I’m professional digital artist, Aaron Rutten and in this tutorial, I’ll teach you how to draw on a graphics tablet. For you beginners, I’ll cover some of the basics of how a tablet works, and for the more experienced artists, I’ll share some tips that will help you make the most of your tablet.
I’ll discuss drawing on 3 different kinds of tablets: A basic drawing tablet without a screen such as the Wacom Intuos, a large tablet with a built-in screen that you can draw on such as the Wacom Cintiq 27 QHD and finally an all-in-one drawing tablet with a built-in computer such as the Wacom MobileStudio Pro. I’m aware that not everyone has a Wacom tablet, but many of these tips will be useful regardless of which tablet you are using.
I’ll assume that you have already installed your tablet drivers before plugging the tablet in to your computer. If you need help installing the drivers or if your tablet is not recognizing your pen, then you may need to watch my troubleshooting tutorial. If you still need help, contact the manufacturer of your tablet for tech support.
I’ll also assume that you have installed a free or paid art application that can recognize a drawing tablet and pen pressure.
Using a Basic Tablet
I’ll start by discussing how to use a basic tablet that plugs in through USB to your desktop or laptop computer, such as the Wacom Intuos. This type of tablet does not have a built in screen, so you have to look up at your computer monitor to see what you are drawing. A lot of people think that sounds difficult, but you don’t look down at your hand while using a mouse and you do just fine, right? It will take a few weeks or months of practice, but most people are able to adjust to drawing on a tablet while looking up at a screen.
NAVIGATING WITH PEN:
The pen moves your mouse cursor, but it does not push the cursor around like your mouse would. Instead, you are pointing to the location on your tablet where you want your cursor to point to on your screen. Your cursor is the tip of your pen and tablet surface is your screen. So if I want my cursor in the top-left corner of my screen, I move the tip of my pen to the top-left of my tablet. If you tablet is smaller or narrower than your computer monitor, which it very likely is, that’s OK. With practice, you’ll quickly adjust to the difference in scale or aspect ratio.
- Hover pen slightly above surface until cursor moves.
- Tap pen to perform a mouse click.
- Tap and hold to drag windows (sustained mouse click).
- If you are using multiple monitors and your tablet is moving the cursor on the wrong screen, see Mapping in your tablet properties control panel.
TESTING PEN PRESSURE:
Now let’s do some test drawing in art application with a brush, I’m using Corel Painter. Try to find a brush that can sense pen pressure to control the brush size. Ink pens usually do the trick.
Press very lightly and then use firmer pressure until you see a change. You may need to calibrate your pen to respond to the amount of pressure you use in the Wacom Tablet Properties. To find this, look in your control panel or search your computer for Wacom Tablet Properties or Wacom Control Center. If you’re using a non-wacom tablet, you should have a tablet control panel too with very similar options. I press hard with my pen while drawing, so I set mine a notch toward firm. You can test the pressure in this control panel or jump back to your art app and try some more test strokes.
You may also be able to control the sensitivity of the pen in your art application as well. The setting in Wacom Tablet Properties is global and affects all applications, whereas calibrating pen pressure within an application only affects that application. Personally, I find the global setting is good enough, but there are a few brushes I use in Corel Painter that require some fine tuning of the pressure. I can do this in Corel Painter by going to General > Brush Calibration and then clicking on the bottom-right icon and painting the kind of stroke pressure I want in the test area. You’ll get different results depending on whether you press firmly, lightly or use a mix of both.
It may take some back and forth, but try to find a setting that feels the most natural. It will take some time to get used to drawing with the pen, so you can always come back to this setting later and fine tune it. You might also test a soft semi-opaque brush such as an Airbrush because the pen pressure can also control the Opacity of the paint as well the Flow of paint in some art applications.
Drawing naturally on a tablet takes practice, but it also relies heavily on using proper technique. I have a few videos you can watch that go into more detail, but let me say that the size of your tablet is going to affect the kinds of gestures you can make with your pen. Many of the techniques that artists use to freehand draw straight lines and smooth circles require a large area to gesture on. If I’m using a small tablet like this, I can only move my arm so much before I run off the tablet surface. So it’s better to have a larger tablet, but you can still make great art on a small tablet as well. It just means you’ll have to learn to draw using smaller gestures.
Positioning is also very important to drawing naturally on a tablet. There are artists out there who disagree with me on this, but in my opinion, it’s best to have your tablet and your body aligned horizontally with your monitor. Meaning the tablet is not rotated at an angle and neither are you. It’s also good to have the tablet right in front of your monitor rather than off to the side, but in some desk setups, that’s not possible. So let me say that it is possible to adapt to drawing on a tablet that is not at the same angle as your screen and positioned off to one side, but it takes more effort for your brain to make that adjustment. I feel it’s better to get the tablet to match the screen as closely as possible and then you won’t have to worry about the additional strain on your hand-eye coordination. I have a keyboard tray which I can use to set my tablet on. However, the Wacom Intuos tablet is rather small, so it could feel more comfortable to have it off to the side a bit. That’s going to throw off my brain a bit, but I’ve learned to adapt. You’ll have to try some different positions until you find one that works the best for you.
You can rest your hand on the tablet, only the pen tip can make a mark. Your fingers can rub against the tablet. You can draw on it just like you would on paper. Some tablets can sense touch input which can be used to zoom in to your painting or perform other types of commands. If you’re worried about the touch going off accidentally, you can toggle it on and off with either an express key, a switch on your tablet or within the Wacom Tablet Properties.
Many tablets are ambidextrous and can be used by left handed artists. You can set the handedness in the Wacom Tablet Properties. There are some other customizations you can do here if you browse around. More or less options will be shown depending on the tablets and pens you have connected. If you have more than one Wacom device connected, you’ll be able to customize each tablet and each pen.
Tablet with a Screen (Cintiq)
Display tablets, such as the Wacom Cintiq 27 QHD Touch, are drawing tablets with a built-in screen. While you have the advantage of not having to look at a separate screen while painting, you may find that there are some disadvantages to working on a screen, like fatigue from holding your arm up as opposed to resting it on the tablet surface; and your hand blocking your view of what you’re drawing. Aside from that, drawing on a screen should feel as natural as drawing on paper. Again, as with the tablet without a screen, you can rest your hand on the screen and if the tablet supports touch and you want to disable it, that’s easy to do. There’s actually a button on many of the Cintiqs up at the top that can turn touch on and off.
Before working on a display tablet, you’ll need to calibrate the position of your pen. This is different than calibrating pen pressure. This makes sure the mouse cursor aligns with the tip of your pen. Some screen tablets have parallax, so you’ll never be able to get the cursor and pen tip perfectly aligned, but you can get it close. Don’t worry because you’ll probably be looking at your brush cursor while painting more than your pen tip. Just get it as close as possible. You can set the Calibration in Wacom Tablet Properties. Make sure you are centered in front of your screen and keep your pen upright or perpendicular to the flat surface of your screen to avoid offsetting the pen.
Now let’s do some test strokes. Cintiqs are often larger as drawing tablets go, so you’ll be able to make bigger broader gestures while drawing.
I can’t speak for other brands of tablets, but a Wacom Cintiq does not need a screen protector. You can easily wipe off any fingerprints or dust. I have a video with some tips about that you can watch. These screens are meant to be drawn on with a pen and normal use should not scratch the tablet. Don’t get me wrong, you need to be careful with your screen, but some of the reports of scratches on the screen turn out to just be oil from people’s hands or residue from the pen tip rubbing against the screen. This can be easily wiped away with a dry soft microfiber cloth. (Same goes for non-screen tablets like the Wacom Intuos models.)
A Cintiq has a nice screen with mostly accurate color, so it’s up to you if you have a reason for needing to buy and use a color calibrator.
And the last type of tablet we’ll talk about is the all-in-one tablet, such as the Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16. There’s not much to say about the drawing tablet computers, they are basically a screen tablet with a computer inside. One of the key differences between a tablet computer and a screen tablet is that the tablet computer may be able to sense screen rotation and the screen its self can be angled to make it more comfortable to draw. This can be useful for drawing in portrait orientation or tilting your canvas to make watercolor paint drip in Rebelle 2. If you don’t like it when the screen senses rotation, you can turn it off with a switch on the tablet or within Windows.
Now let’s talk about some extra features that you may or may not have.
If your pen has an eraser, you can flip it over and that should switch your art app to the eraser tool. This eraser can be disabled or programmed to do another function. You can also draw with the eraser end.
If your tablet supports touch, you can use it to navigate your computer. You can use both the touch and the pen to create your artwork. There are some global gestures you can use and customize in the Wacom Tablet Properties, but many art apps can use their own gestures as well.
- Tap with one finger to click or drag windows and files.
- Drag with two fingers to pan the view of your canvas.
- Pinch to zoom and rotate the view of your canvas.
Express keys are buttons on your tablet that can perform just about any command. They are most useful when assigned to commonly used functions such as Undo and Redo, hiding the application interface, and panning the view of your canvas, just to name a few. The more express keys you have, the more shortcuts you can program. There are also on-screen buttons you can program in the Wacom Tablet Properties to add even more commands.
- You can customize express keys for all apps or for specific apps using profiles.
- Backup your customization to a file or to the Wacom cloud for easy recovery should you ever need it.
Now let’s talk about brush expressions. Brush expressions can be used along with your pen if it supports brush expressions to do things like tilt your pen to get different marks. You can also rotate your pen, to rotate flat brushes like palette knives, if you are using a pen that supports it, such as the Wacom Art Pen. Your digital art software also has to support the expressions as well.
TABLET SURFACE & NIBS:
Many Wacom tablets have tooth or a slight feeling of paper grain. — It’s not sticky or too slippery. That can’t be said for some of the Wacom-alternative tablets out there. So why is the tablet’s surface a feature? It’s because this tooth feels more natural to draw on. It provides a bit of friction or resistance to the pen tip, the same kind of friction you expect from a pen on paper. This does cause the pen tips or nibs to wear down, but that’s just a property of nature. Everything wears down when rubbing against something else because heat is created. If the nib does not wear down, then the screen must wear down. Something has to wear down, so which would you choose? It’s a property of nature not a conspiracy to get you to buy more nibs. Fortunately, your tablet probably came with some replacement nibs. In the Wacom Intuos, they are in a compartment on the back of the tablet. And on the Cintiq, they are in the pen holder. Additional nibs can be ordered online and there are even felt tip nibs and other types of specialty nibs that give your pen a different feel.
Nibs can wear down quickly, but not if you use proper technique. For example, don’t press so hard. If you’re pressing down really hard to get pen pressure, maybe you need to calibrate your pen pressure to make it easier to get the stroke you want. Another tip to make your nibs last longer is to use your pen’s eraser for repetitive tasks like blending and any strokes that don’t require the accuracy of the pen tip. I have many more tips about saving your pen nibs you can watch here.
Some of the tablets without a screen can be connected wirelessly. Some tablets come with a wireless kit and some require the kit to be purchased separately. In my opinion, a USB connection is better because it is not susceptible to wireless interference or the signal getting blocked or lagging.
That should give you a good idea of how to draw on just about any drawing tablet. If you found this information helpful, take a quick second to like this video. And if you haven’t already, I’d love to have you subscribe to my YouTube channel, I have tons of videos about digital art.