As a photographer and digital creative, I’ve grown to love using a tablet and stylus to help with my workflow. Everything from drawing and inking in Illustrator to shading and retouching in Photoshop is made easier with the use of a system that mimics pen and paper. As much as we’ve become used to using ye olde mouse and clickity-click actions, going “old school” method is often better and easier, particularly with the wide range of options for drawing tablets we have now.
There are a few varieties of drawing tablets. The most common and probably least expensive are the sorts that plug into your computer and come with a separate pen stylus (well, they pretty much all come with a stylus). But then you also have ones which are similar to that of an iPad and can display images on the actual tablet themselves so that you can draw directly on the image, thus making the experience of drawing far more akin to drawing as you would on real paper. Then you have the big gun, where the tablet is the computer and you are drawing straight into it. These mofos are huge and hugely expensive and usually only the best in the graphics biz can afford them.
I personally have owned a few tablet/stylus set-ups. Currently I have an Intuos4 that I won courtesy of my old favourite photography podcast of the time, Shutters Inc, in a retouching competition. You can see my winning entry and my method here on the Shutters Inc blog. The podcast isn’t posted as frequently as it used to be but it’s still very cool to listen to when you need some inspiration… but I digress.
When speaking to people who are not used to using graphics tablets, I always hear the same thing “I couldn’t get used to it” or “I couldn’t make it work for me”. I sort of understand that it’s a huge learning curve, but after a few scribbles it just came naturally to me. So here’s my tips on using a graphics tablet.
1 – Make sure that your drivers are all up to date. Ensuring you have the right and most up to date drivers means that your tablet will continue to run smoothly though things like upgrades and software changes. Do this right away so you don’t have to worry about it again for a while.
2 – Customise your settings. If you’ve just plugged in your tablet, you may find it jerky or ultra sensitive. This happened to me once and a simple adjustment fixed it in no time. Usually the average factory settings are an ok starting point but you will find that as you grow more accustomed to using the tablet, you’ll figure out individual ways of doing things. The way you draw, the amount of pressure you use on the pen, the active space in which you draw – all of these can be customised which makes the whole “second nature” thing happen much more quickly.
3 – Position your tablet correctly. This actually causes the most amount of stress for most tablet newbies. Like customising your settings, there is no one right way of positioning your tablet. Do what works best for you and if that means leaning back in your chair, with your feet up on your desk, your keyboard perched on one thigh and your tablet on the other then more power to ya!
For the rest of us mere mortals, usually a tablet on the desk works the best.
My biggest tip in this area is do not put the tablet right in front of you to begin with. Position the tablet where you are used to setting your hand for the mouse and then try drawing a little bit. Because of good old muscle memory and brain trickery, you will be able to master manipulating the stylus quicker. I know it seems counter intuitive to how you think you would use a graphics tablet, but trust me, it works. You can trick yourself into thinking it’s just a differently shaped mouse. Once you are used to the different ways of moving the stylus, pressure sensitivity, etc, you can slowly start to move the tablet over towards a more natural drawing position if you like.
Or you could do what I do and just keep the tablet off to the side and use it that way too.
4 – Make sure you’ve got a tablet that suits your purposes! Nothing causes more frustration than having to find work-arounds for everything, that includes graphics. If you’re an artist and bought a small tablet, you may find that you cannot draw properly in the active space that a small tablet allows for. Similarly, if you bought a tablet to just create digital signatures, then you don’t need a huge artist tablet.
Generally for things like retouching photographs, unless you’re way up the food chain in the industry, a basic 6×4″ or 10×8″ tablet will do nicely.
5 – PRACTICE! Don’t give up. It’s different and feels freaky but it makes workflow so much better, particularly when you start getting used to hotkeys and function keys. Learn a few of your most commonly used tools in your graphics program and add those into the function keys on your tablet. Make it as easy for yourself as possible and you’ll find it becomes a fast and effective way of working and you’ll wonder why in hell you didn’t buy one years ago.