Drawing tablet a must-have for any artist

17 Mar

March 17, 2008

By Geoff Meeker

Do you have an artist in the family? Is that person still toiling away with pencil and paper, or even paint and canvas?

Then there’s a piece of technology you must know about (assuming you have a late-model computer in the house).

It’s called a tablet, a device that allows you to create art on your computer, and its advantages are almost too numerous to list here.

Before realizing that I had a modicum of writing ability, I was an illustrator with my heart set on a career in graphic design. Despite becoming a reporter and editor, I kept my skills alive by creating illustrations and cartoons for articles. When I shifted to public relations, I sketched numerous ad concepts and storyboards. And now, I am writing a children’s book, which I plan to illustrate myself.

I had used a tablet several years ago, while working at an agency, and decided it was time to look into buying one of my own (by Wacom, pretty much the only reliable maker out there).  I did have concerns about cost, because back then the tablet was priced in the $500 range. It also has to interface with a graphics software program, such as Photoshop or Illustrator, which both cost more than $600 each.

Thankfully, Wacom now offers a “consumer” level model, the Bamboo, priced at $199. It has a smaller drawing screen, measuring 5.5 by 9 inches, but that’s all I need. Even better, it comes bundled with three software packages – Photoshop Elements, Corel Painter Essentials and Nik Color Efex Pro – which means I can load and go, with no extra software purchase required.

You can also buy a smaller Bamboo, for just $99 (including the software, which is a great buy), but the drawing area of 4 by 6 inches is too small for my purposes.

The Bamboo comes with a stylus – a drawing tool that looks and feels like a pen. It is pressure sensitive, allowing you to create thicker lines the harder you press.

The tablet’s main advantage, in my view, is its ability to create art in layers, which overlap visually but can be fiddled with independently. For example, you can erase that messy moustache without tampering with the upper lip, even though the lines may converge.

As if that wasn’t enough, you can zoom in close to your work, so close you can correct errors – or smooth rough lines – by literally manipulating pixels. If you go up the wrong road you can also undo stroke, after stroke, after stroke, until you are back where you started. (Anyone who has rubbed a hole in their original art, trying to erase an indelible mistake, will appreciate the merit of this feature.)

You can hide layers too, enabling you to try a variety of treatments on one subject, such as different expressions on a single face.

You can create the art in higher resolution for printing purposes, and you can save it as a jpeg to email to friends.

And this is all black and white line art. Don’t get me started on what you can do with the colour painting program…

Incidentally, the tablet doubles as a mousepad, with a wireless mouse included (it’s not true wireless, as the tablet connects via USB, but the mouse has wireless freedom nonetheless). The beauty is, the width of the tablet is scaled automatically to that of your computer screen, which means, by moving the mouse (or pen) across the 9-inch face of the tablet, you can span the full width of your monitor (in my case, it’s 17 inches wide). This is a fairly big deal for those who get frustrated whenever the mouse slips off the edge of the mousepad before reaching its intended target.

The software takes some time to figure out, so I highly recommend using the tutorials that come with the CD. However, any complexity is offset by the highly intuitive features. Artists will smile and say, “Oooh, I like this.”

You likely won’t find the Wacom tablet at local stores (I have looked) but it is available online at www.cdw.com, a Canadian computer supply site.

Okay, it’s no Cezanne, but Geoff thinks this cartoon is okay for his first try on the Wacom Bamboo digital drawing tablet.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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