Photoshop vs. SketchBook: Overall Comparisons, Contrasts, Complements

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Should you draw in SketchBook or Photoshop? Believe it or not, sometimes the answer is “both.” Recently, we showed you how brushes compare in Photoshop vs. SketchBook: Brushes. We know that some people use both apps — sometimes even switching as part of their regular everyday workflow. We’re fans of using as many apps as you need to create beautiful art, so we wanted to give our users another breakdown of the differences and similarities between the desktop versions of SketchBook and Photoshop. This time around, we’re tackling all the details beyond brushes.

Compatibility between files

compatibility: PSD to SKB

Fear not. The most important detail of all — compatibility between files — is solid. SketchBook is able to read and save PSD files with all layers intact. This allows for flow between the two applications if changes need to be made in one or the other. It is important to note that since these applications do not have exactly the same tools/functions, some layers that were modified using adjustments or effects in one software may not directly transfer with the same editing capabilities. That’s probably common sense when you think about it, but it may not be common sense when you’re in the moment of flow and creation.

Layers and layer menus

Almost all layers-based apps work the same way. So you won’t have any trouble switching between these two. One thing that is strikingly different about SketchBook, though, is the appearance of a marking menu when you click and hold on the circle icon in the center of a layer. This ‘marking menu’ is something like a right-click option you might see in Photoshop, but it’s especially good for use with a stylus. It rings all the options as close as possible around your pen so you can quickly create a new layer, a new text layer, merge layers, etc.

Control: layers in photoshop and sketchbook

One thing that SketchBook doesn’t have that Photoshop does have is clipping masks. Clipping masks can be useful to graphic designers, especially if you’re creating designs that have a lot of geometry or rigidity to them to block out areas where you don’t want any details to appear. SketchBook focuses on drawing, which is usually about laying down successive layers of color and texture and blending them together. If you need clipping masks, you’ll need to do that in Photoshop, go to their site for specifications.

Control: layers in photoshop and sketchbook

One other small but notable difference: SketchBook layers have an opacity slider on each layer instead of at the bottom of the menu like you find in Photoshop. SketchBook users are always needing to fiddle with opacity to get just the right look so we made sure that was always at hand.

Blending Modes

If you don’t use blending modes in either of these apps, you’re missing out on some of the most useful functionality for creating art. (If that’s the case, spend some time learning about blending modes in this video.) In essence, blending modes take the color and tone data in two different layers and perform some math on that data to get some cool-looking or especially useful results. Some blending modes will turn your two layers darker, some lighter; some options will knock out all the fully black or white pixels; some options will completely invert color to create something that looks like a heatmap.

blending modes in photoshop vs. sketchbook

There are a lot of options to choose from (a few more in Photoshop than in SketchBook, and a few in SketchBook that you won’t find in Photoshop), and the math behind how it works can get a little complicated, but don’t worry about learning all of the underlying details. Most people just eyeball it and find that blending modes can be as useful as special brushes in the effects they create. Experiment!


Color is such a seemingly simple thing. But the subject runs deep. Really deep. We’re all familiar with three-color composition like RGB that we see on our computer screen, and perhaps some of us have dealt with 4-color CMYK processing in special print situations. But you might be surprised that RGB colors in combination can create over 16 million different colors on a decent computer screen. And we can only visibly see maybe 10 million of them!

color: copic markers, RGB, CMYK, HSL

In general, there are a few key things to know about color in these two apps:

  • Photoshop: Photoshop has lots of complex options for calibrating and embedding color profiles. If professional pre-processing and printing is a must for you, it has oodles of options. Of course, all those options are complicated. If you’re not familiar with the details of four-color processing and color matching, it can be a little overwhelming. Some people who need to match a very specific color (e.g., using a Pantone color to meet branding guidelines) will start their drawing in SketchBook and finish it in Photoshop to color correct. They strongly complement each other in this way.
  • SketchBook: SketchBook’s colors are more simplified. In the Color Editor you can choose color as RGB and HSL (hue, saturation, and lightness) and randomize color (if you really want to). The SketchBook Color Editor bundles swatches inside the same window, whereas Photoshop sets them in their own Palette window.
  • Copic Library: SketchBook is unique in that it contains the Copic Color library. Copic markers are a brand of markers that are well-loved by artists, so if you are one of those marker nerds you will love being able to choose them.

In short, it’s really about your own color needs, so use whichever app you need to get the color you want. Use both if you need to.

Accessing color tools

Where Photoshop focuses on an unparalleled breadth of color options, SketchBook focuses on making color picking fast. If you draw digitally, you are probably constantly tweaking and adjusting your tools to get just the right look and feel. To meet that need, SketchBook developed a “Color Puck” that you can click to pull up a Color Wheel. That Color Puck also lets you drag and quickly change the opacity (up/down) or saturation (left/right). Photoshop doesn’t have a Color Wheel, but it does have a Color Cube that works in a similar way for picking colors. Opacity changes take a few seconds more, but the difference isn’t that great.

Working with the canvas

If you’re used to holding down the spacebar to move your canvas around, both apps will do that for you. SketchBook pops up a navigation puck when you hit the spacebar (or manually choose it), and it has a few options to click on with either a mouse or a pen. The blue highlighted area on the wheel shows where the cursor currently is and will execute that function based on mouse movement or clicking and dragging to influence the values. Click on zoom, pull your mouse up, and you’ll zoom. Photoshop has always had a hand tool that lets you click on the spacebar and move your canvas around. It also has a rotate option, but zoom is a separate function. The differences between the apps here is not huge, but visually and even  mentally it’s quite different.

transform options

Layer transformation

This is an area where there is a pretty big difference. Photoshop transformation is usually accessed with Control T, which shows the bounding box of the layer. Once you do that, you can choose various transformation tools from the Edit menu (e.g., Scale, Rotate, Skew, etc.). SketchBook places these kinds of transformation tools inside a Transformation puck (V) that is similar to the Canvas Navigation menu. Again, it’s a more visual approach that ultimately comes down to the fact that SketchBook has a lot of users who use a stylus; having to dig into a lot of top-level menus can be a real pain with a stylus.

Layer transformations

Flipping your work around

That said, there are still some traditional menus to navigate, and you’re welcome to use those if you prefer it that way. One essential part of digital painting is having the option to flip your canvas back and forth. This way, you can get fresh eyes on your work. It will often bring out issues with perspective that make you see your painting in a different way. SketchBook has menu options to mirror the canvas or individual layers, and as with Photoshop they are buried inside menus. But — and this is probably the best tip you’ll get all day — you can customize your Lagoon and put all kinds of options in there, including mirroring functionality. Strongly recommended.

mirroring your drawing: flip it

Selection tools

Photoshop has a more extensive selection variety with more settings and influence on selection. This is due to the nature of having multiple uses for the software. For example, if you do a lot of photo manipulation having precise selection tools and options is beneficial. SketchBook doesn’t have quite so much, but it does have Rectangular, Oval, Lasso, Polyline, and a Magic Wand, with Add, Remove and Replace workflows. These selection tools function in a similar way to those in Photoshop. They are useful in painting/drawing because you can quickly change/resize parts of your image whether through rough selection or more precise ones depending on the tool.

Selection tools in photoshop and sketchbook

Tools unique to SketchBook

The above tools are some of the functions that are key to be familiar with when sketching. It allows for flow and to get your ideas down instead of focusing on where to find certain tools during your process. As I sketch, I’m constantly creating new brushes to get different textures, flipping my canvas, adding/deleting layers and using different colors. As an artist who has also used Photoshop, It was an easy transition to be able to draw in SketchBook. But, there are some tools in SketchBook that are specifically made for people who draw. If you already use these tools a lot in SketchBook, they are probably deal breakers for you because they are so handy for sketching. Check them out…

Create crisp straight lines in any direction
Create crisp straight lines in any direction. Essential.
Create elements with various radii
Create elements with various radii. Huge help with underpinning the human form.
3 types of French Curves. Can be uniformly scaled, rotated, translated and flipped. French Curves are used for drafting/sketching to create clean and crisp curves.
Three different types of French curves that can be uniformly scaled, rotated, translated, and flipped. French curves are used for drafting/sketching to create clean and crisp curves.
perspective guides
You have one, two, three, and five-point (fisheye) perspective guides if you need them. No guessing necessary; your drawings will always look like they fit the space they’re supposed to fit.
symmetry tool
This is invaluable for drawing geometric spaces, but it’s just as helpful when drawing faces.
This will help you control your line quality. A little help making beautiful lines never hurts.
This will help you control your line quality. A little help making beautiful lines never hurts.
Create shapes and lines with a single stroke on the canvas.
Create shapes and lines with a single stroke on the canvas. If nothing else, it’s great for making frames around your final drawing.

Verdict: It’s up to you

Not sure which one is right for you? Both offer a free trial, so there’s no reason not to try them both. Download Photoshop and give it a go here. Grab a copy of SketchBook and start a free trial at launch (no credit card required).