Even people who use Windows exclusively have probably heard of The Gimp, which Linux and Unix users often proclaim as the “free alternative to Adobe Photoshop.” While Photoshop is in no danger of being displaced in the industry, Gimp is certainly more than adequate for most use.

But installing it in Windows has never been easy, unless you knew a well-kept secret: the URL for Installers for Gimp for Windows. (The Windows page at gimp.org is pretty intimidating.)All you need to do is download both files, the GTK+ 2 toolkit and Gimp for Windows. Install GTK+ first, then install Gimp, and you’re golden. Although the current version 2.0 is still pre-release, it’s much nicer than the “stable” 1.2 release–it has more features and a better user interface, and frankly, I don’t find it any less stable.

You’ll almost definitely want to keep the link to Grokking The Gimp handy. It’s a professionally written book that’s freely distributable, or, if you prefer, you can buy a print copy. Gimp is easy enough to understand if you have a guide, but you need a guide. Given that book, even a drawing klutz like me was able to do some drawings that turned heads. (Paper buildings on a model railroad layout, in my case.)

The copy of GTK+ on the Installers for Gimp for Windows site is also the secret to getting the Win32 port of Sodipodi up and running. Sodipodi is a free vector drawing program, similar in function to Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia Freehand, or Corel Draw. While not as full featured as the current version of any of them, again, it’s good enough for most casual use. Don’t be put off by its low version number; its primary author is a perfectionist. It’s at least as stable as most of the commercial low-end graphics programs I’ve seen for Windows.

There is no equivalent to Grokking The Gimp yet for Sodipodi. This Sodipodi Guide will get you started.

If you want to play around with graphic design and can’t afford to buy Photoshop and Illustrator (even the educational prices can be a bit high for some people), playing with Gimp and Sodipodi is a good way to learn the basics in order to see if you even want to learn more about drawing with a computer. Who knows, the current or some future version may even prove to be all you need–saving you from ever having to buy the commercial software.