When it comes to illustration tools, we’ve come a long way from ink on paper. A looonnnnggggg way. Today’s designers have a ton of amazing illustration tools at their disposal, from drawing tablets and styluses to apps and add-ons. These tools can do a ton of things, including creating designs that look like ink on paper.

two characters working of their tablets using illustration tools
Illustration by OrangeCrush

If you’re a designer (or gearing up to become one), you’re probably familiar with some illustration tools. To help you find and learn more about some of the illustration tools available right now, we compiled this list of hardware, programs and add-ons that every designer should know about.

Hardware

Wacom Cintiq 22

man sitting at a Wacom Cintiq 22, drawing
Via Wacom

Wacom products are universally loved by digital designers, but we’re focusing on the Cintiq 22 because it was recently named the best overall drawing tablet by Creative Bloq. This tablet is designed for illustrators of all skill levels, offering enough features to keep seasoned veterans busy without being too complex for beginners. It’s a large tablet, so it needs dedicated desk space. It comes with the Wacom Pro Pen 2, which has more than 8,000 sensitivity pressure levels and tilt sensitivity to accurately capture every single stroke.

Price:

  • $1,199

Key features:

  • Compatible with both Windows and Mac
  • Able to connect wirelessly, wired or via Bluetooth
  • 2,048 sensitivity pressure levels
  • Built-in adjustable stand
  • Full HD screen
  • Anti-glare finish on the screen

iPad Pro 12.9-inch

iPad Pro 12.9-inch
Via Amazon

Alternatively, as your primary design tablet, you can go with the iPad Pro 12.9-inch, which was recently named the “best drawing tablet for iOS.” One of the best things about the iPad Pro is its versatility—it’s not a dedicated drawing tablet.

Ipad Pro is an awesome tool for illustration, especially with Procreate. It is very compact and you can always carry it with you. It is perfect for quick sketches.
- E-T, 99designs designer
labeled illustration of a dandelion bunch with its roots
Illustration by Yokaona

The iPad Pro is considered to be the best tablet available because it offers up loads of apps for work and play. If you’re looking for an all-in-one option, this is it.

It’s not just renowned for its versatility, it’s also known for its compatibility in the Apple ecosystem. Being able to access files on multiple devices at once, gives you a headache-less workday, or creative process.

The main reason I prefer the iPad Pro instead of other Hardware brands is the compatibility with other Apple devices (easy and stable connection, AirDrop etc.)
- Yokaona, 99designs designer

Price:

  • $1,099 for 128GB

Key features:

  • Mini LED display, which means a greater brightness range, a higher contrast ratio than tablets without this type of display, deeper blacks and overall, a longer life for the product itself
  • Apple M1 processor
  • Anti-glare coating on the screen
  • Bright display with crisp images
  • Long battery life

Wacom Pro Pen 3D

Wacom Pro Pen 3D
Via Creative Bloq

Sure, you can work with the Wacom Pro Pen that comes with your Cintiq tablet…or you can upgrade to the Pro Pen 3D. Built for easily creating 3D art, this pen replaced the Pro Pen’s rear eraser with a new setup: three buttons along the side of the pen’s body. These three buttons are meant to make it easier for designers to navigate in 3D environments, but you can assign them to any function. Because the Pro Pen 3D lacks the eraser that the standard Pro Pen 2 comes with, many designers assign the new third button to the “undo” function. Another option is to set it to toggle between displays if you’ve got two displays. The illustrators who would benefit most from this pen are illustrators who do a lot of jumping around while they work and need a tool that makes it easy to navigate with one hand.

Price:

  • $99.95

Key features:

  • Customizable keys
  • Works for 2D and 3D design and modeling
  • Three-button configuration makes it easy to pan, zoom and tumble while working in multiple applications
  • 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity
  • Come with two standard and four felt nibs

Programs

Vectornator

screenshot of Vectornator homepage
via vectornator.io

How often do you design on the fly? If your answer is “not often, because I don’t want to lug my laptop around,” you’re in luck—Vectornator is a design app you can use on your phone, your iPad or your Mac, and instantly access your designs from any one of them.

With Vectornator, you aren’t limited to just graphics. You can design lettering, brochures and even UI designs for web and mobile apps. It’s easy enough for beginners to pick up quickly, but offers enough advanced functionality to create expert-level designs.

Price:

  • Free

Platforms:

  • MacOS
  • iPadOS
  • iOS

Key features:

  • Proprietary feature “autotrace,” which allows you to trace raster images and instantly transform them into vector images
  • Multiple other tools, including a pen gesture tool, a node tool to aid in defining shapes within designs and multiple pathing options

Procreate

screenshot of Procreate homepage
Via procreate.art
colorful comic showing people, aliens and various spaces
Illustration by bananodromo

There are a lot of reasons to like Procreate. For one, there’s no subscription fee—you pay once and you’ve got it forever. For another, it’s got more than 130 preset brushes, allows illustrators to create vector and raster graphics, allows for 4K resolution video export, loads of masks and blend modes and easy import to Photoshop. Basically, if you need a program that does everything a graphic designer needs, you need Procreate.

If I am looking for a more hand-drawn feel to the strokes and fills, I use procreate.
- bananodromo, 99designs designer

Price:

  • $9.99

Platforms:

  • iOS and iPad OS

Key features:

  • Works easily with Apple Pencil
  • A feature that allows you to record your drawing process, making it easy to demonstrate your technique or create time-lapse videos of your work
  • Utilizes intuitive gestures, like a double-finger tap to undo

Inkscape

screenshot of inkscape.org homepage
via inkscape.org

Inkscape is a popular vector design program that many see as a viable alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Like Illustrator, it’s a solid choice for professional designers…not just because it’s a valuable, advanced tool but also because it has a bit of a steep curve and can potentially be too much of a program for a beginner. That said, there’s a whole community of Inkscape users out there, ready to answer any questions a user has and help them get the full experience out of it.

Price:

  • Free

Platforms:

  • Windows
  • Mac
  •  Linux

Key features:

  • Inkscape is open source, so it’s constantly evolving and improving—and you can adapt it to suit your needs
  • Available in more than 90 languages
  • Lots of tools, shapes, paths, gradients, patterns and more
  • Intuitive interface
  • Converts bitmap images into vectors

Paint Tool Sai

screenshot of Paint Tool Sai
via Standalone Installer

Do you like drawing anime and manga styles? Yes? Then you need Paint Tool Sai. Here’s why: since its launch, Paint Tool Sai has been a top choice for anybody who wants to design anime/cartoon/manga characters and scenes. And since then, it’s evolved from a strictly 2D design software to one that makes it possible to create awesome-looking 3D designs.

Price:

  • about $50 (5500 JPY)

Platforms:

  • Windows

Key features:

  • Creates raster graphics
  • Anti-aliased drawings, which means smoother lines for your illustrations
  • A huge variety of colors to choose from
  • Layering feature
  • Fully digitized support

Stubborn Generator

screenshot of Stubborn Generator
via stubborn.fun

When you need to do a lot of illustrations and you don’t have time to draw all of them by hand, tools like Stubborn Generator can come in handy. With Stubborn Generator, you can build unique characters and drop them into scenes to tell engaging stories.

Stubborn Generator is just one of the many illustration tools in the craftwork.design library. Others include Follow Me illustrations, a collection of friendly-looking characters that can be customized in any graphics editor and Silky illustrations, a set focused on trendy, engaging characters that can similarly be customized for any graphic design project. These tools can be licensed for commercial use, and they’re used by global brands like Pinterest and Uber.

Price:

  • Free for the standard version
  • $89/quarter for Craftwork Pro Access

Platforms:

  • Mac
  • PC

Key features:

  • Compatible with Sketch, Adobe Illustrator and Figma
  • All images are vector-based
  • Easy to use, even for non-designers

Add-ons

Kyle’s Brushes

infographic showing a few of Kyle’s Brushes
Via Business of Illustration

Award-winning illustrator Kyle T. Webster developed Kyle’s Brushes in 2014 and since then, this tool has become world-renowned. There are more than 1,000 unique brushes in Kyle’s Brushes collection, which is completely free to all Creative Cloud subscribers.

Kyle’s brushes—yeah, they are good. Huge variety and they are quite realistic.
- bananodromo, 99designs designer

Price:

  • Free for Creative Cloud subscribers

Key features:

  • Compatible with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Fresco
  • Tons of unique brushes to choose from, with more being added regularly
  • Many of Kyle’s Brushes mimic hand-drawn work, like lines in chalk or gouache, making it possible to create digital designs that look hand-drawn

Grid Builder

screenshot of Grid Builder page
via Grid Builder

Even for the most experienced designers, lettering can be tricky. In many designs, a text overlay just won’t do—the text needs to be part of the illustration and to do that, you need to illustrate it by hand.

And, of course, it needs to have a coherent shape. And the kerning needs to work. And the lines need to be even and straight…and when they don’t need to be even and straight, they still need to look intentional.

Enter Grid Builder, the illustration tool that makes it super easy to incorporate text into your designs by providing you with 35 unique grid shapes. Now, you can fit text into your design before you draw a single letter.

Price:

  • $19

Key features:

  • Compatible with Photoshop, Illustrator, Procreate and many more programs
  • Use grid overlays to fit text into a design, then draw in the lettering
  • Compatible with a ton of programs
  • Digital and analog use
  • Beginner-friendly

Launch your new design career

These are just some of the many, many amazing illustration tools available to you. Take some time to familiarize yourself with these and other design tools to find the ones that work best for you and the kinds of designs you do.

Then, when you feel your work is up to snuff to start taking on clients, join the 99designs community! Our platform is full of designers from all over the world who are growing their careers and networking with each other every day.

Want to fire up your illustrating career?
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