Are Linux Graphic Apps Ready for Professionals?

Wednesday Jan 21st 2015 by Bruce Byfield

If you answer "No" then your impressions about Linux graphic applications need updating.

Perceptions are quick to form and slow to change -- and nowhere is that truer than with free software graphics and animation software.

Tools like Blender, GIMP, Inkscape, and Krita are mature products, and are improving with every release. Yet if you ask designers why they don't use these apps, the response is no different than when these apps were struggling through their infancy over a decade ago: they aren't ready for professionals. However, that claim is becoming increasingly hollow, to the point where today it often sounds like denial.

Of course, claims that an app is generally ready for professionals mean little if it lacks a feature that you happen to need. A chorus of praises for GIMP is only meaningless noise if you require four-colour separations, although why you haven't investigated Krita instead might be a relevant question.

Such criticisms sound superficially reasonable -- but, increasingly, only if you fail to examine closely the software in question. While gaps in functionality still exist, these criticisms are based on impressions that have never been updated since years before. Having learned functions that work for them, many designers apparently stick with them, either rejecting free software apps altogether, or working in a clumsy work-flow that combines free and proprietary software, caring only that they can get the job done.

The Professional Users Already Exist

Yet the apparent reasonableness disappears on closer investigation. Blender, for one, was originally an in-house application for the Dutch design house Neo Geo and Not a Number Technologies (NaN) - a bit of history that immediately refutes any claim that it is not ready for professionals.

Similarly, Krita owes its increasingly popularity to the project's habit of consulting designers about each feature. Boudewijn Rempt, Krita’s maintainer, adds that ImagineFX, a major print magazine for illustrators and concept artists, recently gave Krita its Artist's Choice Award.

Rempt adds the names of well-known industry professionals. "Paul Geraskin has used Krita, Blender and Gimp to produce Supercity, a Facebook game played by millions of people. Advertisement illustrations, book covers and collectible card games have all been created in Krita. And there are plenty of illustrators, David Revoy, of course, but also Raghavendra Kamath, William Thorup and many others who use Krita daily to do their job."

Clearly, then, free graphic apps are ready for some professionals, a fact that free graphic projects emphasize on their sites with galleries and lists of well-known users designed to boost their credibility. Blender, for one, also releases an animation project every few years, such as Big Buck Bunny to show what can be done with its software.

What these galleries and lists generally do not do is define the level of expertise or the work-arounds -- if any -- to achieve such results. Without more detail, users have no easy way to separate possible results from practical results.

Still, the old relationships are eroding quickly. Search for a well-known graphics school such as the Vancouver Film School and "Blender" or "GIMP," and it soon becomes obvious that students these days are routinely listing free graphics apps along with proprietary standards like PhotoShop as part of their experience. Part of the reason could be the time-honored custom of resume-padding, but the consistency suggests that, at the very least, the job-market for designers is divided between free and proprietary applications.

As I was writing, confirmation of this situation came with the news that the ATI (Art and Technology of Image) department at University Paris 8 plans to replace teaching PhotoShop with teaching Krita. At the very least, the change must assume that students familiar with Krita should have few problems learning PhotoShop should the need arise.

The news is reminiscent of Linux at the turn of the millennium, when news of a company or government switching to free software was considered newsworthy. As with Linux fifteen years ago, the acceptance of free graphics apps is still in relatively early stages, but is becoming increasingly widespread.

The Proof in the Software

Another refutation comes from comparisons of the software involved. Almost all these comparisons begin with the incontestable advantage that free graphics apps are free for the download, but the lack of a price is hardly an advantage if the software fails to do what you want.

Consequently, although usually drawn up by free software advocates, surprisingly often these comparisons are almost always both detailed and painstakingly honest about the faults on both sides.

Such a comparison is important enough that the vector graphics editor Inkscape provides one with Illustrator, its main proprietary rival, near the top of its wiki. The comparison is in point form, but it begins with seven things that Illustrator can do that Inkscape cannot. Illustrator's advantages range from gradient meshes to color management for printing. However, the list also includes eight features that Inkscape has that Illustrator does not, such as editing Scaleable Vector Graphics directly and the independent editing of cloned shapes.jka

A much more detailed comparison, this time between GIMP and PhotoShop, was published in the third issue of GIMP Magazine by Steve Czajka. Czajka includes over seventy points of comparison, starting with cost and available support and drilling down to details of tool functionality. Among PhotoShop's unique features, he includes User Profiles and Smart Objects, while among GIMP's unique, he includes Layer Rotation and Lighting Effects. He also mentions when the dialogue windows for both GIMP and PhotoShop could be improved.

Some of these comparisons are several years old, and are no doubt obsolete in places. However, speaking impartially, many suggest that the proprietary apps have mild advantages, sometimes in essential areas such as printing. However, they also demonstrate that the comparison between free and proprietary is by no means far-fetched, or driven by idealism rather than practicality. Even when a free graphic app falls short of its main proprietary equivalent, it is obvious that the feature lists are close, and the differences sometimes no greater than, say the differences between PhotoShop and Lightroom.

However, as Czajka points out once or twice, the features of one free graphics app sometimes tell only part of the story. At times, if a particular feature is unavailable in one free app, it can be found in another, so a missing feature may not matter as much as with a proprietary app. At others, a plugin for a proprietary piece of software can be made to run in free software -- which is not true in reverse.

To insist on the general superiority of free graphics apps would be going too far. However, to prove that they are ready for professionals, superiority is not required. All that is required is a rough equivalence, whose existence is too self-evident to be seriously debated.

Updating impressions

Whether you are wiling to use free software may sometimes depend on how much inconvenience you are willing to endure. But the choice, if not inevitable, is by no means as biased towards proprietary software as many people continue to assume.

Just as with free fonts, today free graphic applications offer approximately the same as their proprietary counterparts. If they fall short in particular cases, frequently, so do proprietary graphics software.

Circumstances vary. Yet speaking generally, the idea that a professional designer must be reliant on proprietary apps is as outdated as imagining that Linux must be run from the command prompt. If that is your perception, it is years overdue for an update.

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