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A pen is mightier than a mouse

Drawing freehand with a graphics tablet, scanning in work or taking digital photos will empower students. Martin Child reports.

If only a manufacturer could produce a pen that had the ability to draw a kaleidoscope of colours with any texture, paint with many sizes and shapes, spray, smudge, move colour about, erase and even cut sections from a picture, they would make a fortune.

No such invention has been created, so the next best thing, if you don't mind dealing with light rather than solid pigment, is a computer with a graphics tablet so you can draw directly on to the screen. Perfect for those with a fear of rodents - well, a mouse - the graphics tablet provides a natural and intuitive tool for drawing with.

Just like a pencil or brush, it responds well to gesture and varying pressure - press harder and you get a darker and thicker line. This leads to expressive results. The graphics tablet pen allows for much more realistic handling of "virtual materials" such as charcoal, chalk and paint effects.

Graphics tablets consist of a drawing board and a separate "pen" that controls the cursor on the screen. The tip of the pen acts as a button and often there is a second on the barrel which accesses menus - so you can click on it as you would a mouse.

For freehand drawing, they are superb, especially with the latest generation of art programs. More technical drawing may need a device known as a "puck". This again works with a graphics tablet and has a cross-hair pointer to help plot maps into the computer; or you can even trace around an original drawing.

We all know the importance of counting pencils back in at the end of a lesson. If you buy a graphics tablet, make sure that you count in the pen - they are expensive to replace. A good range of graphics tablets are produced by EESOX. Its A6 Art Pad costs Pounds 179 + VAT, the A5 is Pounds 299 + VAT and A4 is Pounds 549 + VAT. Although the A6 sounds tiny, it is adequate for most classroom uses.

A quicker and more precise method of putting an image into the computer is to scan it in. Results can be of a high standard and it is an excellent way for students to look at their image, manipulating the composition by adjusting or transforming their pictures with some of the plethora of special effects now available.

Scanning in photos allows manipulation and retouching, but you get what you pay for. Colour ink-jet printers have come down in price and are good value. You can get a basic ink-jet printer such as the Canon BJC-210 for Pounds l15 + VAT if you don't mind changing ink cartridges. Also recommended is a good quality dedicated colour ink-jet printer which costs about Pounds 250 + VAT - the Epson Stylus Color 500. Hewlett Packard is another company to be reckoned with. But, for professional results, you need a laser printer and this costs a lot - about Pounds 4,000 + VAT.

If you are still unsure what to do with all this technology, Art and the Computer, from the National Council for Educational Technology, is an excellent free booklet which outlines strategies for utilising computers within the art room for secondary students. It also suggests hardware and gives some case studies and issues to consider. All of this is linked to the national curriculum for art. Copies have been sent to secondary schools.

But if you suffer from information technology overkill, an antidote to the flashing screens at BETT97 is a visit to the BEROL stand where they show that there are still plenty of art materials that do not have to be plugged in.

It is possible to use a computer as a creative tool in the classroom without any of the above suggestions, but the ability to draw freehand with a graphics tablet, to scan in work, or to take digital photos, will empower students to achieve new heights of creativity on the computer. So that multi-function pen has been invented after all - it's called a computer.


Adobe Systems UK 0181 606 4000

BEROL stand 376

Canon stand 460

Casio camera (Casio Tel 0181 450 9131) from TAG Developments stand 170 and Xemplar stand 241

Digital Workshop Tel 01295258335

EESOX stand 443

Longman Logotron stand 261

Microsoft stands 221, 231

NCET stands 545, 560

Spacetech stand 424

Watford Electronics stands 690, 693

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