You only need a simple tablet and computer to start digital painting, but if you want to get really serious about it it’s worth taking a look at all of the options - there’s some highly specialized digital painting hardware out there!
The first thing to establish is what kind of computer you will be painting on.
This is mostly a question of how portable you want your digital painting setup to be, and how much screen size, power, freedom of choice and value for money you are willing to sacrifice for portability.
A desktop PC, in regards to digital painting, is the best value for money - it can support the largest screens, and has the widest selection of affordable and powerful hardware and software. However, it won't be portable at all.
On the other end of the scale, a suitable phone like the Galaxy Note is obviously the most portable setup, and with one you can paint anywhere - but they have the smallest screens, the least power, are the worst value for money, and there’s a very limited selection of phones and painting software to pick from.
Laptops and tablet computers are in the middle - laptops fall more on the power, choice of options and value side, while tablet computers like the iPad fall more on the portable side.
I have personal experience using all of these different setups for digital painting, so I’ll lay out my advice:
If portability is not important to you, then a desktop PC would be the smartest choice. You’ll have much more control over your hardware and software, and get the most bang for your buck, but you’ll be stuck at a single desk.
Any computer will work really, as long as it is at least good enough to install your art software on it, but if you are using an old and slow computer it will run the software slowly - you might be limited in how big your paintings can be, how big your brushes can be, that sort of thing.
Digital Painting with a laptop is similar as with a desktop PC, except you’ll be lightweight enough for occasional travel with this setup, in exchange for being a bit worse value for money than a desktop PC. Again, you’d really want at least 8gb of RAM, an i5 processor and 50GB of free HDD space.
While a laptop setup is portable enough to travel with, the whole setup with accessories is still going to weigh 5kg or more - this is the kind of setup that you only want to move every few months at most.
You wont be lightweight enough to carry this setup around with you and paint on the go, or take to cafes and workspaces daily. For that kind of portability you’ll have to go even lighter.
Tablet computers are standalone, all in one solutions in which the tablet and computer are in one device - the iPad is the best example of this, but also includes some other devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro and the Wacom Mobile Studio Pro.
The whole bag weighs around 3kg when I have everything in there for travel, but only half that when I’m just carrying my iPad and the few accessories I need for daily work at a café or workspace.
For this portability you have to pay a large premium, and also only get a small screen, limited selection of hardware configurations, and restrictive software choices.
Highly portable painting device
General Purpose Windows Tablet
Windows Tablet specialized for art
There are only a handful of phones that are capable of being decent digital painting devices, but they are as portable as you can get - the Samsung Galaxy Note series of phones are the best examples.
Using a phone for painting is much like using a tablet computer, like an iPad, but more extreme; they have a limited selection of software and comparatively low hardware specifications, and are pretty bad value for money.
The biggest and most substantial disadvantage of painting on a phone is the screen size of around 6” - I find it possible to create professional artwork on a 12-13” screen, but a 5 to 7” screen isnt really big enough to be able to work accurately and polish a piece of art enough to call it finished.
In my opinion, this pretty much rules out using a phone as your only painting device, and would be better used as a secondary device - I’m sure there are some determined and resourceful individuals out there that paint only on their phones, but I don’t think its optimal.
Recommended Phone for Digital Painting
If you aren't going for a tablet computer or a phone to paint on, you’ll need to buy a seperate tablet.
The primary decision here is between getting a tablet with or without a screen - this decision pretty much comes down to how important it is that using your tablet feels like traditional drawing, against all other factors.
A screen tablet feels more like actual drawing, and because of that you can draw slightly better lines with one; tablets without screens are generally cheaper, more portable, more durable, and better for your back and wrist health.
If you want a deeper comparison check out our Intuos vs Cintiq article, which is basically a comparison of using a screen tablet and a screenless one, or read on for summarized points
Display tablets are screens that also act as a drawing surface, so you can draw directly onto your digital canvas. It feels closer to traditional drawing and painting than using a screenless tablet does.
Recommended Budget Screen Tablet
High quality and affordable
A large screen for the highest budgets
Graphics tablets are the cheapest type of tablet, and what most beginner digital artists start with - that's not to say that they are only for beginners; many professionals prefer to use a graphic tablet instead of screen tablets.
Graphic tablets are flat slates with a drawing surface on one side; some have buttons and dials along one edge, some have touch and gesture functionality on the drawing surface, some are bluetooth enabled...
They all come with a stylus which you use to draw on their surface, while looking up at your computer monitor, similar to when you use a mouse.
Recommended for tight budgets
Reliable option for most artists
Specialized Tablet for large arm movements
Once you've decided whether you want a screen or not, now you should consider the other functionality.
If you plan on using a keyboard with your tablet, then touch functionality and any buttons or dials on your tablet will basically go unused. A keyboard is normally a much easier and faster way to change tools etc. while painting, so if you do plan on using a keyboard I wouldn’t value touch functionality and buttons in your tablet purchasing decision.
If you think you might use your tablet without a keyboard, then touch, buttons and dials become much more useful and will make painting more fluid and enjoyable.
This one is really a personal decision.
The only important situation I can think of is when using a desktop PC that you’ve placed out of the way: some tablets have short cables, which might not be long enough to reach between your intended tablet workspace, and where you’ve placed your desktop PC. In this case, buying a bluetooth tablet might be the smarter choice, so you don’t have to rearrange your workspace completely.
Of the many brands of digital tablets out there, 3 stand out in popularity - Wacom, Huion and XP-Pen.
Wacom is an established, quality brand
Wacom has the oldest brand of the 3 and best track record of quality, but charges a premium for its products - for a long time it was the only decent option for a reliable tablet.
Their graphics tablets range from about $70 to $600, their screen tablets from $400 to $3300 and their tablet computers are $2600 and $3300.
Huion and XP-Pen are cheaper with improving quality
Huion and XP-Pen are newer and fairly similar brands. They don't have the quality record that Wacom has, but their product quality has climbed very quickly, and they both price their tablets much cheaper than Wacom.
Both Huion and XP-Pens graphics tablets are about $25 to $180, and their screen tablets $170 to $1300; Huion also offers a desktop-sized 21.5” tablet computer that's $1200.
For deeper comparisons of these brands against each other, we’ve put together a few in-depth articles:
Click here to check out my personal equipment
My iPad Pro setup is highly compact and portable, so I can travel with it and work in cafe’s and co-working spaces, but still powerful and flexible enough to work professionally. I've listed everything I'm currently using over on this page.
A tablet and computer are the basic tools you need to get into digital painting, but there are some other items you might eventually look into to make your experience more comfortable, especially when using screen tablets.
Many artists use a special glove while painting, that covers the bottom of the hand and the last 1 or 2 fingers. They help your hand to glide over the screen while painting, and also keep it clean and free from residue from your hand.
With tablets that don't get as hot, like screenless graphics tablets, you might not need a glove.
If using a keyboard doesn't work for you, and neither does using your tablet's buttons or touch gestures if it has them, then perhaps a keypad might satisfy.
They come in all shapes and sizes, but what they have in common is the ability to customize the buttons and dials exactly as you want them, much like the buttons on a tablet.
Making your workspace comfortable to work in is very important if you want to paint professionally.
The stands and legs that come with most screen tablets are normally insufficient to get a comfortable position - at some point you’ll probably find you need some sort of stand so that you can have more control over the angle and height of your screen.
Which stand you should get really depends on the actual screen you have and what height and angle you need it at, so it's hard to give particular advice in this case.
Instead of trying to find a stand that can put your screen tablet at the height and angle you need, you might consider getting an arm instead.
As long as your screen tablet has the right sockets on it to be mounted on an arm, and your desk is strong enough to support the weight, something like an Ergotron will give you all the control you need over the height and angle of your screen.
Lastly, the height of both your desk and your chair will obviously affect the height difference between you and your screen and how comfortable it is to paint, not to mention things like back support and space to place your keyboard in a comfortable position.
A lot of these last few items probably won't be concerns for a beginner to worry about, but once you start painting more and more often, you'll find staying comfortable and healthy becomes more of a priority.
I started making digital art in 2009, and became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help young artists make the same journey.