Recommended Tools

Here’s the tools that I rely on, and am happy recommending to others:

Wacom Intuos4

This is my workhorse. I use it every day, and it hasn’t let me down. I’ve used other tablets in the past, but this one does the job. I prefer the Medium. The small is a little cramped for me, when doing detail work. The large means that I have to use big arm movements to draw lines. With the Medium I have enough space to work with, and I can drop it in my laptop bag and carry it around.

I tend to bind the wheel to brush-size but can toggle to zoom and canvas rotation. These can be total lifesavers. The last feature of note is the number of levels of pressure sensitivity in the pen – I don’t get any sense of there being levels of sensitivity. It gives a fluid sensitivity that’s wonderful.

Compatability – I’ve had no trouble getting this t work with Photoshop, Corel or Artrage. It really couldn’t have been easier to use. Just plug-and-play.

There’s an Intuous5 now – the reviews look good, but I’ve not played with one yet.

Wacom Graphire4

This was the first Wacom tablet I used and it changed my life. Small enough to fit in a laptop bag, but big enough to use on a regular basis. They’ve been superseded by the Bamboo Splash now, but as with the Intuous5, I haven’t played with a Splash. However, at only $64 the Splash is a bargain if it’s anything like the Graphire. Nonetheless, I can still recommend the Graphire without reservations, even second hand.

The one problem I had with the Graphire was that I had to cycle through some of the available drivers to find the ones that work best for your machine – especially to get it to play nicely with open source software like the Gimp. Wacom is popular enough that there’s normally a blog post out there by someone who’s done the heavy lifting before.

All the same comments apply as for the Intuous. The Graphire has fewer levels of sensitivity and no rotating scroll wheel to bind to zoom and rotation. It also doesn’t have tilt sensitivity which is a nice feature for some of the newer dynamic Photoshop brushes.

And in case you think this is just a love-in, I’m recommending Wacom for a reason. I had a large Nisus tablet before and it was just bad. The drawing area was too large, the precision wasn’t there, and the pen had the battery inside which caused it to be heavy, and to have a really unbalanced weighting. After the Nisus I picked up a small Graphire and I haven’t looked back since.

Adobe Photoshop Extended CS6

Well this really goes without saying – all my work uses photoshop. It’s the industry standard for a reason. The Gimp does a lot of the same things well, but for speed, workflow and memory management Photoshop still has Gimp beaten hands down. Conveniently a lot of the workflow is similar between the two, so if you get started using one you can switch across later relatively easily.

And a review to finish up with:

Adonit Jot Touch

I got an Adonit Jot Touch for a birthday present this year and I’ve been working with it on and off. Like many people, I’ve been waiting for a good stylus for the iPad that has pressure sensitivity, and this seemed to be the one.

The most important conclusion I’ve come to is that the software is key.

I was initially really disappointed. Using the Adonit with Artrage, or with Sketchbook Pro was very laggy. When drawing a line I often had over a centimeter between where the stylus was, and where the end of the line was on the screen. And this wasn’t due to me drawing particularly fast. That kind of lag makes this hard to use for quick sketching – the exact task the iPad should be great for. When I switched to my finger, the response time was incalculably better. The experience of drawing with a finger in Artrage or Sketchbook Pro was nicer than with a stylus – not exactly what I was hoping for.

However – keen to identify whether this was a fault of the software or a barrier thrown up by the bluetooth communication time – I opened up Procreate. In Procreate the lag is hardly noticeable – which makes me very happy indeed. If Procreate can get it working, then Artrage and Sketchbook should be able to solve this too. I love the features in Artrage, and would much prefer it to Procreate for working up sketches.

With the lag addressed – what’s the rest of the pen like? The clear plastic disk attached to the tip make it very easy to see where you’re drawing (though if you pick one up make sure to add a screen protector to your iPad screen). The pen has a lovely weight to it – and the magnetic usb charger is great. It holds it’s charge for a long time – it’s sat in my bag for months without being recharged. Pairing with the iPad is also easy – all the programs I used recognised the pen quickly and ‘just worked’.

I actually like using this pen in Paper – though of course that app has no pressure sensitivity. The precision alone is a good feature.

But what about the pressure sensitivity? I have to say I like it a lot. All three of the apps I tried it with have pens that have a width sensitivity to the pen pressure (or something that mimics it closely). That makes creating ink line art feel much more natural and sketchy than a non-pressure sensitive stylus. The colouring with opacity set to pen pressure is generally a little more clunky. Procreate overrides the opacity and ties it only to pressure. So you can’t have a maximum opacity of 10% at full pressure for example, so you’re confined to just pressing very very lightly if you want low opacity brush strokes. However, these are software issues that are likely to evolve with future releases.

Conclusion? I like the pen, it feels natural and it’s night and day better than drawing with a finger on the iPad. Is it worth stumping for pressure sensitivity? Well, the software doesn’t feel like it’s quite there yet. I’m an optimist, so I believe that Artrage and Sketchbook Pro will fix their lag issues, and then the more powerful features of these will be brought to bear. If you’re looking for a Cintiq replacement – look elsewhere. There’s no full Photoshop clone on the iPad and you’ll never have the same control over the degrees of pressure sensitivity and how they map to brushes. But for quick and dirty sketching – I think this is a nifty tool that will only get better as the software catches up.

I’m using the Adonit Jot Touch with a 32Gb iPad 2

20 thoughts on “Recommended Tools”

  1. I was surprised not to Illustrator in the list. I’ve been limping along for years with a Wacom Sapphire tablet. I’ve used many different sizes and, even though it’s a size smaller than I prefer, it’s been a workhorse for nearly a decade. For precision work, I do a lot in 3DSMax, but that’s probably because my background is significantly different than yours.

    I can’t recommend a CS subscription enough. Even after purchasing the full CS 5.5 creative suite, I still upgraded to the CS 6 subscription. If you aren’t interested in the video apps, it’s still great to have Illustrator and InDesign there when you want them.

    1. I rarely use Illustrator for my fantasy maps – they are fundamentally raster so photoshop is my go-to. However if I’m doing something more modern, or sci-fi, then illustrator is in there. I’m looking at jumping over to CS6 with some interest, but right now 5.5 is doing well for me.

    2. I have been using a surface pro along with manga studio 5ex. I gotta say I love the program and how versatile brush tool is. I actually like it more than photoshops.

      My keyboard is a logitech K810 and I picked up lifebook pen. Think it’s the T5000 from fujitsu.

      If you have a chance try out manga studio and look into their brushes / perspective rulers. The rulers were the final selling point for me.

  2. 3 questions.

    1. What do you use to scan in large drawn maps? Do you put it in sections and then piece it back together?

    2. What size do you work at in Photoshop? I’ve been doing double the print size (or final digital size) and 300 DPI

    3. What is your Photoshop brush setup to get such great looking ink lines?

    1. 1. I don’t scan in maps – I now work straight into photoshop for any commission. Scanning in piece by piece is the way to go if you have to, and then compositing in photoshop. You need to make sure to have quite a lot of overlap when you scan the sections to help with lining them up.
      2. Mostly I work at 100% print size, 300dpi. Effectively that means that I work at three times the final resolution (ration of screen res – ~100ppi to print res 300dpi).
      3. The ink lines are actually just the simplest of all brushes. It’s a 5 pixel hard round brush with the size set to pressure sensitivity. All the rest is the tablet pressure sensitivity. I’ve set up the pressure response to give a good response with pressure for how I use it. That’s a nifty tool in the settings for the tablet.

    2. I’ve used Staples Office Supplies to scan in a large hand drawn map for a fantasy game a buddy and I are working on. They can scan up to three feet wide I believe.

  3. Just an FYI, it looks like the link you have to photoshop isn’t valid anymore. It’s just forwarding on to the cloud version.

    1. Nuts – well they were well on the way to moving everything to the cloud service. I think that’s the end of stand alone Adobe products unfortunately. You might be able to pick up a CS6 disk elsewhere (I believe it should still work).

    1. Very cool! That’s a tough project you’re taking on – but it’s coming on very nicely. I’d recommend focusing on solving those thin – almost straight – artifacts. They throw off the look of the map. Otherwise, this is showing a lot of promise.

  4. I have seen some of your work done on the iPad PRO. Do you recommend the iPad Pro as a standalone tool? I do my work mostly via pen/paper and wanted to start doing some more complex (and appealing) work via tablet. Was thinking about just picking up the iPad Pro so that I do not need to be tied to a Desktop.

    1. It’s possible to create maps start to finish on the iPad Pro. There are a few things I can’t manage on it – I haven’t found a solution for adding text yet. That’s the biggest one.

      1. Just curious, what stylus are you using these days? Did you switch to the Apple Pencil or do you recommend something different?

  5. Hello!

    First thank you for all these amazing tutorials!! I have an ipad pro and pencil and was wondering what app you use when you do use your pro? Do you rely more heavily on your laptop and Wacom because the pro doesn’t have full photoshop? Any chance of an ipad pro map creation tutorial?


  6. Jon, do you ever run into any text quality issues with labeling in Photoshop instead of Illustrator? One printer is recommending Illustrator because it’s vector based.

  7. Just found your site, wonderful work.

    I’m starting to run a D&D game for the family, and would love to use my computer to create the game map. I have a sketch I would like to transfer into the computer via GIMP. I’m trying to use your tutorials and others on YouTube, and wonder if your original graphic tablet, the Graphire4, would work on a Apple PowerBook running IS X 10.5.3?

    I know this is an old computer, and suspect that even if the tablet works on Macs, the operating version is too old.

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