Yes, you can make perfectly good digital art with nothing but a mouse and keyboard. Just don’t expect to get it done fast, as they’re far from the most efficient way to draw freehand illustrations. No matter how much you practice with a mouse, it’s never going to get close to the intuitiveness of using pen on paper when it comes to fashioning graphical images.
Generally, there are three ways you can go when it comes to drawing tablets. You can go with an Android or iOS tablet that’s optimized for drawing, such as the iPad Pro or the Galaxy Pro for a self-contained solution. You can opt for a traditional digitizer, a touch-sensitive pad that you connect to a computer and use as a drawing peripheral. Lastly, you can go with a pen display, which is, basically, a digitizer with an integrated screen that lets you see every line you draw immediately without having to look up at your display monitor.
If you’re doing professional work, chances are, you’ll want to invest in either a digitizer or a pen display that will work with your PC. Desktop machines tend to offer the best software options for graphics work, after all, allowing you to expand your workflow beyond what tablets can typically accomplish. As such, for the purposes of this list, we’re focusing on the best drawing tablets for PCs and Macs.
Xencelabs Pen Tablet
This digitizer has an active area of 10.33 x 5.8 inches, giving it a 16:9 aspect ratio that matches perfectly with industry-standard monitors, making it easy to integrate into anyone’s setup. As with other digitizers, if you haven’t used one before, you will experience a bit of an adjustment period, since you’ll have to look at the monitor while wielding your stylus on a separate accessory. The drawing surface’s textured feel, however, really helps on this end, as it aids the intuitiveness of the process with its wonderful drawing feel. Seriously, it feels as natural as drawing on paper.
Instead of integrating the shortcut keys on the tablet itself, they made it a separate accessory, so you can place it at the most convenient position, eliminating those accidental presses that graphic artists have all experienced. That separate control comes with a dial and eight keys, with the dial able to switch between four modes and the keys able to switch between five different profiles. That means, you get access to 40 different shortcuts, with an integrated OLED screen automatically changing the labels, depending on the active profile. This accessory alone makes it an instant favorite among many folks. It comes with two styluses (one fat and one slim), both with 8,192 sensitivity levels and 60-degree tilt recognition, as well as the ability to work wired (via USB) or wirelessly (via an included RF dongle).
One of the most affordable pen displays out there, this graphic tablet has a 21.5-inch quantum dot display with a 1080p resolution, a 178-degree viewing angle, and a 1,200:1 contrast ratio. Yes, it’s a great display, especially with support for 100 percent of the NTSC color gamut providing a really vibrant appearance for your illustrations. The display is laminated with an etched anti-glare glass that, the outfit claims, minimizes parallax, ensuring the cursor always appear where you expect it to be, all while adding a textured feel that recreates the friction of putting pen to paper. It comes with the outfit’s battery-free PenTech 3.0 stylus, which performs on par with other drawing pens out there with its 8,192 sensitivity levels and 60-degree tilt recognition. The tablet, by the way, works with Windows, Macs, and even Android devices.
If you want a big display that’s not cumbersome to lug around, this 22-inch tablet offers a reasonably light option at 8.6 pounds, making it viable for bringing from one workspace to another. Granted, it’s still pretty big, so we won’t exactly call it portable, but the weight does still make it possible to take without much fuss compared to much heavier options in the category.
If you want a trusted digitizer with as much drawing surface as you can get, you’ll probably want to go with the large version of Wacom’s Intuos Pro. This model offers a drawing surface of 12.1 x 8.4 inches (width x height) that many seasoned pros have praised for its pure drawing feel since its first release many years ago. And yes, that feel remains one of the best to this day, even though other brands have eventually caught up with their own textured drawing surfaces.
It has a multi-touch surface, so you can use your fingers to zoom, scroll, and navigate around the application, allowing you to keep your hands off the mouse and keyboard without hindering your workflow. Instead of a dial, it uses a touch ring, which combines with eight shortcut keys for easy access to multiple functions, with support for both wired (via USB) and wireless use (over Bluetooth). It comes with the outfit’s standard Pro Pen 2, which boasts 8,192 pressure levels and even tilt recognition up to 60 degrees.
If there’s any drawback to the Intuos Pro, it’s the pricing of its competitors, as you can literally find pen displays with an even larger drawing surface at the same price or less. Of course, you’re also paying for Wacom’s reliability and, specifically, this model’s highly-held reputation among creative professionals.
This pen display gives you a 15.6-inch screen with 1080p resolution, giving you a large-enough screen to see your work with a good amount of detail without taking up too much of your workspace. It offers a generous selection of features, too, making it suitable for both beginners and seasoned professionals alike. The display is lag-free (or so close to it, you won’t notice any delay), so every line and dot you create with the stylus is reflected immediately, with the onscreen cursor appearing exactly where you would expect it to at all times. An anti-glare coating on the same display eliminates reflections and even adds a level of friction that further accentuates the paper-like feel, while foldable legs let you set it down at an incline angle for a more comfortable drawing posture.
The tablet comes with a Wacom Pro Pen 2, allowing you to enjoy a drawing experience that feels natural and very intuitive. It comes with shortcut keys all the way along the rear edge, ensuring you won’t accidentally trigger any of them while you wax creative on the display. If you have more room in your desk, Wacom offers the same pen display in bigger sizes (e.g. up to 32 inches), although from our experience, the 16-incher is the ideal option if you want the best balance between features and portability.
Want a larger pen display, but want something a little more affordable than Wacom’s larger Cintiq Pros? Check out this largest model from XP-PEN, which gives you a 23.8-inch screen with a QHD (2560 x 1440) resolution. With an active area of 20.74 x 11.67 inches, it offers plenty of space to work your stylus, with striking details and vibrant colors (it supports 90 percent of Adobe’s RGB gamut) allowing you to see your illustrations in gorgeous fashion. It’s incredibly accurate, with fast response times that make drawing on the tablet feel very natural, while the textured film overlay eliminates glare while providing a textured surface that make drawing feel more satisfying. Since it uses QHD resolution natively, you will probably need to calibrate it with your display to avoid pixelation issues, although once you’ve set everything up, everything should work pretty seamlessly. It comes with a PA2 stylus, which boasts 8,192 pressure levels and tilt recognition up to 60 degrees, along with a fancy case and some spare nibs.
It has 20 customizable shortcut keys and two dials, evenly distributed between the left and right sides, making it suitable for both left- and right-handed users alike, along with an integrated stand that can prop it up between 16 to 90 degrees. Of course, that 24 inches of screen real estate makes for one big device, which is why the darn thing weighs over 15 pounds, so this is the kind of accessory you leave in the office or studio, rather than bring with you regularly.