Drawing in digital

staff note

I finally bought myself a drawing tablet this past week. I’ve started using a tablet at work — at the Duke Innovative Design Agency — but outside of that, I’ve been using a mouse or my trackpad to do digital art. That works pretty well for infographics, but it’s definitely difficult to replicate the same effects I would have on paper or canvas.

I was uncharacteristically excited when I saw an email last Friday telling me to go pick up a package from the Student Mailbox Center. I rarely buy myself things that I don’t truly need, so deciding to spend my own money on this tablet just for me is something of a novel experience. (Although I’ve convinced myself it has practical purpose too — apparently people use them to take notes?)

When I saw the box, though, I immediately knew it wasn’t the tablet. It had the distinctive red-and-white pattern of the Disc Store, where I occasionally look for deals on ultimate frisbee apparel andgear. That didn’t make any sense — I hadn’t bought anything from there recently...Had I? Turns out, my sister bought me the black, sparkly, unicorn-adorned disc I had mentioned to her a few weeks ago. I was a little disappointed, but definitely appreciative of her gift.

Anyway, fast-forward a few hours, after I had gone back to my room, taken a nap (that lasted two hours instead of one, oops) and gotten ready to head out again, and what was there but another package, this time from Amazon. Opening the package was careful but also a bit rushed. I was running late for research, so I didn’t have time to fully open it and use it. That had to wait for much later in the day.

After research, dinner, practice and a shower, I finally got around to opening the package all the way, installing the driver and testing the tablet out in Illustrator. I’ve only really used tablets with screens before, so using one that required coordination between the tablet surface and my laptop monitor took a little getting used to.

The tablet has made me think about all the digital illustrations and graphics that I’ve done in the past that would have been easier with it. That was one reason I’ve been wanting to get one for a while, since I’m much more used to working in a more tactile and direct medium than a mouse or trackpad allows.

I started exploring art in much the same way as most people do — with drawings in pencil then slowly moving into various types of paints, dabbling in other mediums like clay sculpture and string art along the way. It was my high school newspaper that introduced me to digital art through infographics and page layout. I enjoyed writing, and I still do, but art has been a larger part of my life for longer. The transition from the more traditional mediums of paper and pencil or canvas and brush to the computer wasn’t easy — I remember spending hours on digital illustrations that would have been much quicker and simpler in watercolor or pencil. But the digital illustration has a different appeal — it’s easier to fix mistakes and tends to have a cleaner, crisper feel. It’s also more portable. Instead of carrying around an entire bag of art supplies (palette, brushes, pencils, paints, canvases, water cup), I just need my laptop — which I would have regardless — and now the tablet as well, though it isn’t absolutely necessary.

In online forums and Facebook groups, I’ve seen posts from other artists going through the same transition to digital art, asking about the best software to use, the best tablets for beginners, tips and tricks, etc. It’s part of a shift toward digital media in general — paper books to e-books, print papers to online and notebooks to digital documents. It’s been interesting to watch this happen, especially as The Chronicle moves toward a digital-first model and potentially further reduces its number of print days.

Although digital has become dominant in many fields, it has an interesting relationship with art. Many artists have shifted to or focused on digital from the start, but the viewing of a physical object in person is what draws many to visit museums and to purchase work. Digital art doesn’t always allow for that capability (though video installations and the like are another matter entirely).

Pencil and paper also definitely still have a role in my workflow. I find it much easier to brainstorm and sketch on physical paper instead of heading directly to digital. I also love the feel of a brush on canvas and find it freeing to splash paint without exacting, directed control, and I have a more intuitive grasp of the way that colors mix in physical mediums.

It’ll be interesting to see how digital and physical mediums continue to interact, and to anyone looking into graphic design and digital art, I say to try it out. You’ll be in good company.

Selena Qian is a Trinity sophomore and Recess features editor.


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