Photoshop. Corel Painter. Artrage. Sketchbook Pro. Manga Studio 5 (also known as Clip Studio Paint, which I’ve discussed previously). There are tons of heavyweights in the digital painting arena, many of which you probably own (or begrudgingly rent).

You’d be forgiven thus for not really being familiar with the name PaintTool SAI.


The Basics

Systemax’s PaintTool SAI is a popular lightweight Japanese painting program that has an official English translation. When I say lightweight, I mean it quite literally. The program can be downloaded for under 3 MB of bandwidth, and when installed, inflates to an almost microscopic 5 MB. Going hand-in-hand with its lightweight nature is an extremely fast painting app. Everything loads quickly even on older PCs. Creating and manipulating layers

Going hand-in-hand with its lightweight nature is an extremely fast painting app. Everything loads quickly even on older PCs. Creating and manipulating layers is instantaneous. So too is transforming pixels, panning, zooming, and virtually everything else.

It’s not like its wanting in features either. While obviously not as comprehensive as Photoshop’s or Manga Studio 5/Clip Studio’s, its feature set carries all the bare essentials you’d expect out of a modern desktop painting app. Rotating/inverting canvas views, skewing/scaling/transforming layers and selections, magic wands/buckets, clipping layers/masks, layer folders and blending modes, brush stroke stabilization, and some of the best inking brushes in the business , and more. It even features inking layers for scalable, modifiable flat vector graphics.

In fact, it’s been doing many of these things long before some of its more heavyweight competitors had. This is because it has always been focused squarely on “digital painting” rather than “image editing”. To that end, its very much a “do more with less” kind of minimalism. Where it lacked in features, it made up for being being very fun and intuitive for the task of digital painting. For this reason, it’s gained a horde of loyal fans around the world.

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Stalled Development

Unfortunately, it’s also been missing some useful features, like text tools and perspective guides, which often made it hard for it to be an “all-in-one” painting program in the same way that Manga Studio 5/Clip Studio now is.

Worse yet, during the latter parts of the last decade, development almost completely ceased, with an update drought that lasted years. Failing to be updated to take advantage of newer Windows APIs and paradigms, no 64-bit version in sight, and newer, more robust programs like Manga Studio 5/Clip Studio coming out, many of us were ready write it off as a program no longer viable for the modern age until out of nowhere, in 2013, came the announcement of version 2.0.

More Modern

In addition to getting a 64-bit version capable of transcending the old resolution limit of 10,000 x 10,000 px, to up to 100,000 x 100,000 px, the new 2.0 also adds some new tricks, including:

  • A lot more layer blending modes
  • Perspective tools up to 3-point perspectives
  • Text tools
  • Shape tools
  • Now up to 8190 layers
  • Slick ellipse and straight line rulers
  • Compatibility with the Windows TabletPC API (and thus accepting pen input from devices like the Surface right out the box)

And more to come that have yet to be implemented.

In my exchanges with the sole developer, Koji Komatsu, he has indicated that he expects the program to be fully finished during the 2016 to 2017 time frame. Of particular interest to me was whether the new and improved PaintTool SAI 2.0 would be multi-touch compatible, enabling convenient touch gestures on devices like the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book. He has stated that he would consider adding such features, but the other, more crucial functions that would bring parity with the current version took precedence.

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So no promises at this point in time. While disappointing, I still eagerly await 2.0 for use with my desktop.


Komatsu frequently uploads new beta builds for testing in both Japanese and English, the latter of which can be found here.

It’s also important to stress that Komatsu has indicated buyers of the current version will get a free upgrade to version 2.0. You can also try out the app for free for one month through Systemax’s main page here. The program can be had for ¥5400 JPY (roughly $45 USD at the time of this writing).

Look forward to more coverage from me on future development of PaintTool SAI 2.0 as new technical previews get released.

In this story stream:

  • Dissecting the Surface Pen for painting on the Surface Pro…
  • Surface Pro 4 digital painting with Clip Studio (Manga Studio…