I can’t draw! Part 2 – Five tips for using a drawing tablet to help you make great illustrations.

So in ‘I can’t draw! Part 1’ I provided some useful tips for how to get better at drawing, especially when you’re not particularly a ‘natural artist.’ In this part, I am going to focus in particular on how a drawing tablet can further aid your progress.

Just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll start by explaining what a drawing tablet actually is. A drawing or ‘graphics’ tablet is a computer input device which allows the user to draw using a special stylus (usually shaped somewhat like a pen) to produce digital images. Broadly speaking there are two types of tablet. The first is effectively a touch sensitive pad which as the stylus is applied to it, will create an image on the computer screen, requiring hand-eye coordination much in the same way using a mouse does.

Tablet photo
A basic Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet with stylus pen

The second (usually more expensive) variety is an LCD screen in it’s own right which will create an image as the stylus is applied directly onto its surface. This second variety much more closely imitates pencil and paper since the user can see the image directly on the surface rather than on a separate computer screen.

Now before I continue, I feel I do need to throw in a couple of disclaimers. The first is that I am not claiming to be an expert when it comes to drawing tablets; quite the opposite in fact. I am still finding out new tricks every time I use it, and I suspect there is almost no limit to how much more I could learn, especially with new technological advances and new software arising all the time. This blog post is based purely on my own personal experiences and should not be taken as gospel in any way!

The second, and more important point I need to make is this: a drawing tablet does not automatically make you good at art! It is really essential to keep this in mind. If you currently struggle to draw stickmen, then don’t expect to buy a drawing tablet and instantly be reeling off Salvador Dali quality pictures! Depending on how much you chop and change between use of a tablet and use of a pencil and paper, you may not actually improve your ability to draw significantly at all. Since I started using a tablet, I personally have (rightly or wrongly) cut down massively on the amount of practice I do with pencil and paper and as such, even though with the tablet I have definitely improved, when it comes to the good old fashioned method of drawing, I am probably not a lot better than I was 6 months ago.

A cobra – one of my earliest drawings made on a tablet

I guess the point I want to get across is whilst the two methods are clearly closely linked, they should be thought of as two separate skills and it is possible to be good at one but not the other. That said, if used correctly, you can certainly learn to use a drawing tablet to help you make more polished, professional images and here are five simple ways to explain how.

1. Start off Basic

By this I mean don’t go out and spend top money for the highest spec tablet on the market straight away. There is a range of basic tablets out there that are reasonably priced and provide the perfect launch pad for people getting into digital art. I personally started with a small Wacom Bamboo (I have since moved on to a Wacom Intuos Pro), which appears to be a popular choice for beginners as it is small and simple without too many ‘flashy’ features to confuse you. You will also need some software but don’t worry as there are some surprisingly high quality downloadable graphics programs out there that are absolutely free! Firealpaca seems to be a highly rated choice and is the one I have used to create the Crazy Random characters. There are plenty of online tutorials on how to use Firealpaca, and also there is a lot of information on other graphics software available so it really is worth doing a bit of research and maybe even trying a few different ones to see which works best for you.

Onion Sketch shot
An early version of Rapscallion being created in Firealpaca

2. Use the ‘Undo’ Function…..Lots!!

Anyone who draws regularly will definitely be familiar with this scenario…you’ve started a drawing and hey, it’s shaping up rather nicely! You just need to concentrate, stay focused and….your hand slips, the pencil leaves a terrible, scrawly line and you feel like you’ve ruined it all! Yeah, you can try and erase it but you can’t fully hide the error, and that scruffy line just brings the whole appearance down! Well, a huge advantage of so many computer programs is being able to undo your mistakes, and graphics packages are no exception. That ‘undo’ function is truly a huge bonus to all digital artists, especially the beginner. Trust me, you will come to find it as essential as the air you breathe! I can not being to accurately guess how many times I use it per drawing session. It’s great selling point is that it allows you to repeat a line until you have it exactly how you want it, and without leaving a trace of your numerous failed attempts. Overall it means you can produce cleaner looking drawings, without all the faded, smudgey remnants of the parts you’ve had to erase. It really will make your life easier, I assure you!

3. Use Layers

Most graphics software provides the function of using ‘layers.’ To explain what layers are, imagine you are drawing on tracing paper. The first sheet of tracing paper is the first ‘layer’. Then you take a second sheet, superimpose it perfectly on top of the first one and continue the drawing. Then you do the same with a third piece and so on and so on. So what’s the point of doing that? Well, it has a number of advantages.

Firstly, it means you can sketch/map out your drawing in one layer, then you use further layers to ‘ink in’ the lines you want, before eventually deleting the original sketch layer leaving you with a nice, clean drawing. Secondly, it means you can essentially ‘preserve’ certain parts of your drawing by leaving them in a previous layer and starting the next part in a new layer. Whatever you do in one layer will have no effect on the other layers, so you won’t damage the good work you’ve already done if your current layer doesn’t work out how you want it to. Furthermore, because each layer is independent of the others, it will allow you to erase parts of the drawing you don’t like, without removing parts in other layers that you want to keep. It all takes a bit of getting used to but play around with it and you will soon realise the huge benefits that layers bring. Get used to them and use them lots – sometimes I do each line in my drawing in a separate layer to help me get it as close to perfection as possible. It might seem tedious but trust me you will very soon wonder how you drew without them!

Coney baseline sketch only
These very basic sketch lines for Coney Maloney were drawn in one layer, allowing the main linework to then be drawn over the top in separate layers

4. Use of Correction Tool

Now this one you might consider to be a form of ‘cheating’ so it is a personal choice if, or to what degree, you apply this technique but it is definitely something to be aware of as it can be extremely useful. Many graphics programs have a ‘correction’ tool and what this is, is a function that will automatically ‘correct’ and improve the smoothness and form of your lines. Speaking only from experience of using Firealpaca, the correction tool can be set from anywhere between 0 (i.e. no correction at all) to 40 ( maximum correction). I like to chop and change the level at which I have it set, but I have found it definitely creates a nicer form to the lines, especially at the ends, giving a pleasant, more ‘tapered’ look compared to lines drawn without the correction tool. There is obviously the argument that using the correction tool ‘covers up’ some of the imperfections that might have shown up in your work had you not had it switched on, and ultimately is not helping you to ‘improve’ your line work. So this is where I deliberately make the point that you can use a tablet to make nice drawings BUT that does not necessarily mean you are a great artist. Obviously it comes down to what your personal aims of using a tablet are, but obviously you can use the correction tool as much or as little as you see fit. Whether you love or hate the idea, you should definitely try it out and see how it works for you as you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

5. Be Patient!

Much like drawing with a pencil and paper, a lot of practice is needed, and there most definitely is a learning curve when it comes to drawing with a tablet, which might feel frighteningly steep at the beginning. I can honestly say that for the first couple of weeks of using it I was hopeless, with extremely wobbly lines and producing images that at best looked like the sort of scrawlings I made in MS Paint when messing around as a child.

Crappy crisp packet - merged
A crisp packet man – a very early drawing I made whilst first getting to grips with the tablet

You will likely experience something similar but all I can say is do not be disheartened! You must be persistent; keep trying out all the different tools and functions available and above all else get used to the feel of drawing using a tablet as it is a very different experience to what you will be used to. I will stress again here the importance of using online tutorials; in your first few attempts at using the tablet you will undoubtedly develop a list of questions along the lines of ‘how do I do this/that?’ or ‘what does that icon mean?’ etc. and this is where tutorials are a very useful ally. But back to the main point, the most important thing is to have some patience – don’t beat yourself up if you’re not great at it straight away. Simply treat it as a learning process and have some fun!

So that concludes Part 2 of my ‘I can’t Draw!’ blog posts. I hope you will have found the advice useful, but of course there are hundreds of other ways a drawing tablet can assist you with your work so do your research. If you’re not sure about getting a tablet, I would very much recommending just giving it a try – get yourself a cheap, basic tablet and some free software and get drawing! After all, there is very little to lose and there is nothing stopping you using the old faithful pencil and papers as well, in fact I would encourage you to continue practising both methods as much as you can (something I personally am guilty of not doing enough of in the past few months). So, all that’s left to say is best of luck with using drawing tablets – feel free to leave any comments or questions you might have for me – ‘happy doodling’ folks!


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