The article below contains affiliate links to Amazon.com to help me keep this website going, however I have chosen these products either because I own them myself and have been very satisfied with my purchase OR because based on my experience and knowledge I genuinely think they will serve you well on your journey as a professional digital artist.
Whether you work on a small canvas using few layers or create huge posters for billboard commercials – you will need a fast computer to work efficiently without going crazy over your software taking forever to process each of your actions. After all, it’s a major investment in your career and it should support you in your success instead of making things harder. Unless you have the money to buy a new model each year, you will probably want to use one computer for at least a few years before having to replace it. For this reason, it is a good idea to do your research and choose the hardware that will best suit your needs.
The first thing to consider is your work style. Are you an indoor type of a person who prefers to work from home and travels once or twice per year? Maybe you like to work in cafes or parks and you travel frequently? If you move a lot then you will benefit from a laptop, which you can easily take with you anywhere. If you value comfort more than mobility and you rarely work outside of your home then buying a desktop computer will be the way to go.
If your budget allows it, you can always buy both – one to use at home and a laptop to take with you when traveling.
I prefer to use a desktop computer with a big screen so that I can see as much detail as possible while still being able to view the whole illustration or a big portion of it.
Once you have chosen the type of computer that fits your needs best, it’s time to decide what you want inside of it. Here are the main specifications to consider:
GPU (graphics processor unit) is what will determine your computer’s graphic performance and the quality of the graphics you will see on the monitor. If you plan to work in Photoshop or any other graphic software you’ll want the best GPU your budget will allow.
Choose a computer with a dedicated graphic card – they have a much better performance than integrated GPUs. There are a few leading producers such as Nvidia, Radeon or AMD. New, better and faster graphics cards are coming out each year.
When searching for a computer you should always check what graphics card comes with it and where it ranks among others. You can use these article on Notebookcheck for reference. While it ranks graphic cards based on their performance in games, it will give you an idea of how well the GPU can handle demanding software like Photoshop or Illustrator.
A processor is the main chip in a computer responsible for carrying out all tasks. The better processor the faster your computer will be. Intel’s Core i3/i5/i7 are the most popular processors found in laptops and desktop computers. Core i3 is the slowest while i7 the fastest. For best performance, when working in graphic programs I would suggest choosing Intel Core i7. Also check how many cores the processor has. For best performance at least 4 cores are needed. Finally, choose a processor with at least 3.5 GHz (which is the clock speed – it indicates how many calculations a processor can perform in one second, in billions).
Plenty of RAM (Random access memory) will allow your computer to get the information it needs very quickly. You will notice that especially when working in a RAM consuming program such as Photoshop. The more memory your computer has, the less lag you will experience. I would recommend a minimum of 16 GB of RAM but 32 GB would be even better, especially if you plan to work with very big files that contain many layers.
Most new computer models have good displays with at least a Full HD resolution (1920×1080 pixels) but if you can afford it – choose 4K. I also recommend checking how colors look on the monitor – I have seen some laptop displays on which saturated colors appeared very pale. Working on a low quality monitor will make any graphic design project a nightmare.
A hard drive will allow you to store data on your computer. A medium sized Photoshop file will have a few hundreds of megabytes, while a poster or billboard sized file can take even several gigabytes of space. You can store your files on external hard drives but you will also need sufficient space to work with on your computer. I recommend at least 1 TB (terabyte) so that you don’t run out of it too quickly. If you plan to store a lot of media files such as high quality videos then you might need more than that – 2 or 3 TB.
I’m sure you are familiar with two major operating systems – Windows and macOS. You probably already have a preference for one or the other, so I won’t really try to convince you to settle on the one I chose. For many years I have worked in Windows, however most of my career as a freelance illustrator I used macOS. Right now I would not return to Windows for a few reasons but I know that there are many people who consider Windows to be a superior system to macOS (it has something to do with the fact that Windows gives you more freedom and control). I like the fast performance and stability of macOS.
Once you have decided what specifications you want your computer to have all what’s left is to choose a brand. Some of the major ones are Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Apple, Sony, Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Samsung. Currently, I’m using Apple’s iMac 27-inch from 2017 and it has been meeting all my needs. Below you can see my computer’s specs (custom build ordered from the official site):
I absolutely love working on iMac but there are also many great alternatives to Apple’s products. With other brands however, you won’t be able to use macOS if that is the operating system of your choice (there seem to be some ways to do it but it’s a bit complicated). You can easily install Windows on a Mac and have both operating systems to switch between. I have both macOS and Windows 10 on my computer, although I only use Windows for gaming.
There are tons of different computer brands to choose from but if you need some examples, I have found a few products on Amazon which I would consider buying instead of the iMac I have now:
Dell Inspiron – See on Amazon
- 7th Generation Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-7700 processor (8MB Cache, up to 4.20 GHz)
- 16GB DDR4 2400MHz Memory
- 128GB SSD+1TB GB 7.2k HDD
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 with 2GB GDDR5 graphics memory
- Windows 10 Pro (64bit)
Dell XPS – See on Amazon
- 8th Generation Intel i7-8700 6-Core 3.20 GHz Processor (12M Cache, up to 4.60 GHz)
- 32GB DDR4 2666MHz Memory
- 1TB SATA Hard Drive + 16GB Intel Optane Memory Accelerated
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB GDDR5 Graphics, Intel UHD Graphics 630
- Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)
HP Envy – See on Amazon
- 9th Generation Intel Core i7-9700T 8-Core 2.00 GHz Processor (12MB SmartCache, up to 4.30 GHz)
- 16GB DDR4 2666 MHz Memory
- 256GB M.2 SSD + 2TB 5400 RPM Hard Drive
- 34″ Curved Ultra Wide QHD (3440 x 1440) LED Backlit Display, 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Graphics
- Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)
HP Envy laptop – See on Amazon
- 8th Gen Intel Core i7 Processor (1.8 GHz, up to 4 GHz, 8 MB cache, 4 cores),
- 32GB DDR4 Memory
- 1TB Hard Drive + 512GB SSD
- NVIDIA GeForce MX Series Graphics
- Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)
When it comes to pen tablets, there really isn’t anything else I can recommend besides Wacom.
The tablet I am using now is a 7 year old Intuos 5, still working without problems. It’s one of the best investments I have made and served me well during the whole time I have been working as a freelance illustrator. Currently, Intuos Pro is the recommended graphic tablets for professionals.
Wacom Intuos Pro, Medium – See on Amazon
Wacom Cintiq is a monitor graphic tablet, which lets you work directly on the screen. It feels more comfortable and natural to some artists but not to everyone, so it’s a good idea to try it out first before buying (especially since they are much more expensive).
Wacom Cintiq 22 HD – See on Amazon
Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 – See on Amazon
While traveling, I use an iPad Pro with Apple pen to work on the go. It saves a lot of space and is a cheaper option than a portable Wacom Cintiq, although there are limits to what you can do on an iPad, since you have no access to a desktop graphic software. Recently, there has been a release of Photoshop for the iPad and although it still lacks some essential features I am hopeful that one day iPad will be able to do as much as a laptop or a computer.
Adobe Creative Cloud
Besides a good computer and a graphic tablet you will also need a software to create your work in. The industry standard Photoshop and Illustrator are essential tools for any type of artists, illustrators as well as designers. If you haven’t yet, consider purchasing a subscription to your chosen Adobe program, or all of them in one package.
If you come from a traditional artist’s background then you might also want to try Corel Painter, which is a software designed especially to mimic traditional media, such as oil, acrylic and watercolor paint.
In this article, I compare Photoshop to Corel Painter and you can find more useful information about the differences between them.