Inkscape and Adobe Illustrator are two scalable vector graphics programs that rely on mathematical formulas to draw precise and infinitely scalable vector art and designs. Illustrator, at the time of this article, is certainly the industry standard when it comes to vector art, but Inkscape is a fascinating free alternative that can actually act as a viable alternative.
In other words, Inkscape isn’t all that bad – and it doesn’t require a premium subscription.
But of course, like any other program, Inkscape has its own way of doing things that differs from how Illustrator does things. For a busy designer, this can make switching programs seemingly unrealistic and frustrating. This is especially true for people who use Illustrator so much that the user interface, including the location of all the program’s various tools and menus, has become second nature to navigate. And the program’s features and capabilities have been committed to memory – so you know exactly what you can and can’t do with the program.
With Inkscape, you may not be sure where to start as the laws of the program are a bit different. Plus, you don’t know what the program can or can’t do.
Luckily, though, I have decided to take on the task of breaking down the barriers for designers who either need to switch to Inkscape for financial reasons, or simply want to give this new program a try without needing to totally relearn a complicated vector program from scratch.
In this article, I compare 3 of what I consider to be the most common or important features in Illustrator with similar features in Inkscape. I will follow the same format for each task – with a description of how to perform the task in Illustrator, followed by a description of how to perform the same, or similar, task in Inkscape.
1. Creating or Resizing Your Illustrator Artboard vs Inkscape Canvas
The first task on this list is a very basic one. This being said, the two programs vary quite dramatically when it comes to setting up a blank document – and thus setting up your artboard (in Illustrator) or canvas (in Inkscape).
Illustrator uses the Artboard system, allowing you to have multiple artboards in a single composition. This is extremely useful because you can create seamless multi-page compositions – or at the very least create multi-page designs that follow a uniform design aesthetic.
When opening Illustrator for the first time, you are given a welcome screen that allows you to choose from a variety of commonly used templates (outlined in red in the photo above).
You can also choose the “Create New” option (denoted by the red arrow in the photo above), which allows you to create a new custom document – where you can set your artboard size, and choose whether you want a single artboard or multiple artboards for your composition.
For the simplicity of this article, I will go with the first default composition option on the welcome screen under the “Start a New File Fast” section – which, for the US version, is the “Letter – 612 x 792 pt” option.
After clicking this option, a new artboard will open up (denoted by the red arrow) with the dimensions specified on the welcome screen (612 pt for the width, 792 pt for the height).
My artboard is white in color, with a thin black outline around the edges or the border of the artboard, and with a dark-gray background color (green arrow) surrounding the artboard.
If I wanted to change the dimensions of this artboard, I have three options. My first two options are accessible directly in my composition window. I can either click the “Edit Artboards” button on the right side of the window under the “Properties” tab (denoted by the green arrow), or I can click the “Edit Artboard” tool, known commonly as the Artboard Tool, over in my toolbox on the right side of the window (the shortcut key for this tool is Shift+O – denoted by the red arrow in the photo above).
The third option is to go to File>Document Setup and then click the “Edit Artboards” button.
Regardless of which method you use, you will be taken to the same screen to edit your Artboard (highlighted in green in the photo above) using the Artboard Tool (all three options activate the Artboard tool – denoted by the red arrow in the photo above). In this area, Illustrator has a bit more flexibility than Inkscape because you can draw a new artboard simply by clicking and dragging your mouse with the Artboard tool. You can also alt+drag your current artboard to create a duplicate artboard within your composition (and thus now have more than one artboard), or click the “Create New Artboard” icon (which will also create a duplicate of your current artboard – denoted by the blue arrow).
Additionally, you can manually type in a new width and height for your artboard in those corresponding fields in the properties panel (the area to the right of your artboard) or control panel (top of your artboard). Both of these areas where you can edit the width and/or height of your artboard are highlighted in blue in the photo above.
The last thing I will mention here is that you can access a variety of other options to adjust your artboard or add additional features by clicking the “Artboard Options” button in the properties panel (denoted by the red arrow).
OK – so we’ve heard a variety of ways to create, resize, or otherwise add/adjust your artboards in Illustrator. So how is this process different in Inkscape?
For starters, when you open Inkscape for the first time, you are not taken to a welcome screen. Instead, a default document (which comes with your Inkscape download) will open up (shown in the photo above). This default document will look a little different than how Illustrator’s default documents are set up.
For example, the canvas is white with a thin black border (much like Illustrator’s – denoted by the red arrow in the photo above), but the area surrounding the canvas by default is also white (denoted by the blue arrow). This can be a real pain point for designers opening Inkscape for the first time because they are so used to the white artboard, dark-gray background found in Illustrator.
If you prefer to have your Inkscape canvas look like Adobe Illustrator’s artboard, I recommend checking out my article on how to accomplish this task.
If you want to change your Inkscape canvas properties (i.e. change the size of the canvas, edit the background color, etc.), there are two ways to accomplish this. Just a head’s up – there is not currently an Artboard or Canvas tool that is the equivalent to Illustrator’s. The first method is to use the “Edit properties” icon in the Commands bar – which is on the right side of your canvas (denoted by the red arrow in the photo above).
The second option is to go to File>Document Properties (the shortcut key is shift+ctrl+d). Like in Illustrator, no matter what option you use in Inkscape, you will be taken to the same screen – the Document Properties dialogue box.
Once the Document Properties dialogue is opened, you can choose from a variety of options to edit your canvas (quick note to avoid confusion – document and canvas are essentially interchangeable terms. Although, more specifically, the document refers mostly to all of the elements of your canvas – such as the units that your canvas is displayed in, the canvas size, and the background color. The canvas is simply the final area of your document where your art is displayed). For example, you can change your canvas size using a variety of commonly used template sizes (just like in Illustrator – highlighted by blue in the photo above). You can also set a custom size for your canvas by manually typing in a width and height for the canvas under the “Custom Size” section (red outlined area). Once you have entered in the values you want to use for your canvas, simply exit out of the document properties window (red arrow) and your changes will automatically be applied.
I went with 1920 x 1080 and changed the unit to pixels for this example (these new dimensions are not shown in the photo above).
If you want to create a brand new canvas using the default canvas settings, click the “Create new document from the default template” icon in the Commands bar (red arrow). One important thing to note is that you cannot have multiple canvases open in the same composition at this time. Each new canvas will always be opened in a new Inkscape window.
2. Illustrator Color Guide vs. Inkscape Color Palette
The second topic I’ll cover for this article is the big difference between how colors work in the two programs. Illustrator currently takes the cake on this feature (much like it does with its artboard capabilities), though Inkscape still offers an adequate alternative that can be supplemented with easy-to-use third-party resources. It should be noted that Adobe Illustrator has both RGB and CMYK support, whereas Inkscape does not (although Inkscape can be exported to CMYK).
In Adobe Illustrator, there are three easily-accessible color panels that help you browse and apply colors for your artwork. These are the Color panel, Color Guide panel, and Swatches panel. These panels are the first three icons found in the Panels section to the right of your artboard (going from top to bottom – highlighted in red in the photo above).
When you click on the Color panel (red arrow), you can choose from any colors found within the spectrum for the color space you have selected.
In other words, if you click on the Options icon in the top right corner of the Color panel (red arrow), you can choose from any of the color spaces supported in Illustrator (I went with CMYK for this example).
With CMYK selected, I can hover my mouse over any color on the CMYK Spectrum and click to select that color as my main fill color. If I alt+click on the spectrum, the color i am hovered over will be selected as my stroke color.
I can also choose “None,” “Black,” or “White” from any of the three swatches above the color spectrum area (highlighted in red) as my foreground or background color.
You will notice there is a tab to the right of the tab labeled “Color” when in the colors panel labeled “Color Guide” (red arrow). Clicking this tab will take you to the Color Guide panel. You can also get to this panel by clicking the second icon from the top in the Panels section.
In my opinion, the Color Guide panel is the single best feature found in Illustrator. The reason being that it recommends colors for you to use based on the current color you have selected (in this case, the foreground color), using color theory in real-time to informs its recommendations. The first color displayed in the Color Guide is your foreground color, followed by recommended colors based on the “Harmony Rule” selected.
So, if I click the dropdown (which is labeled “Harmony Rules” when you hover over it – outlined in blue above), you will see that my current selected harmony rule in this case is the “tetrad 2” harmony rule (red arrow). The colors that will display based on your foreground color will depend on the specific color theory behind whatever harmony rule you have selected. For the tetrad 2 harmony rule, we have 5 main colors – the green from our foreground color, a darker green, a dark blue, a pinkish color, and a brown color.
These 5 colors are displayed vertically in the center row in our Color Guides panel (you can see an arrow pointing to these colors – denoted by the red arrow in the photo above), and each color then has four corresponding shades (to the left of the center color) and four tints (to the right of the center color).
If I go with a different Harmony Rule – say, Right Compliment – my colors will change and the Shades and Tints will update based on those main colors. Sometimes there are more than five colors, sometimes there are less than five. It depends on the Harmony Rule. In this case, there are six colors displayed (you have to scroll down in the color guide to see the sixth color – the scroll down bar is denoted by the red arrow in the photo above).
The main takeaway from this feature, though, is that it makes it really easy to come up with color schemes or color variations for your designs based on a single color. These colors tend to go well with each other because they come from a harmony rule that ensures they don’t clash or look like random colors thrown together. Your design colors therefore look more coordinated and professional.
Finally, below the Color Guide panel is the Swatches panel (denoted by the blue arrow). Here, you can choose from a variety of default color swatches to set your foreground or background colors to. This includes individual colors, as well as color groups – which either come with the program by default or are created by the user.
To look through all of the default swatches that come with Illustrator by default, you can click on the “Swatches Library menu” (denoted by the red arrow) and look through the various options available. I won’t get into any more detail about the color features in Adobe just for the sake of time for this article. But, as you can tell, Adobe Illustrator does have quite a variety of options to choose from when it comes to color features.
When opening Inkscape for the first time, one of the first things that stands out the most to an Illustrator user is the row of color swatches at the bottom of the window (outlined in green in the photo). At first, this almost looks tacky and off-putting, and one may have the tendency to search for a Color Guide panel equivalent (as found in Illustrator) to have a cheat-sheet for creating color schemes.
I will warn you now – there is currently not a Color Guide/Harmony Rules cheat-sheet in Inkscape.
There is, however, a lot more to what is called the Inkscape “Color Palette” than meets the eye. At first glance, it looks like there are only 120 or so colors to choose from in the bottom Color Palette bar below the canvas. However, there is a scroll bar below all the swatches (denoted by the red arrow) that allows you to scroll to the right and reveal even more colors. I did a quick, rough estimate of how many colors were available and put it around 600 or so colors in total by default.
The first color in the Color Palette is “None” (red arrow), which means clicking on this will set your foreground color to “None” the same way it would do in Illustrator (shift+clicking on this will set your background color to none). Then, you have a series of colors transitioning from black to white, followed by some commonly used colors such as maroon, yellow, blue, etc., followed by a series of colors that start with a dark shade and transition to a lighter tint from left to right.
The colors in the Color Palette serve as a quick way to select from a variety of colors, shades, and tints – and the palette can be changed using the small triangle-shaped menu at the far right of the Color Palette bar (denoted by the green arrow in the photo above).
Clicking this menu reveals 20+ other color palettes to choose from (outlined in green in the photo above), and also displays any user-created color palettes (the “West Mountain Brewery” color palette displayed in the photo is one I created for a tutorial).
The most misleading part of the Color Palette bar for new users, especially those coming from Illustrator, is that it looks like it is the only option for editing colors in the program – but it is certainly not.
In fact, the main color editing area is found by going to Object>Fill and Stroke (which can be accessed using the shortcut key shift+ctrl+f).
If you don’t have any objects drawn on your canvas yet (as is the case for me in this example), nothing will display here.
If I draw an object (using something like the Rectangle tool or text tool – I’ll use the rectangle tool for this example), I will now get several color space options under the “Fill” section (outlined by green in the photo above) that allow me to adjust my rectangle’s fill color live on the canvas.
By default, Inkscape allows me to make adjustments to the fill color (called the “Flat Color” when not using a gradient – outlined in green in the photo above) displayed in my rectangle using the HSL sliders (HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, and Lightness – there is also an “A” slider as well, which stands for Alpha, or transparency). My other options include RGB (Red, Green, Blue, and Alpha), CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Note: though you can choose CMYK colors, you cannot output to a CMYK color profile in Inkscape without a third-party plugin or work-around), Wheel (which allows you to select from a color wheel), and CMS (which allows you to select a color profile – I won’t get into this option for this article).
Clicking on the “Wheel” option, you can see that, like in Illustrator’s Color panel, you can choose a random color using your mouse pointer for your fill color.
There are other options within the Fill and Stroke menu that I won’t go over in full detail, including the ability to add a linear or radial gradient, a mesh gradient, or a pattern – among some other options.
You can also apply all of these features to the stroke of your object by clicking the “Stroke” tab (denoted by the red arrow). In this case, I only have a red fill color set up, so when I click on the “Stroke” tab, nothing displays. However, if I shift-click on a color from my Color Palette bar (I went with Blue) to add a stroke, you will now see those same color options appear for the stroke (as you can see in the photo above).
One feature that Inkscape has the Illustrator doesn’t is the ability to add a gradient to the stroke of an object. This is actually a major win for Inkscape in my opinion as I have always been annoyed by this lack of functionality in Illustrator.
3. Combining Shapes: Illustrator Shape Builder Tool vs. Inkscape Path Menu
I mentioned that I believe the Color Guide panel was the single most useful feature in Illustrator. The second most useful feature, in my opinion, is the Shape Builder tool. This tool allows you to easily combine shapes to create a more complex object, which drastically expands the functionality of the program and allows non-artists to create artwork without needing drawing skills. Inkscape thankfully incorporates its own version of this feature into its program, which admittedly makes the switch to the free program much easier.
In Illustrator, you’ll need to start by drawing at least two shapes that overlap one another (as I’ve done in the photo above). Then, select all the shapes with the Selection tool or by going to Select>All.
The Shape Builder Tool is found in your toolbox (denoted by the red arrow in the image above), or by using the shortcut key shift+m.
With all of your shapes selected that you’d like to combine (in this case, just two shapes), you can hover your mouse over the various overlapping parts of your shapes (called regions – you can see one region highlighted with the Shape Builder tool in the photo above denoted by the red arrow) to see which parts you would like to “extract” or “merge.”
To extract, or break apart, parts of the shape, simply click once on the shape regions that you want to break apart from the original set of shapes.
To merge regions of the shapes, click and drag your mouse across all of the regions you would like to merge together (the arrow in the photo above is pointing to the line created by the tool when clicking and dragging my mouse).
You can either merge portions of the regions that overlap, or merge together all of the regions of all the selected shapes. The final style of the new shape or shape region will depend on Adobe’s rules for the Shape Builder tool.
I’d also like to note that any time you have multiple shapes selected, Adobe will display the Pathfinder options under the Properties panel (outlined in green in the photo above). The Pathfinder feature is essentially the same thing as the Shape Builder tool, though you can perform one-click actions to extract or merge your shapes. The four actions available are Click to Unite, Click to Minus Front, Click to Intersect, and Click to Exclude.
Inkscape can take advantage of extracting and merging shapes, to use Illustrator terminology, though it refers to shapes as “Objects” and “Paths” (depending on whether or not you have converted your object to a path after you have drawn it). The process is a little bit different in Inkscape – but we will start with a rectangle and a circle overlapping one another as we did in the Illustrator example.
To select both shapes, you can either shift+click on all of the shapes you want to select while using the Selection tool (denoted by the red arrow), or click and drag your mouse, then hold the ctrl key, and drag over any of the shapes you want to select (you have to drag over the entire shapes for all shapes you want to select, otherwise it won’t work).
Once you have your shapes, known as Objects, selected, you need to convert them to Paths. To do this, go to Path>Object to Path (red arrow).
You can then use the Path menu to perform a variety of functions similar to the Pathfinder functions in Illustrator. There are 8 options in all (highlighted by green in the photo above), including Union, Difference, Intersection, Exclusion, Division, Cut Path, Combine, and Break Apart.
For example, in the photo above I chose “Union” to merge my two shapes together and create a single abstract shape.
So, similar to the Pathfinder tool in Illustrator, the Paths menu in Inkscape allows you to create different types of shapes with one click.
In summary, Inkscape and Illustrator are actually more similar than they appear at first on the surface. Each program simply has a slightly different way of doing things, producing similar final results.