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Learning to Use a Graphics Tablet and Pen

The Pen — Mightier Than the Sword or Mouse

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Bamboo graphics tablet and pen.

Bamboo graphics tablet and pen.

Image by Le ciel azuré via Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0
Are you a new graphics tablet user? Do you find yourself getting frustrated with the pen and reaching for the mouse much of the time? For some people, the transition from using a mouse to using a tablet and pen is difficult. Sure, holding a pen is more natural, less strained — for writing on paper. Using it with a computer can feel unnatural and counterintuitive at first.

With a pen or pencil you tend to look down at the paper. With a tablet and pen you still have to look up at the screen to see what you're doing. It can be disconcerting at first. Don't give up. Longtime graphics tablets users swear by their tablets for most tasks, especially within graphics software. Not only is the pen more ergonomical, it provides more precise control.

But hearing all about the benefits of pen over mouse doesn't make it any easier to make the switch. The mouse is familiar. We know how to use a mouse with a computer, with all our software. The pen is trickier when it's not filled with ink.

Before you throw down the pen and grab up your mouse, set aside some time to get familiar with your tablet and pen outside of the pressures of real work. Play with it a while when deadlines aren't looming. Experiment with the settings. Just like software, you're not going to learn all the bells and whistles overnight. It's not hard to use a graphics tablet and pen, it's just different.

"Even non-artists may choose to use a tablet because it offers a more ergonomic method of input that can reduce the likelihood of developing repetitive strain injury." — Sue Chastain, About.com Guide, Before You Buy a Graphics Tablet
"Repetitive stress injuries such as Mouse Arm, tendonitis or bursitis can be a direct result of using a mouse. ...we need a computer mouse because we have a computer, it does a decent job as an interface, but there are alternatives if you don't like it." — Chris Adams, About.com Guide, Why Do We Need a Computer Mouse?

I've been primarily a mouse user but I'm learning to love my graphics tablet one step at a time. I've found that using it to play Spider Solitaire (one of my diversions when I can't quite get into the swing of working) is helping me become more comfortable with clicking and dragging with the pen. Right-clicking is still a challenge. When time is critical I'll revert back to my mouse (for now).

Tips for Transitioning to a Graphics Tablet and Pen

After installation, try these steps.
  1. Don't try to make the switch under the pressure of a project deadline. When you have a newsletter to send out or business card design due for delivery it's not the time to be learning new tools.

  2. First, practice using pen and tablet with the default settings to gain basic familiarity.

  3. Configure pen and tablet settings to suit you (pen sensitivity, button functions, etc.). Not sure what works best? Experiment. You can come back at any time and change the settings if you find they aren't working for you.

  4. Use your pen to navigate your desktop. Practice opening and closing windows, clicking and dragging, and right-clicking on items.

  5. Play games. Using your pen and tablet to play games (such as Solitaire and other games that come with Windows) is a low stress but fun way to practice clicking and dragging.

  6. Open a text document in your word processing program of choice. Practice using your pen to highlight text, move it around. Practice selecting paragraphs, words, even individual characters and moving them to a new position in your document. This can help you get comfortable with small, precision movements (even if you plan to switch back to your mouse for word processing).

  7. Open your favorite graphics program (such as Photoshop or even Windows Paint) and practice writing your name, drawing simple shapes.

  8. Open a photograph or a piece of clip art in your graphics software. Use your pen to trace over elements in the image. Practice using the masking tools to select different portions of the image. Manipulate the photo using various tools, especially those you use on a regular basis. No pressure, this is just for fun and learning.

  9. Open a picture and a blank image side-by-side in your graphics software. In the blank image try to draw the other image using your pen and tablet. Use different pens, pencils, and brushes to try to mimic the original.

  10. Do a little warm-up every day (such as writing your name, playing a quick game of Solitaire) before starting work until you are comfortable enough with your pen and tablet that you don't automatically grab your mouse first.

It's also important to remember that you don't have to use the tablet and pen exclusively. You can use a mouse or other input devices for programs where the pen provides no real added benefits.

More Reasons to Switch and How to Use a Graphics Tablet

Step Away from the Mouse with your Hands Up and Getting Even with Your Tablet
In this 2-part Peachpit article, an excerpt from Macromedia Flash MX 2004 Magic, Robert Hoekman helps you learn to use your graphics tablet. Although written for Flash and a Wacom tablet, you can adapt the information to your own situation.

Ditch Your Mouse: Why You Should Be Using a Tablet
Another Peachpit article, this time an excerpt from The Photoshop and Painter Artist Tablet Book: Creative Techniques in Digital Painting, Bryan Hoff describes the benefits of tablet over mouse. He also provides tips on customizing your Wacom tablet and real-world examples of where pen and tablet really shine when used in graphics software.

"Fire up Photoshop, open an image, and try to select an object using the Lasso tool, or try your hand at painting a decent happy face on the canvas. Now, grab yourself a pencil and a piece of paper, take off your shoe and sock and stick the pencil between your first and second toes, gripping it tightly. Place the paper on the floor and start drawing with your foot. Write your name. That's the difference between the control you have using a mouse versus a tablet. Got the picture?" — Bryan Hoff

Illustrator Tutorial: Sketching a Boat with Graphics Tablet
This Vector Diary tutorial by Justin Alvey is for after you've learned the basics of how your pen and table work. Use this tutorial to explore drawing and refining your drawing with a graphics pen.

Have you tried to use a tablet and pen but gone back to your mouse or have you made the switch and never looked back? Tell us about your experiences with learning to use a graphics tablet.

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