Thursday, July 24, 2008

Graphics Tablets

Someone once said that trying to draw with a mouse is like trying to write your name with a bar of soap. Actually, I think the bar of soap is easier, for reasons I'll get into later.

But if you're trying to create art on the computer, you have several options:
  1. Draw it on paper, and scan it in.
  2. Draw it with a mouse (or keyboard?!)
  3. Get a graphics tablet
  4. Use some other exotic device, like a trackball or a joystick or something equally weird.
Since most people are already comfortable with pencil and paper, #1 seems pretty attractive, but you still wind up using erasers to make corrections, dealing with smudging, etc., and perhaps having to erase and redraw parts of a picture if, for example, the head is too small or the hands are too big.

If you create the art on the computer originally, you can simply select and resize those parts of the drawing. You can also make a drawing in multiple layers, allowing you to try different positions for head, hands, etc. Layers also let you do something like pull in a photo and trace part of it (not stepping on anyone's copyrights, of course) or rearrange it to use as a reference.

The most pencil-and-paper like tool for working directly on the computer is the graphics tablet. Briefly, it's a flat board, usually used with a pen-like or pencil-like gadget called a stylus. There are a number of makes and models, but the best known and most popular are from a company called Wacom.

The main difference between a tablet (and stylus) and a mouse is how it positions. With a properly set-up tablet, the corners of the tablet always match the corners of your drawing area, and the center matches the center, etc. So if you pick up the stylus, move to one corner, and start drawing, you'll be drawing in the corner of your artwork on screen. Not so with a mouse. A mouse only measures movement, not position. So if you pick up the mouse and move it somewhere, it has no idea it's been moved, and will simply continue drawing where it thinks it was before.

This may sound like a subtle point, but once you get used to working with a tablet, you won't want to go back. Note, though, that it does take some getting used to. For one thing, you're probably already used to using a mouse, clumsy as it is, and those habits will need changing. Also, unlike drawing with a pencil on paper, using a tablet typically requires looking at the screen while moving the stylus. In other words, your eyes are not looking where your hands are. I don't have statistics, but from years of developing software for artists, and observing artists adopting software for the first time, I can assure you that this is pretty easy to get used to.

Not surprisingly, tablets come in different sizes, ranging from postcard size all the way up to large drafting table size. If you're shopping for one, consider how much space you have to devote to it. You probably want the tablet in front of you, between you and the screen. Since a lot of graphics software uses key sequences to vary brush sizes, etc., you'll want to be able to reach the keyboard, perhaps with your non-drawing hand off to the side.

Also consider your drawing style. If you like to make loose, sweeping strokes, you'll be much more comfortable with a bigger tablet. For some artists, trying to use a small tablet is like trying to draw a masterpiece on a Post-It note. Still others are comfortable working at small size. One advantage of larger sizes: You can place a drawing on the tablet and trace it with the stylus. I've found this very useful on a number of occassions.

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