Getting to know your drawing tablet

I was privileged enough to receive my first drawing tablet for my thirteenth birthday.  The tablet was an Aiptek, and here’s the exact model I had, right down to the orange ring and blue button:


 I will spare you the numerous shortcomings of this early, off-brand tablet, because now I only use Wacom's Intuos Pro tablets. 


Over the years I’ve realized that many designers and artists buy an expensive drawing tablet, only to let it collect dust because they can’t get comfortable with it. If you’re a designer who owns an underused Bamboo, Monoprice, or even an Intuo Pro, I’d love to give you some of my tips to get the most from your tablet:


1. Drawing tablets are a tool, not a replacement

Even though I still have a tablet, I do almost 100% of my concept and thumbnail work by paper and pencil. Though, I’ve seen a fair share of artists who use a tablet for 100% of their process from beginning to end, I find many of them use a Cintiq, which I have no experience with. 

2. Change usable area depending on screen size and preference.

This is the biggest “ah ha!” moment I had with my tablet, as making this small change will drastically improve the speed of sketching and drawing.  Mess with the settings of your tablet to make the usuable area comfortable for you. Personally, I like to keep the usable window small so I don’t have to move my hand as much when I’m drawing. 

Here’s the instruction on an Intuos: 

Open System Preferences, and select Tablet Settings 

From the Tablet Settings menu, select Mapping 

If I’m using two monitors, I like to use the settings Screen Area > Full and Tablet Area > Portion with Force Proportions selected. Always, always, always make sure Force Proportions is selected, otherwise when your hand draws a circle, the tablet will translate that into a squished oval. This will put a strain on your hand-eye coordination and make learning how to use a tablet even harder. 

If I’m on the go, only using my Macbook’s display, I’ll change the tablet settings to Tablet Display > Portion and then select a portion of the tablet like the one shown above. I’m right handed, and usually my tablet is to the right of me to allow room for my bluetooth keyboard, so I use the left side of the tablet for optimal ergonomics. 

3. Know your nibs

A big improvement from the Intuos3 to the Intuos4 was the introduction of the well which encased all the replacement nibs and nib replacement tool thingy, which was great because I lost my Intuos3 nibs the day after I got the tablet. But back to the nibs, now that you can use them interchangeably, you should know there’s three basic kinds of nibs that come with your tablet: normal black nibs, spring-loaded nibs, and foam nibs. The differences between them are small, but worth noting. I change them out every couple of months just for the novelty. 

Black nibs: This is the default nib, and has an average friction rate. I use these probably 90% of the time. 

Spring-loaded: These probably have the least amount of friction, though I haven’t been able to discern how exactly the little miniature spring makes my drawing any better. 

Foam- These have the most friction, and they break easily. Personally I don’t like using these because I feel like it slows me down and I’m scratching the surface of my tablet. 

4. Mess around with your pen pressure sensitivity 

Depending on if you are a light sketcher or a pencil smusher like myself, this can make a big difference for you. 

Go under your tablet settings under “pen” and play around with the tip feel, and if you’re feeling really fancy, customize a pressure/stroke curve on your own. I tend to sketch on the heavy side so sometimes I’ll make my pen feel a little firmer than normal. 

5. Resist the temptation to look at your hand. 

If you’re a newbie, this is important to remember when practicing. Watch the screen, not your hand. This will be hard at first, since you’re probably normally used to watching your hand draw on paper. Over time, it will become like second nature. 

6. Practice

There’s no way around this. I was fortunate enough to have several years of tablet-weilding experience before I had started my full-time career. Speed up the process by practicing tracing circles, squares and lines in Photoshop.