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How to Use a Graphics Tablet in Photoshop

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What You'll Be Creating

If you've ever tried to learn how to draw in Photoshop, probably you've heard about graphics tablets and that you can't really draw digitally without one. In this tutorial, I'll show you the reason for this! I'll explain how to use a graphics tablet in Photoshop and how to use its settings efficiently for creating art.

The tips and techniques presented in the tutorial are universal and will work with any pressure-sensitive tablet, both screen and non-screen ones, but as an example I will be using the newest product of our sponsor, XP-PEN. Artist Pro 16TP is a pen tablet for Photoshop and other programs, with a 4K (3840 x 2160) screen and a multi-touch support. If you're interested in getting one, scroll down to the end of the article to read about the 16th anniversary discounts!

drawing tablet exampledrawing tablet exampledrawing tablet example

What You'll Learn in This Tutorial on Using a Drawing Tablet With Photoshop

  • How to draw in Photoshop with a tablet
  • How to connect a tablet to Photoshop
  • How to draw smooth lines in Photoshop
  • How to create your own Photoshop drawing brushes
  • How to use a pen tablet in Photoshop

What You'll Need

To follow this tutorial, you need a graphics tablet. It can be any tablet, small or big, with or without a screen—as long as it supports pressure sensitivity. Keep in mind that mobile tablets usually lack this feature—even if you use a stylus on them, the pressure is not registered.

I'm going to present the settings of the brushes I use in this tutorial, but you can also download the whole set and then adjust the settings to your needs.

If you want to create a similar artwork without copying the steps exactly, I used a photo of a galloping horse as a reference.

1. How to Set Up Your Drawing Tablet for Photoshop

If you have your tablet all set up and you just want to learn how to use it in Photoshop, feel free to skip to the "How to Use a Drawing Tablet in Photoshop" section below.

Install the Drivers

After you plug the tablet in, you need to install the proper drivers. Go to the website of the producer and search for the drivers created for your specific model. Don't forget to restart the computer afterwards!

I found my XP-PEN drivers here, but to find any other drivers, you just need to search online for "[tablet brand] drivers".

where to find tablet driverswhere to find tablet driverswhere to find tablet drivers

Calibrate the Pen

After you install the drivers, the tablet should work—the cursor should follow the movement of the tip of the pen. However, to make sure everything is adjusted to your preferences, it's good to do two more things.

First, some tablets, like the Artist Pro 16TP, come with a built-in screen. This means that you can draw on the screen, seeing the cursor directly under the nib. But because there's glass covering the actual screen, you may see some distance between the tip of the pen and the screen. It's called the parallax. In modern tablets, it's not really noticeable in the normal viewing position, as long as the cursor is placed directly under the pen. To ensure that's the case, open the program that has been installed with the drivers. For XP-PEN, it's called Pentablet.

parallax in a graphics tabletparallax in a graphics tabletparallax in a graphics tablet
The parallax may be annoying; that's why it's necessary to calibrate your screen to your pen!

Search for a button that says Calibrate. The program will display a little cross-hair icon in one of the corners of the screen. When looking at the screen in a natural viewing position, put your pen tip right over the center of the cross-hair, then click it. Do the same with all the other cross-hairs that appear next. When you're done, click OK to save the settings.

how to calibrate screen tablethow to calibrate screen tablethow to calibrate screen tablet
Don't try to be perfect here—just make sure the nib touches the cursor from your usual perspective

Keep in mind that calibration depends on your position and the position of the tablet, so you may need to recalibrate if you place the tablet on a stand. You can back up the settings of your tablet if you want to experiment with calibration without affecting your previous configuration.

If you have a non-screen tablet, you don't have to calibrate it manually, but instead you need to calibrate it mentally. The distance between the tip of the pen and the cursor on the screen is much bigger than any parallax, and it may take some time to get used to it. However, our brains are very adaptive, and you're going to do wonders with your tablet, if you only give it a chance!

Adjust the Pressure Sensitivity

No matter if you have a screen or a non-screen tablet, it's also good to adjust the pressure sensitivity. The greatest advantage of a drawing tablet over a computer mouse is that the former is sensitive to pressure—it registers how hard you press the pen to the tablet. Just like with a pencil, you can push harder to draw thicker, darker lines, and lighter to draw thinner, lighter lines.

what is pressure sensitivitywhat is pressure sensitivitywhat is pressure sensitivity
Lines drawn on a tablet look more similar to a pencil sketch

However, pushing the plastic nib onto the screen may feel uncomfortable to some people, and you may also worry about the nib wearing down from the friction on the matte surface of a non-screen tablet. If this is the case, find the section of the settings that allows you to adjust the pressure from Soft to Hard. The softer the setting, the less pressure you have to apply to make the stroke appear, and vice versa. It's good to revisit this setting after you start drawing and get a better idea of what your expectations are.

adjust pressure sensitivityadjust pressure sensitivityadjust pressure sensitivity
The pressure curve may also allow you to adjust the pressure in a more customizable way

2. How to Use a Drawing Tablet in Photoshop

The First Steps

Before I show you how to draw in Photoshop with a tablet, we have to learn about various brushes. Photoshop brushes are a set of settings that control the look and feel of your strokes. Your pen always looks the same, but by switching to a different brush, you can effectively turn it into a pencil, a fine liner, or any of the painting brushes imaginable! So let's see how that works.

Open Photoshop and create a New Document with a white background. Because it's easier to make an artwork smaller than bigger, it's good to always start with a larger canvas than you need. I've used 3000px x 3000px for this drawing.

Take the Brush Tool (B) and open the Brushes palette. Open the General Brushes list. Take the Hard Round Pressure Size one first—this is the most basic drawing brush, great for inking. Draw a couple of strokes to see how the pressure affects the thickness of the lines. You can compare it to Hard Round to see what the strokes would look like if you used a mouse.

brushes listbrushes listbrushes list
pressure sensitivity and sizepressure sensitivity and sizepressure sensitivity and size
The strokes drawn with a mouse are not only less smooth, but they also have an equal thickness on their whole length

However, you may notice a problem here—the lines often end with a weird artifact. This isn't a problem with your tablet; it's just how Photoshop works. Fortunately, it's easy to fix! In the upper bar, set Smoothing to at least 1%. Then click the gear icon next to it, uncheck Stroke Catch-up, and check Catch-up on Stroke End instead. Your strokes should be perfectly smooth now!

how to make photoshop lines smootherhow to make photoshop lines smootherhow to make photoshop lines smoother
shoelace artifact photoshop fixshoelace artifact photoshop fixshoelace artifact photoshop fix

Feel free to increase the smoothing if you feel your lines are too jittery or you don't have enough control over them. This option may be especially useful for non-screen tablets.

Brushes and Pressure Sensitivity

The pressure of the pen can be linked to the size of the brush, its opacity (darkness), or both. You can adjust it in the Brush Settings panel (F5).

You can adjust the size in the Shape Dynamics tab. Set Control to Pen Pressure to link size to pressure. Adjust the Minimum Diameter to define how small the stroke should be when the pressure is the lowest.

hwo to link pressure to sizehwo to link pressure to sizehwo to link pressure to size
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1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure

When you draw lightly with a pencil, your strokes are not only thin, but they're also light—by pressing lightly, you apply less graphite to the paper, which makes the marks less noticeable. You can achieve a similar effect with a drawing tablet with the settings called Opacity and Flow.

Go to the Transfer tab. Here you can link both Opacity and Flow to Pen Pressure. Opacity and Flow are slightly different:

  • When transparency is regulated by Flow, the opaqueness of the stroke can build up to 100%, if you draw continuously over it.
  • When transparency is regulated by Opacity, the stroke has a maximum level of opaqueness it can reach, even if you draw continuously over it (the opacity doesn't build up unless you lift the pen and start again).
opacity vs flowopacity vs flowopacity vs flow
From left to right: full Opacity, low Opacity - full Flow, full Opacity - low Flow

If this is confusing, just use Opacity and you'll be fine!

how to link pressure to opacityhow to link pressure to opacityhow to link pressure to opacity
opacity pressure brush exampleopacity pressure brush exampleopacity pressure brush example
1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure

You can also adjust Opacity and Flow manually in the upper bar:

how to change opacity and flowhow to change opacity and flowhow to change opacity and flow

It's also possible to combine size and opacity in one brush, like a real pencil. Just keep in mind that then it's not possible to draw big, light lines or small, dark ones.

size and opacity mixedsize and opacity mixedsize and opacity mixed
1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure

If you want to save your brush settings, you can save them as a new brush by clicking the plus icon on the bottom of the panel.

how to create a new brush in photoshophow to create a new brush in photoshophow to create a new brush in photoshop

Sketching

It's best to start your artwork with a sketch. For sketching, you need a brush that works similarly to a pencil—something that gives you a lot of space for experimenting. In my opinion, this brush should produce thin, light lines when you press lightly, so that you can test your vision without making a mess. And when you're more confident about what you're trying to draw, the higher pressure should give you thicker, darker lines. These are the settings I used:

sketching brush settingssketching brush settingssketching brush settings
This makes the light strokes small...
sketching brush settingssketching brush settingssketching brush settings
... and this makes them also less visible through lower Opacity
sketching brush settingssketching brush settingssketching brush settings
photoshop sketching brush examplephotoshop sketching brush examplephotoshop sketching brush example
1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure

Keep in mind that all the brushes I'm presenting here are adjusted to my own style of drawing and the settings of my tablet. Feel free to adjust them to your needs!

Sketching lightly allows me to create a preliminary sketch, full of potential and easy to adjust in any direction. If I used a mouse for this purpose, all the lines would be equally thick and dark, which would make them all seem equally important. The variety of line thickness and opacity allows me to visually separate the less important lines from the "more final" ones.

light sketching examplelight sketching examplelight sketching example

Once I've sketched my vision, I can press harder to cover these choppy lines with more confident strokes. Because they're thicker and darker, they make the preliminary sketch disappear, without me having to erase it or draw it on a separate layer.

dark sketching exampledark sketching exampledark sketching example

But being able to create a clear sketch on a single layer doesn't mean you have to do it all the time. If you want to develop the sketch some more, it's good to lower the Opacity of the layer, create a new one, and start drawing there. Notice that even this final sketch has a variety of lines—not everything is equally important.

final sketchfinal sketchfinal sketch

Erasing

Drawing lines this way allows you to use the eraser much less frequently, but sometimes there's a need to remove something altogether, instead of just covering it. In Photoshop, the eraser works just like a brush—which means it reacts to pressure too! So if you want to make something slightly transparent, you can press lightly, and you can press harder to get rid of it completely.

Some tablet pens, like the Artist Pro 16TP, come with a built-in eraser on top. Rotating the pen automatically makes Photoshop switch to the eraser mode, which can be pretty convenient if you're used to using the eraser built into a pencil, or if you prefer to draw without keeping your other hand over the keyboard.

how to erase on the tablethow to erase on the tablethow to erase on the tablet

Selecting

The main reason why graphics tablets are used in photo editing is that they allow precise selection. Instead of carefully placing and dragging points with the Pen Tool, you can just take the Lasso Tool (L) and draw the selection. This is very useful in drawing, especially in the sketching stage, when you discover you want to make an element smaller or bigger, or remove a big area completely without having to draw over it with an eraser.

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Press Control-T to resize, move, or rotate the selected area. Press Control-D to deselect when you're done.

Inking

In traditional art, after you're done with the sketch, you can cover these messy lines with ink, and then erase the graphite to keep only the clean line art. In digital art, it's much easier—you can just create a new layer and draw on it with a brush designed for more confident strokes. It doesn't have to look exactly like ink, unless this is the style you're going for. It can be more convenient, especially for a beginner, to use a brush that is simply a darker version of a pencil. Here are the settings I used for my "inking" brush:

inking brush settingsinking brush settingsinking brush settings
I've increased the Minimum Diameter to make the stroke easier to control
inking brush settingsinking brush settingsinking brush settings
This option gives the brush a subtle texture, to create a feeling of drawing on paper.
inking brush settingsinking brush settingsinking brush settings
I've linked the pressure to Flow, so that the tips were lighter, but not too light
inking brush settingsinking brush settingsinking brush settings
photoshop inking brush examplephotoshop inking brush examplephotoshop inking brush example
1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure

But if you do want your lines to look as if they were made with ink, you can just turn off the transfer option:

1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure
how to ink on a graphcis tablethow to ink on a graphcis tablethow to ink on a graphcis tablet
Inking should be slower and more deliberate than sketching

After you finish your line art this way, you can draw over the main outline once again to make it more distinctive. Pressing harder will ensure these lines will be thicker and darker. Then you can just hide the sketch layers.

inking line artinking line artinking line art

Blending

If you're interested in something more than simply filling the line art with flat colors, you need to be able to blend. In Photoshop, you can blend using the Blur Tool or, more efficiently, with the Mixer Brush Tool. However, they both give you a result similar to the one on the left. It's pretty neat and can be enough for some styles, but if you want to bring your art to the next level, blending with a painting brush is the way to go.

soft blending vs textured blendingsoft blending vs textured blendingsoft blending vs textured blending

The technique I'm going to show you is only possible if you have a drawing tablet. Here are the settings of the brush I used for this purpose. It's a general painting/shading brush:

painting brush settingspainting brush settingspainting brush settings
I've linked only the Opacity and Flow to pressure
painting brush settingspainting brush settingspainting brush settings
photoshop painting brush examplephotoshop painting brush examplephotoshop painting brush example
1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure

This brush doesn't change size with pressure (you have to do it manually using the [ and ] keys). Thanks to this, you can focus entirely on the opacity of the strokes—the harder you push, the more they cover. So even when painting one color over another, you can blend just by pressing the pen very lightly.

add second coloradd second coloradd second color

If you want to blend the colors more, all you need to do is to hold the Alt key, click the area where the colors are already partially blended...

pick the colorpick the colorpick the color

... and keep panting lightly over the sharp borders between the colors.

blend the colorsblend the colorsblend the colors

Continue Alt-clicking and painting lightly, until all the colors become sufficiently blended.

finish blendingfinish blendingfinish blending

Here's how this process works in practice:

practical example of blendingpractical example of blendingpractical example of blending

And here's a comparison between soft blending and this special textured blending. It may be subtle, but it's a crucial step to make your painting more realistic.

blending differenceblending differenceblending difference
Make sure you paint the colors on a layer separate from the line art!

Shading

You might have heard about this popular method of shading in Photoshop—you create a New Layer over the colored drawing, Clip it (Control-Alt-G), change its Blend Mode to Multiply, and then whatever you paint will make the layer below darker. This method is also easier with a tablet!

First of all, some areas should be darker than others, so it's good to select them with precision:

selecting to shadeselecting to shadeselecting to shade
Press Shift to add more areas to the selection

Then you can use a soft brush to create basic shadows. Press Control-H to hide the selection borders while doing this. Here are the settings of my soft brush:

soft brush settingssoft brush settingssoft brush settings
I've set the Hardness to 0%
soft brush settingssoft brush settingssoft brush settings
Pressure-controlled Flow will help me make the light strokes slightly less visible
soft brush settingssoft brush settingssoft brush settings
photoshop soft brush examplephotoshop soft brush examplephotoshop soft brush example
1 - low pressure, 2 - high pressure
shading a digital drawingshading a digital drawingshading a digital drawing
This is the fastest way to make the subject look more 3D

After you've created these basic shadows, you can add more of them to make the form of the body more detailed. Just keep them subtle—linking the Flow to pressure in this brush will give you more control over the whole process.

shading finishedshading finishedshading finished

But shadows aren't everything! To make the body look more 3D, it's good to add some shine. Shine is affected by the texture of the surface, so don't use the soft brush here, unless you want to make the body look completely smooth. Instead, use the same method as for the coloring. Paint on a new layer, clipped to the first layer, in Screen mode.

shineshineshine

Removing Lines From the Drawing

If you hide the line art now, your drawing may look very much like a painting without details. This means that you can turn it into a painting just by adding those details!

removing lines from drawingremoving lines from drawingremoving lines from drawing

First, lower the Opacity of the line art as much as possible without losing the details. Then add a Layer Mask to it and paint with the painting/shading brush (black) to remove the lines from the areas that look good without them—especially from the areas that are turned towards the light source.

how to remove lines from drawinghow to remove lines from drawinghow to remove lines from drawing

Then it's time to merge all the layers (select them with Shift, then right-click > Merge Layers) and zoom in. Make the brush smaller, and then use the same blending technique as before to cover the lines, replacing them with small shadows or shine. You should do it slowly and deliberately—this stage may take more time than all the previous stages combined, but you can't hurry it!

how to finish a drawing on a tablethow to finish a drawing on a tablethow to finish a drawing on a tablet
almost final versionalmost final versionalmost final version
Your job is basically to replace the lines with a slightly darker version of the colors surrounding them

Speaking of zooming, some tablets, like the Artist Pro 16TP, have a touch feature—you can zoom (and rotate!) with your fingers, just like on a smartphone. This can be very useful if you don't want to rely on the keyboard too much.

how to zoom on a tablethow to zoom on a tablethow to zoom on a tablet

Masking

When you're done with the drawing/painting, you may want to make your artwork more interesting by adjusting certain parts with filters or adjustment layers. Here's where a graphics tablet will help you apply the effect to specific areas—just add a Layer Mask to the effect, fill it with black, and then paint on it with white to reveal the effect only in the chosen areas.

For example, here I added Motion Blur to the whole body, and then revealed it on the mane only. Don't forget to convert your subject to a Smart Object (Right-click > Convert to Smart Object) to have this kind of control over the filter.

masking in photoshopmasking in photoshopmasking in photoshop

Conclusion

Now you know all about using a drawing tablet with Photoshop! I hope now you can see that in order to create artworks efficiently, you really need a graphics tablet—a mouse just doesn't give you all these options you would expect from a drawing tool. A pen tablet for Photoshop is a must-have for every digital artist!

And if you're thinking, "OK, but this was all about drawing, do I need a graphics tablet for photo editing?", the answer is yes... and no. It's completely possible to edit photos with a mouse, but a pen tablet will make the whole process more efficient. So if you edit photos professionally, investing in a design tablet for Photoshop will be a choice you won't regret!

Also, don't forget to check out the offer from our sponsor, XP-PEN, which celebrates its 16th anniversary this year! The 16th anniversary celebration of XP-PEN will be starting from 16 August and last until 16 September 2021. All XP-PEN products including the Artist 16 TP in the UK store will be on great discounts! You can learn more in the XP-PEN UK Store.

digital art created on a tabletdigital art created on a tabletdigital art created on a tablet

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