Computer Illustration Software on the Cheap

Computer Artist by Leo Hartas

I’ve been using computers for my illustration work for many years starting out with Delux Paint on Amiga. On the whole the paint program I have relied on for most of that time was Adobe Photoshop for one reason only, that it was the only program that would guarantee speed and stability while working on large print resolution files. All other software would either not have the features I needed or would grind down to a snail’s pace at anything larger than A5 at 300 dpi with more than a handful of layers. In the last year I’ve dropped Adobe totally, because I’ve found a small collection of programs that give me all the flexibility and reliability I need for everyday illustration, and save me a load of money.

Cheap does not mean rubbish. All the following programs are 100% legal, and work for me every day producing art and design for books and publications that are professionally printed and end up on the shelves of shops, or sometimes video games, websites and advertising. You can go entirely free, with plenty of open source offerings such as Gimp, or Krita, but I find they can have weird interfaces, or stability and speed issues that make them awkward to use professionally.

Why be a cheapass? You may think that you need the market “standard” of Adobe to be a professional artist. This just isn’t the case. The end users of your work, the publishers or the children that eventually read your books can’t tell, and don’t care what program you illustrate in. With all the software I mention below there are no compatibility issues and export and import all the major file formats. The money I saved can go into Marketing, or to buy time to work on developing my own projects. And the money stacks up with Adobe. As I use all three main program types, paint, vector and publishing, I would need to complete suite which is £50 a month or £600 a year. The options below all come easily under £200 for a one off payment.

Another factor is that the Adobe suite has become hugely bloated with endless features that you most likely will never use. These features have been built of aging technology often which requires a fast and costly computer to run on. Programs such as Serif’s Affinity suite have been built from the ground up for speed, reliability and to make use of the latest advances in hardware.

2016 - Electric Pencil - Leo Hartas

Windows 10

A persistent myth has arisen that serious illustrators can or should only use Apple Macs, probably arising from their release of the first graphical interface. I’ve always bought and used PCs, (well, after having Amigas first) only because at the time I also wanted games that the Mac was somewhat lacking in. I’m amazed I had any time to play them! I also had a slightly nerdy interest in computers, and to this day still build my own desktops. Beyond that going the PC route over the years has saved me a ton of cash over the equivalent Macs, but perhaps with a few more technical problems than the average Apple user suffers. I have no beef about either system, as you can produce great work whatever you use, and although I’m not crazy about Windows 10 it does what I need.

Clip Studio Paint

£40 $49.99 USD

I came across this about a few years ago and have never looked back. For illustration, both drawing and painting, it is way ahead of Photoshop. It has dedicated features that illustrators will love like layer referencing, where working on a layer above you can refer to a layer below to make selections. The brush engine is hugely flexible and the rulers are worth the asking price alone. What makes it stand out is that the features you need are so logically laid out, and far more to hand than Adobe’s offering. It is also 100% stable with large many layered high resolution files, even several in memory at once. It’s also fast.

I know that the learning curve associated with switching software is what puts most off, but it’s not that different to Photoshop, and I found the change pretty easy. Look out for half price deals deals if you sign up to their newsletter. This is a one off, you own it, price, unlike Adobe’s annual subscription cost. It also loads and exports multi-layered PSDs. HINT: Visit Flyland and Frenden to build your collection of excellent natural media and special effects brushes. They also have a lots of excellent Manga Studio tutorials.

Serif Affinity Suite

£48.99 Each application PC and Mac

One particular feature of the full suite that stands out is that each app can communicate directly with eachother. So if, for example you are editing a book in Publisher, and you want to make some changes to an illustration you painted in Photo you can do it instantly from within Publisher because they all share the same file type. This is instead of constant saving and loading of files. This one feature is a massive time saver that Adobe lacks.

Affinity Publisher
There are many tasks in illustration that I find easier to do in DTP, perhaps arranging some text or planning a page design, to then export out to work with Manga Studio. I now offer a full  service designing and processing a book to a print ready file. This works well for some clients, gives me more control and allows me to charge for the design work which in Affinity Publisher takes little time. It has a fully professional interface and feature set and outputs quality documents for ready commercial print.

Affinity Designer
Although I don’t often use vector based software I have recently been supplying logos and titles for books and find using Designer a lot less confusing than Adobe Illustrator.

Affinity Photo
Worth looking at. I don’t use it becasue I’m happy with Clip Studio, but reports from other illustrators say that they were able to get results equal to Photoshop.

And that’s it! All my illustration produced with a collection of programs costing less than £200!

Cat Paint by Leo Hartas

To round off my cheapassness here is a list of ancillary stuff I use for the business generally.

Gmail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Google Documents (word processor and spreadsheets), Google Keep (Notes)
I’m probably becoming a Google drone, but who cares, it’s all free and works on my phone too.

Kaspersky Antivirus
There are good free antivirus’s but they tend to nag you to buy their premium products. I like Kaspersky because I can forget about it, It doesn’t slow my system down, or hassle me all the time like Norton or McAfee. You only need to go for their antivirus. £29.99 per year.

Wisecare 365
Ok, I have this because Windows isn’t quite as hygienic as Mac OS. Wisecare 365 goes through my system daily brushing up unwanted files, polishing the registry, etc. and generally keeping Windows running smoothly. I picked Wise Care at random, but it seems to work well. £27.34 per year. I was on their mailing list and took advantage of a special offer of about £40 for a lifetime upgrade.

I designed my website using WordPress for free. It was quite a painful learning curve despite loads of people online saying it’s easy. However, there are plenty of excellent YouTube tutorials that walk you step-by-step through building a smooth and clean portfolio site. I teamed up with a pal to split the cost of unlimited hosting on Hostgator, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t band together with a few more people to reduce it further. Hostgator Baby package 3 years: About £100 (they throw lots of deals around, and you can hunt for vouchers online that can bring the price down further)

Elegant Themes
This is a luxury. Elegant Themes are high quality WordPress themes that make your site look really slick. Bizarrely, I won a years free subscription from them in a sweepstakes they were running on their newsletter, which I then upgraded to a lifetime membership at about £175. (but I got it cheaper on a deal they sent out in their email newsletter)

2016 - Paint Tubes - Leo Hartas

Self Publishing – How to Commission a Children’s Illustrator

Leo Hartas

I usually work for established publishers, but over the years I have successfully worked with private self-publishers to bring their writing to life with illustrations. Most self-publishers have never commissioned a freelance illustrator before, and they often approach it with little knowledge, and some misconceptions about how illustrators provide their services. In this post I hope to pass on some useful guidance that will give you a realistic idea of what to expect, and how it all works, so that both parties can enjoy a fruitful relationship.

Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing routes

When commissioning an illustrator there are the two distinct routes to getting your children’s illustrated book into the world. They require different approaches, that understanding will potentially avoid wasting time and effort.

Traditional Publishing

Many writers hope to have their book published in the traditional way, by an established publisher. They approach me thinking that they need to commission some illustrations, and then take their project to a publisher. Or sometimes expect me to find the publisher. Publishers do not work in this way, because they want to match an artist with a writer in a combination they know will work in a particular market. Instead you must find a publisher interested in your manuscript first, and they will then find, commission and fund the illustrations. You may suggest an illustrator you would like, but eventually it will always be the publisher who decides.


Self-publishing is somewhat different. Once known as “vanity” publishing because the writer pays to have their own book published, it had a rather tarnished image. If the book’s good enough surely a publisher will give it the green light? Things have changed with the advent of the internet, which has reduced the cost of getting your work into the world, and it bypasses the traditional publishers who are reluctant to take on new writers. It is definitely new a route to market, with some self-published titles finding success and subsequently being chased with publishing deals. However, with the barriers to entry down the market is now flooded with millions of titles and self-publishers are looking to find a way for their book to stand out. Having professional illustrations adorn your writing, particularly in children’s books, elevates the title as a quality book, and could garner the attention of the reading public on the road to success.

Going back to the notion of vanity publishing for a moment. There is nothing wrong with having your book illustrated and printed on demand simply as a keepsake or gift for your family or friends.

Figuring out What You Want

This is where self-publishers can struggle. Different texts suit different styles of book which vary a lot depending on the age of the target audience. My advice, even before you put pen to paper is to spend many, many, hours in your local bookshop or library studying the type of books for each age group. Typically infants 0-3 years have board and rag books, ages 3-7 picture books, 7-10 starter chapter books, 10-13 chapter books and 13 onwards teen and young adult. Each age group has varying amounts of illustration, and then there are books for boys and girls, which can then be fragmented into further diversifying categories. It can be a big help to the illustrator, and yourself, if you find a handful of example books that you feel are similar to your project.

Finding Illustrators

The internet now provides access to a cornucopia of talented illustrators the world over all just an email away. There are many websites provided by individual artists, agents and multiple portfolio sites such as Children’s Illustrators and the AOI (Association of Illustrators). After riffling a mind-dizzying choice you will eventually settle on an individual artist’s style you like and think is appropriate for your project.

Freelance Illustrators

To begin with let’s consider how the industry works and how individual illustrators operate within it. Since forever illustrators typically work freelance as lone self employed workers. It’s difficult to make comparisons with other industries but it’s fairly close to say employing a builder to remodel your bathroom. You have a bespoke job, something you cannot buy off the shelf, that you need someone to produce a custom outcome. There is one major difference however, the job is not interchangeable. If things don’t work out with your builder halfway through the job, you can pretty easily find another who can take up where it was left off and complete it. This is not the case in art as styles are not interchangeable, so it demands that you find an artist you can trust to make you project a reality right to the end. Therefore the relationship with the artist is critical.

What makes choosing your Illustrator particularly difficult is that they work in as many different ways as there are different people. Apart from their style of work, artists can be experienced, inexperienced, famous, fast, slow, talented, and sometimes less so. Some can draw anything in ink line, but not colour, while others are outstanding at fish, but hopeless at drawing a motorbike. Generally when you look at a portfolio you can tell how broad the artist’s ability is, and from their list of clients and projects how experienced they are. Don’t be put off if you cannot see a specific element that you want in an artist’s portfolio. You may see horses, cats and geese, but not a dog? Chances are, if they can draw all those other animals, dogs will no problem. On the other hand, you may like the colours an artist uses in their portfolio full of paintings of architecture, but they will most likely be not appropriate for your story about the adventures of four children and dog. For children’s illustration take particular note of how they draw characters, expressions and posture, as well as environment and the sense of place.

Being sole traders illustrators are individuals that have to be self sufficient in all areas of their business not just making the art. They have to keep track of their accounts, market themselves, interact with clients, keep up with technology, schedule, learn new techniques, source materials, as well as running their home life.


There are many artist’s agencies, some large operations with many illustrators on their books, others a one-man band representing just a handful. A good agent after securing the job and checking contracts will stand aside and let the client and illustrator work together, only stepping in to resolve any problems. Agents should negotiate as high a fee as possible and charge the illustrator around 33% commission.


Although some illustrators have rate cards the fee for a job is always a product of negotiation. This is because there are so many variables to consider for the artist starting with quantity, size, colour or black and white. Other factors such as complexity of the images, relative fame of the illustrator, experience, schedule and type of client.

To some the cost may seem high. A myth persists that artists should live as paupers and work for next to nothing, even free, because it’s their “hobby”, or that they might enjoy their work. Like you artists have families, bills to pay, homes to upkeep, and they may well aspire to a decent quality of living. You are not just paying for the time a drawing takes to come out of the illustrator’s pen, you are paying for thousands of hours of practice and perfecting that came before.


Once you and the illustrator have decided on a price terms should be agreed and formalised in a contract. There are plenty online that work as a starting point, and most of the clauses will be obvious, such as timing, fees, quantity of work, etc. The area that can cause confusion is copyright. The creator, the illustrator, owns copyright unless he or she has signed an agreement to pass the copyright to another party. Moral rights can also be signed away. Usually the artist retains copyright while licensing the other party to make use of the images within agreed boundries, such as a set length of time, in different territories, etc. Contracts are beyond the scope of this post, my advice would be read up some more elsewhere, and if in doubt consult a legal adviser.


Illustrators work in different ways but the process I use is below and common for most projects. The story throughout is good communication helps things flow easily.


I study the text and make notes about anything I need to query. It helps me a lot if the writer can supply anything not obvious in the text, for example photo references of the kind of setting the writer has in mind. Sometimes I will do some preliminary work with character sketches, discussion about setting etc. Anything that needs agreeing on before drawing the roughs.


For a children’s book this should include the text, size and extent, and be planned out by a professional designer. For self publishers I offer this service myself. It is setting out the book and text as a coherent design, with the text distributed logically throughout. Fonts, colour styles and cover design all have to be taken into account, so that I know what spaces are available to work in.


Once everyone is happy with the design I start drawing the entire book out as rough sketches, and present it with the text for your comments.

Final Art

If we are working together for the first time I will probably produce one image to final first and check with you that it is on track before completing the rest of the book. I will then supply all the art in whatever format you require by digital download.

A Final Word

Keep in mind that an illustrator will do their best work if you respect their ability, and give them the freedom to express their take on your text.

An excellent video by Will Terry that helps to explain the job of the illustrator and their relationship to the client:

Edit: Also, read this brilliant post by Sarah McIntyre who gives a whole lot more useful information.

I’m happy to help.

Contact Me