Digital drawing

edited June 2011 in The Toolbox
I've been poking around with computers and drawing for years, but it's only fairly recently that I've gotten serious about digital drawing.  Not just using Photshop to scan and clean-up and color inked lines, but fully paperless drawing.  The technology is definitely good enough for it, and I think it's affordable enough now that if you're interested, there's no reason not to.  Here are my suggestions about how to do it.  Others' thoughts, tips, etc. are invited.

The cheapest way to get started is to steal the stuff.  Short of that, take any reasonably modern computer that you already have, add a used Wacom Graphire or Bamboo tablet-with-stylus, install a free program like the GIMP or ArtWeaver, and you're in the door for under $100.

Wacom's tablets getter better with each generation in terms of levels of pressure sensitivity and lines-per-inch resolution.  Which is nice, but they reached the "good enough" level a few models back. The professional-grade Intuos models are generally a step ahead of the Graphire/Bamboo models of the same year, but if it's a Wacom and it was made in the last 5 years, it'll be fine.  Yes, there's a "disconnect" with these tablets between your eyes up on the screen and your stylus down on the tablet, but if you've been using a mouse or trackpad for a while your brain is already well on the way to getting used to that.  One friend of mine has a MacBook Air and a matching Intuos tablet and finds it both portable and productive.

If you're getting a tablet to go with an existing computer, try to get one the same shape as your monitor(s).  Wacom used to have widescreen versions of some of the Intuos sizes, which are invaluable for use with a widescreen monitor or a dual-monitor system.  Alternatively, you can get two tablets (one for each screen), but make sure they're the same type and generation (e.g. both Intuos 2, not an Intuos + Graphire or Intuos2 + Intuos3); otherwise the styluses won't be interchangeable.

Size is a matter of preference.  Bigger is not always better, depending on how much you like to move your hands while drawing.  I like my Intuos3 6x11", which fits well with my 20" iMac and a 17" outboard vertical monitor.

If you want a display-tablet (so you can draw on the screen itself), that'll cost ya.  But not as much as you might think.  TabletPC computers have what amounts to a smallish early version of the Cintiq built into them.  The "convertibles" with a screen that rotates and flips around are workable, but a bit heavy and clunky (though you can sometimes use that base to your advantage is keeping the screen steady).  "Slates" that come with attachable keyboards and stands are far better, IMHO, but before the iPad came along, most manufacturers avoided them (because you really do need a keyboard to make Windows usable).  Motion Computing makes them, and other manufacturers had some nice ones here and there (e.g. HP TC1100).

TabletPCs are more expensive than a standard laptop, however they can be remarkably cheap when you buy them used.  Especially now that the iPad is out, showing how lousy TabletPCs are for mobile web surfing and pretty much everything else that people used to buy them for.  But on a drawing tablet you don't care about the OS interface, because all you need it for is drawing.  That stupid stylus is just what the artist ordered.  (If you really cannot stand Windows, or you have Mac software you really want to use, there's the ModBook: an Apple MacBook professionally converted into a slate.  That's gonna cost you at least $1850, or $900 plus a used White MacBook.)

TabletPC screens aren't big; they start at 10" and rarely get bigger than 13".  Resolution tops out around 1280x1024 (and 1024x786 is more typical).  That's more of an issue than the size of non-display tablets, because you need room on the screen for menus, tool palettes, etc.  Try to avoid "widescreen" formats; they're needlessly cramped in one direction.  I mostly use my slate vertically, but I've been known to spin it around on my lap.

If you have the money to spend, just buy a big Cintiq and hook it to your Mac(Book) Pro.  But the portability of a slate is huge to me.

What about the iPad (and its imitators)?  Well, a touch screen is great if you're finger painting; it sucks for drawing.  Even the styluses available for them are just small-tipped fingers, which don't provide the line quality you get from a pressure-sensitive stylus.  Fun to play with, pretty much useless for drawing work.  Most of the iPad-alikes also use touch-only operating systems (Android, WebOS) which limit your options for drawing apps.

Since the iPad came out, the TabletPC manufacturers have been fumbling around trying to copy some of its good features (weight, battery life, solid-state storage) and apply them to new slates.  The Asus Eee Slate EP121 and the upcoming Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 look like slates I'd consider buying if I had the money to spend.  Some of Motion's current slates look nice, but as a company they're focusing more on "rugged" designs rather than features that make for great drawing tablets.

OK, so what about software?

Photoshop is (theoretically) the Cadillac of drawing programs.  It's not perfect though.  It's a huge program that does a whole lot of things that have nothing to do with drawing (e.g. photo manipulation, web graphics), and it's priced accordingly.  Unless you can finagle an educational discount, just PS alone costs $700.  Get it if you need those other feautures, but it's worth look at alternatives.  You can use Illustrator for drawing too, but... I've never used it for that.

Manga Studio is a great tool. Unlike PS it handles multipage documents, and it knows what panels and word balloons are.  You can rotate the image on-screen like a sheet of paper so it's at the best angle with your wrist for drawing curves.   The interface is also better for working on a slate, with small on-screen buttons for most of the things you'd need to use a keyboard for in Photoshop (e.g. Undo, Save).  The "Debut" version is pretty usable and only costs $50, and the "EX" version with all of the "pro" features enabled is $300 (but frequently on sale for $100).  It's what I've been doing nearly all of my drawing in for the past couple years (except for when I don't have a computer and have to use paper).

If that's still too much dough, there's the GIMP.  The GNU Image Manipulation Program is to Photoshop as Linux is to Windows: a free, independently created program that does most of the same things, but does them differently, and requires some tinkering under the hood to make the advanced features work right for you.  A couple other low-cost/no-cost optons (depending on which OS you use) are Pixelmator for Mac and Artweaver for Windows, both of which are essentially lower-end Photoshop-alikes.  And there's Photoshop Elements, which has most of the basic PS features for only about $100.

I'm not suggesting that anyone who knows and loves their pencils, pens, or brushes throw them out.  But if you want to test the waters with digital media... what's stopping you?


  • There's another way to get the hardware for free: Freecycle. It's how I got a graphics tablet for free last December, and it was that opportunity that made me think of going digital with Made of Fail. I just need to figure out how. :)

    (I think this older model is good enough for learning, and considering my artistic ability, nobody's going to notice the difference anyway. :D )

    I talked about going digital with Colleen Doran, and what's stopping her from going digital is economics: she can sell original art, but not if it's digital.
  • An "older model" is definitely good enough for learning.  I wouldn't recommend going all the way back to the early tablet that I first experimented with back in the 20th century (which wouldn't even hook up to a modern computer), but you certainly do not need an Intuos4 to make good digital art.

    "Fortunately" I don't have Colleen's art sales as an income source to lose by taking the digital route.  With the aid of Undo, I've managed to reach a level of competence using digital media, but I don't think I'd ever get the mastery of traditional media that would result in people wanting to buy my original art as an objet d'art itself.  (Not enough hours in my days, and not enough years left on my body.)  If I ever did get into selling art, it'd be as commissioned drawings where the focus is on the subject matter not the medium (translation: "it'd be porn"), so one-off prints would probably be acceptable.
  • "I don't think I'd ever get the mastery of traditional media that would result in people wanting to buy my original art as an objet d'art itself."

    Don't sell yourself short. People even contacted me about selling them original Made of Fail art. It paid for art supplies. :) And you're a much better artist than I am, so...
  • One thing to add to the list of good drawing software: Autodesk Sketchbook Pro (formerly Alias Sketchbook). I love Photoshop and know it like the back of my hand, but usually use Sketchbook to draw instead and really love the whole feel. The pens, pencils and markers are the most natural feeling I've ever found in a program and the overall interface does an outstanding job of just getting out of your way so you can draw. You can control everything with a stylus, from selecting tools to rotating the canvas, zooming in/out and you can even write the names of your layers with your pen rather than having to switch to the keyboard. It's not for everyone, but if you're looking into digital drawing I highly recommend it.
  • Yeah, the lack of original paper artwork has put a crimp in my income, but I don't ever see myself going back to paper.

    I agree with everything Jason says here except that I would not use a tablet with a working surface smaller than 6x8 inches. Personally, I think the optimal size is the 9x12 Intuos I have now, although that cost a pretty penny -- but you can get used devices a lot cheaper. And WACOM tablets are solid-quality -- we used them at Interplay when I was art director there in the late '90s and out of 40-plus tablets we bought for our artists, I never had one go bad.  (My son uses an old Intuos I tablet I bought 12 years ago, so old it has a serial-port interface, but he's quite satisfied with it.)
  • edited August 2011
    Wacom has announced an interesting new gizmo in the realm between analog and digital media: a ballpoint pen that uses Wacom's (literally) patented magic to capture it as a digital image at the same time. They call it the "Inkling" (which is cleverer than "Intuos" or "Graphire"). This sort of thing's been tried before, and never been better than an interesting novelty, but if this works the way I think it works, it might just... work.

    Still, it's no solution to the "digital media has no original art boards to sell" problem, because... seriously: it's a ballpoint pen. No one wants to buy original art that's done with a ballpoint. And even Wacom is positioning it as a sketching tool, a way to get images into digital form for further work "...for the front end of the creative process. Later, refine your work on your computer..." So I don't think it's useless, but isn't quite the holy grail of a digital tool that works just like natural media.
  • Nicola Scott works (worked, she may have changed her style) with a ball point. I sat beside her at a convention a few years ago and no lie. All ballpoint.
  • @ShawnRichison I've never seen Nicola drawing with anything but a pencil. I'll ask her if she's at Armageddon next month.
  • Inking. She was inking a page with a ballpoint. I remember because it blew my mind. She also drew corrections on the back of the page (in reverse) to tighten everything up, which is a brilliant idea that I have yet to incorporate into my workflow (and I really should!).
  • Been eyeing the Inkling, too. The first idea I had was to use it at live signings - to sign ebooks. This would require some software tweaking, of course. It's relatively easy for cbr files, though. (Make a sketch, add it to the folder with your book's image files, zip, rename, whoosh it to the client's tablet, done.) PDFs - a little harder. Unless you've got a PDF edity app on your tablet. Then it's just a matter of adding a page again, more or less.
  • No one wants to buy original art that's done with a ballpoint.
    If the art is good and the artist is known, the medium used is irrelevant. I've seen fine art done with ballpoints go for thousands of dollars. No one has ever not bought my art because they asked what I used to draw it first.

  • edited September 2011
    I apologize: a bit of hyperbole there. If someone inks their work with a ballpoint so that it looks as good as with a nib pen or brush, of course people will buy it. But I have doubts about the market demand for original comics art pages produced with a device intended for capturing ballpoint sketches. Maybe a nice way to save copies of sketches done at cons, though?

  • I use mouse and tablet for touch up pencils and fixes, and sometimes for black fills, but I am not able to get a good enough line out of it for inks.

    Then again, I'm a terrible inker with traditional media, too. Don't have the patience for it; don't enjoy it. I'm happy to let someone else do it.

    I could probably pencil digitally if I really wanted to, but I spend so much time in front of the screen that I enjoy sitting down with a piece of artboard.
  • No one wants to buy original art that's done with a
    Heh. I have a headshot of Elektra done on layout paper in biro by Sienkiewicz at a signing many years ago. I suspect I could sell it for a little bit more than the fiver he charged me for doing it.
  • If the penholder can use standard ballpoint cartridges, I wonder how difficult it would be to rig it to hold lead somehow. And would it still be able to "record" the sketching? If that's a possibility, suddenly you have original pencil art, that is being inked digitally at the same time...
  • edited September 2011
    That sounds theoretically possible, but probably not as a DIY project. What Wacom has done here is to take their current stylus technology, and replace the little plastic nib that it uses as a pressure sensor, with the business end of ballpoint pen. To work, that whole ballpoint tip has to be free to move slightly up and down within the stylus, in response to pressure. The challenge of replacing it with a pencil lead is that the lead wears down constantly, so you'd need to mount an entire mechanism for holding and extending the lead that could still bounce back and forth inside the stylus. And there would still be something lost in translation between the many variables of pencil strokes and the two variables (pressure and angle) that Wacom knows how to digitize.

    (And again, folks: please read my previous poorly-worded generalization in context. I've been seeing people (not here) respond to a slick promotional video, going "ZOMG! With this I can work digitally and still have my original art pages to sell!" and I think those people have simply unrealistic expectations of what this device will actually do for them.)
  • FWIW, Spike Trotman has started drawing all-digital using Manga Studio. Up to now she inked traditionally, then brought the art into Photoshop for touch-ups and panel borders. Her two most recent pages of TEMPLAR, ARIZONA were drawn in MS. The previous ones were ink-brush-plus Photoshop. Head over to and see if you can tell the difference.
  • edited September 2011
  • I'm just wondering what's best to Get the Work Done at this point.
  • I can only speak for myself, but to the extent that I am Getting Any Work Done, it's via Manga Studio on a TabletPC for everything thru line art, Photoshop on a desktop Mac for the color, and Illustrator on a desktop for the letters. The only thing I'd do differently if I had money would be swapping the TabletPC for a 21" Cintiq with a MacBook Air clipped to the back of it.
  • I hear you about the Cintiq. Not so sure about the MacBook Air, but that's quibbling over small details right about now.
  • edited December 2011
    I can't believe that these guys didn't think to add pressure sensitivity to the range of features on this thing:

    That would have made it THE killer iPad accessory -- I don't own an iPad but I would have bought one just for this. Can't be long before someone thinks to do it, surely?
  • They promise pressure sensitivity for version 2 of the product. Adding the necessary mechanism to detect pressure would involve a bit of engineering, which was probably best left until they'd worked out the rest of it.
  • Fair enough. Sketchbook Pro + iPad + pressure sensitive iPen would be the absolute dream combo.

    FWIW, I agree with your Cintiq/MacBook Air ideal set-up -- I sprang for the 24HD recently (which is, frankly, awesome) and it's currently serving as my main monitor off a 15" Macbook Pro, but if the rumoured 15" Air surfaces next year, the MBP is going straight onto eBay. I tried my old 21" Cintiq with Manga Studio installed on my wife's 11" Air and the performance was just fine, so I'm happy to trade off a bit of clock speed against the much more portable form factor.
  • I used to run Manga Studio on a sub-GHz single-core Celeron PC, so anything currently on the market should be able to handle it without breaking a sweat.
  • Speaking of Sketchbook Pro...was thinking of purchasing via the App Store, but after checking out the specs? Not sure I want to upgrade to Lion just I'll stick with training myself up on Manga Studio and Photoshop.
  • After being couch/bed-bound this weekend, I realize I need to invest in a more portable digital drawing solution ... which, sadly, would mean dropping multiple Gs on a Cintiq and/or MBP. The Intuos-chained-to-24"-iMac is just too restrictive.
  • edited December 2011
    You can spend thousands of dollars on a digital drawing system, but you don't have to spend that much. A Tablet PC is not only cheaper, but also more portable, being self-contained. I know my art isn't the most compelling example to show off, but pretty much everything I've drawn in the past year has been on a Tablet PC that cost me less than a new same-size Intuos4.
  • @JasonAQuest I do like the tablet idea, though not the "PC" part. ;) Seriously, if Apple had released the iPad with a pressure-sensitive stylus, I would have bought it day one.
Sign In or Register to comment.