This guide will help you to make informed decisions when choosing a new digital art computer or optimizing your current build.
While I use Corel Painter as an example, the principles in this guide can help optimize your computer for Photoshop and other art applications. It can also be useful for creating builds for 3D, video editing, live streaming and graphic design.
(Last Updated October 2021)
DISCLAIMER: This article is not sponsored. I bought the desktop build featured in this article with my own money. Some of the Wacom products were sent to me for review purposes. All opinions in this article are my own. I may also earn commissions from purchases made though the affiliate links in this article.
Let’s start by looking at Corel Painter’s official Minimum System Requirements:
- Windows 10 (64-Bit), with the latest updates
- Intel or AMD 64-bit multicore processor with SSSE3 (or higher)4 physical cores/8 logical cores or higher (recommended)
- AVX2 instruction set support (recommended)
- Modern GPU with OpenCL (1.2 or higher) compatibility (recommended)
- 8 GB RAM16 GB RAM or higher (recommended)
- 3.0 GB hard disk space for application file
- Solid-state drive (recommended)
- 1280 x 800 @ 100% (or higher) screen resolution1920 x 1200 @ 150% (or higher) (recommended)
- Mouse or Wintab-compatible tablet
- macOS Big Sur 11.0 or macOS 10.15, with the latest revision
- Multicore Intel with SSSE3 (or higher) or Apple M1 processor with Rosetta 2
- 4 physical cores/8 logical cores or higher (recommended)
- Modern GPU with OpenCL (1.2 or higher) compatibility (recommended)
- 8 GB RAM
- 16 GB RAM or higher (recommended)
- 1.5 GB hard disk space for application files
- Solid-state drive (recommended)
- Case-sensitive file systems are not supported
- 1280 x 800 @ 100% (or higher) screen resolution
- 1920 x 1200 @ 150% (or higher) (recommended)
- Mouse or tablet
So that’s the bare minimum needed to run Corel Painter, but what about making the application run as fast as possible? To maximize the performance of your computer, you’ll need to know some basics about computer hardware. Let’s start by talking about Workstations.
A Workstation is a configuration of computer hardware and software components which can be used to create digital illustrations. I use two different workstations to create my work. Since I’m most frequently in my home studio, I have a powerful desktop workstation that makes my digital painting experience as comfortable as possible. If I want to take my work outside of the studio, I use a Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 which is a mobile workstation.
Desktop workstations are capable of producing the most processing power, which makes them an ideal workstation to use when creating digital art. Desktops are also easily expandable which means you can add components, increase the amount of memory and upgrade to a faster processor. Rather than buy a new computer ever few years, you can simply replace the slow parts with faster ones.
While they take up less space and are more portable than a desktop, laptop computers often lack the power and expandability of a desktop. You may find it’s difficult to add memory or other components to a laptop.
There are some powerful laptops out there, but they are pricey.
PRO TIP: Some Wacom tablets are compatible with Chromebooks.
Tablet workstations are becoming more common as portable computing technology matures. Some examples of mobile workstations are the Wacom MobileStudio Pro, the Microsoft Surface Pro and the Apple iPad Pro. These workstations combine a display with a tablet and computer to give you the freedom to take your art anywhere. I’m especially fond of painting outdoors on my mobile workstation.
In recent years, the smartphone has become a worthy digital art workstation. You can connect select Wacom tablets to select smartphones to create art. With popular art apps like Krita and Clip Studio Paint being ported as full versions into Android, you really aren’t sacrificing a whole lot by working on a phone.
Now that we know what a workstation is, let’s take a look at its individual components: the Display, the Tablet and the Computer.
Display or Monitor
The Display functions as your canvas when painting on a computer, so you will need a large screen with a lot of room to work on. A proper display must also represent color and contrast accurately. Accurate color will ensure that the appearance of your artwork remains consistent whether you print it on canvas or view it on someone else’s device. You can use either a monitor or an HDTV for your digital painting display.
Displays come in a variety of resolutions. Most common are 1080 HD displays, but 2K (1440p), 4K and even 8K displays are becoming more affordable. A higher resolution means the pixels will be smaller and more dense giving you a clearer view of your artwork. This is especially noticeable in artwork that contains a lot of fine lines and details.
My primary display is a Wacom Cintiq 27QHD Touch which has 2K resolution and very accurate color. I do all of my drawing and design work on the Cintiq. My secondary display is a Samsung 50″ 1080 HDTV. The color is less accurate on the HDTV, but it works well to store reference images and windows. I also have a third display, an ASUS 24″ computer monitor.
Having more than one display not only allows me to multi-task more easily, it also gives me several unique views of my image. I can average the three images to get an idea of how my artwork will look across many types of displays.
If size matters, I recommend using a large HDTV because you’ll get more bang for your buck. If you want very accurate color, choose a professional-grade computer monitor.
Using An HDTV:
You’ll need to make sure that your computer’s video card supports HDMI input if you want to connect an HDTV to your computer. Some older models of HDTVs may have an SVGA or DVI input which can also be used to connect an HDTV to a computer.
Drawing tablets receive input from a pressure-sensitive pen, which is used to create artwork on a computer. Pressure from the pen can be used to vary the width and opacity of a brushstroke. The pen also functions as a mouse to perform navigation tasks on your computer. Without a tablet, it can be very difficult to make digital art.
Wacom is the most reputable and well-known tablet manufacturer on the market. Wacom makes top-of-the-line tablets with a lot of useful features like pen tilt, touch pad navigation and programmable shortcut buttons. Wacom products have a reputation for being pricey, but they are well worth the investment for artists who appreciate a quality product that will last for years.
Xencelabs, XP-Pen, Huion, Artisul, Parblo, Ugee, Monoprice and Genius are some of the lesser-known tablet manufacturers who make tablets at a fraction of the price of Wacom’s products. Although their products are affordable, these tablets lack the build-quality and extra features found in Wacom’s products.
While some of these imitation tablets rival Wacom tablets in technical specs like LPI Resolution and Pressure Levels, the quality of the pen and other parts are poor and do not meet the expectations of many artists, including myself. Imitation tablet drivers are seldom updated and can be difficult to install.
I don’t recommend these tablets because I’ve had some bad experiences with them. However, everyone has to start somewhere, so if that’s what you can afford, don’t let my opinion stop you from getting into digital art. In fact, my first few tablets were not made by Wacom.
Important Tablet Specs
First, look at the Active Drawing Area. I recommend choosing a large tablet so that you have enough gesture-space to use proper drawing techniques. Large 9”x12” is best for professionals. Medium 8”x6” or Small 4”x6” would be adequate for a beginner. Next look at the LPI Resolution and Pen Pressure Levels. A higher LPI (lines per inch) resolution is better because a tablet that is more sensitive can read input from the pen more accurately. Same goes for the Pressure Levels, a higher value results in a more natural variation in brush width and opacity. Although, not all art software can support higher levels of pen pressure.
Do I Need Extra Features?
Tablets with additional features can be helpful and time-saving, but are not essential to making great digital art. However, many professional artists appreciate extra features because they can make their painting workflow much smoother and more efficient.
USB or Wireless?
Most tablets connect to a computer using a USB cable, but it’s becoming more common to see tablets with Wireless Bluetooth functionality. Be forewarned that a wireless signal is not as fast or reliable as a USB connection. You may find that objects in the room and other wireless devices may interfere with the wireless signal and cause the tablet to perform with a slight lag. Wireless interference is especially bad if you have to plug the receiver into the back of your computer.
If you prefer to draw directly onto a screen, you’ll love display tablets like the Wacom Cintiq. Cintiqs are tablets with a built-in display you can draw directly onto. A Cintiq’s screen ranges in size from 13″ to 32” inches.
In my experience, it feels more natural and intuitive to draw on screen. I highly recommend the Cintiq to anyone who is serious about getting the best digital art experience possible. The newest Wacom Cintiq Pro 24″ and 27″ are the best drawing tablets money can buy.
There is also the new Wacom One which is a smaller entry-level display tablet at a more affordable price than the Cintiqs.
- Wacom Cintiq 27QHD Touch
- Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 (2nd Generation)
- Wacom Intuos Pro (Medium or Large)
- Wacom Cintiq (22, 16, 13HD, 24HD, 22HD, 27QHD or Cintiq Pro 13, 16, 24, 32)
- Wacom MobileStudio Pro 13 & 16, Wacom Cintiq Companion 1 & 2
- Intuos Art (Medium)
- Wacom One 13
See my Tablet Reviews on YouTube for more info.
A fast computer with modern hardware is essential to running Painter smoothly, but you don’t necessarily need the most expensive computer on the market.
If you’re planning to buy a new computer, I recommend looking for a good deal online. You can also go to a local computer hardware store. Retail stores like Best Buy regularly have sales, but their computers are often name-brand models like HP that aren’t optimized specifically for digital art.
If possible, choose something that is custom-built to ensure you’ll get a computer that is optimal for digital painting. (Hopefully this article will give you some insight into what components you’ll need.)
I assembled my most-recent build myself and used the Custom PC Builder feature on NewEgg to select the parts. It automatically hides incompatible products, so choosing parts for a build is as easy as selecting toppings for a pizza. I highly recommend this for anyone who is going to handle the build themselves.
While assembling a computer is easier than assembling some furniture, if you aren’t comfortable building a computer, you can have one custom-built by an online store. I’ve done this for my previous 3 builds and it was worth it to pay someone to do the work.
Mac or Windows Operating System?
Despite what you’ve heard, Macs are not inherently better for art and design than Windows computers. Whether a computer is a Windows computer or a Mac, it’s the computer with the most RAM and CPU power that defines which computer is better.
Choosing between Mac and Windows is simply a choice between which operating system you prefer. I have used both Mac and Windows, but I prefer Windows because I like the interface better than Mac OS. This is just my personal preference, so if you are more comfortable working on Mac OS, then I recommend you stick to Apple products. In my experience, Painter works much better with Windows than with Mac.
My Operating System: Windows 10 64bit Pro Edition
The Motherboard is the hub where all of your computer parts connect to. It defines what you can and cannot add to your computer. Each motherboard has different specifications. Deluxe motherboards are more expandable and can accommodate more memory, peripherals and components.
Budget motherboards are more affordable, but may not be as easy to upgrade. Unless you are building a custom computer, you probably won’t need to know much about motherboards. Many name-brand computers don’t even list the motherboard specs.
When choosing a motherboard for a custom-build, make sure to note which processor it is compatible with, how much RAM it can utilize and check to see that it has enough USB ports, hard drive connections and expansion slots to accommodate all of your components and peripherals.
My Motherboard: MSI B550
CPU – Computer Processing Unit
As the main component in a computer, the CPU defines how fast a computer can perform tasks. Many CPUs contain multiple Cores. The more Cores a CPU has, the faster it can run programs, process data and multi-task. When choosing a CPU, look for the Clock Speed which is often measured in GHz (Gigahertz). A higher value means the CPU will operate faster.
There are other specs to consider like Cache, Multi-Threading and Bus Speed, but unless you are a computer nerd, you probably won’t understand why. All you need to know is a larger number is usually better than a smaller number when it comes to that stuff.
There are two main manufacturers of CPUs: Intel and AMD. Both are great, but AMD will currently give you more bang for your buck. If you are going for Intel, get at least an i7 processor. The i5 and i3 processors are much slower, but will probably suffice if you are just trying to upgrade from an ancient computer.
Cooling your CPU is also very important. A cooler CPU can work much faster than one that overheats. Air cooling with a fan and heatsink is standard, but the fans can be noisy. Be sure to check the decibel rating of the fan if you are concerned about noise.
Liquid cooling is another option for cooling the CPU. In many cases, adequate cooling can allow a CPU to be Overclocked which means it can be enabled to run faster than advertised in the manufacturer’s specifications. Overclocking can be risky because it may shorten the life of your CPU and could make your computer unstable.
PRO TIP: If you are looking for a near-silent build, then choose a quiet air-cooling method like the Noctua fans. I found that water-cooling was louder.
My Processor: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X 12-Core 3.8GHz (Overclocked) with Noctua NH-U14S
Recommended CPU: 64bit Processor with a minimum of 4 cores
RAM – Random Access Memory
RAM Memory controls the speed at which temporary information is processed. For example if you are working on a painting that is 1GB in file size, you would want your computer to have at least 1GB of RAM plus additional RAM to run your operating system and background tasks.
RAM comes in modules or “sticks”. Modules typically store several gigabytes of memory and the amount of memory per module varies. Typically, the memory is available in increments of 16, 32, 64 and 128GB. All computers have a limit to how much RAM can be installed which is determined by the number of RAM slots available and the amount of memory that can be used per slot. Memory is often installed in pairs. So for example, if you wanted to add 32GB of RAM to your computer, you could either choose two 16GB modules or four 8GB modules depending on the specifications of your computer.
Memory modules also have different access speeds, so choose the RAM with the fastest access speed possible. RAM Memory is not to be confused with Storage Memory like a hard drive which we will discuss later.
My Memory: 64GB 3200MHz DDR4
Recommended Memory: 16 to 32GB DDR4 or more
If the motherboard and CPU are guts, then the case is your computer’s exoskeleton. At the very least, you want a case that fits your motherboard size and can accommodate all of your other components. There are some crazy cases out there with LED lights and all kinds of fancy features, but you don’t really need any of that for an art workstation.
I chose a case that has sound-dampening, cable management and easy access. It really does make a difference compared to the cheap case I bought for my previous build. A good case is a worthy upgrade in my opinion.
My Case: Phanteks Eclipse P600S
A Video Card provides additional memory for graphic-related tasks like digital painting, 3D modeling and video editing. It also controls the quantity and type of displays you can connect to your computer. Most computers come with an on-board video card which is often under-powered and can be inadequate for working with Painter. It is recommended to upgrade or install a dedicated PCI-E Video Card to ensure your system functions smoothly. You don’t need an expensive card with a ton of memory or power, just one that supports modern 3D and video requirements like current Shader Models and Direct X features. Upgrading your computer’s Video Card will improve Painter’s performance and will give you more options for connecting multiple monitors. There are two main manufacturers of videos cards, ATI and Nvidia. Both make excellent video cards and I can’t say I prefer one over the other.
One thing to be aware of is that GPUs can sometimes be in very high demand. So watch out for price-gouging and be aware of the actual retail price.
Corel Painter 2021 and later are able to support GPU for brush acceleration. In my experience, GPU makes a big difference in performance, but it’s only supported by certain brush types.
If you’ll also be using Photoshop and the Adobe Creative Cloud products, you can also take advantage of faster processing if your video card supports CUDA. Here is Adobe’s list of recommended video cards: https://helpx.adobe.com/premiere-pro/system-requirements.html
Hard Drives (Artwork Storage)
Hard Drives can store information long-term on your computer. While having more than one hard drive is optional, multiple hard drives can be useful for making Painter run faster because a spare drive can be used as a scratch drive or cache to improve read and write speeds. Spare drives can also provide you with more room to store and backup your artwork files. I highly recommend having at least two hard drives, but more than two is even better.
Hard drives are often the bottleneck when it comes to optimizing your computer. Even with a fast processor and tons of RAM, a computer with slow hard drives won’t work very fast because the drives cannot transfer data as quickly as the other components. Choosing drives with fast READ/WRITE speeds will avoid performance bottlenecks and will ensure you are utilizing the full potential of your CPU and RAM.
There are several types of internal drives to choose from:
IDE (PATA) Disks
IDE drives use a traditional spinning disk to store data. In the past, write speed was a bit faster for spinning drives, but there was also a greater risk for drive failure because of the moving parts.
Overall, IDE drives are fairly reliable and can be more cost effective for storing large amounts of data. IDE drives are a safer choice for long-term storage and backing up important data because accidentally deleted, reformatted or corrupted files can often be recovered by scanning the drive with recovery software.
Depending on the model, IDE drives operate at different speeds. The most common connection is SATA. SATA comes in several different speeds. SATAIII is faster than SATAII and regular SATA. Your motherboard must support SATAIII to take advantage of the fastest IDE read/write speed. Currently, IDE drives are being far outperformed by SSD drives in both read and write speeds.
SSD – Solid State Drive
Similar to RAM memory, Solid State Drives use memory chips to store data rather than relying on a spinning disk. Since there are no moving parts, SSD drives are less likely to fail than a traditional drive. However, accidentally deleted files and reformatted SSDs cannot recover lost data even by scanning with recovery software because the free space is overwritten immediately.
Read speeds are much faster on SSD drives compared to IDE drives. SSD drives typically connect through SATAIII on your motherboard.
NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory) drives are a type of SSD that is fairly new to the scene. The newest of these drives are very small, about the size of a stick of memory, and take up hardly any space at all. They can also by much faster than an SSD that connects through SATAIII because they can be connected to an M.2 port which transfers data via PCI-E.
RAID – Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks
Though it involves a heightened risk of data loss, advanced computer users can greatly improve IDE drive performance by combining multiple drives together using a RAID 0 configuration. Two drives working together read and write faster than a single drive. Four drives working together are twice as fast as 2 drives. Your motherboard must support RAID to link drives together. (SSDs do not perform better in a RAID configuration.)
The following is a guide to setting up an optimal hard drive configuration:
#1 Primary Hard Drive:
Your Primary hard drive should be an Internal drive which contains your operating system and program files. This drive only needs to be large enough to store your installed program files and Windows or Mac Operating System. (At least 200GB to 500GB of storage space is recommended.) Using an SSD rather than an IDE drive will greatly improve the time it takes to load your Operating System and applications will load faster.
#2 Long-term Storage Hard Drives:
The Storage drives contain all of your personal files, compositions and completed artwork. These should be a fairly large capacity drives so they can store a large number of paintings. (500 GB to 2+ TB of storage space.) IDE drives are more reliable as long-term storage drives.
#3 Work In Progress Drive
Because you want your projects and resource files to load as fast as possible, it’s best to use a SSD or NVMe SSD for your active projects. Once a project is completed, move it to your long-term storage IDE drive for safe keeping.
#4 Scratch/Cache Hard Drive:
The Scratch Drive works like virtual-memory for Painter and other applications that may want to use it to store temporary information. You can also use this drive as additional storage for backing up artwork and personal data if you like. Scratch drives can be either IDE or SSD, but SSD will give you better performance.
NOTE: External USB and eSATA drives transfer files slowly, so they are not recommended for use as Scratch drives.
#5 External Hard Drive:
Using an additional External drive is essential for backing up your completed artwork and keeping it safe. Get in the habit of backing up each painting on more than one device because losing artwork files is a real risk and can happen without warning for no good reason at all.
My drive configuration:
- Operating System (Windows 10), Installed Programs & Media Cache – Samsung 840 EVO 250GB SSD (SATA III Connection)
- Footage & Media Cache – Samsung 960 EVO 500GB NVMe SSD (M.2 PCI-E Connection)
- Work In Progress, Rendering Destination – Corsair Force MP600 1TB NVMe SSD (M.2 PCI-E Connection)
- Long-term storage of completed projects, files and backups – Several IDE Drives 2-4TB capacity (SATA III Connection)
- Extra Cache & Scratch Disk – Samsung 850 EVO 128GB SSD (SATAIII Connection)
- External Backup Drives – 4TB IDE drive & 6TB IDE drive (USB 3.0 Connection)
Check out this tutorial for more information on drives and drive configurations.
Buying a computer is like buying a car, the salesperson will always try to sell you a bunch of additional features you don’t really need to get you to spend more money. You can keep the cost of your new computer down by eliminating any unnecessary features. Besides the computer and monitor, you will need a mouse and a keyboard. Additional upgrades may not be necessary.
If you are on a tight budget, here is a list of upgrades to avoid:
- High-end computer cases with external gauges and LED lights
- Overclocked computers
- Professional Sound Cards
- High-end Video Cards for gaming
- Expensive CPU Cooling/Heatsinks
- Extra-Large Capacity Hard Drives (Over 1TB)
- Wireless Mouse & Keyboard
- External Speakers (Unless you need them)
- CD/DVD/Blu-Ray (optical) drives are becoming obsolete as most software and drivers can be downloaded rather than installed from a disc
Planning For The Future
It would be wise to plan ahead for future versions of Painter and invest in newer technology. If you can afford to, buy a computer with as much RAM memory and CPU processor power as you can get for a reasonable price.
Updates & Drivers
It’s important to keep your computer’s hardware and software up to date by installing the latest drivers and updates. Check regularly for updates to each component of your computer.
Anti-Virus & Anti-Malware
Protecting your computer against both viruses and malware is crucial to keeping your artwork and data safe. Make sure an up-to-date anti-virus is always running on your computer. The free Windows Defender works great, but you can also upgrade to something more robust if you like.
Fortunately, computers do not require much physical maintenance. I would recommend that you buy a few cans of compressed air to remove dust from the inside of your computer. This can keep your computer from overheating which will extend the life of your components.
Where to buy these products
You can use the affiliate links throughout this article to purchase these products online. You can also buy the parts from your local computer or electronics store. Best Buy is one such example.
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Even with the most expensive build money can buy, your art software is not going to run in real-time. Computer hardware and software have come a long way, but making art on a computer is still laggy when you are working with extra large canvases and complex brush rendering. I’m not saying it’s not worth it to invest in a fast computer, just don’t expect that laying down $3000-$4000 on a super computer is going to make a huge difference in your art applications. You might be able to justify an expensive build if you will be able to take advantage of that power with video editing, gaming or 3D apps, but don’t go broke trying to obtain the ultimate digital art build.
I hope this information helps you make a more informed decision when you buy your next computer or upgrade your parts. If you found this guide helpful, please take a second to share the link to this article so that others may benefit from it.