You may be reading this, thinking MMF2's built-in image editor is perfectly fine.
Well think again - MMF2's image editor sucks.
It's actually missing a heck of a lot of basic tools and other features that will help you make better game graphics, or at the very least help you make graphics of the same quality in a much shorter time and with less effort.
The good news is that there are plenty of really good and totally FREE graphics apps that you can download.
Note that The GIMP and Paint.NET both support plugins which can add some additional functionality - such as animation, effect filters, custom brushes, etc.
Perhaps the only thing that would actually be a step down from MMF2's picture editor. The only good things about it are that it's probably already installed on your computer, and if you ever do make anything decent with it, it'll be that much more of an achievement.
GraphicsGale has always been quite popular within the klik community, and was designed with animation in mind, with some nice, unique features such as onion-skinning.In addition, it also has all the usual tools and features required for pixelart. It does have a few very basic effect filters, but is certainly not suitable for general graphics work - only pixelart. As an added bonus, it includes an image browser, allowing you to preview images saved in GraphicsGale's own native format (for other images, you may as well just use Windows Explorer).
Unfortunately, the interface is fairly poor. Adjusting tool properties is awkward, and editing a brush even worse. Right-clicking picks a colour, instead of drawing with the secondary colour (which would be more useful), and you can add to a selection but not remove from it. Alpha channels are loaded from a separate image, which is normal but a little tedious for pixelart - I much prefer Paint.NET and Pixelformer's more intuitive system.
Without the animation features, GraphicsGale really wouldn't have much else to recommend it - it would just be another subpar pixelart app - however, if you are looking to animate some small sprites, it might worth a look. Be aware that The GIMP and Paint.NET both support animation through downloadable plugins.
As the name suggests, it's very heavily biased towards pixelart, and for that, it really is very good. It has every tool and feature you could ever need, including layers, alpha channels, palettes, easily adjustable brushes, the magic wand tool, multiple-selections, etc - all very well implemented (especially alpha channels). There's even a nifty supersampling feature which makes antialiasing a piece of cake.
The interface is simple and extremely intuitive, although I'm not a fan of the dark grey theme (I know it's supposed to help with choosing colours, but still).
The more I use it, the more I think this is what MMF2's built-in image editor should be like.
Unfortunately, it is seriously limited as a general purpose graphics app, which makes it very hard to recommend when you look at the competition - unless you're a real old skool pixelart purist.
The obvious place to start with The GIMP is the notoriously bad user interface. It is at least highly customizeable, which is great - although that process is not overly intuitive, and may cause a few crashes. It also seems to forget some window positions/sizes when you close the program - meaning you have to slightly readjust everything each time.
Also, right-clicking brings up a menu instead of drawing with the secondary colour, which is a pet hate of mine.
Those annoyances aside, the interface is actually not bad at all, provided you invest the time to set everything up how you like it to begin with.
On to the really good points...
There's no denying The GIMP is a very powerful graphics app. It has a huge range of tools and filters, and a lot of control over all of them (eg. brushes have size/shape/hardness/spikes/aspect ratio/angle/spacing options - although not density for some reason). If you want to do a lot of different graphics work (not just pixelart and general game art), and are prepared to spend a fair amount of time learning, then The GIMP really is the clear winner. On the other hand, many users will not need all the advanced features, and would probably prefer something that doesn't require IKEA-style self assembly.
Paint.NET doesn't have quite so many advanced features as The GIMP, but it certainly has more than enough, whether you want to do pixelart or photo manipulation or anything else you might throw at it (vector graphics / animation not included). It's just a shame about the lack of adjustable/custom brushes - a surprising omission, considering the wealth of other options that are available (these can be added by downloading a free plugin).
Paint.NET handles alpha channels in a similar way to Pixelformer, with palette entries containing an alpha value in addition to RGB/HSL values (I recommend you set the blend mode to overwrite for pixelart). It's not quite as good as Pixelformer's system though, as there is no way to view just the alpha channel of an image, or the image without the alpha channel - it's still a great system for pixelart, but for general graphics work, you'll again probably want to download a plugin to add that extra functionality.
The interface is very simple and intuitive, with everything where you expect it to be, and nothing requiring more than one or two clicks. Even the toolbars are semi-transparent (in Windows XP), so they aren't wasting any screen space.
Overall, it's a great app, and vastly superior to MS Paint and MMF2's built-in image editor. It's not quite as powerful as the likes of The GIMP, Photoshop and Paintshop Pro, but most people will find it more than adequate, and very user-friendly.
So, are any of these free apps as good as the commercial alternatives - Photoshop and Paintshop Pro?
In a word, No.
The GIMP comes closest, and while it does pack a lot of features, the features it adds are not that useful, one or two features that would be very useful are absent altogether, and the interface is nowhere near as good. I can do things in Paintshop Pro 9 in a fraction of the time it would take in The GIMP, and that's not just down to my greater familiarity with PSP.
Basically, if you're the kind of person who really needs the power that The GIMP can offer, then you'd be better off trying to get hold of an older version of Photoshop or Paintshop Pro, off Ebay or somewhere.
If you're looking for a powerful and versatile raster graphics app, but you don't need the really advanced features, then go ahead and download Paint.NET - you won't regret it.
Just whatever ever else you do, do NOT use the MMF2 picture editor or MS Paint.
Fantastic article. I'm sure there are more features in each of those programs, but at least the basics were hit, and even with that, it's a step up from MS Paint and MMF2's animation editor.
It bugs the hell out of me when I come across tutorials online when the author is actually glorifying MS Paint, and then I have to sit through 10 minutes of them removing the background around something with the marquee tool, even solid color ones!
If you can do awesome things with MS Paint and MMF2's editor... more power to you, but if you're only doing it because you don't know any better, then we've got a problem.
It might be advantageous to do an advanced tutorial on importing images and animations, as that might be another major reason why certain people still use the built in editor.
I was mainly trying to focus on the features that I personally find useful for making game art (esp. Pixelart), and highlight the fact that most are missing from MMF2/Paint.
Re: Importing animations -
I don't really believe in writing articles about things that are already explained perfectly well in the MMF2 help file. It's just a shame so few people bother to read it...
A couple of other apps I tried:
* "Edge" - looks very powerful, but everything's in Japanese.
* "Ultimate Paint" - very mediocre.
* "i.Mage" - rubbish.
* "Aseprite" - rubbish.
* "Pixelstudio" - rubbish.
It's a failed Paint.NET clone. It copies *everything* from Paint.NET, right down to the icons and menu layout - except it's very glitchy and doesn't have all the features.
I actually tried GimpShop before the regular version. It's buggy as hell (crashed many, many times), and apart from adding the grey background, it doesn't really do all that much to change the interface (which is already very customizable). Definitely best avoided...
Nope, definitely NOT GraphicsGale FTW.
It's true that the more powerful apps (GIMP / Photoshop) require a little more effort to get them set up for making pixelart, but once you've done that, they completely outclass GG in every department (except perhaps animating large sprites).
I've been testing another app:
* Photo Pos Pro - Not a bad graphics app overall, with some quite unusual and advanced features, but more biased towards photo manipulation - lacks one or two of the key features you look for in a pixelart app (eg. palettes).
"Re: Importing animations -
I don't really believe in writing articles about things that are already explained perfectly well in the MMF2 help file. It's just a shame so few people bother to read it..."
There are a few more advanced features that MMF2 can handle that aren't exactly in the help file. I'm talking specifically from the graphics program through the importer all the way into handling animations.
"pixel art in gimp/photoshop is painful.. graphics gale FTW."
"Nope, definitely NOT GraphicsGale FTW.
It's true that the more powerful apps (GIMP / Photoshop) require a little more effort to get them set up for making pixelart, but once you've done that, they completely outclass GG in every department (except perhaps animating large sprites)."
I'm going to have to go with sketchy on this one, the most you have to do to get Photoshop ready for pixel art is to turn off automatic anti aliasing (each tool that uses it like the marquee/selection tools and the fill tools have a check box that can be deselected) change the interpolation from a bilinear to nearest neighbor (in the edit>preferences>general menu, this makes it so when you rotate or resize the program doesn't automatically smooth the pixels) and use the pencil tool instead of the brush (simply click and hold on the brush tool until the other tools in that category pop up). You might also have to turn off the snap to grid function (Ctrl+Shift+; to snap to the grid while this is off like when moving something, just hold ctrl).
With other features like layers, custom brushes, slices (designed for web pages, but it's for singling out sections of images or frames allowing you to save each section or frame as an individual image, ready for MMF2), automation (which allows you to perform any function, Photoshop will record it and either let you repeat it by pressing an F key or automatically performing the function to a group of selected images or even entire folders and subfolders), frame and time based animation with a preview, and of course, if you don't like something with Photoshop, you can write a script (or find someone to write it, there are plenty of people willing to write scripts and small applications for free as portfolio pieces) to perform the function the way you would like it to, or just write an entirely new function to handle exactly what you want. I'll go as far as to say animating large sprites shouldn't be an issue either.
ill stick with Dave C. graphics gale FTW, but [only] for pixel art, if you're going to draw small sprites theres no need for fancy brushes or transparency or whatever, and once you're used to the right-click color picking and selection, you can work pretty fast. But i have to agree, if you're going to do big sprites/animations, go with something else.
Sorry to bump an old post. MS paint is great for quick mock ups since most of us got our start in Paint its one tool you never forget how to use.
Graphics Gale and Adobe Image Ready are best 2 tools for pixel art if I had to pick favorites. Recently I came across this nice open-source tool worth mentioning. Its called MT paint and it supports many features of the programs listed above. You can even shift pixels around with the keyboard.