If you are looking for a solid software to create vector drawings, then Xara Photo & Graphic Designer could be a great alternative. Using a pencil to draw is still relevant, but creating powerful images with a vector application is now easier than ever.
Today's software are packed with great features that make adding colors, transparency, special effects and rendering very easy. Knowing that you can draw a great cartoon character within minutes is an interesting option!
This application is loaded with all the tools you need to draw vector shapes. You can draw lines, solid shapes, use an eraser to delete portions of solid shapes (very cool) and use a paintbrush. You also have the possibilities to create your own lines using shapes you are drawing.
Unlike other vector software, transparency is handle very wisely. You simply select the transparency tool, then the shape you want to apply transparency on and you can manipulate the level of opacity live. It's simply the best tool I've used in a long time.
Handling text is also fascinating. You can set your text along a curved path, choose any angle you want and change anything you want on your font (size, color, etc ...). Even more interesting is the fact that text will remain editable after all effects are applied.
Xara Photo & Graphic Designer also comes with numerous special effects to enhance your illustration. For example, you can use the blend tool to create copies of two similar shapes from one to another. You can also apply this effect on two completely different shapes!
Creating 3D shapes like text or simple shapes is also powerful and easy to achieved. Just click on your shape and drag! Once you are finished, you can set lighting to end up with the perfect result.
Shadows are also easy to create using a wide variety of options. You can create soft or hard shadows around shapes or on the ground. Creating bevels and contours is also an easy task thanks to these powerful options.
Xara Photo & Graphic Designer is not as powerful as Photoshop from Adobe if you want to modify pictures, but it does have a few cool options to edit and manipulate photos.
With the integrated photo tool, you can make simple adjustment like brightness, contrast, sharpen, blur, saturation and temperature. You can also use many other features that are appearing on most editing software like cropping, red eye removal, perspective correction, masking tools and scaling and zooming.
Want to erase some elements from a picture? With the magic photo erase tool, you can remove unwanted objects quickly and effectively. Some objects are easier to remove than others, but overall, the result should be decent and perfect for most of your daily tasks.
Another cool option is the creation of large panoramas using a series of pictures. It does help if these images are similar and shot the same day, but you can still get some decent results with various images.
Intelligent scaling is another innovation worth mentioning. All you need to do is select the object you don't want to scale and then scale the whole illustration. Your image will be stretch and proportions of the selected area are protected. Very cool!
You can import and export in multiple formats and most popular extensions are supported. Finally, you can convert any photos or pictures into vector shapes. Really useful if you don't want to start all over again with an old logo! :)
If you are a beginner, then this software is definitely for you. Even professionals can enjoy the flexibility and freedom offered by this application.
Colors can be added through drag & drop, transparency is applied live and in real-time without the need to constantly working with dialog boxes. Once you are used to all the features, you can create illustrations much faster than other software like Illustrator from Adobe (I have both and trust me, Xara is faster, easier to use and way more efficient).
Xara Photo & Graphic Designer is a great application, but it does have a few weaknesses. First, not all effects are 100% compatible with most file formats. For example, using the transparency tool on a vector illustration that you must export in AI/EPS might be a problem once you open it in Illustrator.
Since Illustrator is handling transparency differently, results are often blurry or filled with small problems. However, if you only use basic tools to create and draw your shapes (and avoid all special effects), then exporting to Illustrator works just fine.
Also, this software might not be adapted for technical illustrations. Guidelines are great and all features like grids and markers are available, but overall, you might want to use a more suitable application if you need to draw plans or architecture.
I've been using Xara Photo & Graphic Designer (formerly known as Xara Xtreme) for over 5 years now. Of all the applications I use to draw cartoon characters, this is my favorite one for sure.
It's cheaper and faster than Illustrator and transparency is much easier to achieved (and I use transparency on 90% of the illustrations I create). The drawbacks are minor and can easily be avoided. You can try the software here.