it is the same operating system as Ubuntu. Kubuntu‘s package manager is also polished with a smooth look, and reaches the limit of usability. Kubuntu 9.04 also has plug-and-play support for Wacom pen tablets, which is a huge plus. For those with a slower computer or wish for their computer to be more efficient, however, it is recommended to use a less memory consuming environment such as XFCE (Pre-installed on Xubuntu).

Readying the Studio

Choosing the right applications for your studio really depends on your individual needs. Having done everything from raster graphics and 3D animation, all the way to designing fonts, I think I may be able to give a bit of useful advice. I will split this section up into sub-sections, starting with bitmap graphics, then vector graphics, followed by 2D animation, 3D animation, font design, and ending with video editing applications.

Photoshop? Pshhh… No Need

Bitmap or raster graphics applications are the most common types of graphics applications, namely, Adobe Photoshop. What most people don’t realize is that there are open source alternatives for Photoshop that allow for the nearly identical amount of flexibility and power, and even more potential. Go fetch yourself Gimp and Krita, and you have all that. Gimp is a mature graphics application that has been one of the best supported open source applications available. Although often criticized for a steep learning curve and a “confusing interface”, within an hour or two, you should be completely comfortable. Gimp has support for an enormous number of file formats, and comes with many plug-ins and of course, there are many more freely available online. Flexibility is extended with the ability to make custom patterns and brushes. Gimp focuses on a system of paths, bezier curves. Its most powerful features are all in this domain. Gimp‘s plug-ins can be written in C, and additional filters can be written in Python and Perl. Krita has some of the best painting tools, rivaling Corel’s Painter 11. It boasts a high quality water-painting feature, which happens to be the first of its kind. Krita also comes with fantastic brush tools, and great support for pen tablets. Krita is also one of the only bitmap graphics applications to allow 32 bit channels, and can export to the OpenEXR file format.  Cinepaint is another raster graphics application that supports 32 bit channels, and is used regularly in movies by a number of Hollywood studios.

Software List:



GNU Paint



Tux Paint

Vector Graphics

Although most computer graphics artists have switched over to bitmap

graphics applications, vector graphics still lead areas such as designing logos. Because vector applications focus on curves and other mathematical equations rather than colors of individual pixels, no matter how much the user zooms into the graphic, quality is not reduced. There are several open source alternatives for the commercial Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw including Inkscape and Karbon14. Both are quite capable tools, and support the SVG file format. Gimp can also be used for vector graphics as it does allow for exporting curves as SVG files.

Software List:


Karbon14 Draw


Xara Xtreme

Make Your Graphics Move with 2D Animation Tools

2D animation has always been a very challenging and tedious art form. Traditional animation has always been done using pencil and paper, and a light table, and would take days to complete a simple animation. However, with today’s software, this time can be cut down tremendously. Advanced software packages such as Synfig can be used for 2D vector animation. A former commercial piece of software, Synfig boasts one of the broadest and most powerful 2D animation tool sets available. Synfig uses a 2 mode system, one for setting up the scene and another for animation. This gives the artist more flexibility, and also keeps unintentional modifications to the animation from occurring. Also, Synfig does not require the artist to place additional key frames when trying to edit a separate one. All updates are done directly to the set keyframe in real time. One of Synfig‘s most notable features is the built in CVS tools. This is especially useful for collaborative projects and for artists who work at several different workstations. Pencil Animation is probably the best open solution for animators who prefer drawing out each individual frame. Pencil Animation has tools for onion skinning (ghosting the previous or next frames). Although it is mainly for frame by frame animation, Pencil does feature vector animation tools, although those are quite limited compared to Synfig‘s. GIF animations are commonly used for websites and other online content. Gimp provides enough tools to get started, but GAP, an animation plug-in, can allow for even more flexibility when creating simple primitive web animations.

Software List:



Pencil Animation


Conquering the Third Dimension

Today’s world makes heavy use of 3D computer graphics in everything from animation and video games to prototypes and physics simulations.  Out of the two software that dictates the 3D industry, only Maya is available under Linux. However, in many artists’ eyes, both Maya and 3DS Max are considered to be inferior to several other packages including Blender 3D, Houdini, Modo, XSI, Lightwave, and Cinema 4D. Out of these, Houdini and Blender 3D are available under Linux, and Blender 3D is the only open source solution. Although rarely used in the industry, Blender 3D has a very promising future. Originally created by an animation studio from the Netherlands for their own use, Blender 3D provides a robust feature set that allows for nearly everything to be done locally within the software. Blender 3D‘s capabilities allow for advanced mesh modeling techniques including the standard extrusion and box modeling techniques as well as the sculpting technique, a method of modeling with growing popularity, which is only available under Zbrush and Autodesk Mudbox. Blender 3D‘s edge loop features also provide greater efficiency when modeling. The subsurf modifier (similar to 3DS Max’s meshsmooth or turbosmooth modifiers) allows for 6 levels of detail, and the edges can be sharpened without adding additional geometry. However, Blender 3D is not very complete in nurbs support, a depreciated modeling technique, yet still decently popular. Also, Blender 3D does not support spline modeling, an older method that has been replaced by extrusion modeling. Many professional animators and 3D graphics artists also use Blender 3D for its unparalleled UV mapping tools, which has traditionally been one of the most challenging areas of 3DCG. With Blender 3D‘s built in node texture system, materials such as metal or brick can be easily generated, and realistic skin can also be achieved, although more challenging. Blender 3D also has a simple painting tool, which can be used to paint both textures and individual colors onto a mesh or image. The results are updated real time in all other windows displaying the specific texture. The built-in game engine also is incredibly powerful, featuring a true point-and-click game creation, and Python scripting for more advanced users. GLSL is fully supported under all major platforms. For users not requiring quite as much as what Blender 3D provides, K-3D is a powerful and flexible alternative. The interface also clearly resembles Maya, so this is a good complementary step when entering the CG world. For realistic rendering, nothing is better than LuxRender. A fairly new project, LuxRender is an unbiased rendering engine, boasting some of the most realistic renders in CG.

Software List:

Blender 3D





Wings 3D


Stylize Artwork Using Custom Fonts

Font creation is rough, tedious business. Plus, it doesn’t help that most of the font making tools are commercial, and most of the free font tools are nearly worthless. That is where FontForge comes in. It features everything an artist needs to create and export their own fonts. FontForge can import SVG file paths, which is critical when it comes to work flow. When used in conjunction with Gimp, font creation becomes easier than ever.

Software List:


Spice Up Your Videos

An area completely dominated by commercial software, video editing is a tedious task that requires both skill and talent along with the proper tools to unleash the artist’s creativity. The open source world is not too far behind for video. Blender 3D features an advanced video editing tool, using nodes to composite videos. This can be used in conjunction with the 3D animation capabilities to generate incredibly complex effects. For users simply wishing for a pure video editing environment, Cinelerra is a good alternative. Although not quite as powerful as Blender 3D for video editing, Cinelerra still provides the basic video editing tools required by any professional’s needs.  For DVD creation, there is nothing better than 2ManDVD.  It features everything from animated transitions to an introduction video.

Software List:



Blender 3D








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26 Responses to “Article 3: Linux For Graphics Artists”

  1. Custom Distros Says:

    I’m curious as to why you say KDE is a better DE to use over Gnome for graphical artists. The apps you listed in this article require libraries from both Gnome and KDE in order to function, but I guess I fail to see why it’s preferable to use one over the other in this instance.

    • kotakotakota Says:

      The applications within the KDE office suite (Krita, Karbon14, etc) are known to run more efficiently under the KDE desktop environment than Gnome. Yes, it is true that many of the applications require Gnome libraries, however, there is less of an advantage in terms of application efficiency when running Gnome applications under its native environment than the other way around. I would have recommended primarily using XFCE as the shell, however, this guide is aimed towards Linux newbies, so I thought it would be better off to chose between KDE and Gnome because those are easily the top two most popular desktop environments. I have also noticed that KDE is also easier to migrate into from other operating systems because it’s system configuration software is integrated better into the operating system. Of course, this difference is very subtle, as both desktop environments have come a long way in terms of ease of use.

  2. Michael Schemer Says:

    Also, under video tools — avidemux

    • kotakotakota Says:

      Good call. I personally have only used Avidemux for converting video files (and only once… I prefer a text driven environment) so it didn’t really occur to me to put that in there 😛 Thanks!

  3. anon Says:

    Also Xara is excellent for vector graphics on Linux…

  4. Roger Wickes Says:

    The Video LAN player deserves mention as a universal media player, to play back all that awesome video you’ve created with Blender.

  5. Hugh Says:

    Concerning the video editing section, have you actually used Cinelerra ? I know some people have manage to get it to work but I kept going back to it and my conclusion at each time was : “What a mess”. And then it would crash… And the development seems to be very largely stalled, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
    Kdenlive on the other hand is becoming better at each release (every two to three months). It still isn’t completely stable and has a few missing/incomplete features but it really is the best simple editing program for linux.
    OpenMovieEditor is also fairly usable and has powerfull node-based effects and is very good for color grading.
    And then there’s Blender, of course. Not as easy to use, but terribly powerful, a real free alternative to After Effects.
    Oh, and you should really remove Jahshaka from the list. The project is dead and has never been usable.

    One important Krita feature you don’t mention is the native support of various color spaces, such as RVB and CMYK (even though you mention the 32bit channels). And Krita also now has layer groups and ajustment layer (allowing non destructive editing), which are also missing in The Gimp but are used all the time by Photoshopers. Krita has many very powerful features, but the 2.0 version isn’t yet really stable enough for intensive use.

    PS : And by the way, nice article, very good idea !

    • kotakotakota Says:

      I have to admit, I have not used Cinelerra much because most of my workflow is based around Blender and it has a very powerful node based effects tool as you have mentioned. I agree that Kdenlive seems to be very promising, with plenty of features, but even more so, it is outstanding in terms of ease of use. As you can probably tell, video is not my main domain when it comes to graphics 😛

      Krita also is improving at lighting speed o.O A couple years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of recommending Krita, but now it seems to be one of the best open source raster graphics programs out there. I think that by the time most people read this article, Krita will be pretty stable too 😛

  6. Agent A.L Says:

    Quote: Photoshop? Pshhh… No Need

    And you calling yourself a graphic artist? I’d call you a masochist.
    Gimp lacks a set of basic usability and convenience features which make workflow with huge projects almost impracticable.

    Need examples? No layer groups, no layer effects, all filter windows lack united standard and usable preview region, filter menus are disorganized, lack of unified image transform tool, lack of convenient pixel regions moving, poor set of default brushes, and so on…

    Blender and Inkscape are the only tools I see usable and pretty convenient. Lack of convenient all-in-one raster graphics editor (without need to switch between two-three-four different ones to make a single thing) for Linux is the only thing keeping me from actually doing a switch.

    The worst thing is that Gimp team is enforcing other developers and community to use certain path of development which must be as far from Photoshop likeness as possible. Which means, Gimp in result must be full of original and own solutions far away from convenient and thoroughly tested ones.

    I still remember immediate and violent reaction of Gimp devs on an innocent try to make Gimp more usable by organizing and renaming existing tools in Photoshop manner. They were tring to enforce that guy (who actually made this rearrangement) to close his project and extinguish all traces of relativity to Adobe product.

    • kotakotakota Says:

      Gimp is focused on a plugin system, so anyone looking to use more advanced features can easily upgrade the base package with ease. Both layer effects and layer groups are supported through the use of plugins. Additional brushes can also be easily made or installed. Also, there are most likely several legal issues with trying to clone Photoshop. Many algorithms are patented, and this is probably true with many of the algorithms used in Photoshop as well. Renaming tools is also unnecessary because Gimp is not Photoshop, it is a different environment. This is similar to how 3DS Max uses turbosmooth or meshsmooth while Blender uses a subsurf modifier. Similar tools with subtle differences, with different names.

      Layer Groups plugin:
      Alternative Layer Groups plugin:
      Layer Effects plugin:

      • Agent A.L Says:

        Now did you ever worked in Photoshop? There’re some things I shall make clear for you:
        1) I’ve been working with Photoshop for over 5 years and with Gimp for over two years now, I know both sides pretty well.
        2) I’ve tried these plugins and they don’t stand even near to Photoshop’s convenience and speed of workflow. That Layer Effects plugin even doesn’t replicate the actual system of effects being applied in Photoshop.
        3) Even though I’m a programmer, working as designer I prefer not to code my own, but to use complete solutions. Such trivial things like layer grouping, effects and usual brushes should be incapsulated into final project. Gimp team lacks a good designer to point these things out. Or it has, but devs team initially rejects all convenience improvements as they look too similar to Photoshop.
        4) Renaming tools in that situation is not demanded, but their proper organization is. Right now Gimp looks more like a trash can for me. Everything is pushed in and has no UI or menu organization whatsoever.

        Algorithms are patented (by the way, only in US), but not the methods. And that’s where anti-monopoly agency stands in. There’s nothing illegal in partially copying menu names, just like “file”, “edit”, and so on. Layer grouping also cannot be patented as it’s only a method, not algorithm. Assigning effects to each layer also cannot be patented, it’s widely spread and well known method all across the many graphic applications (even in Blender, that “modifier” stack thing) but not Gimp. Devs team is just paranoid on their own way, that’s all.

    • kotakotakota Says:

      Gimp’s UI has come a long way in the most recent versions. I agree that Gimp is not Photoshop in terms of capabilities, but for a large range of tasks, Gimp serves just fine, including the stuff I do, as my main focus is the 3D domain. Also, note that in this article, I specifically stated that it is possible to replace Photoshop by using Gimp in conjunction with Krita, and honestly, I think it can be necessary to include a few more applications in there. I do use Photoshop (CS2) on a regular basis, and so I am well aware of the various advantages that it has over Gimp including the ones you have mentioned along with support for 32 bit channels, etc. And of course, CS4 has very promising 3D features, or so I hear. However, Krita covers adjustment layers, CMYK color spaces (along with a couple other ones), 32 bit channels, and layer groups. Please also note that the purpose of this article is to guide graphic artists under a Linux environment, not to state that Gimp is superior to Photoshop, which it is not. However, I still do believe that just as much can be achieved with Gimp and Krita used together as what Photoshop can achieve for most tasks. Sure, Krita is not the most stable application, however, it has improved a huge amount in a very short amount of time, so I have high hopes for it, and maybe someday, a time will come when we can confidentally rely on Krita. The main reason why I focused on Gimp is because I use it quite often compared to Krita as I am more used to the UI.

      I have to admit, I have no clue about Gimp’s underlying code, as I have not poked my head into it. However, I am not surprised that you are negative about it, as its origins were not focused towards the type of advanced application it has become. I would also say this is a disadvantage of open source projects in general, as I have found many projects to contain very poor design choices. Open source projects have a tendency of ending up in a completely different area as they were originally intended for, and for this reason, projects often have to be rewritten bottom up to be able to run efficiently or accomadate for the new domain it is in.

      Of course, coming from a 3D community in which it is very common to use multiple 3D modeling applications for a single project, I do not fully understand why it is so crucial to have all of this in one raster graphics editor, however, you seem to know what you are talking about, so I will leave you to that.

  7. Robo3Dguy Says:

    Thank you so much for putting this together!

  8. Bret Says:

    I am new to Linux and I have Gimp and inkspace. I am just thrilled that I have an alt to photoshop and illustrator. I also use photoshop and have since 3.0. I have used corel packages also. Gimp works pretty damn well. I am a graphic artist and a photographer. I will say one thing I loaded Linux and Gimp on an old computer and it was almost as fast as my brand new HP at handling files. Just the fact that I can have new life and great programs out of a 5 year old computer that now kicks ass is amazing. It was slower than you can imagine on xp with photoshop and large photo files. So for all the complaints that I have read, I think Linux is great! It is not the tools but the artist that makes the difference anyways!

  9. jenett insurance Says:

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  10. toowoombalinux Says:

    I also am intrigued as to the use of kubuntu; could I hazard a guess that kubuntu is what you use? In some respects this is very good as your doing this info session with working knowledge of the desktop (I do like the breadth of subject you have chosen); but I have had bad experience with installing and running Kubuntu. Also, KDE4 is generally a ram and cpu hog and needs a fairly new computer – I guess I prefer the “breathing new life into a computer”maxim.

    Photoshop is the industry standard. Gimp is perhaps 2-3 years behind Photoshop with usability and functionality – our Local Linux group has a couple of Graphic Artists have told me this. But for non-professionals Gimp is a good programme.

    The only change I would make is not to recommend a version of Linux unless the version is specific for Artist’s needs like Studio64 and/or ArtistX.


    • Agent Says:

      Quote: Gimp is perhaps 2-3 years behind Photoshop with usability and functionality – our Local Linux group has a couple of Graphic Artists have told me this.

      Ask a Windows artist and he surely will tell you, that considering an obvious fact the Gimp has no layer effects, grouping, and lossless images scaling algorithms, it’s at least 15 years behind the Photoshop. Even Microsoft Image and Fax Viewer (free stuff) is more capable in scaling down images.

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