A beginner’s guide to digital drawing tools.

Digital pens and styluses have revolutionised the art world in recent years. From iconic painters to creative agencies and hobbyists at home, digital drawing tools have transformed how we draw, sketch and design. 

 

If you’re just getting started, this guide for beginners will tell you how to use the latest digital drawing tools – featuring tips from designer Robin Casey, artist Kevin Mellon and illustrator Adam Bujorian.

Digital artist sketching on a tablet with a digital pen.

What you’ll learn:

 

What are digital drawing tools used for?

Digital drawing tools have replaced the old stylus and provide artists with a more flexible array of features, including pressure sensing for thick or fine brush strokes.

 

Artists, commercial designers and hobbyists all use digital drawing tools. The most popular set up is now an iPad Pro with a digital pencil or pen – for the sheer flexibility and mobility it offers. 

 

But you can also use desktop computers and laptops with pens or Wacom tablets, which have been used in commercial design for many years already.
 

“You get more control and more flexibility than a mouse and more options than a pencil.” 

Designer Robin Casey

 

Almost any drawing (or writing) done with a traditional pen and paper can now be done with digital illustration tools, which can help create:
 

  • Design concepts. Digital drawing makes it easier to share and add effects which quickly enhance early concepts and rough sketches.  

 

  • Personal art. Artists can create full pieces of work and easily edit them digitally, jot down notes or quick sketches when out and about and bring an extra dimension to their work. 

 

  • CAD files. Drafters can use Computer Aided Design (CAD) software with digital drawing tools to form accurate 2D drawings, without the need for more technical stencils and equipment. 

 

  • Technical drawings. Architects and engineers can demonstrate how their designs will be constructed with greater freedom.   

 

  • Automotive designs. Visualising designs for new models and products – whether an initial sketch or the finished article – can be simpler to create, amend and refine with the right digital drawing tool.
     
Person writing on a tablet with a digital pen.

How do digital pens work?

There are two main types of digital pen. The stylus, which draws directly onto your tablet screen, and the smart pen, which uses special paper. They work in slightly different ways.

 

Smart pens

A smart pen tracks the movements you make by following invisible lines and points across the special paper. This data is then transferred wirelessly via the pen’s Bluetooth antenna to your PC, tablet or mobile. This all happens in real time, so your drawings appear on screen almost immediately. 

 

Digital stylus pen

Many commercial artists and hobbyists today use a digital stylus such as Apple Pencil. With a digital stylus, you can draw directly onto the screen of your tablet computer. Drawing directly on a tablet makes for a more natural drawing experience than connecting the tablet to a display via USB cable.

 

What is the best device for digital drawing?

Digital artist practices sketching a waterfall scene on their tablet.
Tattooed artist works on a piece of digital art.

The digital stylus and tablet combination has become increasingly popular with the arrival of high-performance tablets powerful enough to run drawing software and apps such as Adobe Illustrator. It’s the tool of choice for many professionals and hobbyists. And for beginners, this can be an ideal start to digital drawing.

 

However, the different feel of a stylus on screen isn’t for everyone. The set up you choose depends on what your budget allows and how you prefer to work, so don’t make gear your top priority. 
 

“Work with what you have. You don’t need to go and buy thousands of dollars’ worth of gear.” 

Artist Kevin Mellon

 

How to use a digital stylus pen.

Most digital stylus pens are designed from the ground up to deliver a similar user experience to drawing with a real pen or pencil. They’re also built to work intuitively with compatible tablets or computers – and they’re among the best digital drawing tools for artists. Steps are generally as follows:
 

  1. Unbox your digital stylus pen
  2. Pair with your computer or tablet – some have a simple ‘pair’ or ‘sync’ button 
  3. They pair over wireless technology such as Bluetooth
  4. The tablet/computer should now respond to the pen 
  5. Tap the screen with the nib of the pen or pencil 
  6. The screen should respond as it would to your fingertip 
  7. Open a notes app or creative app 
  8. Write or draw as you would with a regular pen/pencil
     

NB: Instructions change depending on brand model of pen – each has its own specific features and processes
 

How to draw on a computer with a stylus pen.

Person writing on a tablet

Drawing on a computer with a digital stylus pen feels much like drawing on paper. 

 

To start drawing, you generally tap the screen of your tablet. The nib of the pen is often pressure-sensitive – for example with Apple Pencil. So when you push down slightly harder, the pen lets out more digital ‘ink’ to create thicker lines on your screen. 

 

When you want to rub out, the nib of the pencil becomes the eraser. Switching between the two is simple, as is going from one type of pen to another or exploring the colour palette. 

 

Digital drawing tips and techniques from the experts.

Framework of a digital sketch with a portion of the art filled in.
Layered digital sketch with half of the sketch coloured.
Completed digital artwork that started as a digital pencil sketch.

The best way to get comfortable working with a digital pen is to experiment and try different settings. 

 

“Get a feel for it. See how it responds to different tools. Handling it is the best way to learn how you can work with it.” 

Designer Robin Casey

 

“Hop into something you’re familiar with. Start with that and branch off from there.” 

Illustrator Adam Bujorian

 

“Some people wrap tape around pens to make them thicker, because thinner ones are harder on their hands.” 

Artist Kevin Mellon

 

Figure out what works best for you to create a set up that makes you feel at ease and productive.
 

 

Digital drawing software and accessories.

 

Adobe Creative Cloud.

You’ll need digital drawing software to support your creations when using a smart pen or stylus. Adobe Creative Cloud includes a suite of state-of-the-art tools such as Illustrator, Illustrator Draw and InDesign to help transfer and edit your creations. Mobile and tablet compatibility makes it easy to pick up and write or draw digitally, wherever you are. 
 

Proteus header

Matte screen protector.

Matte screen protectors are a popular accessory for tablet screens because they provide a more paper-like drawing experience. Matte protectors also give the surface more tooth, meaning the pen has more friction and texture than it would if it were simply drawing on glass.

Man installing a screen protector.

Different pen nibs.

Depending on what kind of stylus you have, you may be able to swap out the tip. This can have a huge impact on how the pen feels, moves and draws. Apple Pencil has yet to release different nib styles, but most Wacom and Anoto Livescribe smartpens have a variety of options to choose from. For the best ongoing performance, you’ll need to replace your nib every so often.

Male hands with digital tablet.

Benefits of digital drawing tools.

While traditional art often leads to scrapped drafts spilling over the edge of a dustbin, digital drawing tools make trial, error, creation and exploration much easier. Whether you’re learning to draw or you’re a seasoned pro, explore the key benefits of digital drawing tools.

 

Paperless design reduces waste.

concept-idea-of-white-paperless-go-green-fly-into-new-tablet-pro-save-the-planet-documents-turned-into-digital-big-data-business-device-tablet-screen-display-future-technology-flat-vector

When you’re drawing with a pad and a pencil, every time you make a mistake or change your idea, you need a fresh sheet of paper. This contributes to paper waste. But with a digital pen and a tablet, you don’t need paper – the screen is your canvas

 

This reduces paper waste, and by using less paper you can also help the environment – using less energy and reducing climate change emissions1.
 

1. https://www.tiredearth.com/articles/less-paper-save-forests-rescue-environment
 

Start again (and again).

Because your screen is your canvas rather than endless reams of paper, you can easily correct mistakes or start again. Digital drawing tools are quick and forgiving, allowing you  to create without having to refill any physical supplies – from paper and canvases to pens and ink. 

 

Instead of scrapping a whole canvas in the event of a mistake or worrying about wasting expensive materials, artists can just hit “undo” and try again. Zoom in close and make precision corrections, rub out chunks or clear the whole digital canvas.
 

Draw anywhere.

Artists generally need more than a simple pad and a pen. There are trays of pencils, paints, inks and accessories. Cumbersome canvases, and papers in different grains and weights. The beauty of digital drawing tools is you really do just need two things: your digital pen and your computer. 

 

Opt for a lightweight tablet and you can draw and design anywhere. Modern tablets are powerful but slim and lightweight, and your digital stylus and creative apps pack a trunkful of tools into a relatively small package.
 

Integration with creative apps.

Tablets such as the iPad Pro and digital pens like Apple Pencil and Wacom devices are integrated with Adobe Creative Cloud apps and drawing tools such as Illustrator. You can sketch and draw directly into the app, and take advantage of Illustrator’s features. Create new layers, tweak opacity and draw with far greater control. Use your digital pen to create sweeping arcs or precision lines. 

 

Illustrator Brian Yapp uses Apple Pencil in Adobe Illustrator Draw. “It’s all pressure-sensitive, so what happens with the stroke, is based upon how much pressure Brian is placing on Apple Pencil,” says Bryan O’Neil Hughes of Adobe Outreach in this video. 

Digital apps make your portfolio mobile.

Female using tablet

Art can be hard to transport. Large canvases, chunky A3 pads and unwieldly portfolios are not ideal for travel. Ask any art student or job hopeful who’s taken a train for an interview. With digital drawing tools, your portfolio is right there on your tablet.

 

So when it comes to your interview, instead of struggling with a large leather folder as big as a car door, you can simply prop your tablet on the desk and talk them through your work. 

 

Built-in digital storage to back up work.

Some smartpens, like the Google Pixelbook pen, Livescribe 3, Neo Smartpen N2 or the popular Wacom Bamboo series, can digitise notes and sketches in real time. This gives you the convenience of digital storage while retaining the feel of handwritten notes and drawings.
 

Paint your masterpiece with Adobe Fresco.

Want to get started with digital art? Adobe Fresco is a great way to unleash your creativity. Our digital drawing app is compatible with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, so you can create on the go – drawing and sketching directly onto the screen. 

Fresco image

Benefits of Adobe Fresco.
 

  • Apple compatible. Fresco works intuitively with your Apple Pencil and iPad Pro.
  • Brushes and oil. Turn your stylus into a toolbox that contains thousands of brushes.
  • Feel realism. Smudge oils, layer paint and dab watercolours with realistic brushes.
  • Adobe CC. Bring Photoshop and other Creative Cloud files into your projects. 
     

Ready to go? Reach for the digital brushes with Adobe Fresco

 

Contributors

Three digital art and design experts helped contribute to this article.
 

Robin Casey - designer

 

Kevin Mellon - artist

 

Adam Bujorian - illustrator

 

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