Digital Drawing vs. Drawing on Paper

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If you’re planning to grow as an artist, then at some point you’ll have to consider trying out digital art and working with a drawing tablet. At the very least, if you want to be a concept artist, you can hardly survive without it.

But how does digital drawing compare to traditional drawing? Is the switch worth it? How do the two differ from each other on a fundamental level? This article is going to go in-depth, comparing the two artistic media so that you have a good idea of what to expect from your transition to digital media.

How different is digital drawing from actual drawing?

The first thing you’ll notice when you try digital drawing is that it’s way better than traditional drawing for painting. Digital drawing exposes you to a world of options for color choices as well as paintbrushes, not to mention the ability to superimpose different layers and undo your work gives you god-level power over your art work.

Of course there’s also the fact that digital drawing interfaces well with design software like Photoshop, which give you even more power on top of the power you already have.

But this is assuming you are deft at digital drawing. There is a huge learning curve that you have to overcome before you achieve that god-level power to use digital drawing. It takes time to get used to the pressure points and sensitivity of a graphics or display tablet

In particular, if you’re using a graphics tablet, you’ll have to take some time to get used to watching the screen as you draw, rather than the surface on which you’re drawing. This may seem like a simple change but it isn’t.

The default method of drawing that humans have got accustomed to literally since we started drawing on cave walls at the dawn of humanity is looking at the canvas on which we are working. Drawing with a graphics tablet forces you to abandon that paradigm, which is as good as built into your bones. That can take a while for some. 

Our advice is to not give up if you realize it’s really hard at the beginning. Remember that you’re essentially trying to fight your ingrained instincts. In the words of Coldplay, “Nobody said it was easy…”

It gets a little easier if you have a tablet display with an LCD screen. In that case, you can stare at the tablet as you draw on it. This will still take a bit of time to learn but it will take a much shorter time than learning on a graphics calculator. 

There are, of course, lots of tips and tricks you can use to make the learning journey easier, and we have talked about these in a couple of other articles.

These include stuff like taping paper on the surface of the tablet to emulate a traditional drawing surface and sketching your work on traditional paper, scanning it, and then doing a touch-up digitally.

These work, but you will have to work too, no matter what tips and tricks you apply. After a while it will all start to sink in and feel more natural to you.

Pros & cons of going digital

Pros

You don’t have to do any scanning – In case you’re doing lots of concept art, or need to touch up your work digitally before production, digital drawing will save you the extra step of having to scan your work. You’ll be creating your art in the same space that you’ll be touching it up and presenting it later, so it’s more convenient.

Digital drawing presents more possibilities – Remember when we said that digital drawing gives you god-level power? Well, we weren’t overstating it. The possibilities with digital drawing are almost literally endless. You can scale your drawings, move them, edit them, and choose from millions of colors. You can include sketches, reference pictures, and all sorts of other things that, while convenient, would take too long to do traditionally. 

The ability to undo – Yet another major advantage of digital drawing over traditional drawing is that you can cleanly undo your mistakes. You can’t press an undo button on paper. Your best bet is erasing your mistakes (not necessarily cleanly), drawing over them, or starting over on a fresh canvas.

Die-hard fans of traditional drawing might say that this difficulty is a feature, rather than a bug, for many reasons, but they cannot deny that the ability to undo is at least a massive boon for speed when working. 

Digital drawing is faster – Speaking of speed, digital drawing allows you to work much faster than you would if you were drawing on paper. What would take several hours on paper will take you half the time or less on a tablet if you know what you’re doing. This speed and momentum proves invaluable when you start working on larger and more complex projects. 

Cons

Digital drawing can be slower – we know, it seems a little strange that speed would be both a pro and a con of digital drawing. However, note that we said digital drawing drastically reduces the time required to do something if you know what you’re doing. If you’re still not adept with digital drawing it can seriously slow down your workflow compared to traditional drawing. 

Another dark side to digital drawing is how much it encourages you to nitpick. Since you can zoom in and edit incessantly, you just might find yourself obsessing over details that you wouldn’t have obsessed over had you been working on paper. 

Remember that you’ll also be working digitally, which puts you one step closer to attention black holes like Twitter, YouTube, and many others. Of course, since we live in the age of the smartphone, you’re just as prone to procrastinating with traditional drawing since you can check your phone.

But note that you can at least put your phone in the next room when you’re drawing on paper. You can’t put away your computer or tablet when you’re doing digital drawing. In some cases, you can’t even turn off the internet, depending on the nature of your work.

All of these factors can add up to make you slower on a digital medium than you would otherwise be on paper.

Cost – Paper and other paraphernalia used in traditional drawing are very cheap compared to the cost of digital media, from the graphics and drawing tablets to the licensing costs of some digital art software.

Graphics tablets are way cheaper, but they come with a steep learning curve. Drawing tablets, which are easier to work with and far more versatile, are also far more costly. It really is an investment.

There is a mobility issue with digital drawing – You can go to the park with a sketchbook and draw the afternoon away. You can’t do that with a graphics tablet, and even with a drawing tablet you’re limited to its battery life. 

Sketchbooks can also be really large. There is a limit to how large a tablet can realistically be while still being portable.

You can lose your work sometimes – If you forget to periodically save your work, or at least turn ‘Autosave’ on, a sudden hardware malfunction or loss of power could mean losing all your work.  You don’t have to worry about that with paper, unless you spill coffee on it or something. That said, your work will likely last longer saved in digital form than in physical form, unless you’re doing oil on canvas.

A bit of the authenticity of ‘original artwork’ is lost – There is only one original Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. Each of Van Gogh’s or Picasso’s works have only one original copy, and that is what makes them so valuable. There is exclusivity to having the only original copy of something.

How do you do that with a digital work of art? There is no ‘original’ since to sell it you would just make copies and each of them would be just as ‘authentic’ or as ‘original’ as what you first worked on. It arguably cheapens the end-result.

A solution to this, of course, is digital rights management. Having the work attributed to you puts the spotlight on you, the artist, as opposed to the work of art, and you might be able to extract a lot more value there.

Advantages of traditional drawing

While we’re obviously arguing for digital drawing, there are also lots of perks to traditional drawing.

Perhaps the greatest one is that traditional drawing doesn’t make you dependent on electricity. All you need is a sketchbook and a pencil. You can draw anywhere. You can draw on the peak of Mt. Everest if you want, though we wouldn’t advise it. Can you take a graphics tablet with you to the peak of Mt. Everest and draw with it?

Another perk of traditional drawing is that you learn to draw more ‘deeply’ if you start there. It’s easy to think you’re making large leaps of progress if you pick up digital drawing before traditional drawing. Digital drawing gives you a lot of powers that traditional drawing doesn’t, and so it might fill in some blanks that you didn’t even know existed. 

Traditional drawing really forces you to learn, and so offers a firmer foundation than digital drawing. Transitioning from traditional drawing to digital drawing is actually much easier than transitioning from digital drawing to traditional drawing, even with all the difficulty it entails.

If you’re still a beginner, we would encourage you to first start with traditional drawing and learn the basics. These will carry over well into digital drawing, and will give you a wealth of skills that you won’t lose when the lights go out.

Similarities

Of course both media will still involve working with a pencil or pen, so dexterity is paramount. You also need to know the basics of drawing to do anything meaningful.

Digital drawing will shield you somewhat, but to do really remarkable artwork you still have to be a good artist.

Above all, however, being good at both requires patience, determination, and consistency.

Summary

And with that we think we’ve covered the main points of comparison of the two drawing media. As you can see, each medium has its strong and weak points, and neither is 100% superior.

Think of them not as rivals but tools that enhance your capabilities as an artist.

For some further reading we have an article on drawings tablets vs laptops here.

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