Wacom Tablets: How to Get Started

Wacom tablets

If you are a painter, and you are trying to transition to the computer, it will be necessary for you to get a tablet. It’s the best way to translate your traditional skills to the digital world. A mouse will simply not do it for you.

When it comes to digital drawing tablets, Wacom is pretty much the authority. If you are just starting out and are trying to decide which tablet to buy, here’s a quick guide to the products they provide and how to get started once you’ve bought one.

Which tablet is the best for you?
Your options:

Graphire – This is the most basic tablet provided by Wacom. These are simple tablets that come with a pen and a mouse. The most recent versions also come with a couple programmable buttons. There is also a Bluetooth version of this model which works wirelessly.

Intuos – These tablets are a step above the Graphire models. I think it would be safe to say that most creative professionals use the Intuos. It comes with more programmable buttons and touch strips that you can use to scroll or zoom with. It not only has a higher pressure sensitivity than the Graphire, but also has the ability to detect the tilt of your pen.

Cintiq – The Cintiq is the highest-end model of the Wacom group. It is different from the other tablets because it is actually an LCD monitor. You can work directly on the screen, making it the most natural way to draw on your computer.

Choosing a size
Each tablet model comes in various sizes. Which one you choose depends entirely on you. The bigger sizes are also more expensive, so it also depends on how much you can afford. I don’t necessarily think that bigger is better. It just requires you to move your arm around more. You should choose what is more comfortable, and also take into account how much desk space you have.

A Breakdown of Recent Wacom Tablet Models

Model Graphire4 Intuos3 Cintiq
Sizes 4×5, 6×8 4×6, 6×8, 6×11, 9×12, 12×12, 12×19 21.3″ diagonal LCD
Pressure Sensitivity 512 levels 1024 levels 1024 levels
Controls 2 buttons, no touch strips 4-8 buttons, 1-2 touch strips 8 buttons, 2 touch strips
Approx. Price $100-$200 $200-$700 $3000

My Thoughts
If you are a student, a hobbyist, or a pro just experimenting with digital art, the Graphire is a nice solid model to start with. You can often find them discounted at under $100. They are also the easiest to find because you can find them in a lot of electronics or office stores, whereas the others are mostly reserved for specialty or online venues. I started out with the most basic, smallest Graphire model (a model that didn’t even have the programmable buttons) and it worked out just fine. I have since upgraded, but I still keep it around and feel comfortable going back and drawing on it even now.

If you are a professional who is planning to use the tablet every day in your work, the Intuos might be more to your liking. The buttons and touch strips are pretty handy for doing repetitive tasks. And if you want to get a bigger size, you will have to go with this model.

The Cintiq is pretty fun to drool over, but I probably wouldn’t recommend buying it before you have worked on one of the other models first. You will want to become comfortable with digital painting before you go investing thousands of dollars. I have personally never worked on one before. I think it would be fun if I ever had the extra money, but at this point it is just a luxury that I don’t really need just yet. But if one of you readers happen to own one of these, I would love for you to leave a comment with your thoughts.

My current tablet: 6×8 Intuos3

Exploring your settings

Pressure sensitivity
If you’re in Photoshop, you enable this by going into your brush settings. In the Brush palette under Shape Dynamics, change the size control drop-down menu to “Pressure” to vary the size of your brush. To vary the lightness/darkness of your stroke through pressure, go to Other Dynamics and change the Opacity drop-down menu.

Pen buttons
You pen has two buttons on it. I set the top one to right-click and the bottom one to double-click. But you can program these to do anything you want. For instance, you can program them with the bracket keys([ ]) and change your brush size on the fly in Photoshop. You can program one as the Option key and have an instant eyedropper tool. The possibilities are endless.

Tablet buttons/touch strips
The idea behind these is to reduce the need to reach for your keyboard. For Photoshop, I would probably program in the Option key, the Command key, and the Space Bar (the eyedropper, the move tool, and the hand tool) somewhere in your keys. You can also put in some of your tools using their keyboard shortcuts (B for brush, E for eraser, or W for the magic wand for example). It might also be handy to create a couple keys for Undo functions (Option+Command+Z=Step Backward, Shift+Command+Z=Step Forward).

Some Simple Exercises to Get You Started
It can be really hard to get used to drawing on a tablet. You have to deal with the separation of your hand and the monitor, and you have to get used to not being able to tilt your canvas. You basically have to learn how to draw all over again. It just takes time and practice. Don’t worry, it can be done. Here’s a few exercises to get you started:

Developing Your Hand-Eye Coordination:

Learn to write your name.
Try to do it neatly and try to write in a straight line. If you can accomplish this, you are in a good place.

Learn to draw a horizontal line.
You will find this to be one of your hardest tasks on a tablet, but it will help your hand-eye coordination if you can at least get close.

Learn to draw a circle.
You are one step closer to making full-out drawings!

Learning to Paint on Your Computer:

Explore Your Brushes
Play with the size, opacity, and pressure sensitivity settings. Learn what you can do within Photoshop with your tablet.

Paint a Sphere
Get used to the digital brushes and try to use your skills in the simplest forms first. See how well you can execute value and color digitally.

Paint a Still Life
Next, try to put these skills into real objects. Practice rendering effectively on the computer.

After becoming more comfortable with the basics, just keep drawing and sketching. Before you know it, you may be making complete illustrations on the computer. There are plenty of tutorials on this site to help you along. And remember to keep some rules in mind.

If you have anything else to say about tablets, just drop an email or leave a comment on DaniDraws.com. If you have just purchased your first tablet, I would love to hear your stories. You can also leave any questions or other frustrations you might have. Enjoy your digital painting!