Is It Time to Trade Your Mouse for a Stylus?

By Steve Bain

If you’re one of the millions of professional illustrators, designers, or layout artists who use CorelDRAW® Graphics Suite, you’re already familiar with how nimble the tools are in CorelDRAW® and Corel PHOTO-PAINT®. But if you’re still trying to produce artistic strokes with a standard mouse, you’ve probably had your share of frustrating drawing sessions, and the sore wrist to go with it. After all, your typical mouse has all the drawing grace of a brick. Let’s take a look at a not-so-new drawing option that will enable you to extend your drawing abilities and perhaps even produce better results.

Pen Tablets Offer Elegant Drawing Action

If you’re looking for a better way to draw, you owe it to yourself to test-drive a pen and pen tablet. Wacom was gracious enough to loan me one of their mid-range tablets for evaluation. I’ve been a die-hard mouse user since the early days, and so I thought I would be a tough sell. I test drove their pen tablet for a few weeks to see if I could be convinced to set the mouse free.

The pen-shaped pointing devices are infinitely easier to handle than a mouse and have much better ergonomics. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to experiment with one, you already know what a huge difference it makes. It enables you to easily mimic the physical hand-drawing actions of a pencil, pen, or brush. Creative operations such as sketching, cartooning, airbrushing, painting, erasing, or even just applying interactive line effects are much more productive, and the results are more rewarding.

Like most computer-related products, pen tablet technology has become more sophisticated and less costly. Typically, models are cordless and battery-free, and the pen, or “stylus,” often includes clickable function buttons and other nifty drawing novelties. Most pens feature specialized tips, enabling you to activate the options of pressure-sensitive tools like those found in CorelDRAW and PHOTO-PAINT.

Higher-end pen tablets even feature customizable function buttons and are supported by software options to control a gamut of custom tablet setups and pen behaviors. Certain models of pen tablets are also compatible with advanced accessories, such as ergonomically enhanced grip pens or special-function pens (see below).

For dedicated professionals, fancier, more expensive tablet lines even use touch-sensitive monitors that enable you to track stylus movement by pointing directly on-screen (see below).

The pen tablet’s usefulness isn’t restricted to just illustration or design sleight-of-hand actions, though. Tasks requiring precision drawing, such as mapping or diagramming, are also more efficient. By placing an original hard copy directly on the tablet surface, you can quickly and accurately “trace” its points directly onto your CorelDRAW page and create vector shapes. The example below shows a map-tracing project in progress. In this instance, the Freehand Tool is used to trace the land contours into a CorelDRAW drawing from a scanned hard copy.

Harness the Pen Tablet Power of CorelDRAW

The unique features of a pen tablet can improve your use of typical line-drawing tools in CorelDRAW, including the Artistic Media, Smart Drawing, Freehand, Polyline, Eraser, and Pen tools. If you already own a pen tablet, you can enjoy the extended options it makes available to you. But you can also reap the benefits of stylus-enabled tools, like the Smudge Brush and Roughen Brush, when you use a pen tablet to apply line effects in CorelDRAW.

Specifically, while the Smudge Brush is selected, you can use Property Bar options (see below) to activate the Pressure, Tilt, and Bearing settings on your stylus (if your stylus supports these options).

Stylus options provide control over your smudging operations in various ways. While the Stylus Pressure option is activated, the Smudge Brush uses your stylus pressure to apply varying degrees of Dryout to your strokes. Dryout is a setting that enables diminishing or expanding nib width based on stylus pressure.

When you apply smudging with the Stylus Tilt setting activated, the angle of your stylus relative to the tablet surface sets the elliptical shape of the Smudge Brush nib. Using the Stylus Bearing option, you can control the angle of the elliptical nib shape by rotating the stylus in relation to the tablet surface. In the example below, the Smudge Brush was used to apply distortions to an outline path to emulate the appearance of tall grass.

The Roughen Brush has similar options for controlling line roughening. This tool enables you to create specialized line effects by applying jagged edges or spiked lines to the outline path of an object.

Options on the Roughen Brush Property Bar (see below) enable you to control the Frequency, Tilt, and Bearing of your roughening effects. While the Stylus Pressure option is selected, your stylus pressure increases or decreases the frequency of the applied spike effect. With Stylus Tilt selected, the angle of your stylus controls the angle of the individual spikes. Choosing Stylus Setting from the Spike Direction drop-down list enables your stylus movements to set the direction of the roughened spikes.

Roughening applied to an outline path (see below) creates an alternate effect on our tall grass illustration.

Shop for a Pen Tablet

If you’re in the market for a pen tablet, you’ll find that the clear leader is Wacom Technology Corporation (, based in Vancouver, Washington. The company has been developing reliable pen tablets since the 1980s and claims a customer base of more than two million users. Wacom offers a variety of product lines ranging from entry-level models to top-of-the-line professional standards. All use either USB or serial port connections (some use both) and come with the latest supporting drivers and software.

The popular professional line of Wacom® Intuos® 2 products (see below) is of particular interest to graphic illustrators and designers who use CorelDRAW Graphics Suite. Intuos 2 products support the tilt, pressure, and bearing needed to produce the best results from the line-drawing tools and interactively applied line effects, such as smudging and roughening, in CorelDRAW.

Wacom’s Intuos 2 line of pen tablets supports pen tip and eraser pressure, as well as tilt and bearing settings, and includes five different models, ranging from a small 4 x 5-inch tablet size to a large 12 x 18-inch size and priced at roughly US$200 to US$750 including a lifetime warranty. A two-dimensional or four-dimensional (2D or 4D) mouse is also included with specific models. Another bonus is the fact that Intuos 2 products are compatible with several optional accessories, the most intriguing of which is a digital airbrush pen equipped with a flow regulator fingerwheel (roughly US$100).

All Intuos 2 models feature supporting software (both Windows and Macintosh versions are available), enabling you to control and adjust pen behavior, customize the Grip Pen stylus function buttons such as pen tip and eraser pressure, and set your own click-force values (see below). The easy-to-use software also enables you to set pen-to-tablet mapping and speed, change tablet orientation from tall to wide, and program your own custom tablet menu strip functions. You can also set advanced tablet configurations for specific tools and applications.

Which Pen Tablet Should You Be Using?

If you decide to make the investment, you should give careful consideration to the model you choose. If your drawing projects consist mainly of nonartistic tasks, investing in a pen tablet might be a wasted effort. But – and this is a big but – keep in mind that a pen tablet can be used to replace your mouse or pointing device for any application on your system (including the operating system), making it a versatile tool that you can use for virtually any computing operation.

Generally speaking, larger tablets offer a higher degree of drawing precision and accuracy than smaller models. The more tablet space available for you to sketch onto, the more detail your pen strokes will produce. For hard-copy tracing operations, look for a model that is large enough to accommodate your hard-copy sizes and that has a translucent tablet film. If your primary work is using the tools in Corel PHOTO-PAINT to manipulate pixels, you might consider investing in a pen tablet compatible with an airbrush accessory, or a pen model that includes a built-in pressure eraser. Weighing these options against what your budget allows should help you decide which model to choose. Both are well suited for use with CorelDRAW Graphics Suite applications.

Overall, my experience using the basic pen tablet model was enjoyable, although I admit I would likely be unproductive while getting accustomed to using it. However, many other users I’ve heard from have high praise for their pen tablets and of that group a good portion have switched permanently to a pen stylus of some sort. Unfortunately, mine was just a loaner.

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Steve Bain is an award-winning illustrator and designer, and the author of nearly a dozen books, including CorelDRAW: The Official Guide.


One response to “Is It Time to Trade Your Mouse for a Stylus?

  1. Pingback: Fixing Sunny Day Shadows and Color Casts with Corel PHOTO-PAINT® « CorelDRAW! Tips, Tricks & Tutorials

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