About the 2020 remake of this article: For the ten-year anniversary of this article (originally published on April 11, 2010) I decided to rewrite it. I also made new artworks and published them in higher quality. Over the years, I've been super-happy to see this article republished on big CG portals and printed on CG magazines; the artworks were even republished by Wacom on their blog! Recently, I had a request for another repost, but after re-reading the article, I felt it was totally obsolete and not really in sync with what I'm thinking now... Since 2010 many things have happened: the first Ipad-like tablets with styluses have come out, the historical monopoly of Wacom was breached after their patent for battery-less stylus expired, competition could finally start in the tablet market, many new models came out (Huion/XpPen/etc...), and tablet computers with a pen are cheaper to buy and more and more common on the desks of artists. So this update was more than necessary. I hope you'll enjoy reading it.
The perfect graphics tablet doesn't exist. But you'll eventually adapt to the weird specifications and ergonomics issues of your tablet model and make it perfect for you. This adaptation of your body to the ergonomics flaws of your hardware will have an impact on your health in the long run. It might also affect the pleasure you take in drawing and painting...
Since 2002, I have bought and used a lot of tablets in an attempt to build the best setup I could. This was necessary for my comfort; I was doing digital painting all day. Nowaday, my quest for the best tablet continues, as the technology keeps evolving year after year. If you want to read more about what I've used and why, read my maintained "Tablet history log" article, from 2002 to today. But beyond the choice of the hardware itself, I've also studied other aspects of my setup. The first aspect that comes to mind is the ergonomics of my desktop position. So, let me share my experiences on ergonomics with you.
Disclaimer: I'm not a professional ergonomist, I'm not working in the health-care industry and I wrote this article from the humble point of view of a digital painter who happens to have painted almost daily with digital graphics tablets since 2002. This article is just based on my personal experience, it contains all my biasses and should be read as the testimony of a random artist on the internet. I wrote it and share it because I want to make it useful for other artists struggling with the same questions. This article doesn't have the seriousness of something like a scientific study made on a large group with solid statistics. If you find a paper like that, please write it in the comments, I'll be very interested and will certainly read it.
General thoughts about other input devices
I guess I'm not the only CG artist who uses a lot of keyboard shortcuts to speed up my workflow. Vendors and designers of graphics tablets clearly understood that, and started to add more and more buttons on their products to give easier access to more custom shortcuts. Isn't this a sort of confession that graphic tablets are designed without thinking of a good access to the keyboard? But in the last couple of years, tablets vendors have started to innovate in other directions and have sometimes added tiny devices that look like remote controls (a), or just added more buttons (b), or removed all physical buttons and proposed a virtual keyboard with touch interface (c). I'm not sure which setup will become dominant.
The evolution of buttons on tablets
On their side, digital artists started to use other devices in addition to tablets: gamepads, one-handed gaming keyboards, customisable keyboards. But even with this research for better accessibility of keyboard shortcuts, such sets of additional keys and devices will never replace the flexibility and completeness of having a full keyboard under one hand, in my humble point of view. It is especially noticable if you like to chat while painting, write notes, reply to emails, add descriptions in your artwork or browse for references on the web while you are working. For all these tasks, you'll need a full keyboard.
Unfortunately, a large tablet (with a display built-in or not) tends to land on the desk in the exact place where the keyboard usually is. So, there is a conflict; a competition between the two input devices that's really hard to solve. Vendors of tablets haven't put a lot of thought into this topic yet. The latter part of this article will consider the importance of having good access to the keyboard for this reason.
It is tempting to think graphics tablets can fully replace computer mice. Sure they can. But for some workflows or games it is not always the case or the most convenient way to use the software. In many situations, a mouse will be more steady and precise and so the workflow will be faster using it. A lot of software is developed with the features of a classical mouse in mind (e.g. the mouse wheel and mouse wheel click to zoom/pan). That's why I think it is necessary to keep an extra mouse on the desk.
Stylus versus Mouse? And why not both.
Note about old tablets: Before 2010 many tablets −such as the Wacom Graphire 3− had a mouse delivered in the package. This mouse only reacted to the active surface of the tablet. This trend was abandoned and I can understand why: the mouse had to be removed from the active surface area each time the user switched between the pen and the mouse. I had two models like that; the built-in mouse was neglected in favor of a classic mouse connected to the system. I never used it.
1. Large graphics tablets
Large classic graphics tablets (without a built-in monitor) are certainly the most precise and comfortable from a technical point of view. But the number of large classic models available is decreasing and they are gradually disappearing from the market. It's a shame because in the last five years, monitors went bigger and higher-resolution for a cheaper price. The same tendency should have been followed in tablets, with the emergence of new large graphics tablets with high resolutions. But that's not been the case.
Around 2000, a "1024x768px 15inch CRT" display paired with a medium tablet was a good match. Nowaday, it would be hard to use the same size of tablet on one of our modern wide "FullHD 1920x1080px 21inch display" (and I'm not even talking about the 24inch, 27inch, quadHD, or 4K resolution which are become in cheaper and more and more common). In this context, for modern users of PC on desktop with a large external monitor, adopting a large tablet makes sense for better control of the pointer on the monitor. Indeed, if you draw a coin-sized circle on your small tablet and it displays as a huge balloon on your monitor, you'll feel you have no control over painting details. You can imagine how you'll struggle to draw a little eye or a detail. It will always be possible but you'll have to zoom a lot to balance your hardware's precision issues.
But large tablets have also a lot of cons. The first one is their price and the second one is the room they will take on your desk.
a) Large tablet, on the side
The first place people usually put their new large graphics tablet is beside their keyboard, like a mouse pad. This position stresses and hurts the arm and shoulder. But this position might be good enough if your main task is typing text and you'll need the tablet only once or twice a day. I saw this position being used by the people convinced the graphics tablet should replace the mouse. Vendors of graphics tablets have run commercial campaigns promoting the tablet as a healthier replacement for the mouse. For someone with repetative stress injury from mouse overuse, a tablet can be indeed a good option. While visiting studios of 3D artists and video editors, I often saw this type of layout on desks. At the end of the day, I don't advise it unless you need a large tablet and have problems with mice.
b) Large tablet, centered
One solution is to put the graphics tablet in the center of the desk and your keyboard off to the left. Having the active surface of your tablet aligned to your display in this way allows comfortable motion and increases your ability to paint for hours. But if you need to reach the keyboard too often, this layout can quickly become a pain. It will force you to twist your back to face the keyboard, even if it's only a slight angle, and you'll have to counterrotate your neck to look at your monitor. Also many useful keyboard shortcuts (eg. Ctrl+Z, Ctrl, Ctrl+S, Shift) are located on the left part of the keyboard. I wouldn't advice a position like that either.
c) A tray for the keyboard (or keyboard on lap)
To keep the keyboard easy to reach, a reasonable solution is to adopt one of these trays you can screw under any type of desk (except if your desk is made of glass) to get a keyboard that can be mounted under the desk. The cheap alternative is to put the keyboard on your lap. I have this setup but I'm not a fan; this position makes it difficult to write on the keyboard.
d) Curved desk
Adopting a curved desk with a swivel chair improves the situation a lot compared to (b). By mapping devices closely all around you, you can avoid twisting your back or extending your arm too much. You'll also benefit from having a part of the desk to rest your arm on. I had this setup for a month while I was working at a studio and it was working really well. One of the problems with a curved desk is that they are often big, deep, and corner desks, which need to be placed in a corner of your room. I can't get one for use at home for this reason.
e) The keyboard on top of the tablet
My favorite layout, the one I've been using for years, requires a little bit of DIY. First, the monitor needs to float on one of those horizontal metal arms. That way you'll have room to put more things under the monitor (you won't be blocked by the monitor's stand). For the typing/keyboard position: place your keyboard on the far side of your tablet. To protect the fragile surface of your tablet from scratches, you'll need to glue little sticky pads under your keyboard (usually made for putting under furniture, sold in DIY stores). The keyboard will glide more easily this way, too, switching between positions with just one movement. Then the last piece of the installation is a thick book or a plank of wood on the far side of your big graphics tablet, right under the display (not shown in the figure below, I forgot it). It will be an area for you to push the keyboard or to grab it when you need to type something. The keyboard will remain also accessible for using shortcuts while painting.
2. Small/Medium graphics tablets
These graphics tablets generally have a smaller price and a smaller active area (and still no built-in monitor). They are of course less precise than the larger tablets. Tablet vendors try a wide variety of attractive designs, and optimizations to create cheap products. That's why so many small/medium tablets exist on the market. with a wide spectrum of quality and design. There are not more of them because they are better, but just because they are much cheaper. They are often coonsidered entry-level tables, for all sorts of consumers (and many digital artists started this way, me included). With a desktop computer, the ergonomics of small graphics tablets are usually better than those of larger tablets.
Here is how I prefer to use this size of graphics tablet: I rotate my whole body, putting my body's axis at an angle to the edge of the desk. This gives me a large spot to rest my elbow. I can paint for longer periods this way. You can note that while it was problematic to keep a large tablet (a)(b) on the side of the keyboard, it isn't a problem for a smaller tablet.
g) Curved desk
Here again, as in (d), adopting a curved desk will improve the ergonomics of your workspace a lot.
3. Laptops, mobility and travel
The users of graphics tablets often need to travel to another place to work. This means they often require a mobile way to work. A laptop can be used on the transit, at the desk of a client, in front of a classroom or during a conference... Graphic-tablet vendors don't have much by way to creative solutions for this use-case. Only one innovation on the market has really changed everything: tablets with built-in computer and display.
h) The impossible match
Using a laptop and large tablet is hell and often doesn't work at all. I know it sounds obvious, but it's something to consider while buying a large tablet: it isn't really mobile-friendly.
i) The small tablet: flexibility
Working with a laptop and a small tablet is not that bad and can work in a lot of situations. Small tablets are usually also made in A4/Letter size, same as standard EU/US paper. This is great because it makes them compatible with many bags, so there are more packing options for travelling with them.
You can prevent pain in this setup by putting it at a slight angle with the desk. I taught in the classroom with a setup like this (when the desk had enough room) and I did a lot of public demos this way, too.
Another layout I enjoy using. I can cover the touch-pad of the laptop with the tablet, and align it with the monitor.
j) During travel
Little graphics tablets can be useful on a plane or a train. They are flexible enough to be used on this type of temporary and uncomfortable situation. But believe me, utilizing a long 5h train trip by completing a full artwork on the way feels very rewarding.
The setup above (with laptop and graphics tablet stacked) will hopefully soon be something from the past. Many touch tablets with styluses have appeared on the market, and they offer much better ergonomics.
I'm rarely excited by these devices because I dislike all mobile operating systems in general and I dislike typing on touch devices. But maybe my feelings will change as the technology develops. I'm hating using my phone less and less, so maybe the user experience on touch tablets will also improve. Meanwhile, if you have the room for it, I still would advise using touch tablets with an external keyboard.
4. Large graphics tablets with integral displays
The big models of pen tablets with integral displays all have the same big ergonomics issues. I've owned or tested a lot of tablets with a display over the years. While the technology hasn't changed a lot for the classic graphics tablets, the specifications of the graphics tablets with a display have changed a lot over the years (thanks to the monitor, phone and tablet industries; I remember the first Ipad was released in 2010...). These graphics tablets allow working directly on the surface and the sync between the hands and the eyes is better. They make gesture drawing easier and give more precision for line art and drawing.
When large tablets with an integral display first appeared on the market, they were very expensive devices. Nowadays they only cost a third of what what they cost around 2005. The problems of these devices: there may be noticable parallax (apparent distance between the tip of your stylus and the image on the screen), your hand might get warm on some areas of the devices, leading to sticky hands and your having to wear a glove (a side effect of having an electric monitor under the palm), the surface of the tablet is rarely able to offer a good texture (vendors and designers often have to choose between getting a slightly blurry image with textured feeling for the stylus, or a crystal-clear image with too-smooth glass), the surface is fragile (dirt trapped between the stylus and the surface can scratch it) and it's harder and more expensive to replace the overlay-sheet on a display tablet than on a classic tablet.
k) A tilted surface: a three-dimensional issue
The surface of the tablet will always be tilted like an easel: it's rare to get a big model flat enough to use as you would use a large sheet of paper, flat on the desk. So you have to use the built-in stand provided with the tablet, which is often designed mainly to be used in only two positions: an easel-like position with more or less slope (but with the lower edge always too high above your desk, compared to the thickness of a sketchbook) and a vertical-like position to use the tablet as a monitor. This angle makes it harder to access to a keyboard on the side, so it is useless to place a keyboard there.
l) Keyboard on top
Because the surface is tilted, you also can't put the keyboard over the surface. You'll have to buy a dedicated rig for that (in orange on the figure below). Third-party vendors suggest this, but it's never proposed by the vendors of tablets themselves. I think a built-in solution, designed as part of a big display tablet, would be great.
m) Keyboard underneath
Placing the keyboard on your lap −often meaning under the desk− is one bad possibility as it will put more distance between you and the surface. Putting the keyboard between you nad the tablet is another variation that might work.
n) Dual positions
With a wheeled chair, it is possible to have two setups side-by-side, connected to the same computer. On one side, a large pen display; on the other, a monitor with a keyboard and a small graphics tablet. This way, you can use the large pen display just for the long hours of painting.
o) The big DIY
One of the best ways to use a large pen tablet is to cut a hole in the desk (a drawing table) and merge the surface of it flush with the table/desk. This is a rare setup, but one I saw among many professional manga artists. This video (in Japanese) by artist Yoshikadu shows step-by-step insturctions for making a complex rig like that. Impressive!
Note about touch devices: I've never tried the very large pen tablet displays with 'touch' on-screen virtual keyboards. My feeling about them are mixed; while I can see that having a keyboard in the corner of your screen could solve many ergonomics issues, I'm still not fond of typing or gaming on touch keyboards, and I find virtual keyboards are still inferior to physical buttons...
5. Small graphics tablets with display
Small graphics tablets with a display are usually cheaper than the larger models but also flatter. This detail changes a lot of things because you can use them as you would use a sketchbook or a sheet of paper on your desk. They can often also be used as with an external monitor, mimicking a classic graphics tablet. This hybrid setup often offers the best of both worlds, when managed correctly.
p) The hybrid setup
A small graphics tablets with a display is often as large as a "large classic tablet" (without display). A 13 inch or 15-16 inch might be as large as a "large" classic model. By using them with the picture on the monitor cloned to the main tablet display, it's possible to get a hybrid workflow. You can get the tablet and keyboard ergonomics of a classic large tablet, and also get the bonus possibility of looking at the tablet for more precise drawings.
As I said in the intro, the perfect graphics tablet doesn't exist, and the best way for you to find one that suits your body and lifestyle may well be to try a lot of them. But I also want to insist that we all have bodies and habits that can adapt: a not-so-comfortable tablet, too smooth and too large, might still become your best hardware and best tool if you take the effort to commit to painting hours and hours on it. I, too, work this way.
So, if you already own a tablet, take care of it, whatever model it is; it can produce your next masterpiece. Just understand it, and with only what you find around yourself, and a bit of DIY, you can build and optimize a better environment, and enjoy your painting time longer. I hope this article inspired you to take a bit more care over your work position and think about it more. If you want to share your experience and continue the discussion, you're welcome in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
- All artwork (Inkscape source for the asset) examples were drawn with a male figure, right-handed. It wasn't designed to exclude all other genders and left-handed artists, I'm sure you'll get it and understand how to adapt this example to your situation.
- As I'm French, my English is far from good enough to write an article like this. If you notice some mistakes and want to contribute improvements, feel free to grab the source file of this article (link under, markdown file), correct it, and send me back by email with your corrections.
- 2022-03-07: English correction pass, thanks Hjenkins!
- 2020-09-16: Proofreading pass, thanks Yorwba and Chris K.!
- 2020-09-13: For the ten years, refactor of the article (artworks and text).
- 2010-08-04: Proofreading pass, thanks Slug45!
- 2010-04-11: Original release date of the article.