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One of the most enjoyable things about being an illustrator is all the toys we get to play with. I’m a tech nerd through and trough, so my tools and toys are probably more high-tech compared to artists who prefer to work with more traditional media. But it doesn’t really matter how we do our work – there are always neat new tools to work with that can inspire us to create amazing things in ways we never considered before.

Since I am often asked how I produce my illustrations, I thought it would be fun to write about all of the design tools that are currently in my arsenal that I absolutely cannot live without. I’ve used a lot of different software and hardware over the years, and there are a few products that have stood the test of time and will remain a core part of my design studio for a long time to come:

Wacom Tablet

I’ll admit that it took me far too long to get comfortable with a drawing tablet, but it’s been the biggest game-changer of them all for me over last 10 years. I bought my first Wacom tablet in 2006 (a white Graphire 4), and the frustration I felt after playing with it for the first 20 minutes is something I remember quite well. The hope of creating super-cool drawings with my computer was washed away like a tsunami as soon as I realized the necessary coordination involved, and I tossed it back in the box in a fit of frustration.

It sat untouched for the next 4 years, but I pulled it back out in 2010 determined to make it work because…well…all the other cool illustrators use them, so there must be something that makes the learning curve worth the effort. Right? Long story short, I stuck with it and I’m at the point now where using a mouse seems weird to me. I’ve since upgraded to a medium-sized Wacom Intuos 5, and I’m pretty confident when I say that my aircraft illustrations wouldn’t be possible without this thing. Manually applying soft shadows to complex surfaces in Photoshop requires a delicate and precise touch, and the Intuos 5 is the perfect tool for the job.

PhotoStore from Ktools.net

Jeff and Jon at Ktools.net have built an incredibly powerful photo store script that is something I have grown to depend on over the years for the distribution of my images. I started selling my own illustrations with PhotoStore 3 in 2007, and back then, I was a bit apprehensive about running my own store and dealing with all the potential headaches that might be associated with that. Server issues, corrupt files, updates…ugh. I am a designer who hates to dabble in code so I was very pleasantly relieved when I realized how stable the PhotoStore platform was. I’ve since upgraded to version 4 and I couldn’t be any happier – everything runs smoothly and exactly as it should so I never have to spend time tinkering with annoying technical issues. And even if I do run into a problem, the ongoing support they offer is top-notch. I’m a customer for life.

Sketchbook Pro

As I developed the hand/eye coordination to use my Wacom tablet, I grew more and more excited about rekindling an old passion of mine: drawing cars. I quickly found Photoshop to be too clunky for free and loose sketching, and that led me to SketchBook Pro by Autodesk. It was exactly what I was looking for in a drawing tool: a simple and clean interface, the ability to switch between pens and pencils quickly, super-fast brush size changes, and the ability to freely rotate the canvas as I worked.

Although I don’t post any of my sketches here on my blog, I’m trying to draw by hand as much as possible. Just seeing the app icon for SketchBook Pro sitting in the dock at the bottom of my screen every day has been an inspiring reminder for me to step away from the technical 3d stuff whenever possible and get back to my roots (drawing by hand).

FormZ

I’ve been a FormZ user since 1999, and I’ve grown to love it’s simplicity and ease of use for creating rich 3d content. It doesn’t get much love and attention from others in the 3d world (outside the architecture realm), but I’ve found it to be one of the tools I depend on the most in my day to day activities.

Even though I recently mentioned that I want to be using Maya as much as possible to create images for my Royalty-Free image collection, I’m starting to realize that might not be as realistic as I had hoped. Maya is incredibly powerful, and offers an awesome assortment of tools for building complex models. But the downside is that rendering times are often too long for high-volume production work. And that’s where FormZ shines.

FormZ is a powerful 3d modeling program without all the nauseating complexity that you’d find elsewhere (like Maya), and that allows me to create 3d content quickly (from rough geometry to final rendering) without much fuss.

The fastest computer I can afford

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, it’s that time is a valuable thing. Clients tend to demand things as fast as possible, and I like to move fast so that I can have more personal free time to do the things I want to do. Since I spend all day in front of a computer, it behooves me to be using hardware that can keep a fast pace and won’t leave me sitting and waiting for it to catch up.

That may seem like common sense, but for years I had a hard time justifying the cost of a powerful computer built for heavy visual design work. I’ve always been a bit of a tightwad, and the thought of spending a ton of money on hardware that would be obsolete in six months sent shudders up an down my spine. But two years ago, while working with a very complex 3d model that was bringing my years-old iMac to it’s knees, I decided enough was enough and went big on a beefy multi-processor Mac Pro. It was some of the best money I’ve ever spent in my life. Lesson learned.

Because I’m a sucker for hot new technology, I am always on the lookout for products that I think will allow me to grow as a designer. The list above is what I consider to be my “core” toolset – likely to always be there out of familiarity and alignment with my own design process. I am sure the list will keep growing as I advance in my career, but for now, I’d be lost without any of them.

How about you? I’m curious what other designers consider to be part of their core toolset, so please leave a comment and let me know!

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