Recommendations for PC drawing tablet
February 3, 2008 5:54 PM   Subscribe

I've been a cartoonist for 30 years and have remained a firm Luddite, drawing everything by hand and submitting hard copy to my publishers. But, those days are now over, and I'm being asked to provide electronic files. I would greatly appreciate help in terms of purchasing a simple-to-use, but still "semi-professional" electronic drawing tablet (sorry, don't even know the right term for this). Also, what PC software would you recommend that won't take months to learn? thanks.
posted by quintno to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want/need a tablet or would you prefer to just do your drawings and scan them in?

As for the software, what exactly do you need to do with it?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 PM on February 3, 2008

Is it not possible to make a high-res scan of your hand art?
posted by sourwookie at 5:58 PM on February 3, 2008


I'm on my second Graphire, and LOVE it. Shop around for a model and size that suits your needs. Wacom also offers refurbished tablets, if you're looking to save money.
posted by louche mustachio at 6:00 PM on February 3, 2008

2nding Wacom.
posted by drezdn at 6:04 PM on February 3, 2008

the new wacom cintiq is badass... Its $999 but its amazing
posted by hummercash at 6:07 PM on February 3, 2008

nth Wacom. Just avoid their entry-level line, the resolution isn't great.

As for software, anything is going to have a learning curve associated with it. Photoshop is the standard graphics application for a reason.
posted by jjb at 6:14 PM on February 3, 2008

I have a Wacom that I've drawn cartoons with and I love it, but it took awhile to learn. It's not the same as drawing with a pen on paper.

It might be easier to buy a scanner and scan your drawings. The software associated with a scanner would be easier, too.
posted by christinetheslp at 6:21 PM on February 3, 2008

Yeah, what sourwookie said. Seems like a better solution, if only to avoid a learning curve and also to not affect the quality of your work while you are learning.

Other than that, yeah, Wacom.
posted by gjc at 6:23 PM on February 3, 2008

Aren't Wacom tablets ridiculously over priced? They've always seemed that way to me. Have any of you guys recommending them used anything else?
posted by delmoi at 6:25 PM on February 3, 2008

Thanks for this question. My father in law is also an artist still stubbornly clinging to his pens and ink. While I don't want or expect him to ditch them, it would be cool to have a couple of ideas for "cool toys" he'd be able to use.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:29 PM on February 3, 2008

I *love* my WACOM. I'm using it for my photographs (makes photoshop so much easier) and it's as easy to use as pen and paper. Fact of the matter, I have a piece of 8x11" paper scotch-taped over the top of tablet so as get a recognizable sense of traction as I drag my WACOM pen gently across the surface. I love the fact that the WACOM responds to pressure much like a piece of paper would respond to the pressure of a pen.

I have the Graphire, it's 6x8. It comes with a suite of software - Photoshop Elements, nik Color Effects, Corel Draw, etc. I found the tablet easy to use from the get go for the applications that I have in mind (using Photoshop, a bit of Elements). My only regret is that I did not buy one earlier.

By the way, I still use a keyboard and a mouse - those are not going away. The tablet however is a lot more intuitive to use than the mouse in many instances, for example when dodging, burning, erasing, etc.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:30 PM on February 3, 2008

I have a wacom and I love it, but unless you get a fairly large scale model it'll be a huge adjustment/learning curve. I'd definitely recommend getting a really good scanner instead - you still get to have a paper copy of it, and drawing with pencil/paper just really feels different than drawing on the computer.

Plus this way you can draw on the go and still scan it in when you get home.

Canon has a good range of scanners, I'd start there.
posted by Phire at 6:34 PM on February 3, 2008

If you must use a tablet, use a Wacom tablet with Photoshop and/or Illustrator. But honestly, most cartoonists I've known who do illustrations and cartoons for regular newspaper or magazine print publication draw most, if not all, of their work by hand, then scan 'em at 300+ dpi in b&w and correct for contrast, levels, white balance, sharpness (if cropped) etc. in Photoshop, then save 'em as full-res TIFFs or PSD files. If you want to add color to the scanned cartoon, that's easy to do with a mouse.

There's no need to drastically change your production methods—you just need to learn how to do the part where you turn a work on paper into an electronic file. It's really pretty easy to do, esp. for a b&w image—maybe a 15-minute to half-hour process to clean up the file created by your scanner, depending on how clean your original is.

Not to seem defeatist, but if you've been doing this the same way for 30 years, I'm guessing you've probably got your methods down to a science—and learning to use a tablet is in some ways like learning to draw all over again. It's an exercise in hand-eye coordination, 'cause where you're putting the pen isn't where the "ink" appears. I've seen experienced young cartoonists whose work on a tablet takes a while to match up to the quality of their work on paper, and in my own experience, working with a tablet (albeit a cheap one) was a clunky exercise in frustration. So...unless they're specifically telling you you have to start drawing with a tablet, I'd just say you should invest in a good scanner and a copy of Photoshop.

If they are specifically saying you need a tablet, get the biggest Wacom you can afford. Don't try to get by with a little tiny cheap Wacom—you'll be miserable.
posted by limeonaire at 6:34 PM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Learning software is an ongoing process. Without knowing what format you are asked to submit files in I can't be too sure about the type of software you need. I don't recommend Adobe Illustrator as I have always found the interface poorly designed and hard to get around. Photoshop I don't mind at all but I've got used to it over a long period of time.

I'd recommend Painter except that it really does take some getting used to. I think you would enjoy using it if you invested a great deal of time and patience. I can't recommend other programs that imitate natural media as I haven't tried them.

For starters though, try a few different size tablets before you buy one, you may find that you are more comfortable with a small one over a large one, or vice versa. You could still work in pen and ink, get a good scanner and just use the software to do touch ups.
posted by Tixylix at 6:41 PM on February 3, 2008

Painter bundle
posted by Fins at 6:47 PM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't recommend Adobe Illustrator as I have always found the interface poorly designed and hard to get around.

Definitely agree.
posted by limeonaire at 6:51 PM on February 3, 2008

I nth the Wacom tablet. It may take you a week to get used to it, but after that it will seem natural. The odd thing is that while you're used to the ink coming out from the nib of your pen, with the tablet, nothing will come out. You will draw on a plastic surface on your desk, but the drawing will show up on your computer.

This is the same odd sensation as moving your mouse "down there" but seeing whatever it's dragging move around "up there." I bet, since you've been using computers for a long time, that odd feeling isn't odd any more. In the same way that you get used to a mouse, you get used to a tablet.

As for software, I recommend Photoshop because it's the industry standard. Why should you care about that? Because it will be much easier to get help if you need it. There are more books, classes, videos, magazines, etc. about Photoshop than any other drawing program.

The problem is that PS is really, really complex. I've been using it for a decade, teaching PS classes, and writing articles about it -- and I'm STILL learning it. But the good news is that you don't need to learn all of it. I draw cartoons in PS, and despite all my in-depth knowledge of the program, when I'm cartooning, I only use a few features of the program. I used features that you could learn in one day.

I recommend that you find a PS expert on -- say -- Craigslist and offer him a hundred dollars for targeted training. Tell him exactly what you're trying to accomplish. If you're in the NYC area, I may be able to help you out finding someone.

Having said all that, as others have suggested here, I'll suggest that you look into scanning before trying tablets and Photoshop.

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2008

When I met Hilary Price, I noticed that she was drawing by hand but had a scanner next to her computer with a comic up in the scanner software. I asked her about it and if the quality was good enough. She said it was fine at 300 dpi grayscale (IIRC).

Nth Wacom tablets. I have one that I got as part of a promotion at a trade show. It works very well to reproduce my crappy drawing, which leads me to believe that someone who draws well would transition well to it.

PhotoShop is probably your be$t choi¢e for drawing programs. I would stay away from Illustrator at this point. Even though I love the app, I've heard rumors to the effect that all future maintenance on it is being done offshore. If that's true, it speaks volumes about Adobe's dedication to it as a product.

Some people are very happy with Corel Draw.

Download a free trial. Both Adobe and Corel offer them.
posted by plinth at 6:59 PM on February 3, 2008

The "best" way to go would be to invest considerable time and money into getting a Wacom Cintiq 21UX [Youtube videos: 1,2] and Adobe Photoshop CS3. That's $2500 + $625, plus 40-80 hours of time, minimum, to learn how to sketch/ink/color/letter in that environment.

If that's not realistic, then:

I++ to buying a flatbed scanner and an older version of Photoshop (version 8, aka CS1). This option would probably do just fine.
posted by Hildago at 7:03 PM on February 3, 2008

I'm learning digital art too. Scanning is a good idea. Start there. It will familiarize you with the technical work such as resolution, file types, archiving, back ups, etc.

Also, what PC software would you recommend that won't take months to learn?

How quickly you learn depends on how much time you put into it. A good drawing program will offer a graded environment. You can learn a little and do simple things quickly; but it should be complex enough that further study offers much more depth.

Don't worry about your learning curve, just go at your own pace. You might find that the digital possibilities extend your abilities as an artist.

I recommend Illustrator and (again) get a Wacom tablet. I have the Intuous and love it but if you can afford it the Cintiq is very cool.
posted by red_lotus at 7:30 PM on February 3, 2008

Before you totally ditch your accustomed way of working and switch to a tablet, I suggest you read through this tutorial on how one artist works, incorporating scanning his line art with Photoshop for colorization.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:08 PM on February 3, 2008

The Painter bundle linked above would be a great way to start. I started with essentially the same thing about ten years ago and fell instantly in love with it. Painter approximates the feel of natural media more closely than anything else out there, and it's pretty much designed to work with Wacom tablets. It will export other formats so you don't need to worry about compatibility. The Intuos 6x8 is a pleasure to use. I'd never change to a larger one because you end up using these big arm movements that don't come naturally to me. Big tablets are better for digitizing art (overlaying your manual art and tracing), not so much for painting directly to the computer.

Vector-based drawing programs like Illustrator and Corel impose a completely different drawing process on you -- you may never end up getting your work to look the way manual art did. Painter, however, does a remarkable job of emulating the look and behavior of natural media, be it ink pen, pencil, chalk, pastels, paint, watercolor, airbrush, etc.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:30 PM on February 3, 2008

I was going to come back and recommend Painter. A long time ago, I was hired to do artwork for a computer game. I hadn't used a computer since the Commodore 64 at the time, so I knew pretty much nothing, and had very little time to learn what I was doing. My employer hooked me up with a Wacom tablet and Painter. Painter is quite a bit easier to use than Illustrator or Photoshop. I found that I was ready to work within a very brief period of time.

I do know illustrators who taped paper over their tablets to get used to the different feel, but you may not have a problem with that.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:36 PM on February 3, 2008

If you've been working with pens and pencils all these years, don't bother with Photoshop or Painter. Get Autodesk Sketchbook Pro.

It's got the simplest, friendliest interface of any art program, and its pen and pencils strokes respond better than even Painter. It was designed for use with a tablet. Take a look at the website; you'll see many cartoonists and other pro artists are using this cool program. You can also download a free trial.
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 9:56 PM on February 3, 2008

I think I'll try that Sketchbook program.

Nice thread, thanks.
posted by Tixylix at 10:23 PM on February 3, 2008

i think you might be complicating things. i know a bunch of illustrators who pencil and/or ink by hand, then scan and send their files in as big, high-res jpegs. the publisher can then either "ink" in photoshop by adjusting the contrast. none of my illustrator friends draw their actual pages on a wacom (although some of them do layouts that way, then print the layouts and use them as trace guides to pencil by hand over them. anyway, sounds like you'd be better off with a scanner than a tablet.
posted by twistofrhyme at 10:36 PM on February 3, 2008

A reasonably good scanner is the way to go and should not set you back more than $500. While Wacom tablets are extremely good and versatile instruments, you don't want to put aside 30+ years experience to basically re-learn to drag a piece of plastic over another.
The tactile feedback of pen (or pencil) on paper is an altogether different thing.

After you scanned your drafts in, either in pencil or inked, you can proceed to edit a bit in Adobe Photoshop (best on the market, probably overkill for your use), corel photopaint or Paint Shop Pro (much cheaper) to basically clean up dirt, speckles and the like that passed in the scanning, and perhaps enhancing a little the contrast. The wacom tablet could be useful for that phase too. "Inking" a scanned pencil draft in photoshop (or illustrator) is certainly doable, and lots of people do that, but it depends mostly on your drawing style, whether you use pen or brush, etc. to find the most fit software.
posted by _dario at 12:34 AM on February 4, 2008

Your publishers have been scanning in and cleaning up your cartoons for you. It might be helpful at the beginning if you can talk to a production staffer who has been doing this so you can duplicate their workflow.
posted by grouse at 2:15 AM on February 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Aren't Wacom tablets ridiculously over priced? They've always seemed that way to me. Have any of you guys recommending them used anything else?

Wacom wasn't overpriced - the other stuff was inferior in comparison.
However, as the years go on and the technological bar keeps getting raised, Wacom rises with it and remains the best, but today's stuff that is inferior in comparison to Wacom is just as good or better than the Wacom stuff was N years ago. So depending on what's important, and how important, the other stuff might be fine, or it might not be - but the latest Wacom stuff will usually be noticeably better.

Don't forget that you can also get wacom digitizers built into your laptop screen - Tablet-PC's with convertable form-factor (ie can transform between laptop and slate) are an incredibly useful improvement over the older style of laptop, and many (most?) use Wacom.

That said, use pen/pencil for the art, a scanner to get it into the computer, and a wacom and photoshop (or similar) to take it from there. Doing it entirely in the computer by drawing with the stylus can result in a faster workflow, but I don't know if the difficulty of the transition will be worth it, or allow you to see those gains for a while. So just get the pen-scanner-computer process working, then start playing around on the side to find out if you'll be happiest moving your initial sketching to the digitizer, or sticking to pen.

Some introductory terms:

Digitizer - also known as a tablet, or a graphics tablet - the electronic drawing surface. Usually this is a plastic surface, but in some cases (like tablet-PCs), it is built into an LCD screen, so you draw directly onto the screen, thus better simulating traditional media. When the drawing surface is just opaque plastic, many people cover it with paper to get a pen-stroke resistance that they like.

Stylus - the electronic pen. Your fingers won't register on the digitizer surface, because it is based on radio signals, not touch. It's based on radio because this allows cool things like graded pressure sensitivity, angle sensitivity, right-click mouse buttons, erasurer-tips, etc. Any digitizer worth it's salt will not need a battery in the stylus - the pen will be powered by the radio signals from the digitizer.

Puck - a stylus shaped like a mouse.

Touch-screen - a screen that can track when and where your finger is touching it. These are not useful for art.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:40 AM on February 4, 2008

I'm a syndicated cartoonist and memeber of the National Cartoonist Society and all that. Here's how I've done it for some 2,500 (and counting)daily cartoons using a low-end scanner and a Mac.

1. Draw on paper with pencil
2. Ink over pencil with Pigma Micron pen and erase pencil.
3. Scan drawing with a fairly simple low-end Epson scanner at 400 dpi
4. Scan is saved as grayscale tiff in Photoshop
5. I use paintbucket tool to pour in basic gray fills.
6. I use a Wacom tablet and stylus to shade using the paintbrush on various opacity settings.
7. I drop the artwork into already created frame and add captions, all still in photoshop.
8. I ship to my syndicate via e-mail.

(Sunday cartoons are a little different because I have to do the separations for the black plate and the color plate. Photoshop is ideal for this as well.)

It's still really hard to draw on a tablet. I find it almost too precise. It records all the jiggles of your hand. I know people who put a piece of paper over the surface just to create some drag. However, it's fantastic for fixing up part of a drawing you want to change, or for adding a line on an object here or there.

And, yes, when I first started doing it, a brief chat with a production artist at my syndicate was all I needed to get on the right track.

But that's how i do it for 48 daily cartoons a month (my cartoon comes out in both panel and in strip form).

If you want to see the results, go here: and toggle down to Loose Parts. There's a three-month archive.(Hence the name lpsguy.)

If you want to know more, my email is in the bottom of every panel.

Good luck.
posted by lpsguy at 6:49 AM on February 4, 2008

Cartoonist/artist with decades of experience here. Nthing Wacom and Photoshop. Of course, I've got decades of computer experience, too, but once you start messing around with Photoshop and realize how cool it is, you'll be amazed how you got along without it. (I know,that's easy for me to say.) I sometiems scan work in and then play with it, but I have no problem drawing on the computer either. The scanned stuff retains more spontaneity and style, though.

Here's an example or two: and the former composed largely on computer and the latter simply scanned in. Email me (see my profile) if you have any questions. Have fun!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:57 AM on February 4, 2008

I do art non-professionally, so take this with a grain of salt: You will want a good scanner instead of or in addition to a Wacom tablet. Wacoms are great (I have a cheap one and it still works well for me) but if you're accustomed to drawing on paper, there's no reason not to draw on paper. Ink, scan, and just submit the scan electronically. As several others have said above, a decent scanner will generate fine results.
posted by Alterscape at 10:10 AM on February 4, 2008

Yeah, it sounds like what they mean by "electronic files" is just "an electronic version of what you've been doing all along". Unless they're actually asking you to change your writing style, just submit a scan of what you'd be doing anyway. They basically just want to cut out the middleman, as I guarantee you they've been scanning your art themselves.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:08 PM on February 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone who responded with such informative answers. So greatly appreciated. I think I will pursue the scanning/Photoshop route and just get a very basic version of Photoshop, since my needs are very limited--correcting and shading and adding gray tones.
I'm wonder if you could steer me in the right direction concerning a scanner. I've got one now that's part of a cheap Brother all-in-one machine that I suspect is not appropriate for this task. Any recommendations in the $200 or so price range?
Again, thanks for all of the great advice.
posted by quintno at 6:04 PM on February 4, 2008

I bought this scanner, because of its large scanning area and low price. It's not amazing, but it works. I'm mostly scanning black and white line art, but also ink washes. Works fine.

I'd strongly advise against using Adobe Illustrator. You have to master the bezier pen tool to use it well, and it's got a learning curve and only appropriate if you have an extremely clean style. I use Flash, myself. Ignoring all its other functions, it works well as a vector drawing program with a good brush tool.

Tablets do take some getting used to. I use them all the time, but I don't think I'll ever be able to use a tablet as well as I can use a pen on paper.
posted by picea at 1:10 PM on February 8, 2008

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