by Scott Valentine

Customizing Your Wacom Device

My set up

I am constantly looking for ways to smooth out my Adobe Photoshop workflow, to set up my environment so distractions are minimized. That includes learning and configuring my tools so I don’t have to think about them - they should be as natural and seamless as possible. One of the most important tools in my arsenal is the Intuos Pro Medium (PTH-660). While it’s great out of the box - and this how most people use it - I have taken some time to dial in quite a few of the customizing features. If you aren’t using customizations, or are struggling with figuring out where to start, read on, and let’s get you up to speed on finding your own best configuration, designed for how you personally work. First, check out my process for setting up a new tablet. For simplicity, I’m going to assume you know how to customize the various controls through Wacom’s software on your particular computer.

Setting Preferences

Note: You can set up preferences for individual applications, along with default settings for other applications. For purposes of this article, I’m only going to address working in Photoshop, so will use the default ‘All applications’ for my preferences.

Buttons everywhere!
The moment I’m done installing the appropriate drivers and software, I dive in to configuring the hardware buttons. Since they can operate like regular keyboard buttons, I like to set them as modifier keys. Touch gestures behave like triggers (firing an action or setting) or toggles (switching between tools or functions), but since the hardware buttons can be held down, it makes sense to use them in a temporary way. Lots of tools in Photoshop take advantage of modifiers, allowing you to temporarily modify (see what I did there?) the behavior of the tool.

My modifier buttons are Ctrl+Opt (PC: Ctrl+Alt), Opt (PC: Alt), Cmd (PC: Ctrl), and Shift. Then I have two buttons for Bird’s Eye panning, and the Hand tool. Another button is used to temporarily enable Wacom’s Precision mode, which reduces your large pen movements to very small screen movements. This takes some practice to get used to, but it’s fantastic for smoothing out jitter and slowing down your cursor for a few seconds.
The one toggle function I have is for changing the mapped display. I use two monitors, and prefer to have the tablet mapped to only one at a time. This is just a personal thing, and it feels more natural to me.
Modifiers I use most often are assigned to the buttons close to the central Touch Ring, with Precision and Display buttons at the very top because I use them less frequently. All the stuff I use a lot is easy to get to.
The last button to assign is the Touch Ring, which I use for Zoom and Rotate. There are four total spaces for assignment, but I skip two. I have to admit that there’s a part of me that feels wasteful by not using every possible feature!

Modifier Selection

The stylus has three more buttons: a two-way rocker switch and an eraser. The rocker switches are great for things you use all the time because it’s literally at your finger tip. My switch is set to step backward and forward through Photoshop’s history panel. It’s a quick way to do before/after comparisons, especially when painting and masking. I know quite a few people who assign other modifier keys here, such as Opt (PC:Alt) to activate the Color Picker tool while painting. Others use it to zoom up and down the layer stack, or to flip the canvas.

Note: You can use more than one stylus, and each can have its own custom features. In addition to the Pro Pen 2, I have the Art Pen, which enables rotation of brushes in Photoshop and other painting applications.

Pen Buttons

Touch me here!
Just from casual observation, it seems the touch features are both the most enticing and intimidating part of customizing a digitizing tablet. Some features are really natural and make a lot of sense, like pinching to zoom and rotate. I use both gestures and the Touch Ring for these controls, depending on the kind of work I’m doing. It’s totally fine to have the same function mapped in different ways! It’s all about getting down a flow.

Touch Settings

By default, all the standard gestures are enabled, and I leave them this way even though I don’t use most of them. This is mostly due to forgetfulness, but when I do remember them, they’re pretty handy. What I do use is a custom gesture for Stamp Merge Visible. This shortcut (Cmd+Opt+Shift+E, PC: Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E) creates a blank layer then fills it with a flat, stamped version of whatever’s visible (it’s best done at the top of a layer stack to create a snapshot). I have this mapped to a Five Finger swipe. Why? Because when I learned this shortcut, someone called it “The Claw”, and the gesture reminds me of dragging claws down a wall. Hey, whatever helps with memory, you know?


In the screenshot, you can see I have a Four Finger Swipe Up set to open App Shortcuts, and Down to open the Brush tools panel. Honestly, I don’t use those because I stick to using the Radial Menu for those features.


Radial menu?
Yes! The Radial Menu is a little powerhouse for holding all those things you need to tuck away, but don’t use often enough to warrant a dedicated gesture or button. I have a Three Finger Tap gesture set up to open the Radial Menu, which gives me eight named ‘menu’ items that I can fill with shortcuts, triggers for actions, or a submenu with even more spaces to fill. Lots of people think this is really cool at first, then get overwhelmed with all the possibilities. It’s worth taking some time to think about what you want here because it can really help keep your hands off the keyboard.

Radial Menu

The first layer of my Radial Menu has a few items from Photoshop’s menu, and two submenus for On Screen and Transform controls. The On Screen item is names for Wacom’s ‘On Screen’ controls - small button groups that can be pinned to the screen for persistent use. Under that menu item, I have three custom button panels to cover common Brush Tools, Masking, and App Shortcuts. Use these button sets in place of leaving up Photoshop’s toolbar when you want the maximum screen space available. If you’re a minimalism freak, these are just the ticket.

Setting up the Radial Menu and On Screen controls is pretty straightforward. The interface looks kind of like a chart with drop-down menus. You can actually have lots of custom menus set up without having all of them active. If you work on several different kinds of tasks, you can easily change up your selection without having to re-enter all the shortcuts or remember how you previously set things up.

Radial Menu Setup Screen

The key here, however, is simplification. It’s easy to think about loading every action, script, and shortcut into Radial Menu items, but why would you do that? The point is to smooth things out and help you work efficiently, without distraction. After two levels, it’s not likely you’re going to remember what’s buried where, and you’re probably better off going to the actual application menu to save time.
Also note: if you want to trigger actions in Photoshop, those actions must have a shortcut assigned. Unfortunately, there is no way to build things like actions directly into the Radial Menu and have them behave properly. Be aware that if you change the shortcut to another action, you’ll have to update the Radial Menu name so you don’t accidentally fire off the wrong behavior.

Very cool. But so what?
Customization is meant to help you work more freely. That means you have to decide how much customization makes sense. You may only need a couple of items at the moment, because you don’t have time to invest thinking about all the options. Or, you may be in the middle of learning something new for your job and discover that customization will cut tons of time and movement. Indeed, customizing while you’re learning a new task helps embed the custom elements in your mind and hands so they feel more natural. A significant hang up for lots of people is trying to “unlearn” keyboard habits they’ve spent years burning into muscle memory.

In the end, customization must be useful for you. Not fancy or done from a sense that you have to make use of what you paid for. Useful. That’s the metric.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any effort involved. It will take both thought and patience to get a good setup. I actually change a number of features over time, depending on how my projects change. What I use for painting may not work well for retouching, and illustration is altogether a different tool set for me. So you have to think about what you do right now, and break it down into a couple of different tasks that might benefit from customization.

I recommend making a short list of things you do all the time, at a moderately high level. If you mask a lot, maybe you build an action that creates a mask and loads up your favorite Tool Preset. Instructors might want to use Radial Menu items to load or reset libraries or work spaces. In any case, something that you do frequently is a good candidate for customization. This is why I use my buttons for modifier keys - I know I use them quite literally every time I work in Photoshop.
The other aspect is your physical layout. If you work with one hand on the keyboard and the other on your tablet, maybe shortcuts aren’t useful things to add. Perhaps you’ll rely mostly on the pen’s Rocker Switch and Radial Menu items so you don’t have to keep Panels open. When I paint, I move one of my monitors (it’s on an articulating arm) directly over my Intuos Pro, which sits on a keyboard stand. In this configuration, I almost totally ignore the keyboard.

Tablet Placement

So the second thing to do is look at your physical layout. If you want to work more on the tablet, think about what features might allow you to leave the keyboard alone. On Screen Controls let you declutter your work space.
Here’s my general approach to choosing what goes where:

Physical buttons should be things you use all the time, and don’t want to hunt for. In particular, the tablet buttons are great for spring-loaded tools like Pan or Move, or for modifiers. Things that are fast and temporary are awesome candidates. The pen’s Rocker Switches can also be modifiers, but they can enable things like multiple clicks, or calling up other applications or panels for fast selection. One illustrator uses the front switch to activate the Lasso tool, and the back switch for the Eyedropper to pick up colors. Using that along with the Gradient and Paint Bucket shortcuts on the tablet buttons, he would knock out simple children’s book drawings in nothing flat. It was amazing to see.
When I’m painting, one set of modifier keys lets me call up the Brush HUD to change size and hardness. Oh, and you can hold down multiple buttons at once to stack them together. How freaking cool is that?
Custom gestures are likely to take the most effort to fold into your routine. There is no cheat sheet available, so you have to burn them into memory. Start small, and focus on just one that you’ll use somewhat regularly. Gestures don’t come with names, so you have to trust yourself, and take time to let it sink it. And don’t be afraid to try different functions with any given gesture - sometimes one will just click, and your job is that much easier!
On Screen Controls       On screen controls

I like to use Radial Menu items for things that I use together, but may not be in convenient locations on a menu. Ok, I’ll be honest - I use it when there are tools whose menu locations I can’t remember or don’t make sense. For example, one Radial Menu is set up for a few of the Transform controls, because they are located in different spots on the Edit menu, and I don’t always recall the right name. Puppet Warp and Perspective Warp are on the first level in Photoshop’s menu, but plain old Warp is under Transform. Why? Who knows - I’ve got a custom shortcut and Radial Menu to help me out.

Consider Radial Menus to help reduce visual clutter and prevent you from hunting for your favorite menu items or actions.
Radial Menu     Radial  Menu

Of course, the real beast here is figuring out what goes where. Planning isn’t easy, but the good news is you don’t have to do it all at once, nor do you have to get it right the first time (or the fifth). I’ve tried using spreadsheets and screen recording to figure out what I do most often. This may work for you, but I just got bored watching myself work. So here’s what I do now: write it down when I think “hey, this should be easier”. Use a notes application or good old paper; just jot something down and get back to work. On your next break, add it to your customization and give it a whirl. Write down where you assigned the customization, too, so you can go back to find it if you forget. Eventually the customization will become pretty natural. If you make a customization and it doesn’t feel right after a week or two, ditch it and try something else. But do give it a good chance.

I also don’t like to set up different customizations for different applications. I’m just not wired that way. If there’s something I need to do in another tool, I try to choose the same behavior for the same gesture or button. So “Undo” in one application gets the same pen Rocker Switch as “Step Backward” in Photoshop. And if I can’t find something common, I let my main application (in this case, Photoshop) take precedence. This avoids confusion and conflict.
In the end, you kind of have to sneak up on customization to make it work really well for you. You’re most likely trying to change habits that are years old. If you’re just starting, you, you’re going to adapt more easily, but don’t feel like you have to be locked in to whatever you start with. Remember that the whole point is make things easier on yourself. Use what makes sense and bail out on the rest.

Remember: Never let your tools get in the way of your art!

woman in red

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