A graphics tablet is a computer device that allows you to use a stylus or stylus to interact with your computer. They closely imitate pen and paper, making them useful for digital artists, photographers, designers, or anyone who does digital art, drawing, or painting.
If you spend a lot of time working in Photoshop or another graphics application, a drawing tablet is almost certainly for you.
What type of graphics tablet is best for you?
Graphics tablets are separate from tablets like the iPad (although you can use an iPad as a graphics tablet for a Mac) and Microsoft Surface Pro. They are also computers, while graphics tablets are just peripherals for a computer. If you’re already using a tablet to do your Photoshop work, you probably don’t need a graphics tablet.
There are two types of graphics tablets: those with a screen and those without.
Display graphics tablets have built-in external monitors that connect to your computer. You can then draw or paint directly on the screen and in Photoshop.
Unfortunately, display graphics tablets are almost exclusively professional products. Even an entry-level model, like the Wacom One, will cost you a few hundred dollars. The monstrous Wacom Cintiq Pro 32 costs more than three large. Unless you make special effects for a Marvel movie, one of them would be overkill.
Screenless graphics tablets are more common and affordable. These are basically large pressure sensitive touchpads that you control with a special stylus. It may take a few days to get used to drawing while looking at your computer screen, but it’s more natural than you might think.
Much easier engine control
The big advantage of a graphics tablet over a mouse or, worse, a trackpad, is the control you have. In the image above, we quickly sketched two stickmen using the trackpad of a Mac (left) and a Wacom tablet (right). The Wacom stickman is significantly more beautiful and took us about a quarter of the time it took to draw the other.
With a graphics tablet, it is much easier to work with flowing and natural lines. You can draw sharp circles, precisely trace the outline of a model you want cut from the background, and generally work as you would if you were using a pen and paper. If you’ve ever tried to sign your name with a trackpad or mouse instead of a pen, you’ve made a difference.
Dynamic and natural controls
While it’s nice to draw and draw with more precision, it’s only half the story. Graphics tablets are also sensitive to pressure and sometimes they are also sensitive to tilt. This means that Photoshop can tell the difference between a lightly sketched line and a heavy mark.
You can customize exactly how Photoshop uses this information. Most artists configure it so that lighter pressure results in softer, less opaque, thinner lines and that firmer pressure creates harder, darker and thicker lines. In the image above, we used the same brush in Photoshop but applied different pressure to create each line.
You can also configure the tilt sensitivity to control what you want; however, it is most useful when using a shaped brush. In this way, you can control the angle of the brush by turning the stylus.
To get the most out of a graphics tablet, you need to configure things tool by tool and application by application. Assuming you have installed all of the required tablet drivers and software, you can configure a pressure-controlled brush in Photoshop.
First, open Photoshop and press B to grab the brush tool. Then go to Window> Brush Settings or click on the Brush Settings icon in the toolbar.
The “Brush Settings” panel lets you control everything a brush can do. There are a lot of options here, but let’s keep things basic and create a soft, round brush that’s small. It will be low opacity when you draw lightly and bigger and darker when you press harder.
Under “Brush tip shape”, set “Hardness” to 0%, “spacing” to 1% and “size” to about 45 px. This will give you a nice soft, medium-sized brush.
Under “Shape Dynamics”, set “Size Jitter Control” to “Pen Pressure”. Now the brush is smaller when you press it more gently. If you want, you can also set a “minimum diameter” to make sure your brush isn’t too small.
Under “Transfer”, set “Opacity Jitter Control” to “Pen Pressure”. Now, in addition to being smaller, the brush will also be lighter when you press it more gently. You can also set a minimum here.
When you have a little time, go to the “Brush settings” panel and see what you can control with “Pen pressure”, “Pen tilt” and “Pen angle”. There are several of them!
Photoshop is a huge application and doing some things can take a while. A graphics tablet can speed things up, especially when you do the things we mentioned above, like:
Drawing or painting: You won’t have to “cancel” almost as much.
Using pressure sensitivity and tilt to control your brush: You will not have to constantly reconfigure the size, opacity or flow.
But there is more to it. Most graphics tablets have a combination of the following:
Buttons on the stylus: You can use them to quickly cancel an action or press the keyboard modifiers.
Customizable keyboard shortcuts: You can configure them for the tools, actions, and keyboard shortcuts you use most.
A control ring or a slider: To quickly adjust the size, opacity, flux, rotation, etc.
Tactile gestures: To zoom or pan.
With a properly configured graphics tablet, you will rarely need to touch your keyboard or dive into a submenu. You also never have to control anything with your trackpad or mouse.
By keeping everything close at hand, you will be able to work much faster. Plus, you won’t have to interrupt your workflow to find an option.
Which graphics tablet should you buy?
Graphics tablets are a fairly niche market, so there aren’t a lot of companies that make them – let alone make good ones. Wacom is the gold standard, and its tablets are adored by digital artists everywhere.
Unless you’re working with a giant screen, size matters less than you think. We used a medium and small tablet, but on a 15-inch MacBook screen, the drawing area of the medium tablet was too large. For most people, a small tablet will be perfect.
More levels of sensitivity and customizable keys are better, but only up to a point. If you are just starting out, the difference between 4,000 and 8,000 levels of pressure sensitivity will not be noticeable. Likewise, Bluetooth is nice to have, but far from a necessity.
Really, even the most basic graphics tablet will make it easy to create digital art, edit photographs, design a font, or whatever else you need to do in a graphics application. Take one now!