Computer Pen Input Has Always Been a Novelty to Me

One skill unique to digital artists is the ability to draw on a tablet while looking at a separate screen. I can’t think of any other art medium with such a separation between an artists’ hands and their workpiece. Towards the end of The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story(*) documentary was a clip of Hirschfeld trying a drawing tablet. This lifelong master of pen and paper struggled to make a basic sketch, saying “It’s almost impossible to control […] I supposed it is possible to control it, it’d just require another lifetime to do it, that’s all.

The separation of drawing tablet and scree is a curious evolution of computer input devices, because things didn’t start out that way. Decades ago, specialized computers had light pen input devices that allowed pointing and drawing directly on screen. It made it all the way down to consumer (or at least business) level hardware with provisions on early IBM PC video cards.

I guess early product designers assumed people wouldn’t put up with trying to manipulate input that was separate from its screen representation. If so, the computer mouse proved that assumption wrong. People were indeed willing to learn to manipulate with physically separated input devices when there is enough productivity at low enough cost to be worth learning a new skill. The same basic arguments applied to artistic creations. Given the advantages of digital creation over physical media (ease of edit, archive, copy, transmit, etc.) some artists were willing to learn to draw on a desktop tablet while looking at a screen.

But human beings still prefer to have visual feedback physically corresponding to manipulation input. And thankfully technology has advanced enough to give that back to us, at least in some contexts. We interact with modern slab-faced smartphones with its touchscreen instead of a mouse, and artists can get graphical pen displays that integrate drawing tablet capability with a computer screen. I remember when the technology became a practical product and watched an artist demonstrate the first Wacom Cintiq. While being well aware that most of the skill is in the artist, I was nevertheless blown away by how immediate, responsive, and thereby intuitive drawing on a graphical pen display was. And I was not alone, as that first Cintiq was successful enough to launch a full and still evolving product line of graphical displays. It was extremely expensive, but it meant an artist no longer had to draw on one device while looking at another device. A capability well worth the cost for artistic creators.

As a software code jockey with no artistic skill to speak of, I had no justification to spend thousands of dollars on a graphical pen input display. It was just a novelty that I loved to play with whenever I had the chance. I got close with a few Windows and iOS tablets, but it wasn’t quite the same.

(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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