Linux Art Tools for the Talented (and untalented)


The movie Naked Lunch would not have been nearly so dark if, instead of turning into a cockroach, the protagonist’s typewriter would have turned into an adorable penguin. So in honor of the second installment in my Linux posts, which deals with image manipulation programs, I decided to create one. Unfortunately, due to my lack of artistic talent, it ended up looking more like penguin roadkill than anything – but you get the idea.

For what it’s worth, I did the attached illustration with the GIMP, an open-source image editing program similar to Photoshop, without the hefty price tag. The name is an acronym, GNU Image Manipulation Program. (The word “Gnu,” which you’ll see applied to a lot of things Linux, stands for “Gnu is Not Unix,: a bit of computer geek humor.) Like many of these open-source programs, it has versions for Windows and MacOS as well as Linux. The GIMP has a steep learning curve, but you don’t need a manual, just Google. There are thousands of fellow GIMP users out there who are more than willing to help you. Like any serious imaging program, it lets you work with layers and transparency. I have used GIMP for finalizing the cover art for my last two books. Once the artist has completed the illustrations, I use it to add the title and author name, the back cover blurb, and the lettering on the spine. GIMP saves images to its own format, XCF, but you can export things as PNG, JPG, and all other major formats. When I imported the Fidelio cover art from a Photoshop file; it wouldn’t display correctly, but I was still able to extract the layers and paste them into a new document. All in all, the GIMP is a very powerful program.

Inkscape is another image program I’ve recently started using. Unlike GIMP, it’s not a photo editor but a vector drawing program. It’s more equivalent to Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. Vectors are not fixed-size pixel drawings; rather they’re abstract mathematical objects that can be scaled up or down with ease. I’ve got a lot of experience with the latter because I use it in my day job to create files for our laser engraver. Therefore I was looking for an equivalent program I could use on Linux. The first thing I tried was to import a Corel Draw file. It was only partially successful, as the “hairline” (zero width) vectors did not come across. It does far better if you export from Corel to SVG format. Inkscape does, however, have its own hairline vectors, a necessity for drawing “cut” lines for the laser. As with the GIMP, Inkscape also has versions for Windows and MacOS.

In the Linux world, one of the paradigms seems to be, why use an existing application when you can create your own? Consequently there are many open-source graphics programs to choose from. The ones I mentioned above are the ones I use the majority of the time. However, I can’t neglect mentioning a handy little program called xfce4-screenshooter, which in Ubuntu Linux pops up every time to press the Print Screen Key. It shows a thumbnail of your screen image, and gives you the option of saving it, copying it to the clipboard, opening it in a graphics viewer or editor, or posting it to ZimageZ, a free hosting site for images and photo galleries.

Penguin photo from


Emperor Penguin of the Arts


I think it’s safe to say that the days when few people had heard of Linux (and its Penguin mascot Tux, as shown above) are over. It still has a “for nerds only” reputation, which I would like to dispel. Over the years this free, open-source operating system has been adapted to run on almost every kind of hardware for just about every purpose. It’s now full of excellent tools for writers and artists, and musicians to the point where it can challenge Mac for the crown of the creative persons’ preferred OS.

I’ve been using Linux since the early 1990’s, not long after uber-hacker Linus Torvalds first created it, deriving it from AT&T’s powerful and versatile Unix operating system. At that time, it was a place where only true techies dared venture. Over the years Linux has evolved from an engineer’s toy to a tool friendly enough to be used by the masses. Though you won’t see it advertised on product packaging, Linux integrates easily with a wide range of hardware: everything I need to interface with my PC, from Android phones to MIDI keyboards.

Unlike commercial systems like Microsoft Windows, developers don’t need anyone’s permission to create their own distributions (or “distros”) of Linux. There are many, and I’ve tried most of them, but settled on Ubuntu, currently one of the easiest distros to install, maintain and use. (The name is a Bantu word meaning “human kindness.”) Ubuntu is available for free download from, though the site requests a modest donation to fund further development. Like all open-source projects, they also depend on the help of volunteer developers and testers to create these amazing projects.

Recently, though, another distro has become my favorite – Ubuntu Studio, available from Studio is a modified version of Ubuntu that comes pre-loaded with many tools (also free) that are useful for writers, artists and musicians. Though not all of my favorite programs are pre-loaded, most are easy to get, with an amazing tool called “apt.” Apt helps you find these applications on the Internet, and automates their download and installation. Another reason I prefer the Studio version is that it uses the older desktop-icon based user interface. The mainstream Ubuntu distro looks and feels somewhat like Windows 8, which I find rather annoying. As with most Linux distros, Ubuntu works on all Windows-compatible PC’s. The installer includes a tool that allow the user to shrink the Windows partition on their disk drive, so that a Linux partition can be installed alongside. When the computer starts up, it displays a start-up menu from which one can choose either Linux or Windows.

In the following posts I’ll detail some of the programs I use on Ubuntu in my creative endeavors. In compiling the list, I realized it was far too long for one post. For now, for the sake of those who fear they’d miss their Microsoft Office if they switched over, I’ll briefly mention the application that I’m using to created and edit this article.

Open Office and Libre Office are two versions of a free, open-source office suite similar to Microsoft Office, but not as gratuitously complicated. They provide excellent replacements for Word, Excel, and Power Point, which I use on a daily basis. These programs can inter-operate with MS Office by exporting Microsoft formats such as “doc” and “xls.” (The version I’m using can’t output the newer formats, such as docx and xlsx, but it can read and convert them.) Open Office (available from is the original, which I prefer because I’m familiar with it. Libre Office, which now comes standard on most Linux distros, was split off from Open Office by members of the original development team, but has a similar feature set and interface. By the way, these programs are, like many other open source applications, have available versions for Windows and MacOS.

As I anticipated, this post has gotten plenty long. Next week we’ll discuss free graphic application that are just as powerful as Adobe’s pricey products Photoshop and Illustrator.