Many artists would never dream of attempting any digital drawing or painting on a tablet. How can working away on a computer compare to the messy, tangible joys of drawing and painting?
The mistake most artists make is viewing digital art as a rival, rather than a friendly relation, of traditional media. It’s highly unlikely that digital art will ever supplant real-life drawing and painting – after all, it’s pretty hard to hang a JPEG on the wall. Lots of people also wrongly assume tablets are only used by graphic designers, architects, animators and the like doing client-based work.
But even people pursuing drawing and painting as a casual hobby will find that digital work can become a valuable part of their repertoire, and one that feeds into their non-digital work. For instance, digital drawing is a fantastic way of creating preparatory sketches, since you can tweak, flip, enlarge, shrink and adjust to your heart’s content. For painters, digital painting is a spectacular way of developing your understanding of colour: you can switch colours in your creations with the mere tap of a button, and experiment with different schemes and harmonies.
Oh, and if you’re wincing at thoughts of those hideous attempts you once made on Microsoft Paint, rest assured that digital artmaking tools are almost frighteningly advanced in the year 2021. Stylus pens respond with incredible sensitivity to varying pressures of the hand, and create marks in a near-infinite range of brush, pen, pencil and sponge marks and textures. Scroll through #digitalpainting on Instagram: you’ll likely be amazed that these were created on a computer.
In reality, digital drawing is utterly led by traditional techniques, and doesn’t represent anything but a fresh chapter in humankind’s ever-changing creative evolution. Take a look below at the two beautiful landscapes by artist Tiffanie Mang, for example. One is painted digitally; one in gouache. As you can see, both are created in the same loose, lyrical, impressionistic style; each medium simply informs the other.
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Keen to get started? First things first: you’ll need to invest in a tablet.
Read on to discover the best drawing tablets for beginners. All our options are affordable, simple to set up, and will see you well through many long hours of digital creation. We’ve also answered a few key questions so that you can choose the drawing tablet that’s right for you.
What is a drawing tablet?
A drawing tablet is a flat surface upon which you can draw with a stylus. The results are carried, via either a cable or Bluetooth, into whichever software you’re using. The stylus can both do all the marking, and typically can be used to operate the cursor – like a mouse – by holding it a few millimetres above the tablet’s surface.
To use the tablet, you’ll need the right software. These include Adobe PhotoShop, Procreate, Gimp and Krita. PhotoShop has a monthly cost of £19.97, making it the domain of professionals only, while Procreate costs a one-off £9.99 and the latter two are free. Stick with the free options for now: they’re more limited in features, but as a beginner you don’t want to overcomplicate things.
You might want to invest in a two-fingered drawing glove like the Parblo PR-01, which will keep your hand’s oils off your tablet.
How much are drawing tablets?
Drawing tablets come in a dizzying range of price points, but fortunately this reflects the target audience rather than quality.
There are two main types of tablet: standard digital tablets and display tablets. The first are faceless tablets you connect either via USB or wi-fi to your computer: you draw on the tablet, and your marks appear on your monitor through whatever software you’re using. These typically cost between £50 and £100, though you’ll find more advanced models can cost as much as £400.
Then there are display tablets, which are also known as pen display. These contain screens that you draw directly on to, which makes the process far more like typical drawing, with no disconnect between tablet and monitor. Sadly, these are considerably more expensive, with high-end models like the Wacom Cintiq Pro costing an eye-watering £1,399.99.
If you already own an iPad or other general tablet, you can invest in a standalone stylus like the Apple Pencil (£119 from Amazon). But these aren’t universally compatible, so if you’re set on using your stylus on a screen, make sure it’s labelled clearly to work with your device.
Which are the best drawing tablets for beginners?
We suggest you invest in a standard digital tablet, since you’re new to this game, and unless you’re 100% certain that you wish to commit to digital artmaking, a screen-based tablet is too steep an investment at this point. Fortunately, the drawing tablet market has relatively few names – it’s monopolised for the most part by Wacom and Huion. If you see these two names, you know you’ll be buying a reliable tablet.
Unsurprisingly, the larger the tablet, the more you’ll spend. Many notable drawing tablets come in a range of sizes. As with any art equipment, think about your available space and your daily commitments. You might want a larger tablet that never leaves your desk; you might want a compact-sized one that can be tucked easily into a backpack.
Other things to look out for are the number of pressure levels that the stylus can offer, and the tablet’s LPI. This stands for line-per-inch: essentially how many pixelated lines of detail fit into a square inch of your tablet. If you appreciate a cable-free workspace, check to see if the tablet supports wireless connectivity.
Best drawing tablets for beginners 2021
- Buy it now (Amazon, £35.99)
Not sure about this digital malarkey and keen to keep your spending low? There’s no other contender than Wacom’s entry-level digital tablet, which has a working area of 52mm by 95mm (6in x 3.7in). It actually has the same LPI (2540) as the pricier Wacom Intuos, although the stylus has around half the number of pressure levels (2048 versus 4.096). At £36, it’s seriously good value – you could easily spend more on a box of pencils. One thing to bear in mind is that the Wacom One doesn’t have any customisable button – that’s something you might miss later down the line.
- Buy it now (Amazon, £51,48)
Next up in price is Huion’s H160P. As you can see, just little extra spending represents a significant jump in specs: the H160P has an LPI of 5080, and its stylus boasts an impressive 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity. With an active area of 158mm by 99mm (6.25 x 3.9 inches), it’s a little larger than the Wacom One. The stylus has a 60-degree tilt function, which means the mark you make will change depending on the angle at which you hold it – just like real life!
It connects to your device with a Micro-USB cable, but comes with a USB-C adaptor, which is handy as that’s a connection that’s becoming increasingly common on laptops and even some smartphones. The Huion H1060P also has two banks of buttons along the top and left-hand edges, which you can tailor to your needs as you get more and more into digital work.
Wacom Intuos (small)
- Buy it now (Amazon, £70)
Wacom’s step up from the entry-level One is the Intuos. Even though it’s costlier than the Huion H1060P, it only has about half that tablet’s LPI. So why the extra dosh? Two reasons. Firstly, the Intuos can be used wirelessly (you can buy without bluetooth for £4 less on Amazon, but it’s such a meagre saving we can’t imagine anyone opting for that). Secondly, it comes with a trio of free software packages: Corel Painter Essentials 7 (for digital painting), Clip Studio Paint Pro (for drawing and painting) and Core AfterShot Pro 3 (photo post-production). That’s a great selection if you’re interested in trying out lots of different things with your tablet.
The stylus, meanwhile, has two customisable buttons and 4,096 pressure levels. In a particularly nice tough, the tablet’s four customisable buttons are grooved so you have somewhere to rest the stylus.
- Buy it now (Amazon, £99.99)
With a 254mm by 143mm (10 x 5.62 inch) working area, the XP-Pen Deco03 is perfect for beginners looking for a larger-sized tablet – more space will ultimately offer your hand scope for more expression. It’s another one that supports a wireless connection, and it has the same 5,080 LPI resolution as the Huion H1060P. Although it only has a modest six keys, the Deco03 boasts a dial that will no doubt be popular with people who are doing things like subtly tweaking colours or brightness.
You’re also well set up for the long term – the package contains 8 replacement stylus nibs, and an anti-fouling glove.
Wacom Creative One Display
- Buy it now (Amazon, £347.94)
Okay, okay: we know we said that display tablets aren’t really aimed at beginners. But also we know that lots of people are much more comfortable with the idea of stylus-to-screen drawing and painting. So if you’re dead set on a tablet with a screen, we’re going to point you in the direction of Wacom’s Creative One Display, which was developed as an entry-level, cheaper alternative to the professional-oriented Cintiq range.
There are curious trade-offs in terms of quality – the included Wacom One Pen has a modest 4,092 levels of pressure sensitivity, and the screen doesn’t have the full colour range of the Cintiq 16. But for casual artists and hobbyists who want to see their digital creations growing directly beneath the tip of their pen, this is the ideal choice.
Looking to develop your artistic skills further? Check out our acrylic painting for beginners guide.