Wondering what a graphics tablet can do for you? Wonder no more. Even if you’re not into natural media, a tablet is an ideal tool for painting masks, for healing or cloning, and for adjusting Curves. They do take getting used to, and some never manage to make the switch. But stick with it if you can; the payoff is worth it.
For this tutorial we’ll be using Photoshop CS5 and a Wacom Intuos. Cheaper Bamboo and older tablets will miss out on tilt sensitivity, but otherwise can follow along.
But wait: why not use a stylus with an iPad? Or, if you have lots of cash, a Wacom Cintiq with a screen built in? Firstly, the iPad doesn’t run Photoshop — yet. Lack of pressure sensitivity is a big deal, too. But my problem with both of these options is that my hand gets in the way of the art. Yes, this is a problem for real-world painting, too. You may not be bothered at all.
Create a new Photoshop file with large dimensions—at least 1000x1000. If you like full screen mode, press F once or twice and use it. We’ll be using the panels though, so if you’re in a full screen mode where no panels are visible, press Tab to bring them back. Press D to set default colors, and create a new layer to work on.
This panel has undergone a makeover for CS5, for the better. Brush Presets is now a separate panel completely, which removes one of the key sources of confusion: changing the brush tip shape when you meant to change the preset, or vice-versa.
Select one of the hard round brushes at the top of the panel. Hold Control and Option and drag to the right to make the brush bigger. Now, if you make a few quick strokes in the canvas, you will probably notice that the edges of the paint stroke aren’t very smooth. This is due to the high default spacing value of 25%. Set it to 5-10% or so for a smoother result.
One of the most basic controls that a Wacom tablet enables is size control from pen pressure: press harder for a larger brush. While this can be controlled from the Shape Dynamics section—click on the name (not the checkbox) to access settings—there’s a better way. Turn Shape Dynamics off, and look in the Options panel for the icon that looks like a tablet in a target. That turns on size control with tablet pressure, and it’s more convenient than the well-hidden Brushes panel controls.
Photoshop offers several types of control for many of the brush parameters. You can use the pen pressure, pen tilt, or stylus wheel if you have an optional extra airbrush pen. To apply them, find the “Jitter” control for the parameter you’re looking for, then use the Control drop-down below it to choose the method you prefer. Since the best way to let pressure control size is to use the button in the Options panel, set that control to Off.
As well as the three supported tablet options, you can use “Fade” to simply turn an option down over a short period of time. And sometimes you definitely want “Off”. When painting a fiddly mask, I often prefer the brush size to be fixed and predictable.
Finally, don’t forget about that Jitter slider, which adds randomness. While this can produce great effects, you’ll want to turn Jitter down or off for any parameter that you use a stylus to control.
Under Transfer, controlling Opacity is very effective. Under Shape Dynamics, when using a rotatable brush (anything but a circle) linking Angle to tilt can be useful. Underused, Foreground/Background control allows you to blend two colours with each paintstroke, and I usually control it with tilt. A non-tablet tip: use Angle Jitter to automatically rotate natural-media style brushes.
A valuable addition in CS5, these brushes make it easier to utilise your tablet as a traditional paintbrush. In the Brushes panel, under Brush Tip Shape, choose one of the presets that looks like a brush. In your document, a new floating window will appear, showing the angle of your brush. (View > Show > Brush Preview will show or hide it.)
You’ll lose a few controls (notably brush size) but gain a great new look. Many tweakable options are present too, and for a natural result they’re a huge step forward. You’ll probably still prefer something like Painter for serious natural media work, though.
Even if you don’t have a tablet, you can gain some flexibility by loading one of the hundreds of additional brushes supplied with Photoshop. From the Brush Presets panel, choose the submenu, pick one of the additional brush sets, and then Append from the dialog that appears. You can also crawl the web for yet more brush sets — enjoy the search.