Graphics Tablets 101

Having been an avid fan of the Graphics Tablet for about 6 years now it’s hardly surprising that I was super excited to hear rumours of a product announcement from the Wacom camp. This got me thinking, pre my Wacom days I was anti-Graphics Tablet, preferring the trusty mouse and keyboard for the majority of my work as a graphic designer. Then I moved jobs and there on my new desk was a Wacom Intuos 3 Graphics Tablet. Horrified at the thought of using one, I decided to listen to the old adage: the only thing to fear was fear itself. Here I hope I can allay any fears you may have about them, give you some helpful tips on selecting one, their use in practice and maybe dispel a few myths…

NB. As I do constantly use a Wacom tablet (the Intuos 4 currently) this guide will refer to them, but all of the major pointers will be relevant to other Graphic Tablet brands too.

So what's all the fuss about?

For those new to Graphics Tablets, and perhaps those who have never heard of them before, they are very simply put, a device for your computer that functions in the same way a mouse would.

The biggest benefits are that they help speed up the workflow process and, more crucially, provide accuracy. Imagine doing an intricate image mask such as cutting-out a mane of hair from the background, or dodging/burning a few pixels on a image, and all you have to use is a clogged-up rollerball mouse. Then imagine doing the same action with a pen with a nib of about 1mm and you can see my point (sorry about the pun). These wonderful gadgets give you the ability to be accurate as well as fast! Making them ideal for artists, designers and photographers.

Mastering the pen was tricky at first. © Wacom


But as with most new gadgets, there is a small catch (for some). The pen, or wand as I like to call it, foxes some people. My first encounter was very similar – all logic and sense left me and I was wondering how to operate a ‘pen’ comfortably. Yes it seems obvious now: you hold and use it like a pen, but for some reason the sensitivity meant that I tried to hold the pen slightly above the tablet with my hand in the air. Not only did this feel uncomfortable it looked very odd too. After a few days of trying different postures I resorted to resting my hand on the tablet and gripping the pen the same way I would a biro – much like the guy in the above shot. The click, drag and draw functions are much more natural to do this way too. To click on a folder or image I just tap the pen once on the tablet – and double-click is the same action twice in succession. Simples.

Wacom grip pen button operation. © Wacom


One of the useful things about the Wacom Grip Pen in particular is that you can use your thumb to activate one of the two buttons on the barrel – which, as you’d expect, function much the same as a two-button mouse. You can also toggle this function between the eraser at the top, but you can see what suits you, but I prefer as it is.

I’ll be honest though, it took me two or three days to get the hang of using the pen and tablet for the first time. In fact I am so used to using it now that I screw my face up in horror when I have to use a mouse.

So, they are, in my eyes, the most important work tool after the computer and of course Photoshop.

10 tips for selecting and using your graphic tablet

Wacom Bamboo. © Wacom


1. Start Small

If you are buying a Graphics Tablet for the first time it is a good idea to start small, purchase one from the Wacom Bamboo range or borrow a tablet from a friend for a while. Give yourself a few days of solid use to get the hang of it. I found a small tablet an ideal starting point when I was using a 19” monitor/laptop at home, it did the job and was fast enough to cope with the PC I attached it to.

un, deux, trois: the Wacom Intuos 5 range is available in large, medium or small. © Wacom


2. Size matters

If you are more comfortable using one of the smaller tablets and want to upgrade, or you're not fussy about starting small to gain practice – go for the largest size your desk space, monitor size and pocket can afford. Particularly if you use larger, wider monitors.

It really pays to check the tablet dimension for the active area (the area that is sensitive to the Pen or Multi-Touch gestures) and the physical tablet size, as these can differ hugely. The active area may be right but the physical size may end up being too big for you and end up cluttering your workspace, so be careful in your selection.

For example, I found the Intuos 4 A4 Wide is ideal for the 27” iMac and a 30” Monitor on an average office desk. The Medium Intuos 5 tablet with the 27” iMac works just as well, if not better,  as my desk is now less swallowed by this version.

3. Under pressure and full tilt!

Each tablet brand will indicate the pressure sensitivity of the tablets active area. This can range quite wildly but the more obvious point to note is the higher the number equals the greater the sensitivity. More sensitivity means a smoother experience for the user: lines and brushstrokes become more realistic, with the tablet reacting to the subtleties in pressure applied to the pen and relaying this to what you see on screen.

Ever noticed how a writing pen can change the amount of ink to paper, maybe even stop the flow of ink, the further you tilt the barrel when writing? This is gauged, in Graphics Tablet terms, by Tilt Range in either mm or degrees. This can be up to as much as 60 Degrees on the higher end models and again, as with sensitivity, the higher the number the more realistic the result will be/feel to you. These two facets should help when choosing between brands and of course price points.

4. Keep the mouse on standby

Your new tablet will most probably need to be connected before the software installation takes place – which can cause problems if you’re not used to using a tablet and pen (or if you're like me, you neglected to uninstall a previous Tablet driver). So it's best to have the old stalwart on standby while you go through the simple set-up procedure. This is only needed for about 5 minutes and shouldn’t put you off what is a real time saver of a device and a nice piece of kit.

5. Wean yourself off the mouse (after installation)

I quite literally hid the mouse so I was forced to use the pen over anything else. It may sound extreme but it helped me develop the speed and skill I was hoping to achieve.

If the tablet does have a Multi-Touch gesture function, where you use your hand instead of the pen or mouse (eg. Bamboo Pen and Touch, Intuos 5 Pen and Touch), try this solidly for a few days too and again find what mode of operation suits you.

I find the pen is ideal for detail work, but if you are travelling, the pen is the last thing you will want to lose! So I would use the multi-touch function in those on-the-go instances, while avoiding tricky masks and cut-outs if possible.

If you do buy the new Wacom Intuos 5, try the exercises in the manual (pages 18-24) where there are some hints on pointing, clicking, dragging, drawing and, more importantly, hand-eye co-ordination. For Multi-Touch gestures there are handy diagrams within the settings window.

Wacom Intuos GripPen (compatible with the Intuos 4 and 5 ranges). © Wacom


6. The pen (nib) is mighter than the sword

Buying an Intuos model from Wacom means you are furnished with nibs galore! Some tablets sell these separately, but whichever way you come by them, experiment with different styles and use what feels comfortable for you. Also note how the difference in nib can affect the tools you work with within your chosen software, does it help or hinder that tool? Same goes with an iPad stylus, there are many out there to purchase but after speaking to one iPad artist he usually uses at the most two styli, even though he owns several.

If your nib runs down/goes blunt/has uneven wear, change it! Think of them as tyres, the newer they are, the better the feel of the drive. Changing nibs differs depending on the tablet and pen you use, so do check your manuals or as I did once – click over to YouTube and search for help with your pen. I found a few videos on Wacom Grip Pens and Intuos Tablets here. So equally treat your pens and nibs with care, as replacements don’t come cheap but if you have an error, the manufacturer's website and the internet (including our forum) are a great resource for help.

The Wacom Intuos 5 Tablet comes with the standard Grip Pen including a stand which holds 5 standard nibs (black), 1 flex nib (white and black), 1 stroke nib (white), 3 hard felt nibs (Grey) and a nib removal device (similar to a round pair of tweezers). © Wacom


With the Wacom Grip Pen (Intuos 4 and 5 compatible) all you need to change your nib is the container. Unscrew the container and inside are all the supplied nibs plus a metal ring set in the centre. This metal ring acts as a pair of tweezers, simply pinch the nib end with these and pull gently – now push the new nib into the hole at the business end of the pen and voila! You’re ready to rock.

7. If you can use your hands instead of a pen

If you have Multi-Touch gesture functionality it’s the same tip as with the pen, learn some tricks from the manual and if you have a track-pad laptop, tablet computer or touch-screen smartphone, use all the same gestures you would here to scroll, increase, decrease and rotate elements and it will become second nature to you very quickly. Multi-Touch tablets can give you oodles of more options of shortcuts too, the greater the combinations offered (or rather fingers it can recognise) is great, but in practice I use maybe two or three constantly.

Touch and go actions can easily be captured in the Express Keys and Multi-Touch gestures of the Intuos 5. © Wacom


8. Express Key enabled tablets make repetitive tasks more simple too

If you select a tablet that incorporates Express Keys (for example, the Wacom Intuous 5) you can assign shortcuts so that less time is spent with the keyboard and more time is spent with your pen and tablet (like in Tip#6). This cuts the workflow time considerably.

Choose Express Keys that suit your workflow: are there functions that you use constantly such as shift, control or alt? (perhaps all these keys are used at the same time). Or a software action that you perform most such as ‘save as’? These can be instructed to function in one of the keys of your choosing. Take some time to sort what you use most and don’t be afraid of them either, they are there to help and make things much speedier.

Note: Not every brand of tablet may offer these functions so it's best to check the specification before making a purchase.

9. Good posture pays dividends

Layout is important. The monitor, position of the tablet and the keyboard in relation to you and how you sit is key to your work, but also to your comfort in the long term. Again, experiment with the layout of your workspace to see what works, feels right and is pain free for you.

Using a graphics tablet will allow you to be bit of a show-off (in a good way) but arrangement of the hardware is key to your comfort when in use. ©Wacom, peacock photo © Angela Pickavance


Page 11 of the Intuos 5 manual goes some ways to help you determine optimum layout.

10. Neat freak!

Keep the tablet clean. Crumbs and scratches are a devil to work round and not only does it feel nasty against your skin but can play havoc when masking very intricate areas of an image. It can cause missing an axis point of the clipping path, or the impromptu closing of the clipping area itself – meaning you have to undo that step, or worse, redraw the entire path. Your hand won’t glide smoothly on gravel so it really does pay to be neat.

BEWARE: by clean I mean a light brushing with a soft non-scratch cloth, no harsh chemicals and certainly no tin of Pledge Dust and Go should come within 5 feet of the tablet.

There you have it, a quick guide to Graphics Tablet use. If you have any more handy tips to add or any Graphics Tablets questions, I’d love to hear them. Just leave a comment below…


About the author

Angela Pickavance is a Wex Photographic staff member and our resident Photoshop and graphics tablet expert, having used them for the last 6 years in her role as our Offline Marketing & Design Manager.