Tips for Tangling on a Pressure-Sensitive Tablet

After completing a technical writing job for a former employer, I was able to purchase a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, specifically for using it to do digital painting. While I have a Wacom Bamboo tablet, I’ve never been able to get a handle on using it very well for precise details, so the pressure-sensitive Surface was perfect for what I wanted.

One of the first things I did was a tiny tangled piece in Paint Shop Pro. I then remembered that I had upgraded Painter to the 2015 version some time back so installed it as well and after playing around with different brushes and pens, I started getting pretty good at it.

Anyway, here are a few tips that might be helpful when drawing tangles in a paint program with a pressure sensitive tablet:

  1. Make sure the tablet uses a pointed stylus and not a blunt one like most smart phones use. As of now, the only tablet I’m aware of that can do this is a Microsoft Surface Pro. A Wacom table could be used but I’ve found that it just doesn’t allow precise placement of lines needed for tangling – at least not for me. (You’ll also need at least 2 GB RAM but 4 GB would be even better.)
  2. Add a mouse to your tablet. You don’t necessarily need a keyboard but you will need a mouse as it is easier to navigate quickly through the paint programs menus with a mouse rather than the stylus or your finger. Trust me on this one.
  3. Choose a good paint program … I highly recommend Corel Painter as it is specifically made for digital painting, however there are other programs to consider as well, such as Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro (a good, less expensive option). Most programs have demos that you can try out for around 30 days so take advantage of these trial periods to figure out which works best for you. If you are a student, take advantage of student pricing as well. (Check out my quick evaluation of a few paint programs at the bottom of this post.)
  4. If the paint program doesn’t include an option to tell whether the side of your hand is on the tablet, be careful where you place your hand. Unexpected scrolling can be irritating. Go ahead, ask me how I know … Update … if you have a bean bag type wrist rest for a mouse or keyboard, the pressure from your hand will not go through it to the tablet (at least not very well) so place it at the current bottom edge of the tablet, over the scroll bar, and that should limit the accidental scrolling.
  5. Work BIG!!! Create your canvas at least 1.5 times the size you want your finished piece to be. Otherwise, you won’t get the detail/fine lines you want in your patterns. I usually work at 2 times the size of my finished piece. That way, I can zoom way in and get tons of detail in.
  6. Zoom in to work on your patterns. You’ll find that if you don’t, your lines will be very wobbly. Go ahead and try it by setting a pen to 1 and drawing some straight lines. Zoom in and you’ll see how “unstraight” they are. Now, draw more lines while zoomed in and notice how much straighter they look. A digital paint program is not as forgiving as a flat, stationary piece of paper. Also, draw “fast” when drawing long lines, curves, etc.. The lines will be less wobbly if you do so.
  7. If using a Windows tablet and Painter, set the Tablet Options for RTS-compatible devices, not Wacom. You may also want to turn off the Multi-Touch if it doesn’t work for you. Tablet settings are found at Edit > Preferences > Tablet.
  8. If using a Surface Pro tablet and you are right-handed, flip the tablet upside down to work. That way, the Windows icon is on the left and you won’t accidentally switch to the Windows 8 menu when you lay your hand on top of the icon.
  9. Instead of using a pencil to draw grid lines like you would on paper, create a grid template for the sizes you use the most. For example, for a 5″x5″ piece, I created a grid with red lines at every inch, pink lines at every half inch, and blue lines criss-crossing over where the pink lines crossed and red lines crossed. I saved the template in a .rif file (Painter format) with a blank layer above the grid, set the grid layer to a reference layer. Now, whenever I work on that size, I open the template, resave the file under a new name, and start working. I did create the grid template in Paint Shop Pro as I’m more familiar with that program so it was faster then doing it in Painter and trying to figure it out!
  10. Use layers! Build up your image using layers. This will help with adding increasing details and also with shading later on. For shading, you can add new layers under other layers in order to build up shadow layers on top of other layers.
  11. Find a pen you like and use it as your go-to pen for drawing. You can switch as needed but this is the one you’ll be the most familiar with using and have better control as you use it more. I like to use the Smooth Ink Pen at size 1.0, 100% opacity, 100% resaturation, and 0% bleed. I’ll increase the size as needed for making larger dots or lines, but pretty much use this size. I use a Real 4H Hard Pencil for my shadows, with at size 100 (on the 400×400 px images), 10% opacity, 60% grain, 100% resaturation, and 36% bleed. If I need any blending of the shadows, I like to use the Grainy Water Blender at the default settings.
  12. Have fun! Don’t be afraid to try new things with different brushes, textures, and tubes!
  13. Save often! If your tablet or paint program crashes and you lose what you were working on, then you can always go back to the saved file. You can also save periodically under a new name, for example, save each days work with the day’s date at the end of the file name. The next time you open the file, save it under a new date immediately, before you start working on it so that you never overwrite a previous day’s work.

I’ll add additional tips as I come across them while I work.

Quick evaluation of a few paint programs I found through the Windows app store:

  • ArtRage Touch – $9.99
  • Autodesk for Tablet – Free
  • Autodesk Sketchbook – $2.99/month; $24.99/year
  • Autodesk Sketchbook Lite – Free
  • Fresh Paint – Free
  • Paint Shop Pro – $64+
  • Painter – $400
  • Painter Lite – $49.99
  • Serif Draw Plus – $99.99
  • Sketchable – Free with extra brushes for $1.99 ea or $11.99 for bundle

Painter or Painter Lite are specifically designed for digital painting and even though I love Paint Shop Pro for my daily graphics use and I have painted digital landscapes and stuff with it, for tangling, my program of choice for serious doodling is Painter. The Lite version will probably be all most doodlers will need and for $50, this is an awesome investment. Autodesk Sketchbook is also a good investment as a drawing and sketching program. I haven’t used Serif Draw Plus in many years but I remember it as being a good program. ArtRage and Sketchable have good basic drawing capabilities but Sketchable only comes with an eraser and paint brush. All other pen types (pencil, airbrush, etc.) are $1.99 each or $11.99 for all. Based on the capabilities, spend the $9.99 for ArtRage and get a much better (and more fun) program. Both programs provide icons for the different brush types to mimic having the items on your desk and picking them up to work with. This is quite fun actually. Fresh Paint and Sketchable can be downloaded for free from the Windows app store. The rest can be found on the app store with links to the application web page where you just may find special pricing for accessing the page from the app store.

For the programs with demos available, try them out to find out which one you like and work with best. Fresh Paint, ArtRage, and Sketchable are more for “fun” drawing and not really that practical for tangle doodling but are fun for practice doodling and sketching. Painter and Paint Shop Pro are more practical for tangle doodling and Photoshop, Serif Draw, and Sketchbook are close behind. Of course, my recommendation is that you use Painter with the Lite version being the most economical and useful for tangling and the full version for tangling and serious digital artists.

Tips originally posted on Zentangle: Stacked and Tangled group on Facebook (by me, of course).