Anyone who has ever wanted to create digital art (design, music production, animation, 3d) has likely experienced sticker shock while researching the software required to get started. Luckily, there are some free tools that are almost as good as the mainstream apps, some of them even better than the costly alternatives.
As a younger man, I was lucky enough to have access to many of the Adobe tools I still use today; paid versions of quality software for me to learn on while going through high school and college (the former happening before useful guides on YouTube were around). Since then, I’ve also tried a variety of third party software that have many of the same features as the mainstream apps.
And now, as students' grace access to Adobe Creative Cloud is set to expire on July 6, I've got some free programs to recommend if you’re just getting started and aren’t able to pay for an expensive subscription or full license while learning the basics.
Illustration and photo editing
Krita is an open source drawing and painting program that is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux based machines. It’s open source and will remain free forever. The layout of the program is similar to Adobe Photoshop, allowing for masks, swatches, and layers. There are various blend modes and brushes out of the box. That said, Krita only covers some of the functionality of the paid versions of Photoshop and the iPad app Procreate.
InkScape is a vector-based drawing app similar to Adobe Illustrator. InkScape and Gimp go hand in hand and have cross program functionality. Once again, the interface is fully customizable and features some quality of life improvements on a few tools pertaining to pattern creation and live, on-cursor alignment and positioning tools, some of which are lacking even in Illustrator.
Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is an open-source image manipulation program. Its core functionality covers almost the entire feature set of Photoshop. There are blend modes, masks, layers, photo editing effects, easy selection tools, and an intuitive, customizable interface. Gimp is free on all platforms (Mac, Windows, Linux) and will remain free forever.
DaVinci Resolve is professional grade video editing software suite. The color grading is one of the best available, the UI is customizable, and the software itself is highly optimized to run on a variety of computer hardware, often rendering and previewing faster than Adobe Premiere. Resolve has a steep learning curve for beginners, but this feature rich program has everything you would need to craft great looking video. Note that the free version can edit and render video but doesn’t have access to Resolve’s large effects library and extensions. The premium version costs $300.
2d & 3d animation
Blender is a fully featured open source 3d modeling and animation software. It can be used to create industry grade art and features a powerful set of rendering and modeling tools. Blender also can be used in the creation of 2d animations with the use of the “Grease Pencil” tool, allowing for the creation of frame by frame, hand-drawn animation (a feature that admittedly is odd for a 3d-based animation program). The app is supposed to remain free forever. Blender is an entry point to animation with a steep learning curve if you're coming from another program and workflow, but should be straight-forward enough to use if you have no previous experience.
Reaper is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), available on every OS platform, with an incredibly low price and a very generous trial period (forever). It's fully featured, including every tool one would ever need to edit audio, record VO, or create a final mix for a song or video project. Some would argue that Reaper has more features than even the most well known or feature rich alternatives on the market, often costing well over $1000. This program is an alternative to Adobe Audition and helps to add polish to the audio component of your project.
There you have it. The criteria for these selections were that the programs must be supported regularly by the creators, have a robust community around them for training, and be OS agnostic (for the most part). Now go forth and create, for free.