Using a mouse with an art program can be like drawing with a brick. An optical mouse, which is more fluent and precise and has no moving parts, is an improvement, but a more natural way to work is with a graphics tablet and pen. (OK, drawing with real charcoal, crayon or pencil on paper can be more creative, but since you want to work on a computer, a mouse is not the only way.) A graphics tablet consists of a base unit, almost like an open drawing book, and a wireless pen which moves the cursor. This system allows more control over what is happening on screen and, by changing the pressure of the pen, certain programs allow you to increase or decrease the thickness of the line, which is useful with "natural media" programs.
With modern graphics tablets the pen, with up to 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, is able to draw lines of varied thickness just as with real media, thus enabling the computer to record gesture and style more easily. And after all, pupils should be quite adept at using a pen.
Graphics tablets are often bundled with Painter Classic, but I use the latest and more sophisiticated version, Painter7, and there is something rather seductive about pushing around virtual wet watercolour paint or scratching with digital charcoal. Painter7 incorporates simple image editing tools, along with filters and a plethora of possibilities - the watercolour paint tool even lets you specify the rate at which the virtual paint virtually evaporates. There is also a perspective grid, which can be placed on screen to help create images with depth.
Although natural media programs are probably best at exploiting the graphics tablet, other tasks can also benefit. For example, work in Photoshop can be much more precise.
I have been trying four tablets: two from Wacom, two from Communique. The big difference between the two is that Wacom tablets are supplied with a cordless mouse, which works on the tablet, and Painter Classic. The Communique tablets have Serif PhotoPlus 6 software. Graphire 2 from Wacom (pictured left) and Communique's GraphixStudio Draw are A6 tablets and both perform well enough, although their size is a bit limiting.
Both manufacturers also produce A5 tablets and although these are far more satisfactory to use, they are more expensive and require more desk space. Both are of a professional standard and are stylish, robust and excellent to use.
Pay the extra for Wacom's Intuos2 and you have the option of extra types of pen, such as an ink pen, stroke pen and airbrush, which can be customised. Communique's GraphixStudio Designer is more basic, but it still works well and is excellent value for money. If you don't need the extras, it is worth considering.
Clearly, there are issues surrounding the use of a graphics tablet in the art department. It is best connected to a dedicated machine and, unlike a mouse, the pen is not tethered, so it can be easily lost. Therefore, it is important to have a checking system in place. Pen holders are provided with all the tablets named here, although some departments collect in pens after use. Spares are available, but it is costly to keep replacing them.
All of these products are good - Wacom's are more expensive, but they are also more sophisticated. However, for a straightforward, robust and inexpensive option, the Communique tablets offer a useable alternative - far superior to the common brick.
pound;21.1 Corel. Tel: 0800 581028. www.corel.com
A6 graphics tablet. pound;65.
A5 graphics tablet. pound;180. WACOM. Tel: 020 8358 9548. www.wacom.co.uk
A6 graphics tablet. pound;49.
A5 graphics tablet. pound;74. Communique Software. Tel: 01295 780170. www.graphixstudio.com