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A Survey of Digital Tools for Armory Illustration

[Editor’s Note: This post draws heavily on a FAQ document produced over the course of several years by multiple users in the SCA Heraldry Unofficial Chat Facebook Group. My thanks to the many people who helped create this resource. — Mathghamhain]

There are a wide variety of electronic tools that can be used for illustrating armory at all stages of the process — sketching out ideas, filling out submission forms, and displaying registered designs.

Each of these programs has both strong points and limitations, and a learning curve associated with getting familiar with the user interface and feature set. There are tutorials and documentation available for each of them online, including web pages and YouTube videos.

Traditional Tools Are Still Useful

It’s also worth remembering that there’s no need to use electronic tools at all. Freehand illustration is perfectly appropriate for both submission and display.

Many heralds still use pencils, pens, and markers to prepare submissions forms, with lightboards or stencils for tracing if needed.

A Warning About Submission Forms

If you create electronic versions of the submissions forms, do not alter them in any way. Place your artwork inside the existing outlines. Altering the existing outlines is grounds for return.

If you have difficulty transferring a digital design to the submission form, you may be better off placing your digital illustration behind a copy of the paper form and tracing it with a pencil or pen.

Consult with your kingdom submissions herald if you have questions or concerns about digital artwork and heraldic submissions.

Three Categories of Software

The software described below is grouped into three categories:

  • Raster graphics  software, sometimes called “painting” programs, use pixels which can each be shaded independently. (Common file formats include JPEG, PNG, TIFF, GIF, PSD, etc.)
  • Vector graphics software, sometimes called “drawing” programs, use lines and shapes which can be scaled and edited indefinitely. (Common file formats include SVG, PDF, AI, etc.)
  • Armorial illustration software provides specialized tools for creating armory and related images.

This article provides more information on the differences between vector and raster illustration.

In general, vector tools have a bias towards geometric shapes, right angles, constant line weights, flat solid color, and a more “digital” or “modern” appearance — whereas raster tools make it easier to have organic shapes, variable line weights, and rich textures that sometimes feel more “hand-drawn” or “medieval”. That’s not inescapable — you can produce organic shapes and textured fills in vector apps, and geometric shapes with flat fills in raster apps — but it does reflect what they encourage, and what it’s easier for a beginner to produce using those types of tools.

While raster and vector tools both have their own tradeoffs and benefits:

  • Raster tools might have an easier learning curve for “paper-first” free-hand illustrators who want to drawn their own images from scratch in a way that feels like working with pen and ink.
  • Vector tools might be a more efficient starting point for “digital-native” heralds who will mostly be assembling armory based on digital clip-art libraries such as the Book of Traceable Heraldic Art.

Raster Illustration

The following applications use raster graphics, sometimes called bitmap or “painting” programs, where each pixel can be shaded independently:

  • GIMP (Windows/Mac/Linux; Free): An open-source program with powerful editing options. Extensive capabilities come with a significant learning curve.
  • Adobe Photoshop (Windows/Mac; Multiple pricing plans, including $120/year; Industry Standard): Industry-leading commercial painting package. Extensive capabilities come with a significant learning curve.
  • Paint.net (Windows; Free; Popular)
  • Microsoft Paint 3D (Windows; Free; Popular): An updated version of the classic Microsoft Paint application.
  • Pixlr (Web; Free)
  • Autodesk Sketchbook (Windows/Mac; Free)
  • ClipStudio (Windows/Mac/iOS/Android; $50 or $220)
  • ProCreate (iPad; $10)
  • PhotoPea (Web; Free)
  • FireAlpaca (Windows/Mac; Free)
  • Corel PaintShop Pro (Windows. Versions for $64 and $80.)
  • Microsoft Paint (Windows; Free): Limited.
  • Preview (Mac; Free): Limited.

Vector Illustration

The following applications use vector graphics, sometimes called “drawing” programs, which can be scaled arbitrarily without pixelation:

  • Inkscape (Windows/Mac/Linux; Free; Recommended): An open-source program for creating vector graphics. Extensive capabilities come with a significant learning curve. Many tutorials can be found around the internet.
  • Adobe Illustrator (Windows/Mac; Multiple pricing plans, including $240/year; Industry Standard): Very popular commercial drawing package. Extensive capabilities come with a significant learning curve.
  • Microsoft Visio (Windows. Multiple pricing plans, including $180/year): A technical diagramming tool that can also be used for armory. Does not include auto-tracing.
  • OmniGraffle (Mac/iOS; versions for $150 and $250): A technical diagramming tool that can also be used for armory. Does not include auto-tracing.
  • CorelDraw (Windows; $350)

Many of these apps can open and save PDF files, so they work well for inserting art into submission forms.

Nearly every vector graphics application will export in raster formats, for example allowing you to convert SVG images to PNG or JPEG files. Some of them also include a vectorization tool that will “auto-trace” a raster image to produce a vector equivalent, which allows you to import the outlines from a JPEG image into a tool that works with SVG files.

For the applications listed above that do not include an auto-tracing feature, you can use one of the below separate vectorizing apps to convert raster images to vectors.

  • Auto-Tracer (Web; Free): Supports colors.
  • Vectorization (Web; Free): Black and white only. Powered by Potrace.
  • Potrace (Windows/Mac/Linux; Free): Command-line. Black and white only.
  • DragPotrace (Mac; Free): Black and white only. Powered by Potrace.
  • VectorMagic (Web $120/year; Windows/Mac $295)

Armorial Illustration

These applications are great for doing mockups of ideas, or for creating personal displays. For SCA submission purposes however, these should be used with caution. Among other issues, DrawShield is the only one on this list which will produce a shield shape that matches the Society’s submission forms. None of these tools include all of the charges, field divisions, or ordinaries that the SCA allows, and they may include tinctures, charges, and treatments that do not meet submission standards.

  • DrawShield (Web; Free; Recommended): Includes a wide range of charges and illustration styles. Enter a blazon to generate an image, or follow a series of point-and-click prompts to create a design interactively while it generates the blazon for you. Supports achievements. Includes multiple field shapes including an escutcheon that matches the SCA’s submission form. Under active development.
  • Heraldicon (Web; Free): Vector-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool. Has recently added a from-a-blazon feature SVG charge import and device export options. Under active development. [Updated 2022 to note recent updates and new name; formerly known as heraldry.digital.]
  • Armoria (Web; Free): Limited vector-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool. Under active development.

Due to their limitations, I recommend against using any of the following tools:

  • Heraldry Studio (Windows; $17; Not Recommended): Extremely limited raster-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool. Under active development.
  • Inkwell Ideas Coat of Arms Design Studio (Mac/Windows/Linux; Free or $20; Not Recommended): Downloadable Java applet with a limited vector-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool. Optional paid version that adds complex lines and the ability to import other charges. Last updated in 2014.
  • Inkwell Ideas Heraldographer (Web; Free; Not Recommended): Limited raster-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool. Last updated in 2016. Incomplete; may no longer work.
  • Uplink Heraldry Generator for RPGs (Web; Free; Not Recommended): Extremely limited raster-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool.
  • WorldSpinner Heraldry Artist (Web; Free; Not Recommended): Extremely limited raster-based point-and-click coat of arms design tool.
  • pyBlazon Blazonry Server (Web; Free; Not Recommended): Enter a blazon to generate an image. Incomplete; may no longer work.

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