Traditional vs Digital Debate (in my own head)

Cartoonists can be so finicky. Every one of us has our necessities, our favorite pen or pencil brand, the thickness or tooth to the paper we draw on, or the must-have computer application.. and none other will do! Don’t even try to persuade us to change. We like what we like.

I understand, I do. But I also take a piece of advice that I got back in college very seriously; my illustration professor, if you finally were able to impress him with your latest piece, would say “nicely done… now, don’t get comfortable.” He was a firm believer that part of being an artist is to try new things and not get yourself stuck in a rut or churning out the same old stuff. If your goal was to find a style or technique that would make him happy and just coast, you were going about this the wrong way. I think there’s truth to that.

That said, what I want to touch on is a common transition a lot of us are making: traditional mediums to mostly or even fully digital. I’m not talking about the print vs. web debate… in the end most of our work will appear in both mediums anyway. I am talking about how we create, how we bring our characters to life in short-form stories. Some cartoonists, including myself, are totally willing to take the plunge and go digital, if only for efficiency reasons. Others need the feel of pen to paper to get the full enjoyment out of drawing comics. In the end, it SHOULD be fun, that’s the #1 priority of making comics… if it’s not, you need to reevaluate why you’re in the field. When making this decision, it’s always best to weigh the pros and cons… and that’s what I’m here for:

Pros to switching to digital comic creation

  • general efficiency- no waiting for ink to dry, erasing pencil lines, etc.
  • no scanner & patchwork headaches (unless you are still sketching by hand)
  • for the most part, it’s a faster process
  • if created in vector format, size can be easily increased without loss of quality
  • clutter control- no piles of inked comics taking up space
  • eco-friendly (minus the power used). less paper wasted
  • less art-store trips, since paper and pencils are not needed


Cons to switching to digital comic creation

  • The cost of a Tablet PC Laptop, Intuos Tablet or wacom tablet (can range from $100 to $2000… or even more)
  • missing the feel of pen to paper, if that’s a love of yours
  • lack of portability on a wacom tablet or Intuos tablet. Glued to a desktop!
  • No original strips to sell!
  • Possible decrease in quality of your artwork, if you have a more detailed style. It’s hard to make your comic look hand-made and not digital, if that’s your goal.
  • The expense of high-end software like Adobe, that works better with the latest technology like tablets.
  • having to use a font. Some cartoonists swear by hand-written text!


I may have missed some, but these are the main reasons I weighed in my decision to switch from pen and ink and scanners, to buying a Tablet PC and going 100% digital. The pros outweighed the cons, for me. However, I realized that a lot of the cons do not apply to me personally: my style translates very well to vector lines, the Tablet I bought was under $1000 and my generous mother and grandfather helped me with that, and I already used a font as I have sloppy handwriting. I can honestly say I do not miss pen and paper. That’s how natural using the Tablet’s screen is for me; the disconnect when using a regular wacom tablet was annoying, but drawing directly on the screen solved that issue. The only issue I have come across is not having original strips to sell. I am not sure, however, how much that will affect me in the end.  Sure, I could print a high quality glossy of a comic, and sign it, but it’s just not the same.

Every artist is different, as is what makes drawing comics “fun” to each individual. There is certainly no fail-safe answer to this debate, and I do not intend to persuade you. Weigh the pros and and see what decision best suits you, your style, your goals as a cartoonist!

For further analysis of my technique and its evolution, you can check out this article. I certainly have come a long way, baby.

Posted in Drawing, Helpful Hints and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. I’ve been debating about whether or not to go digital with my own stuff, but I don’t feel I have as much control over a stylus as I do a pencil. Plus, I do tend to sell off my original art.

    I have to wonder if the (potential) tradeoff in speed would compensate for lost income. Still, making changes in a jiffy is much easier (ever have to scrap an entire panel?! Yikes!)

    For now, it’s hand drawn line art and digital “painting” in Photoshop.

  2. I went digital almost out of necessity. I had to turn my art studio into a baby nursery, so I no longer had a drawing table or any space for my supplies. I was able to get a Wacom on the cheap, so it really just made sense to switch to digital. I’ve been really enjoying it, and I think the quality of my comic is increasing.

    There are times when I miss the traditional route, but now that I’ve made the switch there’s no looking back!

    • I use a Gateway PC laptop tablet with wacom technology (you draw right on the pressure-sensitive screen a la the cintiq).. it beats the hell out of the wacom tablet IMO.. that disconnect just sucked the fun out of inking for me! For around $800 (now), and portable, it’s a great investment! As ong as you can deal with Windows over a Mac ;0)

      But glad to hear you enjoy the wacom and it’s improved your comic! Anything that make life more efficient and improves your art, I say GREAT!

      • I couldn’t live without my Mac, and since I use a Cintiq, I can definitely live without the tablet! And you’re right Dawn – based on your other comment – seeing what you’re drawing on the screen is night and day comparatively.

      • Like I said, I was able to get a GREAT deal on that Wacom, used from a professor where I go to grad school. If not for that, I’m not sure if I could have afforded it at all. However, when the time comes for me to get a new computer, I’ll keep that tablet PC laptop in mind, Dawn! I could make the switch to PC if it helps me and the price is right.

  3. I still do half and half…draw my sketches and pencils on sketchbooks and then scan it into PS for digital inks, colors, effects & letters. I find I still cannot match my pencil skills, which far exceed my inking skills, both traditional & digital, but would love to borrow a cintiq to see if the “feel” is any better or the inking improves.

    Like Matt Stout, I had to give up my studio to let my daughter have her own room when she was born. I don’t have the luxury of a room dedicated to my creation zone, but I do have a corner of the living room that is my micro studio. I put my laptop on the drawing table with my wacom tablet, but find it so very restricting as far as room to draw, that I can’t spend too much time there. Also, the pencil catch on the drawing table, wears a line in my arm, pinching the nerve to the point my left arm tingles after a while of working. This also gets in the way of supply storage. If you were to see my work area, it is soooooo cluttered with storage boxes and papers on chairs, it is an eyesore (which gives my wife endless grief). I even had to put a filing cabinet out in the kitchen along with an all-in-one inkjet. True, my home office space is larger and at tax time helps out, but for the sheer comfort, there is none, which hits an artist mentally. How can they look forward to working when it is just so uncomfortable to do so?
    It would probably benefit me to go 100% digital so I would cut back on storage space for the originals (I still have original bristol boards of Willow’s Grove from the 90’s & early to mid 2000’s which number well near 300, plus the sketchbooks for scripts & pencils for the past two years that WG has been back on the internet and am slowly running out of places to stack all this stuff on) but until my digital sketches match (if they ever do) my traditional pencil skills with the feel and line I produce (of course, this all comes back to the comfort and room that I have…if I could comfortably sit for hours without nerve or butt damage, I could practice a whole lot more and bring my digital skills up to par with my traditional ones), I will have to keep it 50-50.

    • Karl! Yes, a comfortable workspace is key to doing any type of work at home. I have modified my desk by putting towels and extra mousepads where my arms lean against the desk as I draw. I also wear a fingerless glove on my drawing hand to help it slide across the tablet’s surface. Flesh can stick slowing you down or making it uneven, this way I get a clean stroke. This is a good idea even when working in traditional materials as in my old drafting days I’d come home with the side of my right hand covered in pencil as it slid across the drawings.

      I also found that having a towel under my right arm kept it warmer as the cool desk surface was actually giving me arthritic pains believe it or not. So I can associate with the pinching of the nerve comment. If anything is distracting you, it effects your work for sure.

      We do what we gotta do. Today, I work in the basement as all my sons live with us now and I have to give up my office space upstairs. Bums…

      • I use a Smudgeguard ( which is basically the same thing as a fingerless glove except it has “fingers” for your pinky and thumb. It is made of a material that literally glides over the tablet surface so there isn’t any flesh sticks. When I first started using my tablet, I used a sock with holes cut in the toe to slide my fingers through. Next I used a batting glove and a golf glove, but when I heard of the Smudgeguard, I bought one and it has lasted me nearly 2 years. Another thing I didn’t mention is the fact that I have to hunch over to reach the table while sitting in the chair as there are more plastic storage bins under the art desk, so not only am I having to lean on the pencil catch (and I have used pillows, towels, mousepads, you name it, but it still wears on my arm), I am having to lean over to draw….lol…soon I will be a one-armed, hunchedback cartoonist… 😀

  4. Thanks for sharing Karl! I have to say it’s pretty amazing to have my entire workspace watered down to 1 little table-mate (yup, totally bought that on an infomercial, LOL) with a laptop. No scanner, no drawing table, no spilled inks or eraser dust everywhere.

    I was 50-50 for a long time, just like you. I the progressed to inking with a wacom (awkward, but doable), and then invested in the Gateway Tablet Laptop, and SO glad I did!

    best wishes ;0)

  5. Nice article! Interesting to weigh the pros and cons like that. I will never go digital (except for coloring), with Edward Gorey being one of my main artistic idols and I don’t think you can currently replicate that style with a tablet…yet. Also, I like the “tooth” of the paper instead of a slippery screen. It forces my hand to be more controlled, where a screen would leave my hand feeling like jello sliding around it.

    As far as the cost, though, I think in the long run it might not be much more expensive to get a Cintiq. I use $3 pens (going through lots of ink) and roughly $1 sheets of paper, for evertything (my twice-a-week comic and any other art I do), and that adds up, baby.

    • Yeah, the digital vs. traditional will never go away. There are advantages to both. For me, since I was re-learning to draw after 25 years, it was not a big issue. I think also we should stress we’re talking about drawing comics. Doing commissions, professional illustration and other artistic ventures I could see requiring traditional methods to accomplish the look and feel. But with a comic strip, that’s not necessarily the case. Particularly comics that mimic the newspaper format of simple lines and no color. That, to me, is a no brainer and should be done digitally.

      The costs of weekly/monthly supplies versus a one time expense of about $800 (for WACOM and Manga Studio EX) convinced me to go digital for 1977. In three years, I’ve spent like $25 on art supplies, mostly for cons. So, that influenced me a lot.

  6. Kneon- wherever you can #makecomics, go for it!

    Dan- yeah, I couldn’t imagine your style coming out quite the same digitally. It is NOT for everyone, as much as I love it and promote the heck out of my tablet laptop.. I do realize two things:
    1. some people just truly enjoy the feel of pen and paper. taking that away makes the process less enjoyable and that’s the #1 priority! FUN!
    2. some styles do not translate to digital well. I know there are some awesome digitally painted comics out there, but not everyone’s work has the same.. hm.. “oomph” when drawn on a computer.

    I think you fit #2. Not that anyone ever wants to be labeled “#2”, LOL

    Expense related… you’re probably right! Some artists use some expensive tools! Spending $1K on a computer/tablet may pay for itself in a year or two. Or less!

    Thanks for your comment, Dan. ;0)

  7. Slightly overlooked, but the learning curve is much higher on a digital process since you have to not only learn how to draw (“again” if switching from paper,) but you also have to learn how to draw with that application (photoshop, illustrator, painter, inkscape, the gimp, etc.)

    A lot of people who are learning to draw think that jumping right in and buying a tablet(or cintiq) will suddenly make up for any deficiency in their drawing ability. At best they learn how to use the software first and learn to draw better eventually.

    There’s also the possibility of doing a digital comic without the most of the traditional “drawing” process. (Cut out, sprite, vector type of art assets.) Essentially using the vector drawing tools to “assemble” a drawing, instead of drawing [all of it] with a stylus.

    The comics that were originally designed for newspaper syndications are usually the better candidates for digital-only due to the limitations of the format.

    • Yes, you can buy the world’s best piano, but if you can’t play, it still sounds terrible. So buying a $2000 Cintiq is not going to make you a better artist, only practice will.

      You have a very good point: LEARN TO DRAW FIRST. That’s essential. Yes, you can do both at once (I did) but you must not overlook the simple fact you must practice your art (and practice using proper techniques) before you start your webcomic. For six months I drew 1977 the Comic essentially behind closed doors. I did this to practice not only my art, but the actual process of doing a comic… writing, timing, panel creation, etc., …before I really went out and promoted the comic.

      So no matter which format you decided on, you must be able to draw first. I found for me, making the switch from paper to digital an easy one. I took right to the tablet, so much so I hardly ever use paper anymore. I am so much faster at the tablet process.

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  9. It took me forever to switch from film to digital camera but I switched fairly quickly from pen and ink to digital. I’m now switching from my Cintiq to a Surface Pro 3. Onward and upward.

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