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

At last a printing solution!

Photograph copyright Fotorite Continuous printing System.

Photograph copyright Fotorite Continuous printing System.

I use my little inkjet printer quite a bit, and for years I’ve tried various ways to replenish the ink. Original printer manufacturer cartridges are the easiest in that they are guaranteed to work but their cost is eye-watering. I’ve tried re-manufactured and copy-cat cartridges, while cheaper, they sometimes don’t work properly and splurg out bizarre colours. More recently I’ve had quite a bit of success with refill kits by Refresh Cartridges. It’s fiddly though wielding needles and however hard I try to be neat I seem to get the ink all over myself. Also, why is it the cartridges always need changing just as you need to print out some important document 10 minutes before the post goes?

As I stumbled around the internet I found City Ink Express and their continuous ink system. It looks like a dream come true, a large reservoir sits beside the printer with pipes going into the printer heads. Although the starting price is relatively high (about £70 ex VAT) over time the ink is much cheaper. The starter set, which comes fully loaded, equates to 40 odd cartridges worth of ink, and then subsequent refills work out about 45p per cartridge cost. And to boot no more faffing around with replacing the cartridge every few prints. (You know the ones, where your kids ask you print 10 pages of cartridge draining photos for some homework project). Also not struggling with those impossible to open plastic bubble pack things that every computer related object seems to come in.

They also do bundles of printers and their continuous printing system if you are in the market for a new printer.

I haven’t tried this system just yet, but when I’ve had it running for a while I’ll post an update.

Using Kashflow for the accounts side of illustration

I’m an artist. That means I’m at the exact opposite of an accountant. I know it’s not that black and white, but you get the gist. I’m not brilliant with my accounts, doing them gives me the jitters, because I find it hard to maintain an interest long enough to get my head around all those figures. I rather to draw, but the accounts have to be done.

For a long time I developed a simple spreadsheet system, which my accountant approved of, and actually worked fine while I had relatively simple accounts. Since starting Playrama alongside my illustration business things have got a whole lot more complex with having far more clients, products to track and send out, and VAT on top. I thought it was time to find an accounts package that could handle all this in the background, and start to give me actual figures I could understand, so I could see at a glance where my new venture was headed.

After looking at several accounts programs I finally settled on Kashflow. Basically there are two options these days, traditional bought in a box software you pay for once, and in the cloud subscription services you shell out for every month. Beyond this I was looking for various features, but top of my list were ease of use, support and value for money… oh, and something that could handle rudimentary stock control… and was mostly UK based. There are plenty to choose from, Xero, which gooks gorgeous, Sage, Quickbooks, etc. Looking at the features however Kashflow stood out because it didn’t fall into accountancy jargon, and in use this was a real plus for the accounts allergic arty type.

After using Kashflow for a few months, what did I think? The most important thing was getting started and moving with it which was really quite pain free, as every button, drop down list, and option has a simple, well written description of what it does. This, in combination with the start-up guide got me moving quickly. The great thing is that at no point does the help material assume you know accounting, instead it is all written in a way that gently teaches you how the software and accounts works. On a couple of occasions I resorted to their email help desk, and the response was very fast and got me immediately back on track.

It was reassuring that the product is UK-centric. Many of the other products work across multiple countries and currencies, which is fine, but often US tax based idioms can confuse. You know the sort of thing, Zip codes instead of Postcodes. IRS instead of HMRC. One of the delicious features of Kashflow is if you are VAT registered the software tracks your VAT liability and at the click of a couple of buttons submits your VAT return. Hallelujah!

My Playrama venture means managing a number of different products being sent out to multiple customers. It could have quickly become a nightmare in the hands of a disorganised klutz, such as myself. Kashflow allowed me to set up each product in a category,  so when I get a mixed order I select items from a drop down list, and neatly get listed on the invoice. If I do an illustration as a service I just add it in the same way. I can print out or email the invoices, which look very professional, knowing that the software is tracking all this, adding it all up and putting figures in the right places.

Marketing, which I’m useless at, but trying to catch up desperately, is a great little side feature of Kashflow. You can use it to see where leads on new clients come from, track who are the most valuable, and send out data directly into Mailchimp. (Mailchimp, if you don’t know is an excellent email list marketing service). I also have the pair hooked up to a CRM, customer relationship manager, called Capsule. With all three running together I have a completely integrated business solution. (Apologies, that sounds so cheesy!)

Do you need it? I think yes, particularly if you have a lot of separate clients and single assignments to track, such as editorial work. And or you have a significant sideline in selling products direct, such as prints, postcards, etc. By the way, you can integrate it directly with Paypal so that sales on Ebay and suchlike are automatically recorded. Yum! You probably don’t need it if you illustrate large book projects for the same one or two clients and are not VAT registered because your accounts will be that much simpler.

What’s not so good about it? I think the visual design in a bit utilitarian compared to offerings like Xero. I also think there could be more fancy pie charts and graphs that just look cool, so instead of running a one man outfit drawing pictures I could pretend I was at the helm of some global mega-corporation. Cost. Well, the free option, spreadsheets, is fine, but more fiddly to work and prone to user errors creeping into the maths. The boxed one-off software options are not really one-off as they have you upgrading every year or so at extra cost. I did a quick calculation and Kashflow was pretty much even-Stephens in expense. One excellent point with cloud based software over boxed, is that you have access anywhere you can get to an internet connection.

On the whole I like it, and with the excellent help and manuals, I’m understanding more about my accounts and how they should be presented all the time.

If you think Kashflow could work for you here’s a coupon code that gives you a £1 off the cost of Kashflow subs per month. PLAYRAMA


The Autumn illustration campaign

Leo Hartas for illustration

I’ve just started my Autumn illustration publicity drive and this is the postcard I’ll be sending out to around 50 art directors and buyers at various children’s publishing houses. It’s just a start though, next week I’ll broaden it to cover advertising and corporates, and then the world! Ok, don’t get carried away! If this all goes well you will find me drawing a lot this winter.

The business of smoothing out income for the freelance illustrator

Playrama children's card play sets

Playrama has 9 sets now available.

I’ve been illustrating children’s books and various other projects for the best part of 30 years now and to some extent have grown used to the sporadic income of the freelancer. Actually I’ve never had a proper 9 to 5 salary plop into my starving bank account, ever. It can really be feast and famine, what’s worse is that the feast is often owed to previous famines. With this in mind I wanted to find a product that would generate some warming background income against the icy ravages of freelance famine. As I approach 50 other worries are starting to appear on the horizon, such as the very real thought that I may not want to work my ass off into old age.

The quick version:

So about a year ago my wife and I had the idea to design and produce an original range of children’s toys similar to plastic toy sets such as Playmobil™ and Sylvanian Families™, but made of card. Our idea was to design and manufacture our own series made up of cut out card characters and props presented in a simple A5 cellophane bag with a header. To control costs I designed all of the elements, including the header card, to fit in one SRA3 size (SRA sizes are standard A sizes with extra space to allow for bleed). We would then pack them to look as beautiful and enticing as possible on display in a shop. Head over to the Playrama website to view the results.

You may ask, why didn’t I take the idea to a publisher, and let them do all the manufacturing, marketing and distribution? Sometimes I wish I had, but I suspect that publishers just wouldn’t ‘get’ the idea as it straddles three different industries, publishing, greetings products and toys. If they did understand it they’d not market it, or they’d have it produced in the Far East, or they’d give us such poor return, or the more unscrupulous may even just steal it. I also figured that Jo, myself and our part-time helper, Sanna, had all the skills to do it ourselves, which it turned out we did, sort of.

For the past 30 odd years I have worked elusively as a freelance business with my illustration, and thought that going into business in what would be effectively manufacturing would not be easy, but with a few books on starting your own business, manageable. A year down the line if I’d known what was involved Playrama may have remained as a dream in my sketchbook. I would guess that doing the initial art equated to just 5% of the work involved. Little did I know that we would be effectively setting up an entire business with a small, but operating, distribution network into retail. Whereas I had always worked as a small cog in a much larger publishing process, we were now running the entire shooting match from idea to product on a shop shelf.

After spending a fair bit on print runs and picking up a handful of small single shop outlets at a local trade fair we were committed. Heck I’m making it sound rather negative when really it is far from that. We have learn’t a ton, no, a mega-ton about business, marketing, web design, distribution, customer psychology, etc, etc.. I could go on, but the big thing we have discovered is that we still have 10 times more to learn!

I’ll write more posts about the nitty gritty another time, but before I round off you’ll be wanting to know where we are now. We have 9 finished designs, all of them available, with a handful of others waiting in the wings. We did a small local trade fair in January and from that and a few afternoons phoning around have 30 small shop outlets with about 20 more strong possibilities. These are currently worth about £1K in orders. A definite coo is that we have a quite substantial order from Jojo Mamon Bebe, a small, but well regarded baby and toddler chain with 60 shops and a catalogue. Costs to date are somewhere around £8K. So we are some way off a profit, but the majority of time and money was put into building efficient systems (a topic for another post!) and the products themselves, all of which is a one-off cost. We have another trade fair in July where we expect to pick up another 20 outlets.

It doesn’t look great a start, but it is growing, and I can see that our initial goal, an all bills covered income of £20K or so, is within reach in a couple of years (that’s the extent of my business plan!). Why go through all this when I could put equal effort into gathering more freelance work? Freelance income stops as each job runs out, unless you get lucky with some amazingly successful royalty deal and best seller book. The Playrama should keep selling, and as word gets out slowly grow. Also the distribution network and relationships I am building with customers is valuable in itself, in that it will be easy to bring new products to them in the future. I can also see a time when the effort put in verses the profit out will improve, and we will continue selling from our back catalogue, so that the Playrama I designed last year will still be turning a penny when I’m a decrepit old man hardly able to hold a pencil. It’ll be my pension.

My conclusion is no conclusion. Playrama is an ongoing experiment, and looks like it will always be such. However, through constant trial and many errors we seem to have something working and just about on the road. It still remains to be seen if it will work as a viable supplementary income to my freelance work, or will the freelance stuff end up being the supplement? Watch this space.

This was essentially an intro as this is my new, refreshed blog, but over the coming weeks I will post on more detailed reports and experiences on the topic of self publishing as an illustrator. As you will have gathered from reading this post, I’m no expert at all, so they won’t be tutorials telling you what to do. Rather, I invite you to follow my adventures and laugh at me stumbling around in the world of business. A lot of this will also be very relevant to the business of illustration too, as now that Playrama is set up and running with less effort I’m turning my attention getting my freelance work back on track.

Some of the subjects I want to cover:

  • Self publishing electronically.
  • Self publishing to print on demand.
  • Designing products.
  • Product pricing, costs breakdown, profit margins, etc.
  • The market.
  • Trade and retail fairs.
  • Why business when you are an artist.
  • Marketing! That’s a big one!
  • Agents, distributors and other middle men.
  • Setting up automated business solutions.
  • Books to read about business start-ups.
  • Customer psychology.
  • Finance.
  • Tons of other stuff.