Ever since the early days of computer graphics, software developers have tried to recreate the experience of painting with physical media on the computer. We’ve come a long, long way since those early days, but what’s the best choice for digital painting in the modern era?
GIMP and Paint Tool SAI are two of the most popular graphics programs available at the moment, each with its own group of passionate supporters. Let’s take a closer look at the two programs and see how they compare – although you’ll have to be the final judge about which program is best for you.
GIMP, also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an open-source raster graphics editor that excels at a wide range of image editing tasks. It features excellent brush-based editing tools, decent painting tools, and its features can be extended and customized with various free plugins and preset packs.
GIMP is available free of charge on Windows, macOS, and Linux. The next version is currently in development, although the GIMP team hasn’t specified a release date as yet.
Paint Tool SAI, as you can probably guess from the name, is entirely focused on digital painting. It’s an extremely lightweight and responsive program with very impressive digital painting tools. It has a dedicated following of digital artists who create additional brushes and plugins to expand its default options.
Paint Tool SAI is only available for Windows and costs ¥5500, which is approximately $50 USD at the current exchange rate. Version 1 has not been updated since 2016, although Paint Tool SAI v2.0 is currently in development and will be made available as a free upgrade for anyone who purchases the earlier version.
The Single Sentence Explanation
GIMP is a much better all-around image editor that includes some decent painting options, while Paint Tool SAI is an excellent digital painting app with almost no other image editing capabilities at all.
The Comparison Criteria
When comparing software, it’s important to outline the criteria that I’m using in the review. Paint Tool SAI and GIMP don’t exactly overlap, so some of these categories will be a little bit different than usual because I’m guessing you’re most curious about how they compare as digital painting tools.
- Digital Painting Tools
- Drawing Tablet Support
- Additional Editing Features
- User Experience
- The Learning Curve
1. Digital Painting Tools
At first glance, Paint Tool SAI’s brushes are fairly simple. There are only 14 presets and a few different brush tip shapes to choose from, but this is more than enough to get started.
Each brushstroke interacts with the existing digital paint on your canvas, allowing for very natural blending that mimics the feel of working with physical media.
By comparison, GIMP’s Paintbrush, Airbrush and Pencil tools can each be fully customized and use a wide range of preset brush types, but they don’t interact with any of the existing strokes that you’ve already made in your image, which seriously limits the effects you can create.
Prior to GIMP 2.10, this blending problem would have turned this category into an easy victory for Paint Tool SAI, but the GIMP team incorporated a painting system called MyPaint in the 2.10 release. These specialized brushes treat your digital paint in a much more similar way to Paint Tool SAI, allowing for natural blending as though you were working with physical paint.
(MyPaint is also a free, open-source digital painting app in its own right, but that’s a topic for another post.)
However, even during my quick testing, the MyPaint brushes in GIMP lagged quite badly when used in a high-resolution image, even on my extremely powerful desktop computer. It’s hard to paint when your brush stroke appears 3-4 seconds behind your cursor position, which sort of defeats the purpose of having such fancy brushes.
By comparison, Paint Tool SAI’s brushes only started to lag slightly when I pushed them to their very highest quality and complexity. This may not be an issue if you only want to paint for the screen, but if you’re ever planning to print your artwork, you’ll need to work in a high-resolution format.
Paint Tool SAI also offers specialized Linework layers that use simple editable vector lines to help sketch/map your painting project. GIMP also allows you to use multiple layers, but it doesn’t have vector support beyond very basic paths, which I find to be quite frustrating in practical usage.
Winner: Paint Tool SAI. GIMP offers a huge range of flexible brushes and options but can lag severely when working on high-resolution images. Paint Tool SAI has near-perfect responsiveness at large sizes, although it doesn’t offer as many brushes by default.
2. Drawing Tablet Support
Most digital artists prefer to work with a tablet and stylus, which provides far better control than a standard computer mouse. Both GIMP and Paint Tool SAI offer support for most of the popular drawing tablets that are currently available, although you’ll have to test yours to make sure that there are no issues.
Paint Tool SAI’s support for tablet input dynamics is sufficient for most situations, but you’re limited to working with pressure sensitivity. By contrast, GIMP allows you to completely customize brush dynamics from pressure sensitivity to velocity to direction, and to use each of those factors to control a wide range of brush settings.
You can even customize the way that GIMP responds to tablet input by modifying the response curves. This makes GIMP far more capable, although it will definitely take a lot of time and experimentation to get the full value from the available options.
Winner: GIMP. Paint Tool SAI’s easy setup was a nice touch, but GIMP offers far more customization for brush dynamics.
3. Additional Editing Features
I’ve already pointed out that Paint Tool SAI is very focused on painting, and isn’t intended to provide additional editing features, but any real digital art workflow will benefit from them. This means that even if you do all your painting with Paint Tool SAI, you’ll probably need a program like GIMP to finalize your images.
GIMP is intended as a general-purpose image editor, which means that it contains a huge range of tools for manipulating existing images (far too many to list here). Paint Tool SAI’s adjustments are limited to Hue/Saturation and Brightness/Contrast.
Winner: GIMP, which has a huge range of image creation and editing tools above and beyond the world of digital painting.
4. User Experience
GIMP shares the unfortunate trait found in too much of the free open-source software out there: a very unpolished user experience.
The latest version is quite a bit better than previous releases, but there’s still almost no introductory information available. Normally, this might not be a problem, but GIMP is so complicated that a bit of onboarding help for new users would be a huge improvement.
The first time I loaded Paint Tool SAI, it started automatically downloading unsynced files from my OneDrive, which seemed very odd but was probably unintentional. The developer’s website lists the software as compatible with Windows 2000 and XP, long before OneDrive ever existed.
It seemed to be related to whatever the scan below was looking for, likely looking through my picture folders for relevant content, and it treated OneDrive as a folder like any other (in this case, an unsynced one).
However, I was a bit concerned and almost clicked the Abort button, fearing that it was trying to scan my entire photo library – which would have taken forever – but it finished without further issue after a few minutes.
Aside from that unusual quirk, though, Paint Tool SAI is very easy to use – ‘Easy’ is actually mentioned as part of the program’s name, although only on the Version Info help screen.
Winner: Paint Tool SAI. GIMP allows for more interface customization to match your workflow, but Paint Tool SAI’s simple and effective layout doesn’t need much adjustment.
5. The Learning Curve
GIMP is famously difficult to learn, although that’s partly because it offers so many features packed into a single program. Learning to paint in GIMP can feel like an uphill struggle even for experienced GIMP users, while Paint Tool SAI is fairly intuitive and easy to understand without any training.
Winner: Paint Tool SAI, by a long shot. GIMP offers more brushes and customization options, but they’re very confusing for beginners, while Paint Tool SAI’s brushes are quite intuitive from the start.
This category has to be mentioned, even though it may seem a bit unfair when one of the programs is free and the other is not. GIMP is free, open-source software and always has been, while Paint Tool SAI costs ¥5500 (roughly $50 USD).
While Paint Tool SAI’s developers state that they will provide a free upgrade to version 2.0 when it’s finally released, I’m still not convinced that the software provides enough value to justify the cost when there are excellent free and open-source options available.
A Final Word
I’m the first one to admit that I don’t have much experience drawing and painting, but I do know software. While Paint Tool SAI is an impressive painting app, the fact that it’s out-of-date and yet also paid software makes for a problematic situation.
Even though it’s not technically part of the GIMP vs Paint Tool SAI comparison, I’d recommend that you check out the open-source painting app Krita for a more modern take on digital painting. It gets regular updates (most recently in August 2021) and also has an active community – plus it’s completely free.
That being said, Paint Tool SAI does offer a 30-day free trial with no feature limitations, so you’ve got nothing to lose by testing it out for yourself!About Thomas Boldt