Painting software has come a long way in recent years, and there are now superb programs available completely free that offer a realistic simulation of watercolors, oils, pastels, charcoal, and more.
These free tools work well with a mouse, but are even better with a stylus or touchscreen for direct control over your virtual brushes and pens.
Some of the latest painting software also lets you work in three dimensions, creating your own models and then applying your own textures and paint effects. You can combine these with 2D sketched elements to create scenes, and even print them in 3D.
Here, we’ve picked out the very best drawing software for Windows. Some of these tools are designed for serious illustrators, while others are better for keeping children occupied without the mess of real painting. There’s something for everyone – the only limits are your imagination and skill.
Top-quality free painting software, completely free for all artists
Krita is professional-quality painting software created by a team of artists with the noble aim of putting top-notch creative tools within reach of everyone.
You can use Krita for any kind of drawing and illustration, but it's particularly great for comics and manga. There are panel templates, halftone filters, and perspective tools in addition to the usual brushes, fills and pens. Each brush is totally customizable, and you can save your bespoke brushes to use again later.
Right-clicking anywhere on the canvas in Krita will bring up a selection wheel that lets you pick a new tool and select a colour in seconds – a system that's much easier than trawling through menus and settings
Krita was created by artists for artists, and it shows in the dozens of thoughtful little touches that make it easier to create great paintings. There are handy drawing aids for creating straight lines, vanishing points and smooth shapes. You also get layers, masks, various transform tools, HDR support, and advanced selection functions.
Krita is an incredibly powerful painting program, and it's yours to download and use completely free.
Realistic traditional media, with a huge selection of brushes
Artweaver Free enables you to create beautifully realistic digital paintings by taking input – from your mouse, a stylus or, if you have a touchscreen PC, from whatever you feel like tapping the screen with – and applying ultra-realistic brush effects.
In addition to familiar brushes such as conte brushes, calligraphy pens and airbrushes you also get a huge range of patterns and pens, enabling you to produce very complex images with the minimum of effort. It’s layer-based too, so you can build up your masterpiece in layers without losing the ability to change anything.
Artweaver Free designed for artists of all ages, but we’ve found it particularly useful for children. Kids love experimenting with all the different brushes, and we love not having to clean up any mess afterwards.
Kid-friendly art software for making and painting 3D models
Microsoft Paint 3D was introduced as part of the Windows 10 Creator’s Update, but is also available to download separately in the Windows Store.
Like the classic version of Microsoft Paint (which was recently saved from an early grave), Paint 3D offers a small selection of drawing tools for doodling on a flat canvas. However, the real fun happens when you click the 3D Objects button. Here you can pick a model to import (current choices include people and animals), or better yet, draw your own shape and ‘inflate’ it to turn it into a three-dimensional model that can be rotated and viewed from different angles.
You can choose a finish for your shape (options include matte, gloss, dull metal, and polished metal), paint its surface, and apply lighting effects. There’s no way to control the thickness of the 3D effect, so your object will always resemble something created with Puff Paints, but it’s great fun for kids of all ages.
Multiple models can be positioned at different depths and combined to create a scene, and you can even bring doodles into the real world if you have access to a 3D printer.
Another child-friendly app from Microsoft, with convincing brushes
Fresh Paint is another art app from Microsoft – this time designed to replicate the feeling of putting brush or pen to paper.
The interface really goes to town with skeumorphism, with a plastic palette of colours that splatter when you dip your virtual brush, showing which shade you’re currently using and making a pleasing splat. You can wash the bristles in a cup of water before picking a different color, or use one immediately after another to blend them together on the brush.
Fresh Paint can simulate watercolors, gouache, and all kinds of other material. As the name implies, you can interact with your work as though it’s not yet dry, smearing it and mixing colors together on the canvas.
Experienced artists will be able to achieve great results with tools that behave like their real-life counterparts, while kids and novices will make an equally realistic mess.
Open source software for artists with time to master a new tool
MyPaint is the brainchild of artist Martin Renold, who was frustrated by the limitations of his Wacom tablet’s proprietary software and decided to take matters into his own hands. Today, the open source software is an accomplished tool for serious artists.
Its background as a Linux app means MyPaint works a little differently to most Windows apps, and it’ll take a little while to master its interface, but it’s well worth the effort if you’re a hobbyist illustrator and Krita’s focus on comics means it doesn’t quite fit your needs.
MyPaint works best when used with a graphics tablet, but you can also use it with any other input device, including touchscreens.
There’s the usual selection of customizable brushes, plus support for layers, and a handy scratchpad for creating sketches. You can also download and install additional brush packages created by other users – a perk of the source code being publicly available.