When I got into this whole lettering and illustration thing, I knew I would have to invest in a decent input device. A mouse is the worst thing ever for illustrating—unintuitive, and a sure recipe for carpal tunnel. I started researching different input products.
I had used pen tablets in the past. In fact, I owned one of the first Wacom pen tablets—the ArtZ, back in the early 90s. It was a pretty exotic piece of equipment, and needed frequent re-calibration. It was also prone to failure, and eventually broke down completely. After it was out of warranty, it went into the trash can (hey, this was before electronics recycling).
In the years since, I’ve only ever owned one other pen tablet, a Wacom Bamboo. I remember picking one up at Computer City (remember them?). That one, too, stopped working. This sure doesn’t sound like a resounding success story for Wacom quality—at least their older products.
Computers and digital devices still haven’t been able to completely replicate the classic drawing experience. They’re getting closer, though.
I wanted something that would give me an enjoyable drawing experience that wouldn’t break the bank. I REALLY wanted to get a screen tablet. However, at the time (Fall 2016) there were two reasons I crossed them off my list. The first was that the Wacom tablets were just too pricey to consider. The second was that the “knock-off” screen tablets, while improving, weren’t mature enough yet to make me comfortable with them.
So this brought me back to a pen-based tablet. Sure, I REALLY wanted that screen tablet, but a pen tablet wasn’t the end of the world. When I saw a Wacom Intuos Pro M listed at costco.ca, I went for it. This gave me a decent compromise of tablet size and price.
I used that tablet a lot for almost a year. I programmed the express keys (the buttons next to those little yellow stickers) to emulate my most used Photoshop commands. I mostly used my keyboard to do that, however. I was just used to doing it that way and it didn’t really slow my work. And yes, that’s an old school Apple keyboard. I much prefer the clicky keys.
The image above shows my “device shuffle”. I only use the Wacom for illustrating, so it goes into storage when not in use. When I illustrate, my gaming pad (I don’t actually play games) slides to the top, and my keyboard and Wacom get centred in front of my iMac.
I won’t be the first to say this, and I won’t be the last—drawing on a pen tablet can be … weird. I’m drawing on a horizontal surface, yet my eyes are fixed forward. It can feel a bit like working via remote control.
Wacom—and I’m sure other pen tablets—will position a cursor when the tip of the pen comes within about a centimeter of the tablet surface. With a mouse, this is never a problem, as it’s always sitting on the surface. With the pen, it’s sometimes a guessing game as to where it will start to lay down ink (or paint, or splatter, or whatever). I would also lose track of where the stylus tip was in relation to the “live” drawing area. Often, I would run out of room and have to reposition my hand.
So using the Wacom (and no, it didn’t break, this time) was mostly a good experience, there was still some disconnect. The tablet also produced a slightly awkward drawing posture. It made the process more tiring, and I’d have to take more frequent breaks.
In late summer 2017, I decided it was time to “graduate” to something better. I started to look at the screen tablets again.
There’s a reason you pay premium for the Wacom experience—they’re the most up-to-date tablets on the market. I still wasn’t comfortable with the price, though. The other tablet makers, namely Huion and XP-Pen, had been making steady in-roads. Their feature sets and quality had improved, but many still had some issues (or features, depending on how you look at it) that gave me pause.
The main one for me was that many had thicker—or un-laminated— screens than the Wacom models. This produces parallax, where there’s a gap between where the pen tip rests on the surface, and where the ink is being laid down. This left me with the dilemma—if I purchased a knock-off screen tablet, would it be a lunch bag let down? Would I wish that I had simply paid the premium for a Wacom?
Tip: A great source for tablet reviews is Brad Colbow’s YouTube site. He reviews all the tablets from an illustrator’s perspective. He’s also funny.
Tablets are also a one-trick pony. They emulate what’s on your screen, and that’s it. I could justify that by saying it would get used a lot, and because it’s not a “computer”, it shouldn’t become obsolete as quickly.
It still felt like there were caveats here. And that led me to the iPad Pro.
The Pro had already been out for almost two years, as I was researching all this. The main reason I didn’t consider it was the price—over $1,000CDN. What made me reconsider was Astropad Studio.
If you’re not familiar with Astropad, it basically works like a screen tablet. When I first saw that app I thought that was the ticket. I could continue to use all my favourite Photoshop brushes. For about the same price as a 13” Wacom Cintiq, I have a tablet I can bring anywhere, and use with a multitude of applications. And, it wasn’t a one-trick pony.
So I ordered a 12.9” iPad Pro and Apple Pencil online, and picked it up a few days later at my local Apple Store.
For the most part, the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil went a long way to making digital drawing feel intuitive again. The parallax is minimal. In fact, I don’t even notice it. I also added a Paperlike matte screen protector, which added some tooth to the drawing experience. It’s still not the same as drawing on real paper, but much better than glass, which I find weird.
I won’t go into an in-depth review of Astropad here. Let’s just say that it didn’t work for me. The Photoshop experience on my 27” Retina iMac is great. On the iPad, however, it felt like everything was shoehorned in. I had to move the Photoshop screens on my iPad around to fit within the Astropad screen on my iPad. By the time I had positioned everything I had lost a fair amount of live working area. Also, to take advantage of gesture controls and other features requires their “Pro” subscription at $79.99/yr. There’s also a “hobby” version for a $29.99 flat fee.
Yeah, so, Astropad didn’t really work out for me. That surprised me a bit, as I know it gets great reviews.
At the time, I had also installed Procreate. This is a very popular iOS based drawing app. I intended this to be for quick sketches only. I would NEVER use it to do any serious work.
Procreate was sneaky. Very, very sneaky. In a very devious way it made me use it more and more often. Brushes and layers stay out of the way until you need them. Gesture controls are intuitive and quick. It leverages the strengths of iOS.
But what it really did was make it fun and enjoyable to use.
Adobe has also announced that Photoshop is coming to iOS in 2019. That will be very interesting to see.
The iPad Pro has made me rethink about devices, in general. It’s unshackled me from my desk. I can work on my sofa, kitchen table, even watching TV. It almost gets me to the point of considering using only an iPad Pro.
There are things I still prefer to do on my iMac, such as photo editing and WordPress admin on my site. But for the things I do most, like draw, research and write (I use Ulysses for that), the iPad Pro is ideal.
Hey, Apple. How about a 15” iPad Super Pro?