From Pen Tablet to Display Tablet: Retraining the Hand for Digital Art

In this guest blog post series, Illustrator and Concept Artist Billy Dallas Patton writes about the transitions in his career from traditional tools to digital arts. In this post, Billy covers the challenges of retraining his hand from traditional tools, to a pen tablet to a display tablet.

Previously, I wrote about my transitioning from traditional illustration into the world of digital art and concept design. It was a journey both eventful and jarring personally and professionally. After completing my first digital painting for a client in the video game world, I decided the future for me had to include a more regular paycheck and that would mean full time employment.

This led me to a job in Mentor, OH, for PKXL Cards, where I digitally painted trading cards for 6 months. Three days a week I would drive two hours to the offices from my house in Tiffin. It was rough, but it was exposing me to a whole new way to create art on a computer. My one big problem was I had to draw everything on paper, scan the drawing in, and finally use a tablet to paint the image in Adobe’s Photoshop CS 3.0.

Fast forward to the summer of 2008, a big move to Ruston, LA, and a start-up company eventually named DreamForge Studios. I was employed as the Lead Concept Artist on a video game project and was working mostly on a tablet. It was here I was introduced to a 12-inch Cintiq. I had known about the Cintiqs from the moment they launched and DREAMED of getting my hands on one of them, so when they presented me the smaller Cintiq, I dove right in.

Initially, it was very exciting. The responsiveness was there and I no longer suffered from the disconnect I had experience on the Intuos 3 tablet. All of my hand/eye skills developed over the years using a pencil and brushes and other traditional tools were almost within my reach.

One of the major drawbacks, for me, was the resolution of the 12-inch Cintiq. The menus and windows were large in proportion to the drawing area and the screen did not have the pixel density to do the technology justice.

The problem arises when you are trying to lay out the whole drawing. You need to “back” away from the drawing and be able to see the whole canvas to ensure proper layout and proportions. When zoomed out, the Cintiq was forced to interpolate the signal from the pen and it would create a stair step-like effect on your drawing in some places. This limitation led to zooming in and out constantly, slowing me down too much to be effective in my job. It eventually forced me off of the 12-inch and back to my previous draw-scan-paint approach.

It had taken some time to convince my boss to get me a full sized Cintiq. But get one I did. The day the used 20 WSX showed up, in all of its widescreen grey glory, was a banner day in the Patton household.

The device was laid out perfectly, its screen ratio (16:9) allowed me to set up my workflow for a much speedier output, laying out my menus along the far right side and drawing on the left. The jagged edge problem of the 12” did not exist due to the added real estate. This allowed me to draw at a closer zoomed size without having to back way off.

Using the pressure sensitivity (this model was only 1024 levels) was great, but it was the ability to track the brush on screen in relation to the tip of the pencil that really “upped” my game. In the traditional world, I had developed my hand/eye coordination to a very high degree. I could draw straight lines without a ruler, sculpt lines with a pencil, and create very detailed drawings and portraits. I could not do this with a tablet since I lost the ability to track the tip of my pen.

Laying out an image was great in Photoshop and using the Cintiq. I could rapidly iterate on a layout, cutting and pasting and transforming elements of the image without having to start over. I still couldn’t “draw” the way I wanted and, in the end, it would turn out to be more about what I needed from a program and not the Cintiq. However, the ability to paint using the Cintiq and Photoshop helped me create what I consider my first professional-level painted piece.

Titled, simply, “Robot Commander,” the studio head said he really needed a strong piece to show an investor and we didn’t have a lot of time --Woohoo! No pressure at ALL, right? The concept was basically a big robotic soldier in a sci-fi style, having features of an armored knight. Grey with red accent colors and drawn from a bird’s eye view, I laid out the image in Photoshop, printed out a version, and finished the drawing off-line.

I then brought the final line drawing into Photoshop and began the process of painting. Tentative at first, trying to apply all the techniques I had at hand and using WAY too many layers to do it. But thanks to the combination of feeling really comfortable with my hand and eye working together, I was able to achieve a level of subtlety AND accuracy I hadn’t ever before using a tablet.

Looking back now, the image still holds up somewhat, but I love seeing it and remembering feeling that giant jump in my concepting skills. And maybe wanting to hug my Cintiq a little.

In hindsight, I still wasn’t great on the Cintiq quite yet. Drawing from scratch was going to take time. I still had difficulty creating quality perspective drawings, and this would lead me to try a bunch of programs. And I tried all of them! Well, it FELT like I tried all of them.

For my next blog post, I’ll write about being in Canada and discovering a program that, when combined with my Cintiq, would AGAIN change my professional life. That program? Manga Studio 4 EX!