Why is Digital Drawing Harder than Drawing on Paper?

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There is no end to the number of people looking to migrate to digital drawing. It opens up a whole new world of tools, features, and capabilities that simply are not available on paper. It also cuts down drastically on the amount of time it takes to come up with a masterpiece. While a drawing may take dozens of hours if done on paper, it may take significantly less than 10 if done on a digital drawing tablet.

And yet the fact is the transition is not as smooth as many hope it will be. If you’ve tried to transition to digital drawing and discovered your drawing looked like a toddlers, or at least much worse than it did on paper, then you’re not alone.

A lot of people find digital drawing harder than paper, especially if they’re coming from a traditional drawing background. In this article, we’re going to look into that and find out exactly why that is so, and how to make digital drawings feel more like paper.

How different is digital drawing from actual drawing?

First, let’s get a sense of how, exactly, digital drawing is different from traditional paper drawing. 

Paper drawing involves pen and paper. Of course this isn’t always true. You may use a medium other than paper to your drawing, including canvas, wood, and even a plain wall. You may also use a pencil, which is far more commonly used than a pen, or charcoal, or various paintbrushes, or even your fingers.

The point is that traditional drawing is highly tactile. You can feel the texture of the canvas beneath you as you draw and feedback is immediate. The drawing comes to life, not purely by virtue of your hand movements, or your hand-eye co-ordination, or some quality of the medium on which you are drawing, but by a combination of all of these.

It is almost like you, your pencil or brush, and the paper or canvas are having some kind of conversation, and the resultant drawing is the embodiment of that conversation.

We know, that sounds like a very vague and hand-wavy description, but that’s because it’s hard to describe traditional drawing in dry and precise terms. A lot of it is about how it feels, rather than anything concrete that’s happening.

There’s probably also something more natural about it. Humans have been drawing on surfaces for as long as we’ve been humans. Drawings that are thousands of years old can be found in almost every part of the world. This stuff is in our genes!

Digital drawing is a little different. For starters, the hand-eye coordination is significantly different from what you have with paper. With paper, you can see the drawing beneath your hand. With a graphics tablet, you can’t. You have to keep your eyes on the computer screen even as your hand moves around on the tablet.

This changes with a display tablet, of course, since you can now see the drawing underneath you. However, with that there is the added problem of texture. Drawing on a display tablet is just smooth surface on smooth surface. This is not the same as the distinct friction you feel when you put a pencil to paper. 

However, there are more meaningful differences between drawing digitally and doing it on paper. The tools available to you increase dramatically when you’re drawing digitally. You can undo, zoom, and even put different elements of your drawing on different layers in order to edit them individually.

You also don’t have to worry about blending textures since you can do it perfectly in a digital medium. On paper, things are a lot rougher. And that’s why it takes a longer time to make traditional drawings than making the equivalent digitally.

Why is it more difficult?

The truth is, most people who come from a traditional drawing background find digital drawing more difficult than traditional drawing. Your drawings just don’t look as good anymore. It almost feels like you’re learning to draw all over again.

Part of this has to do with the fact that drawing digitally is just different. The hand-eye coordination, for example, is all different. If you’re drawing on a graphics tablet, you shouldn’t be looking at the tablet as you draw, but rather the computer screen. 

It can also have to do with the texture. If feeling the friction between your pencil or brush with the paper or canvas matters to you, the smooth feel of a graphics or display tablet can be disorienting at the beginning. It certainly takes a while to get used to. 

But more importantly it could be that digital drawing is exposing weaknesses in your drawing work that you would never have been able to see with traditional drawing. Quite often works that look perfect on paper look odd on digital mediums. The proportions might not be right or the spatial accuracy is off and so on.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, digital drawing can sometimes show you just how much you needed to learn that you might not have learned with paper drawing. 

But for the most part, digital drawing is more difficult to someone coming from a traditional drawing background because it’s just different. Digital drawing is more difficult to learn than traditional drawing much like riding a motorcycle is more difficult than riding a bicycle. You have a lot of new tools to learn and a lot of new settings to fine tune and, as any motorcyclist will gladly tell you, the physical sensation isn’t quite the same. It takes some getting used to. 

Should I learn on paper or on a drawing tablet first?

We’re afraid we don’t have a hard and fast answer for this one. It really all depends. If you go straight for digital drawing as your first drawing medium, you’ll probably get used to it faster than someone who started out on paper, however you might find it difficult transitioning to paper later on.

If you ever find yourself without your drawing tablet, with nothing but pencil and paper, you may get the sensation that you’re a beginner again. But then again, that’s arguably not going to happen. Is it?

On the other hand, if you’re coming from a traditional drawing background, it may take a while to get used to digital drawing. However, paper does give you a lot of grounding in learning such things as form, proportions, and other spatial relationships. Because of how involving drawing on paper is, you get a very good sense of these.

They sort of just get integrated into your muscle memory. It’s much easier to work with novel situations then, or draw things purely from your imagination, whether you’re working digitally or traditionally.

How to make digital drawing feel more like paper

There are two pieces of advice we can give here to help you get used to digital drawing if you’re coming from a paper background:

  1. If you’re planning to draw something digitally, sketch it on paper first. You can then scan it and import it into the software on which you’re working. From there it’s all about tracing over the lines and fine tuning things. 
  2. Alternatively, you can just get paper and tape it over the graphics tablet. This only works for graphics tablets, though, and not for display tablets on which you can see what you’re drawing on the tablet. If you tape paper to the graphics tablet you can draw without losing the sensation of drawing on paper. It’s a nice way to wean yourself off of paper drawing as you make the transition to the digital world.

Conclusion

Digital drawing certainly involves a learning curve, and there are things about it that are qualitatively different than drawing on paper.

That doesn’t mean it’s worse. It just means it’s different. Take the time and have the patience to learn, just you did when you embarked on your journey through traditional art.

You will find that, once you get the hang of it, digital drawing is just as rewarding as, if not more than traditional drawing. 

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