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How Do Drawing Tablets Work?

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By Matt Smith

Digital drawing isn’t particularly hard or easy; it’s just different! It’ll feel like an enigma at first, and you’re going to move at a turtle’s speed for a while. But once you get the new gear in your comfort zone, you’ll find digital illustration way more fun and a great way to boost your creative process. 

To unleash all the possibilities of your drawing tablet, you’ve got to know how it works first, and that’s why we’re here today. So stick with us for a while, and you have our promises that by the end of this article, you’re going to unpack this new tablet you just bought and start working immediately. 

First, Know the Difference Between Drawing Tablets and Graphic Tablets

Artists usually refer to pen tablets as either “graphic” or “drawing” tablets. While both are portable devices that help you express yourself in more ways than paint and drawing pencils, they have a slight difference. 

Graphic tablets lack screens. They’re just responsive pads with digital pens that act as a mouse with extra buttons. However, to see your work, you’ll have to view it on your PC’s display. Some examples of graphic tablets are Wacom Intuos Pro and Huion Inspiroy Q11K.

On the other hand, tablets for drawing have actual touch screens that work as extensions to your PC’s display. These are like Wacom Cintiq 22 and Huion Kamvas Pro 24.

Both types lack storage, so they need to be hooked up to another hardware device anyway, but with a drawing tablet, you can draw and view your work on the same surface. Learn more about the differences between graphics tablets and drawing tablets here.

The terms are interchangeable, and you may be asking about graphic tablets, not drawing ones, but the theory is the same for both devices, so let’s get to know them better.

Understanding How Drawing Tablets Work

To understand how they work, you need to get familiar with their components. A drawing tablet consists of a drawing surface and a pen (also called a stylus). That’s how it looks from the outside but let’s dig into the bigger picture.

Understand the Tablet

The tablet, the main component, consists of a drawing area in the middle and a few buttons scattered on its sides. These buttons are known as Express Keys. Any drawing tablet should have from 8 to 16 keys, and you can use them as shortcuts to settings. When you press one of them, it should execute a function or command that you assigned to it priorly. 

For example, you can customize one of the buttons to zoom in, enlarge objects, or undo your last brush stroke. This helps you get through your work faster and compensates for the lack of a keyboard. 

To use your tablet, first, you’ll need to plug it into your PC via a USB port. Then, you’ll have to install the manufacturer’s drivers through which you’ll be able to calibrate the tablet to respond to your commands.

When you draw a line, the act is translated as electromagnetic signals that the tablet detects and receives by its sensor board. The image of what you’re drawing will be shown on the tablet surface and your PC’s monitor if you have a drawing tablet. However, with graphic tablets, you can only monitor your work on the PC’s screen.

Get to Know Your Stylus

your stylus

Moving on to the second main component, the digital pen can be one of three types: battery-powered, rechargeable, or electromagnetic resonance-based (EMR). 

Most probably, you have the last type since it’s the newest and most prevalent one. While the former two depend on batteries, EMR-based styluses work by receiving waves from your tablet and transforming them into electric energy. Therefore, they neither need batteries nor cables to charge. 

Function-wise, the stylus is your input device, and most of the time, your tablet won’t respond to anything but its tip. As you move your stylus on the drawing surface, the touchscreen receives digital signals interpreted as drawings on the screen. 

Like tablets, styluses have customizable buttons to which you can assign different functions. However, they’re less in number, usually only one or two. The most convenient setup would be to use one button as an eraser and the other as the right click of the mouse. But the choice is always yours.

Besides drawing, the pen can be used as an alternative to the mouse. For instance, when you hover with it over the tablet, the cursor shows your pen’s position on the screen. Moreover, you can use it to tap or move items around the display. 

Adjust the Pressure Sensitivity

Now that’s the part that’ll define how comfortable you’ll be with your new digital kit. Drawing tablets have different levels of sensitivity to the pressure you apply by the stylus. The harder you press, the darker and thicker your lines will be. On the contrary, when you press lightly, your brush strokes will be light and thin. 

Adjusting your strokes’ pressure will be a pain at first, but with practicing, you’ll get used to the mechanism. Once you get there, you’ll find that it compensates for the unnatural glossy feel of the tablet’s slippery surface, giving you a sense of the rougher texture of drawing papers. 

Pick a Software Program

Finally, to get to the point of creating actual art, you need software. Usually, the tablet you purchase will either come with a CD or offer a free download of software on its official site. 

If you find your tablet’s software limiting or the model doesn’t come with an app in the first place, there are many free options for beginners that you can choose from. Our recommendations for novice digital artists would be ArtRage and Krita. Both have intuitive interfaces with lots of tools and brushes that simulate natural media.

If you’re more into vector art, Adobe Illustrator will be an excellent place to start. Bamboo Paper is also a user-friendly program for artists who have Wacom tablets.

All in all, it’s only natural to try more than one app before you settle for one. Just make sure that whatever software you choose is compatible with your model of choice before you hit the download button.

Final Thoughts

You know the saying, “nothing is more frightening or exciting than a blank piece of paper?” Well, we hope that by now, you’re feeling more excited than intimidated by your drawing tablet. At the end of the day, all that matters is to hold that pen, put some lines, and see where they take you.  

Just remember that new ways take some time to master. While drawing with a tablet and stylus can be difficult at first, it will definitely get better with practice, just like learning a piano piece or grasping the techniques of a new sport. So hang in there, buddy, and enjoy your creative times!