anime and games, art, comics and manga, freeware, media, software

Is PaintToolSAI Worth the Money?

Table of Contents

  1. Background
  2. What is Manga?
  3. Why the world uses SAI
  4. Gimp versus SAI
  5. Conclusion


As you may know, Adobe Photoshop and Paint Tool SAI are often used to create something like this:

“It has been a pleasure” by nuriko-kun

While Photoshop receives its reputation from features, Paint Tool SAI receives its popularity primary from where it is used and not simply what it can do. PaintToolSAI (or “Sai”/”SAI” as everyone calls it) is a Japanese software program much like Gimp. Because the Asians take their hobbies to the extreme extent (unlike many Americans I know), they go to the extent of creating things many Americans only dream of and never do. In comparison to them, we are lazy, though in another respect, we are also more efficient in certain respects. Needless to say, they take the time to use the software they have available to do what they want.

That being the case, why hasn’t Gimp caught on? After all, SAI is for-price and Gimp is free – you’d think there would be some balance since there are always people who like the free stuff. There are a few noticeable reasons for this.

First, the Asians, being hobby-fanatics, probably aren’t intimidated by the idea of paying for something. Perhaps we here in the West are slightly spoiled by the fact that free software and free software societies abound in America and Europe.

Second, for awhile, it doesn’t appear the creators of Gimp had made much of a push towards putting the latest version of Gimp into Japanese hands. There is a kinda messy website, which, as I see now, has finally been updated.

Third, Gimp is too complicated for Asians. From what I’m told by people who lived there, the Japanese in particular prefer things to be simple and straightforward. This is where SAI has an advantage as I’ll talk about in a moment.

That all being said, why isn’t Gimp the choice of “manga artists” in the States?

Before I explain this, first, let me establish the difference between “cartoon” and “manga”.

What is Manga?

Originally, a “manga” meant a Japanese comic. In more recent times, it has come to mean any comic that is styled, both in imagery and writing, to resemble a Japanese comic. This is similar to “anime”, and while that definition is debated, “anime” has started to mean any animation styled to be like Japanese cartoons. These two words, “anime” and “manga” are closely related because the former is merely an animated version of the latter. Japanese manga and anime are quite different from American comics and cartoons because while the latter two take on a more comical vision of reality, manga and anime are, in general, much more realistic in imagery and story. It’s almost like reading or watching a real life TV show hand-drawn. There are some clear differences from reality – anime and manga aren’t mirrors of reality. Rather, they accentuate reality’s most beautiful aspects. For the real world, this means vivid colors, gentle simplification of shapes and details, and realistic shadows and lighting. For humans, this means capturing the human form in its simplicity and attractiveness, which, for many people, may mean making the eyes unignorably large. (You are correct, “unignorably” is not a word in the English dictionary.)

Why the world uses SAI

Not everyone uses SAI, but many artists (in the United States and elsewhere) who are interested in creating manga with often use SAI. My theory for this was that people use SAI because it’s popular in Asia and “that’s what Asians use so it must make them awesome, right?” as if somehow SAI had special powers. Truth be told, I still think this is true in part. If there is some comparable product from another country, it isn’t likely to be discovered simply because it’s from the wrong place – wherever they aren’t making anime.

I do note, however, that the world is really starting to be exposed to this Japanese phenomenon of manga and anime. Just this year I read about a Spanish company who was going to try making anime, and they were professionals! (i.e. It wasn’t just a bunch of kids in a garage or closet otaku who thought they’d take their passions for a spin.) The fact is, many artists I know are from places like Malaysia and countries you might not have thought of as even having computers! (Unless they came from Dell, lol.) It may not be long before this Japanese phenomenon becomes a world style.

And what better tool to do it with than the Japanese magic software programs? This is also the reason you will see images on DeviantArt (among other places) from ClipStudio (another Japanese program) and such.

But let’s face it, there’s also a marketing technique behind this. When the software you want to buy boasts an anime character and is associated with some of the best art you’ve ever seen, it will definitely appeal to those kind of otaku.

But let’s see how this thing really fares…

Gimp Vs. SAI

First test: Price. I’m broke, so while I used the latest version of Gimp (2.8), a copy of SAI is set to expire in 30 days unless you pay for it. I used PaintToolSAI 1.1.0.

I went into this knowing alittle about the SAI graphical user interface, so I did have a little of an idea of what to expect and I knew it wouldn’t be super special. In fact, it turned out to be more annoying than I imagined.

The important aspect of PaintToolSAI is that it is straightforward. Everything is put directly in front of you and you can start coloring immediately, switching brushes, changing brush sizes, and switching colors without having to open so much as a single new tab. This completely trumps Gimp, which requires you to open a dialog box just to change the color… at least until you figure out that you can add it as a tab.

Here’s where Gimp trumps PaintToolSAI: GUI layout. SAI isn’t a train-wreck, and I managed to figure out most of it in 5 minutes (after all, pretty much everything is in front of you, with the exception of filters (like “change hue”) and infrequently used things). However, when it comes time to customize SAI, you’ll find that it’s as rigid as a dresser. You can close some things and make others appear on the same side bars, but you’ll find yourself compromising what to keep open based on what you use most. Gimp, on the other hand, allows you to create sets of tabs in at least three locations on screen, so if you want, everything can be set to one side. You can close side windows; you can choose between one full window or a window for your canvas and windows for your tab groups. The tab groups can contain whatever you decide to add from what is available, and you can set them in any order you want. You can change the tab window sizes and thus optimize your canvas size. In short, as far as GUI customization is concerned, Gimp squashes SAI.

My Gimp Layout
My Gimp Layout
My PaintToolSAI layout

Painting with both Gimp and PaintToolSAI are two different experiences. Gimp is very rigid in the sense that you get exactly what you put into it; it will do nothing to make your art look beautiful. PaintToolSAI, however, defaults to the smoothest stroke with some level of transparency depending on the brush. There are multiple kinds of brushes for different jobs. I was dearly hoping there would be a special brush for creating tapered edges, but no such luck. Instead, you are given brushes of set blurring. While there were some differences, frankly I didn’t notice anything special that I couldn’t do by making brushes of that type in Gimp.

There’s another feature of Gimp that I didn’t notice if SAI could do: creating brushes easily. Yes, brushes can be made for SAI, but how, I don’t know. I did notice you can “create” brushes from pre-made brushes and changing a few settings, but that’s very different from being able to take any image and making it a brush as you can do in Gimp. (Disclaimer: I did not explore this much.)

One feature that is nice about SAI is the rotate-view. Gimp doesn’t have this, but it can be very, very useful, particularly for people using writing tablets / pads because arm strokes are often done best when the angle favors the natural directions the arm or hand can travel. (Personal note: since Gimp is open source, at least I could build that feature into Gimp if I spent the time to do it.) Also, PaintToolSAI allows you to flip the image with a single, easily-accessible button.

ADDENDUM: I discovered PaintToolSAI also has a draw-line-art mode where the lines you draw become vector graphic curves that you can manipulate… if you can figure it out. It’s not easy to use, but it is a feature that trumps Gimp’s paint-along-curve. To do line art of the type I can do in SAI, I need use Inkscape. So that is a bonus.

UPDATE 10/10/2014: Recently, someone has decided to implement a rotate-canvas feature for Gimp. While it isn’t part of the program yet, I believe it comes from a Google Summer of Code event and may make it into the software soon.

The Results

Because the frequently-used features of SAI are in front of you, it speed-lines the production process. You have to be alittle more patient with Gimp. If you’re style of art production requires mostly drawing squiggly lines on the page, SAI is probably the optimum choice. PaintToolSAI made doing art on the computer fun, and it inspired me on how to more effectively use Gimp. In the long run, however, I think the cramped GUI of SAI would continue to irritate me to the point where I would switch back to using Gimp.

Feature-wise, PaintToolSAI is far beyond MSPaint, but it is no Photoshop and it certainly doesn’t match Gimp. It’s oriented towards painting (particularly anime), not just general art. The default settings of SAI create lines and curves that embarrass anything created with my default settings for Gimp, but the trick is to look for key settings. It turns out, Gimp has the option of “Smooth Stroke” for paint brushes, which should suffice in giving you something comparable to SAI, and if you lack any brushes of particular blur, it’s easy enough to create them.


With this comparison, I actually learned a significant amount of information about what Gimp can do just by looking for the comparable feature to SAI. Therefore, I encourage you to download SAI and try it out at least to discover features you might enjoy. Once you find them, go look for them in Gimp or the program of your choice.

Is SAI worth the money? If you want to enjoy painting on the computer, then SAI might be a good start. Try it out first, and if you don’t have fun with it after the first few days, look into Gimp or something else.

Ironically, my style runs counter to either of these programs. Being a perfectionist, I use Inkscape. XD But that really would be like comparable apples to oranges on the grounds that they both have sugar and make juice.

PaintToolSAI trial information

Trial length: 30 days
Version: 1.1.0
Functionality: Full (so far as I can tell). Includes the ability to export to .psd (Photoshop), .bmp (Windows Bitmap), .jpg, .png, and .tga.


My Samples

Proof that I actually used the program…

It’s not Laputa, but I don’t think we’re in Nebraska anymore
Once a ballerina, now a stray man on the hills of Hidden Valley Ranch.

As you can see, I studied under famous Dutch artists and pedo-mimic impressionists.


2 thoughts on “Is PaintToolSAI Worth the Money?

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