Graphics Tablets are Hard: A Beginner’s Perspective

Graphics tablets — to someone who hasn’t used one — is somewhat like a swimming pool: better for your friends to have and let you borrow than to own. A profesional level tablet is on the verge of prohibitively expensive (a few hundred dollars) and the non-professional versions just don’t rock the subtleties that need to be mastered (such as pressure sensitivity). Thus, I was super excited to find a coworker that would allow me to borrow her tablet to see if it was something I would like to use in my workflow. Here’s my perspective as an absolute tablet virgin and a rather poor painter/drawer.

If you’re skimming, here’s the takeaway: graphic tablets are hard. It is not like paper. It is not like a mouse. It is not a pencil or pen. It is pretty much like trying to hold an ice-cube to your nose while blindfolded and drunk.

Shower Silhouette Painted in Photoshop
Shower Silhouette Painted in Photoshop

  • The surface is not paper: The surface you draw on feels rather like the surface of a laptop trackpad. It means that your pen slides with less effort and never really gets stuck on a paper fiber. That’s both pretty cool and rather obnoxious as the extra slide makes it difficult for a beginner like me to make smooth strokes.
  • The pen is not. The pen you use is not an actual pen, it’s a plastic nib that glides around on the tablet. Zero rolling resistance no matter what type of brush stroke your software is using.
  • Work small. Use a high resolution canvas and zoom in no more than 100%. It uses the full resolution the tablet offers which results in smoother, well, everything.
  • It’s not a mouse. The graphics tablet is mapped 1:1 onto your screen. This means if you put the pen down in the upper right of the tablet, it puts your cursor in the upper right of your screen immediately. Expect to move your whole hand quite a bit more to cover the entire tablet.
  • Love the brushes palette. Seriously, the brushes palette has more features that work with a tablet… you’ll be able to create all sorts of unique brushes and effects. This gets even crazier with the new painter brush engine introduced in CS5.

So far, I’ve done 3 works using the graphics tablet all of which have involved using reference photos. The one at the right was done using 2 different photographs and significant employment of the Photoshop CS5 mixer brush. You can view the other two on my Facebook page.

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