Creative, Clever, and Connected: The Best Gifts for Digital Artists

We asked professional graphic designer and PCMag contributor Shelby Tupper what are some of the best gifts an artist can get this year. She had some enviable gift ideas, from high-end drawing tablets to stocking accessories.

It won’t be long before the season of twinkling LEDs and gift-giving begins. If you want to get a head start, check out this list of gifts sure to inspire any digital artist or designer in your life.

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1. You can’t go wrong with this digital canvas

Apple’s stylish 10.9 inch iPad Air, with a Liquid Retina display and blazing-fast M1 chip, is the dream gift for creative types of all kinds – and creating art is just a fraction of what it offers. A plethora of mainstream and niche apps enable lifelike painting, photo retouching, animation, computational and generative art, symmetry and mandala creation, coloring books, virtual reality painting, and much more.

Apple iPad Air 2 in review

2. A personalized stylus

Although not included with the iPad Air, the 2nd generation Apple Pencil is the ideal input device for it. As Apple says, “Dream it up. Write it down.” There are many reasons to get one as an iPad companion. It magnetically snaps to the iPad along its flat, anti-roll edge for pairing, charging, and storage, and features a touch surface for added functionality. It’s weighted just right and has realistic pressure and tilt sensitivity. To top it off, you can have a message engraved for your recipient at no extra cost.

Apple Pencil (2nd generation) review

3. Pencils, calligraphy tips, smudge pens and thousands of brushes in your pocket

You might want to outfit your Apple Pencil with some extra tips and covers. You’ll find several alternatives to the pencil’s hard plastic tip, each offering a range of surface effects – including softening the tapping of the tip against glass. For this, and to add different levels of friction to improve control, we recommend silicone tip covers and softer plastic screwdriver bits (the upgrade option mentioned below). The silicone tip covers offer the most resistance, making the pen feel spongy and gooey, almost like you’re really pushing through paint. The tips are inexpensive enough to use as stocking fillers, but be careful, they’re also small and easily lost.

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Upgrade option: For a more definite interaction with the iPad glass, soft and hard tips(Opens in a new window) can be screwed into the pencil and completely replaces the existing tip. Both are great additions to a rewarding painting or drawing experience.

4. When more friction is a good thing

One downside to drawing on the iPad is the lack of friction between the hard plastic pen tip and the shiny, smooth glass. This combination limits a certain level of controlled precision that artists enjoy when using pencil and paper or brush and canvas. Adhesive films help mitigate the problem, but they can reduce visibility, distort colors, and increase RGB pixels, making your screen appear grainy and less clear. One of the least obtrusive friction-increasing films is made by Paperlike. This durable matte screen protector has a tooth that mimics paper and offers a natural resilience that’s great to paint on. While the negative impact on screen quality is minimal, it’s easily noticeable – perhaps a reasonable compromise for most projects. In addition, the film protects your screen from scratches and reduces glare with its Nanodot technology.

5. Key-Ping-It Under Cover

An iPad is a sizable investment, so it’s wise to buy a case that will protect it from accidental bumps and falls. A cover with an integrated keyboard is even better. Both Apple’s offerings, the Magic Keyboard and the Smart Folio with Keyboard, are excellent. But if you’re looking for something different, check out the Typecase Touch Case. Not only is it a case and a full 78-key keyboard, it’s also a 360-degree clamshell stand that rotates into multiple convenient positions. It has a right- and left-click touchpad and a brilliant and customizable ten-color rainbow backlit keyboard that you can turn off to save power. The Touch Case is also available in 12 metallic colors, including the six iPad Air colors. However, what is most appealing is its price of less than $65.

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Upgrade Options: You can’t go wrong with Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio or Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro either, although both come at a premium price point.

6. The gift of time

For the Adobe Illustrator professional in your life, a one-year subscription to Astute Graphics’ Illustrator plug-ins is a win. This amazing suite of 21 time-saving plug-ins is sure to ignite the wonder of special effects and creativity. Wherever there’s an undiscovered gap in Illustrator’s functionality, the clever folks at Astute Graphics in the UK step in and fill it. In addition to the four included plug-ins, the Astute toolbox has highly customizable live tools for all vectors that allow reform, texturing, stippling, Photoshop-style color adjustments, randomize objects and text, inspect and repair, fill spaces, and dots manipulate and curves and improve the native pen tool – among other things. They have become an absolute necessity in my shop. Subscription includes all updates, new tools as they are developed, video and blog tutorials, technical support and freebies.

7. Raising neurons

Personal and professional development is a way to stay relevant and informed while improving your game and gaining new skills. With an annual subscription to LinkedIn Learning (formerly, you can choose from a library of 18,000 premium, quality courses in a wide range of business, technology, and creative topics. The courses are taught by experts and certified instructors and include practice files and quizzes; some even offer a professional achievement certificate. Artists will find all sorts of goodies, from tutorials in Photoshop to more in-depth courses on figure drawing, urban sketching, portraiture, monster drawing, animation, comic book design, and using Wacom tablets.

Budget option: For a more organic and less expensive experience, consider online learning platform Skillshare (about $165 per year) instead. It is excellent for creative and craft themes.

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LinkedIn Learning Review

8. Creative exploration

These affordable cell phone clip-on lenses from Mocalaca work with the front and rear cameras of most mobile devices, including the iPad. The lenses complement the phone or tablet’s existing wide-angle and telephoto lenses and include the following: 2x optical; telephoto; Kaleidoscope; Soft, Sparkle and Radial Blur filters; a 0.63x wide angle; a worthy macro; and a motion blur emulator. You even get a suitcase to keep everything together.

Upgrade option: For a more serious creative effects lens, consider Lensbaby’s mobile sweet spot lens with adjustable focus. I’ve been using the company’s creative DSLR lenses for years and love them.

9. Desktop painting, drawing and doodling

The pinnacle of tablets for artists is arguably the Wacom Cintiq 16, which is essentially a monitor for your computer that supports touch and pen input so you can draw on it. Compared to other tablets used by artists, having the display in front of you exactly where you draw is invaluable as it eliminates the odd feeling of looking at your monitor to see the cursor. The Wacom Cintiq is compatible with both macOS and Windows computers and includes a stylus.

Upgrade option: The Cintiq is also available in a larger 22-inch size for $1,199.95 and, like the Wacom Cintiq 16, comes with a stylus.

Wacom Cintiq 16 review

10. Get the right angle every time

A memory foam base holds this sturdy stand firmly on flat or uneven surfaces like your lap, on your desk, or in bed. With 14 angles ranging from 9 to 75 degrees – and options for placing the tablet vertically or horizontally – the Prop ‘n Go Slim iPad stand is a winner. As a bonus, it fits most other tablets, e-book readers, and phones.

More resources for creators

Photoshop screenshot

(Image credit: PCMag)

Would you like to expand your creative skills? Check out these online resources to teach yourself Photoshop and ten tips beyond the basics to become a better photographer.

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