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Using a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet for vector graphics

Wacom has been present in the professional designer's arena for many years now. The first Wacom device was purchased by this author around 15 years ago – a small A6-sized beige device. But Wacom have invested much in their innovative technology over the years, culminating in today's Bamboo, Intuos and range-topping Cintiq products.

Much has been written about these seemingly optional graphics devices (even today, Computer Arts magazine published an overview on their website – click here), but relatively little in relation to working specifically with vector drawings. This article starts the discussion…

Meet the Wacom graphics tablet family

Wacom's extended range of graphics tablets all revolve around their core technology; the battery-less, wireless, pressure-sensitive pen. How does it work? Goodness-knows. It seems a little magic that the latest pens can allow a computer to determine the pressure being applied on the nib of the pen (when used over the tablet's active area), the angle, reverse rubber pressure and more. But work it does, and very well. There are alternatives to Wacom's technology, but they all tend to pale in comparison when it comes to quality of result and manufacture.

Wacom Bamboo
You pay for a Wacom device, though. In recent years, Wacom have eased this situation by adding the entry-level Bamboo range. typically smaller devices, they come in several guises, including combined pen and (finger) multi-touch. The quality of the Bamboo device remains high but the typically come in smaller sizes.

Bamboo Intuos 4
If you're a professional, or serious, designer, you tend to feel compelled to consider the Intuos range as the bare minimum. This is where things start getting more expensive, but not prohibitively so, up to a size. The most popular variants tend to be the A5 or A4 sized Intuos tablets, although they are available larger and smaller.

The Intuos range also offers a wider range of input device over and above the default pen. The A4-sized model can come with a cordless mouse (sadly the one in our office failed after a year), but optional additions include an airbrush-like device and more. But when drawing vector artwork, the pen is likely to be your best bet, with the Wacom mouse being an expensive replacement for a normal wireless mouse – which are likely to be better.

Wacom Cintiq 21
And then we reach the Cintiq. A few thousand $$$ burning a hole in your pocket? Excellent! You now know what to splash out on. The Cintiq is a combination of an LCD monitor and a Wacom tablet technology which means you draw on the screen and depending on the software beneath, the art flows realistically as a result. The Cintiq now comes in three sizes from the 12″ through to the 24″. The latter is a full 1080HD display.

In the hands of an illustrator

So that's the family introduced. And intentionally, the newer Inkling device is not included as it's not technically the same thing.

What are they actually like to work with? Well, we were in a perfect position to answer this last week as we had a full-house collection in the office which included a Bamboo, A4-sized Intuos (albeit an Intuos 3, but functionally very similar to the current Intuos 4) and a Cintiq 21. The latter was very kindly loaned by Wacom Europe — see the header image in this article — for some promotional video work, and made its presence immediately felt.

Wacom Bamboo

The Bamboo was a really nice, compact version of the Intuos tablets. It's a bit discourteous to call it a casual device for amateurs. In reality, when drawing vector illustrations, it proved to be equally capable. The size can make things a little harder as the position of the pen on the tablet's active drawing area is a direct correlation of the cursor position on the monitor. So small movements can initially appear to make the pointer hyper-active. But you soon get used to this, and larger versions of the Bamboo are available too.

More work took place on the A4 Intuos. Perhaps it can be argued that A4 is too large as you tend to find yourself sweeping your hand from one corner to the other. But the trade-off is a greater amount of precision in movement. And the pressure levels are very well translated, with a very nifty "Tip feel" general Wacom driver preference available allowing a user to fine-tune the correlation between pressure applied to the pen nib and resultant effect on the screen. If you draw with the subtlety of an elephant (yes – I admit to it), this option can make the difference between annoyance and perfection.

And then all temptation was set free and the Cintiq was unleashed. Even before the pen (not compatible with the Intuos or Bamboo) was picked up, first impressions were of a very good quality display. Rich in color and in no way disturbed by the invisible tablet technology overlaying the screen.

But before you can launch fully into the Cintiq, one issue becomes immediately apparent the moment you put pen to screen; the correlation between pen nib position and cursor location. This should be expected as the pen rests a small distance above the screen, so depending on your viewpoint in relation to the screen, the result can easily be an offset difference. Thankfully Wacom provide a very easy calibration system which every Cintiq customer should run. By clicking on four targets, one in each corner of the screen, the driver can much better match you nib position and cursor. Just try to keep your viewpoint in one position, which in reality is normally the case.

The minimal setup was all worth it as using the Cintiq was the talking point in the office for a couple of days. It may weigh enough to consider additional desk supports and it may never be able to be angled perfectly upright (it would become unstable and end up hurting your feet!), but it was glorious to use. And we hardly opened Photoshop — we were almost exclusively using Illustrator with the Cintiq.

Dragging out the points and handles

Working with the Wacom Intuos

This is all very nice, but what is it actually like to work in vector with the Wacom range? Regardless of which level of Wacom product you choose, there are a couple of immediately apparent points:

  1. Drawing with the Pen tool offers no real advantage when a Wacom pen is in your hand. Drawing out points and Bezier handles is a precise motion that tends to be suited to the mouse. In fact, on occasion, guiding the Wacom pen to the correct point/handle or user interface option can sometimes be a little frustrating for those using the pen for the first time.
  2. Using the Wacom pen to actually draw and sketch in vector is what it's all about. And when using Illustrator, we're referring primarily to the Pencil, Paintbrush and Blob Brush tools. What each of these tools have in common is that the user is not concerned about the location of individual points or handles, rather the end effect.

When creating paths using the Paintbrush Tool in combination with the Illustrator CS5 Bristle Brush feature, the results are much more realistic than if drawing using the mouse. This is because the Paintbrush Tool responds to the pressure, angle, bearing and more of the Wacom pen. You have to learn to set up your brush options first (articles will be forthcoming on this blog), and the lack of further width adjustment to the resultant bristle or calligraphic strokes can be annoying, but it's a good basic tool

The Blob Brush Tool is a relative peculiarity, introduced in Illustrator in the past few years. The results remind you more of the way Flash draws vector (well, perhaps Flash of years gone by – who uses it now?). Each stroke is not simple path with variable width, but rather an instantly expanded complete profile. There are advantages in use including the quality of translation between the Wacom pen's pressure and the resultant vector shape. But these can be outweighed by the lack of basic vector editing of the resultant shape's backbone "spline" (central path). Instead, you would need to edit each point of the outlined shape.

Blob Brush Tool options

If you do look at the Blob Brush Tool (which is recommended if you have a Wacom device next to you), be sure to double-click on the tool's toolbox icon or press the Return key when in the tool to open the tool's preferences window (above). This allows you to better control the resultant vectors based on your input.

What is missing in all of these Illustrator freehand-inclined drawing tools is the ability to adjust the settings once the line(s) has been drawn with the Wacom pen. Often it's hard to recreate that perfectly drawn profile the first time, only to find out that, say, the Pencil Tool's accuracy setting was not correct.

The other current issue with the native Illustrator tools and a Wacom input device is that there's no way to define the correlation between variable pressure and the resultant stroke width. For example, a setting defined by a curve relating to the input pressure and the resultant stroke width would be ideal.


Whereas the theory of using a Wacom applied equally to the Bamboo, Intuos and Cintiq, it was the latter which made the three other designers in the office want to sneak out of the door with it hidden in their bag. (They'd have needed a damn big bag!) It elevated the digital vector drawing experience much more. A minor gripe with the Cintiq was that you couldn't see what was under your hand. Sounds strange, but if you are right-handed and wanted to trace an underlying image, tracing in a right-hand direction could be hit-or-miss. But let's not forget that that is exactly the same as drawing on a bit of paper with a pencil. You could see it as being very realistic.

Beyond this, could you do all of the same artwork using a simple mouse? Well, yes, but you need to potentially invest much more time into your artwork creation. This is the thing about Wacom devices; they don't necessarily translate into benefitting all vector workflows. For example, technical illustrators may be harder pushed to justify the investment when creating vector artwork in Illustrator.

However, if you like to draw more naturally, love vector artwork and have an irrational fear of the Illustrator Pen Tool, a Wacom device should seriously be investigated. If in doubt, start off with a Bamboo and then start thinking about which internal organs to sell in order to get your hands on a Cintiq.

Many hanks to Wacom Europe for the loan of the Cintiq, Laura for bringing along her personal Bamboo for testing and Neil Oseman for the on-location photography/filming.

Further reading

Our resident blog contributor, Iaroslav, will be publishing a 2 part mini series on this blog covering vector drawing in Illustrator using a Wacom tablet shortly. In the meantime, Ryan Putnam of the Vectips website has the following great realted material:

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