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How Does a Drawing Tablet Work: A Quick Guide

By Bojan Jovanovic

Updated: November 21,2022

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Have you ever seen digital artwork and wondered how it’s actually done? Computer art has evolved incredibly over the past few decades. These days, most digital artists don’t use a computer mouse or a trackpad, but a drawing tablet, instead.

But how does a drawing tablet work, and how does it turn your pen movements into images on the screen? Read on, as we’ll explain all the intricacies of digital artistry and discuss the different types of tablets available on the market. 

Differences Between Drawing Tablets and Graphics Tablets

When shopping for a tablet, you might notice two different types available: drawing tablets and graphics tablets. At a glance, they might seem like the same thing but with two different names. The differences are, actually, rather significant. 

Drawing tablets are designed for artists who want to create digital art. Their most recognizable feature is the surface that doubles as the screen the artist draws on. It's handy for viewing your art while in the process of making it and denotes one crucial feature of these devices - they're usually standalone.

Unlike graphics tablets, which we'll talk about in a moment, drawing tablets are mostly autonomous devices. While some tablets connect to computers, most don't fall into this category, making them ideal for digital artists on the go. Considering how much technology is inside these devices, they're usually more expensive than graphics tablets, too.

Graphics tablets, on the other hand, are mainly used by graphic designers who need to create vector illustrations or edit photos. While some people might end up using a graphics tablet for painting and other digital art, they're not as handy as drawing tablets since they lack a screen. 

Additionally, graphics tablets always require a device to connect to, as they're just controllers for graphics design software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.

So, do these devices have something in common aside from the shape? That would be the stylus. Whether working on a drawing or a graphic tablet, you'll always use a digital pen to draw and input other commands. The stylus transmits your hand movements and pressure sensitivity, allowing for more realistic drawings and the input of additional commands.

How Do Drawing Tablets Work?

Now that we've covered the basics of drawing and graphics tablets let's take a more in-depth look at how they work.

While we have many types and brands, the key parts of a drawing tablet that are always there are the drawing surface and the pen. 

The surface is usually made out of glass or plastic. Sometimes, it may be the screen itself, but usually, it is an additional layer over it that does all the heavy lifting regarding the artist’s inputs. To draw on a tablet, an artist will need to use a specialized pen called a stylus.

The screens used for drawing tablets are designed to work with the styluses, recognize different pressure levels, and often even the angle at which the pen is placed. On top of that, tablets may have extra programmable buttons called express keys.

Recognizing the Stylus Movement

To understand how a drawing tablet works, we need to see how the movement of the stylus is captured and then processed by the device's internal software.

There are three main ways this is done:

Electromagnetic: This is the most common system in modern tablets. Beneath the drawing surface is an electromagnetic grid that transmits to the stylus and charges its battery in the process. 

As the stylus moves, the grid's magnetic field is disturbed, and the tablet can calculate the position of the pen based on these disturbances. This technology is often called electromagnetic resonance (EMR).

Optical: Some tablets use an optical sensor beneath the drawing surface. This sensor tracks a light emitted by the tip of the stylus so the tablet can calculate the position of the pen based on the light's movement.

Resistive: Lastly, components of a drawing tablet may include a resistive grid beneath the tablet’s surface, containing two conductive layers. These pen tablets work by registering the points where those layers make contact while the pen moves across the drawing surface. This is an obsolete technology now, thanks to developments in EMR detection.

Once the position of the pen is determined, the information is sent to the computer (if the tablet is connected) or to the built-in processor (if the tablet is standalone). The processor then translates this information into commands or input for your software.

For example, if you're using a drawing tablet for line work in Adobe Photoshop, the processor will send the information about the pen's position and pressure to the software, which will then create a line that resembles what you drew on the tablet.

Since the tablet is the "brain" of the unit, all the tracking is done inside it, including interpreting other inputs like buttons on the stylus (if there are any) and clicking the extra buttons on the tablet. 

Depending on your settings and software, the drawing tablet can also employ a certain level of smoothing to your drawings, making the lines less jagged. It can even help you finish certain geometrical shapes as if using a ruler or another specialized drawing tool.

When creating digital art on a tablet, you’ll also be able to manipulate your digital drawing using your fingertips. That includes pinching to zoom or rotating the image just as you’d do with a piece of paper you’re drawing on. 

A drawing tablet's surface, at least on modern devices, is a lot like those you’ll find on a  smartphone, as it has capacitive touch capabilities and boasts a similar level of sturdiness.

Types of Drawing Tablets

Now that we know how drawing tablets work, let's look at the different types available on the market.

Drawing Pen Tablets: These are usually smaller and more affordable than their standalone counterparts. They do have screens, but you'll need to connect them to a computer or laptop to get an image on them. Since these devices don’t come with any software, nor can they have any installed, you’ll need specialized drawing apps for your computer.

Standalone Drawing Tablets: Not to be confused with tablets like iPad, the standalone drawing tablets work independently from any other device and come with some software pre-installed. They’re essentially small computers with integrated screens and are a great companion for digital artists that prefer to travel with their drawing tools.

iPads: Apple’s iPad has become a popular option for those looking for portable drawing tablets. There are several apps available that turn the iPad into a fully-fledged drawing tablet, complete with a pressure-sensitive stylus. Since the iPad is portable, it's a great option for those who want to sketch on the go and a great alternative to Microsoft’s Surface tablets.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the way a drawing tablet works is pretty simple and doesn't require any special skills. 

However, remember that there's a learning curve associated with using these devices since they work differently from pen and paper. Once you get the hang of it, though, you'll be able to create digital art like a pro!

FAQ

Do drawing tablets need to be connected to a computer?

It depends on the type of tablet. Most drawing tablets are designed to work as a computer's second screen, so they require to be connected to a computer. There are also standalone tablets, but those are not the most affordable devices around as they’re aimed at professionals.

In both cases, using the drawing tablets is pretty much the same. The only difference is the underlying tech.

What do you need to use a drawing tablet?

Usually, you need a computer and drawing software that can recognize tablet inputs. Some of the more high-end contemporary tablets and devices like iPad don’t even require a computer, but they’re not as affordable as the non-standalone ones.

How do you use a drawing tablet?

In almost the same way you’d use any regular pen and paper, except you use a stylus to write on an LCD screen. So, how does a drawing tablet work, then? It recognizes the stylus movements and translates them into images on the screen using graphics software and various sensors inside the device.

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