To some degree, all artists are digital artists these days. It’s not so much whether or not you actually create the art on the computer — eventually, it needs to get there.
Particularly for those who aren’t creating digitally, purchasing a computer can be a confusing task. With this installment in the monthly “How I Work As A Digital Artist” series, the focus will be on the computer. Not only is it the most fitting place to start, it also sets the foundation for everything to follow.
While this series is entitled “How I Work”, I am going to be a bit less specific here because the specifics aren’t as important. That said, my current rig is a 2014 MacBook Pro 15”. I just upgraded from my trusty 2008 Mac Pro tower. The MacBook Pro ships with 16GB of RAM which is plenty for my needs (and most likely yours as well — but we will get to that shortly). I run the same dual monitor setup I had on the Mac Pro, using some adapter cables. It’s quite amazing that a laptop can run dual monitors, and if I open up the laptop — three! I usually run it closed and I have an external keyboard attached, along with my Wacom Intuos4 medium graphics tablet.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about what you might want for your own digital art studio.
The right tools can make a huge difference not only in the efficiency of your studio, but also in the enjoyment of the creation and sharing of your artwork. That said, there’s little reason to go overboard with the most high-end system if you aren’t outputting HD 3D animated renderings. These days you can get a more-than-sufficient setup for a much lower percentage of your income than in years past. For us early adopters, there was a time when it was quite pricey to go digital. Thankfully, that is no longer the case these days.
The number one rule for working for yourself is to spend as little money as possible, but when it comes to your tools, be sure you find a good balance between spending the least possible and buying quality tools.
Windows or Mac?
I think we need to start off this discussion with the eternal “Mac vs. Windows” debate. For the record, I’ve been a Mac user for my entire computer career and these articles will be heavily Mac-focused. That said, there is very little difference when it comes to speed, power, functionality and software between the two.
The Macintosh computers, back in the 80s and 90s, used to be the only platform one could run graphics software like Quark Xpress or Photoshop. It wasn’t a “Mac is better” argument, it was a “Mac is the only way to do these things” situation. Suffice it to say that these days regardless of the operating system you choose, you can create art on it. You may find that more creative types gravitate towards the Mac, but these days that is no more than a preference — unless of course we are talking about highly specialized software. Some is only available for Mac OS X, some only for the Windows operating system. That said, many design studios are Mac-based, so knowledge of the Mac may be required or desired. But since we are talking about working for yourself, it’s really up to you. Don’t think you must get a Mac if you want to create art digitally.
If you are purchasing a computer today, you can pretty much guarantee that anything you buy will be powerful enough to run the software you want to run. Film editors and 3D rendering artists might be excluded from this, but anyone working in a 2D format is going to find that you probably can’t find a new computer that isn’t powerful enough for your needs.
What you do want to keep an eye on the the RAM (a.k.a. the “memory”) your computer has. In short, the more RAM the better, and this especially applies to your old behemoth sitting under the drawing table — most likely that beast has some life in it if you’ve never upgraded the RAM.
How Much RAM?
So what is RAM anyways? RAM stands for Random Access Memory. Think of it like your brain’s short-term memory. When you run software like Photoshop, it is loaded into the RAM. When you open files, they are stored in the RAM. The long-term “memory” is your hard drive, where files are stored and saved. They are loaded into RAM because files loaded into RAM can be accessed much faster. it’s all about speed. A Flash drive or a smartphone both use RAM exclusively (part of the reason they are so fast). Even computers are starting to get equipped with RAM-based drives instead of hard drives. These are called SSD (Solid-State Drives) Drives. Yes, that D in SSD seems to be redundant!
Computers have limits as to how much RAM can be installed, both due to the number of slots you can install memory, and design limitations in the computer that limit the amount of RAM you can install. For example, an old laptop might only be able to handle 4GB of RAM total, while a new laptop can ship with 16GB already installed.
You can expect a computer to ship these days with at least 4GB (Gigabytes) of RAM. This is probably sufficient to run the operating system and a few software applications, but little else. And when you work on large, 300 DPI files n Photoshop, you are going to feel the pain of low RAM quickly. An ideal amount of RAM would be 8-16GB, and if you can afford it, 32GB would be phenomenal. The biggest RAM hog on my Mac is Photoshop, and I’ve found 16GB to be more than sufficient to work quickly and without any slowdowns or annoying hangs. I can even run screen recording software like Screenflow at the same time with no real speed issues.
That said, RAM prices can be counterintuitive and 32GB or RAM may not be twice the price of 16GB. While RAM is relatively easy to install, it’s best if you have a professional do so. Even better, if you are buying a new computer, buy one with the amount of RAM you want already installed.
The bottom line is: the more RAM, the better. Even in an old computer. Look to upgrade the RAM before you plunk down money on a whole new machine. You might be amazed at how fast that computer will be with that simple upgrade. And if you are buying new, get a computer with as much RAM installed as you can reasonably afford. Aim for at least 8GB, and ideally 16GB.
Continuing the “brain” analogy from above, hard drives are the long-term memory in the setup. There isn’t much to say about these, as the biggest factor you need to concern yourself with is storage space. Bigger numbers are better — which means they can store more stuff. If you plan on working from a laptop, then we are talking about external hard drives and you’ll want the drives that are physically the smallest, but which also have the largest storage capacity. It’s always better to have less stuff to lug around, and more capacity to store more files.
I would suggest buying all your hard drives as external drives as opposed to upgrading the internal drives in the computer. The reason being is when you want to upgrade your computer, you just plug the hard drives into the new computer. It's much, much easier.
Also mentioned above, SSD drives are new technology that is starting to appear in computers. SSD drives are solid-state, meaning no physical parts to wear out over time as in a traditional hard drive. The downside is that they are expensive. The upside is that they are very, very fast. Yes, you want an SSD drive if you can afford one. No it's not required.
One last thing to consider when talking about hard drives are backups. I will discuss backing up your files in more detail later on in the series, but for now you may want to consider buying hard drives in duplicates — one for the files, one to back the files up. Personally, I like to do one local backup and then one online backup. But like I said, we'll cover this in detail later on.
And remember: a backup means you have two copies of the files, not that you’ve stored it on an external hard drive. And if you have been diligently backing up your files by some manual drag-and-drop method, I will help you put that behind you and get things automated with software. And I will discuss online/cloud backup services as well.
As mentioned above, any computer purchased within the last 3 years is going to be plenty powerful. Even entry-level machines like a Mac mini. You do not need to be concerned about processor speeds any longer. Focus on more RAM and the availability of an SSD option.
My advice for monitors is to get something nice and get something decent sized — don't go overboard, but don't be cheap. You'll want at least 20 inch monitor and a 24” or larger would be even better. But you can get by with a 20 inch monitor. If you are on a laptop, you can plug in an external monitor for when you are working at home or in the studio. That way you can work on a larger screen but still have the mobility to work remotely when needed or desired.
Another worthy investment is a monitor calibration device. This will allow you to ensure that colors you see on screen are accurate to how they will print. And you’d be amazed at how out of whack monitor colors can be, even on nice monitors. I use a Pantone Huey, which is an entry-level device but it seems to do the trick. Don’t even think about trying to manually adjust your monitor, trust me!
A Good Chair
This may be the number one thing on the list. Years ago, I had some severe pain in my right arm (ulnar tunnel syndrome) that was getting worrisome. It was definitely related to the micro-movements used when drawing, and from my research, from poor sitting posture.
I invested in a high-quality chair (as well as a foot rest to ensure proper ergonomic sitting posture), and the problems all went away.
Sit properly. Take many breaks! And be careful of standing work desks, it’s the lack of physical variety that’s most dangerous in these working situations. But if you are going to sit, get a good chair and don’t think of this as optional. Expect to spend $300 to $600 on a chair. It’s worth it in the long run!
So that covers the basic gist of getting set up with your computer. This will get you up and running, but as far as actually creating artwork on the computer, I am going to devote an entire post just to these peripherals. In that post, I’ll discuss graphics tablets in depth, and give you an overview of printers and scanners — as well as some tips for using your smartphone as an input device.
To recap the basics from this article:
- Consider upgrading your old computer’s RAM before buying new
- If upgrading or buying new, aim for 8–16GB of RAM
- SSD are pricey, but worth it
- External hard drives are the way to go
- Don’t forget about backup hard drives
- Forget processor speeds
- Aim for a well-reviewed monitor in the 20” to 30” size range
- Be ergonomic — invest in a quality chair
George Coghill is a freelance illustrator specializing in cartoon logo design.
Don't Miss Part 2: Peripherals — coming next month
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