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  2. Drawing Theory

Why You Shouldn't Get a Graphics Tablet

When I was a child, I had no idea about graphics tablets, or even computers. I loved drawing, though, and I dreamed wildly about a magic marker that contained all the colors in itself, and a sheet of paper that could be renewed when I was done. This dream was something obvious for a person wanting to create, and create without limits.

Much later, when I discovered that such a magic tool actually existed, I felt even more limited with my pencil. I used my computer to add colors and strong, dark lines to my drawings, but it felt non-artistic, and the effect was never as expected. Finally, I got my first tablet, a tiny Wacom Bamboo, and I was in heaven! I had all the colors, all the tools, and I could do anything!

It took me years to understand that it was a huge mistake to switch to digital art before I learned how to draw. This was a very bitter discovery to me, the second most bitter after the "drawing must be learned" one. Yet when I meet all these beginner artists, all I hear from them is how good they'll be once they'll get their first graphics tablet, and how bad they are because they don't have one. This is my message to all of you: getting a tablet at the wrong time may be disastrous for your skills. It certainly was for mine!

The Dream of Greatness

It all starts with a reason somewhere deep inside you. For me it was the ideas, the concepts as I call them now, that I wanted to see better outside my mind. Drawing—creating marks with a pencil—was just a workaround. I would rather embody these ideas with my mind, just by thinking about them, if only it were possible.

pencil drawing dragon first

And it wasn't only about seeing the idea alive˜—it was more about sharing it with others. This anticipation I felt when creating, it came from imagining what they'll feel when seeing it done. I was drawing and smiling when thinking about the comments confirming that I got into their hearts with my art.

pencil drawing dragon scene

Since drawing was a kind of workaround for my purpose, it had its limits. Painting seemed more appropriate, but it was also needlessly complicated in a technical sense. Photoshop seemed like a perfect tool—clean, advanced, and forgiving. So I used it to enhance my drawings. First it was about recoloring an artwork...

pencil drawing photoshop colors

... but with time I learned to use other tools, too. The effects were fabulous!

pencil drawing photoshop tools tricks

And then I got a tablet! It was such a happiness for me. Finally, no limits! Or so I thought...

photoshop painting tablet wacom bamboo

After getting a tablet I started painting a lot. This was a beautiful time, when I could create it all, and my concepts—as visually appealing—reached more and more people.

photoshop painting tablet wacom bamboo concept dragon

Of course, I was aware I couldn't do some things. Backgrounds, for example, were a nightmare for me. I wanted to create characters and scenes, but backgrounds were impossible to do. With time I started to notice I wasn't able to do more things than this. And these things didn't seem to "be learned" on their own, as they used to be. I had to start learning.

photoshop painting learning animals dragon

And here we come to a surprising conclusion of this short story. Look at all these sample pictures of mine one more time. Do you notice something? By accident, without realizing it at all, I switched from drawing to painting. As I said before, I just wanted to create, and drawing was a workaround, so it shouldn't be an issue, right? I couldn't be more wrong.

You Want to Draw—But Why?

I started with a reason, but I lost it somewhere along the way. I wanted to present my concepts to others, and then I wanted to make these concepts more appealing, but instead of focusing on my draftsmanship, I entered the world of color and shading. Instead of learning how to draw quickly and efficiently, I used an eraser and tons of layers to fix my mistakes. Instead of practicing the anatomy of animals, I pinned a whole herd of references next to me to create this one drawing I had in mind.

And this is how I lost the game. Instead of becoming a good artist, I became a master of tricks and workarounds. I wasn't learning how to draw at all—I was, according to my primary reason and need, learning how to create what I wanted. Isn't that the story behind artists who trace or color the line art of others, too? This is what happens when we focus on the result, and not on the method.

photoshop bad painting how to learn
A pretty painting? Maybe, but the drawing side of it is quite lame. If you can't see it, you'd probably make the same mistakes when given a tablet

I'm looking up at a drawing by Terry Whitlatch hanging on my pinboard, and I'm wondering when it went wrong. All these years, first of mindless doodles, then of strenuous analysis, and I became a painter I never wanted to be! I wanted to be able to make my mind-creatures come alive, and what I'm learning, just now, is that all I ever needed was a pencil.

The Trickiness of Limitlessness

Drawing is hard. It took me a lot of time to understand it, and before I did, my life was a constant search for the "easier way". First it was about changing my classic, hard pencil to a set of softer ones—the first of a series of mistakes. Then it was about enhancing the drawings in Photoshop. Then, about using copy-paste, rotation, transformation, filters, and textures to achieve something I didn't really draw. And then came the tablet, the one that turned me into a painter.

I wanted to make it easier, every time. That was the biggest mistake of them all—looking for the flaws in the medium, and not in my skills. I heard this quote once: "To think out of the box, first you need to be in one". I was in the box, with my single hard pencil and the passion of creation, and what did I do? I managed to get out of the box, straight to a bigger one.

Why is it so bad? Imagine someone told you to draw something creative, anything you want. Can you feel that emptiness in your mind right now? It's hard to get any idea when you can use them all. And now imagine the person tells you to draw something based on three elements: a mouse, a strawberry, and a cup of water. Are you feeling inspired now?

It's the trickiness of limitlessness. The more possibilities there are, the harder it is to choose and master one. You never know which one gives the best results, so you must try them all, test them all, wasting your time and becoming decent at many of them, but brilliant at none.

If you were in a prison, locked with a pencil and some poor quality paper, you wouldn't think about all the other ways. You wouldn't switch to some other medium to see if it fit you better. You would use all your time and passion to master that one tool you had. And there's a good chance you'd quickly become better than some rich kid with a Cintiq.

Here's where you may disagree with me. That kid with a Cintiq has all the colors; they can paint freely, and painting is far more realistic than drawing. But... is it really about realism? Come back to your reason, your primary need. Is it about creating photos with your hands? Is it about people telling you they were fooled into thinking it was a photo they were seeing? Only this, and nothing else?

If so, you can stop reading. A tablet will, indeed, help you in the purpose of being a human copy machine. But there's more to art, to creation. Look at the two examples below. The first one has colors, but it's the other one that presents the concept as it deserves to be shown. It captures the energy and atmosphere of the scene, while the painted, colorful one is just... pretty. Yes, a beautiful painting could be created on a base of this sketch, but for now it stands on its own—it doesn't need colors to speak to the viewer.

what is better drawing or painting comparison
It's easier to create an eye-catching painting than a skillful sketch

The misconception that painting is a higher form of creation often leads to discarding drawing whenever it becomes possible. Contrary to this belief, drawing isn't a lower form of art, a beginner one—it's a different form, probably even harder than painting. Painting is about copying or recreating reality, and drawing is about lines that don't exist—only our minds make them real.

The Escape Out of the Box

No matter how good I was at painting, I always felt jealous of the clean drawings of professional artists. Mine never looked professional. I could draw something similar, when given time and references, but my sketches were stiff and dirty. It bothered me, but only a little. After all, once I add all these colors and magic shading at the top, nobody would notice. Notice that... I can't draw.

bad drawing bad painting
Does it look good to you? The line art is full of anatomical mistakes I've turned a blind eye to just to have it finished, and the painting is shaded with black and white, with an undefined light source. It took me two weeks, and I was so proud of it at the time!

Let's come back to that moment when you draw something and it gets messier and messier with every second and every detail you're trying to add. This is when the desire of having a tablet strikes the hardest. You think about layers, and variable opacity, and the non-destructive eraser, and it looks like the way to solve all your problems. Yes, this is a way. But is it the only way? And... is it the correct way?

why messy drawing how to fix
I'm not really sure where all the lines go...
messy drawing photoshop fix
... but with a tablet it doesn't matter any more. To be clear: that's not a good thing!

There is always more than one way to solve a problem. A funny example: a cartoon character says "I can't look at his suffering!" and then shuts the blinds. The problem has been solved, but was this the correct way? If something smells bad to you, is cutting your nose off the correct solution, or only a solution?

Your lines don't look like a mess because you don't have a tablet. They look like a mess because you aren't skilled enough to control them. If you get a tablet at this point, you'll just sweep this problem under the rug, and forget about it. It will not be solved—you just won't see it again.

Let's see what you may want from a tablet:

  • to erase mistakes without a trace
  • to draw new lines on top of wrong lines and keep it clean at the same time
  • to undo a mistake
  • to create clean line art without all the mess beneath

The correct way to get rid of mistakes is not to make them disappear, but to learn how not to make them in the first place. Pressing Control-Z every time something goes wrong until it goes right is much easier than trying to understand what "wrong" and "right" mean in terms of drawing.

Don't escape out of the box. Stop dreaming about "the easier way". No matter if you get a tablet or not, there must be a time when you start learning. Why wouldn't it be now?

Colors, Give me Colors!

You may say that none of the reasons on my list is your own. You want a tablet, because it'll let you color your drawings. Well, that's a good reason, but I must warn you—color is an incredibly complex subject. It's not about filling an area, as you did as a child. And when practicing it, you'll probably stop drawing and turn into a painter instead.

Painting itself isn't bad. Why I stress it so much is because it's not drawing. You need to ask yourself why you're doing it, and then you'll know if it's for you. I've always wanted to create creatures; the other half of my purpose was "as realistically as possible", and I needed a tablet for this. Eventually, I ended up in "as realistic as possible", and "creating creatures" became secondary. Not what I wanted at all!

If you want to avoid this, try to get familiar with the Pen Tool. It's designed for working with a mouse, and it may be all you need to add colors in a controlled way. However, make sure you can draw before you go and decorate your drawings with colors. Try to avoid this way of thinking: "It doesn't look very good now, but after I add colors..."

Get Into the Box

Drawing isn't about trying and trying until something nice turns out. If your drawings look bad, there's a reason for it. You need to find it and solve the problem, not go and create a situation in which this problem will not be visible. You won't become a chess champion by facing only players that are easy to beat.

If you're learning how to draw, learn it first before getting a graphics tablet. An Intuos or Cintiq used with Photoshop or some other software will give you more opportunities, but there will be so many of them that you'll easily forget why you started to use them in the first place.

Switching to a tablet and drawing software too soon may lead to a situation in which you'll be very proficient at workarounds. You'll be able to create anything, but it will not be really drawing. And it's not that you can't learn how to draw by using a tablet, but all these conveniences will make "classic" learning seem obsolete. Moreover, you probably won't be able to resist the temptation of painting, having all these tools within your reach. And being able to paint doesn't mean you can draw!

Try these few exercises and see if you can become good at them. Observe your mind reacting to them. Do you feel that they would be easier with a tablet? If so, it's a sign you really need to work on this. If they're already easy for you, feel free to try a tablet—it will not be harmful for your progress!

15 Lines Sketch

Gather a lot of references of the topic you want to study. You can simply use a whole page of Google Images for it. Take a marker, or a pen, or a blunt pencil (anything slightly thicker than a ball-pen will do), and try to capture the shape of the topic with only 15 lines or fewer for each.

Feel free to think over every line, but once you plan it, draw it quickly. It must be a continuous line! Also, it's better when the references are small, and so are your sketches. There's no need for details this way, and you can fit more of them on one page.

drawing exercise practice pencil limited lines
You don't need to count the lines, just focus on using them as sparingly as possible

30 Seconds Drawing

Again prepare a set of references, but this time make a slide-show out of them. You can use some software for this, switch them manually, or use this helpful Google images slide-show. The more confident you feel, the less time you should need for every slide. One minute is a good way to start!

deviantart slide show practice
On DeviantArt, you can create a slide-show out of every gallery folder—for example, the Favorites' folder with references you've gathered

Now, try to copy them on a small scale, simplifying the details and using as few lines as possible without losing accuracy. You need to do it fast—this way you force yourself to look for shortcuts. Don't scold yourself about mistakes and bad proportions—this is your practice, so bad drawings must be expected. Better results will come with time, so there's no need to push them. Make it your goal to draw, let's say, 30 sketches a day, not to draw well.

drawing exercise practice pencil fast drawing limited time

Humility Lesson

This one is more about your mind than your skills. If you're getting too attached to a drawing that turned out better than others, it means you're still not confident about your skill. It leads to too strong affection towards certain lines, and it stops you from free studying.

When learning how to draw, your goal should be to create technically correct sketches every time. You don't need to like them all equally, but at least they should be decent in a technical sense. Making obvious mistakes that you see the second after drawing them means you need to work on your skill, and a tablet won't help here at all.

Draw something, once. Then draw it once again, fixing the mistakes you have spotted. And again, if needed. When you're finally glad of the result, get rid of it. Don't use it a as a base for a bigger work, don't upload it to social sites to brag that you're getting better. Just throw it away. Rinse, repeat.

drawing exercise practice pencil fixing mistakes

Muscle Memory Workout

This one is my favorite, but also the hardest in a way. You pick a topic, turn on good music, and draw. Draw a lot. As fast as possible, to get the spirit of the topic, then trying to include details without giving up on speed. You finish one, you try another. Try to learn something from each one. Ask yourself: does it capture the "essence" of the topic? Where did I fail? The goal here is to make your hand familiar with the movements you need to draw the topic, but also to understand how to make these movements the most efficient.

Create hundreds of them, the most you can fit on one sheet, and keep these studies to motivate yourself another day. However, don't spend too much time on it. When you feel dizzy, or extremely tired/bored (not normal bored, but rather "I can't stand it any more"), it's a sign you've exceeded your limits and you won't learn anything more today. 

Also, remember it's "muscle memory workout", not "muscle workout". You may feel a bit tired, but it shouldn't hurt!

drawing exercise practice pencil muscle memory workout

You may notice I did these exercises on a tablet. There's a reason for it: another thing I practiced here is fighting that distance between tablet and screen. 

Is it cheating? Not really. I drew with a tablet, but I didn't use Photoshop to help me with anything. No zoom, no eraser, a single, constant-sized, hard brush, one layer, no Control-Z, no transformations; basically nothing you wouldn't have on paper except maybe a huge workspace. 

You wouldn't really buy a tablet just to practice these, but if you made the same mistake as me—getting a tablet before learning how to draw—feel free to practice this way.


If you're still not convinced, and you feel like "it's kinda true, but all pros use a tablet", imagine that you're invited to a job interview and you're asked to draw something with a pencil. You get five minutes, and no references whatsoever. What would you feel? Or they tell you to draw something for them with a tablet, but they observe you all the time, seeing you walking in circles and waiting for a pretty picture to turn out on its own. Doesn't that sound quite stressful?

Getting a graphics tablet before you learn how to draw is like buying a fancy, professional camera before getting the hang of the basics of photography using a simpler model. Even if you'll be taking better photos with it, it will be an accident. And if you lose it, your skills will likely go with it. Everyone can be decent with some expensive equipment, but it's what they're able to do when deprived of it that matters!

Do you know what you and artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo have in common? Yes, none of you has (or had) a graphics tablet! The difference is these artists didn't waste their time waiting for the "better" tool to come. They used what they had, and they made the best of it. There's a special charm to using a simple, humble tool, a relic of less technologically advanced times, and doing wonders with it, no matter where you are and how much money you have. And, most importantly, you stay an artist even without electricity!

One last thing. It may be discouraging to you to see my paintings, perhaps better than anything you've ever created, and hearing how "bad" they are. That's a sign of another problem. If you can't tell a skillful painting from an amateurish one, how are you supposed to paint well, even with the best tablet on the Earth? You need to learn how to see, how to simplify, how to learn—and you need a tablet for none of these.

bad drawing tablet doesnt help
I drew this traditionally after having a tablet for quite a while. As you can see, it didn't make me any better at drawing! (And if you can't see it, go see what a wolf looks like)
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