Pencil vs Pixel: A Storyboarding Showdown

So what’s better for storyboarding, the pencil or the computer?

Well, for most of my career I have used good old fashioned pencil and paper. I’m working that way right now. But for one of my jobs I did work by drawing on a Wacom tablet directly into Flash. So I do have some experience with both. I’m just going to discuss this on a basic level for now, giving my personal pros and cons for each.

In the future I’d like to give more in-depth reviews of specific software. But I’m not going to do that until I try them out obviously. And right now I haven’t used any others except for Flash.

If you’re an artist, nothing really beats a good pencil. Especially when you get that one that flows oh-so-sweetly. The feeling of it on paper is hard to duplicate. It just feels like that’s how we artists are supposed to work, doesn’t it?

Yes. Yes it does.

But then these new tools come along (yes, they ‘came along’ for me…I’m old) and they can make your life easier. You can change things at the click of a mouse or swipe of a stylus. You can fix mistakes without eraser shavings all over your desk. It’s sweet.


Those tools can also make you want to toss many hundreds of dollars worth of hardware out of your eighth story window. I have contemplated this myself.

The first thing to make you decide in what medium to work is by what the client or studio wants. If they want paper, you work on paper. If they want computer, they got it. The good news is if they just want a file (JPEG, PDF or whatever), you can do it on paper, scan it into your computer and voila! They have it as a file and you’re both happy.

Or they may want it done with particular software so you should be prepared for that. Now, the studio may even supply you with the software, so don’t run and shell out the money until you need to.

How do the two mediums stack up against each other in regards to storyboarding with them? When I say “with pencil”, I also mean all the other tools needed to create a storyboard traditionally.

Here’s my breakdown:

Pros for storyboarding traditionally with pencil

  • you can’t quite beat the feel of pencil on paper.
  • the supplies are cheap (sorta).
  • scotch taping stuff is fun.
  • it’s portable…you can use pencils anywhere.
  • you can see all the little lines you draw and can make for great texture and liveliness.
  • you can chew on pencils.
  • the supplies don’t need constant pricey upgrades.
  • you get to play with (x-acto) knives.
  • seeing the stack of the finished storyboard getting bigger is satisfying.
  • it’s a pencil! We love pencils.

Cons for storyboarding traditionally with pencil

  • the constant sharpening of said pencil.
  • when you press too hard and the pencil suddenly ‘SNAPS’, sending the lead flying…always scares the crap out of me.
  • not very ‘green’…lots of paper.
  • those x-acto knives can slice off bits of your finger…blood is hard to get out of paper.
  • you can run out of tape at a bad time if you don’t keep on top of your supplies (note: keep up your supply stock).
  • callouses on the fingers. If you don’t have any, you’re not drawing enough.
  • hand cramps.
  • writing out your action notes by hand is always a pain in the ass.
  • eraser shavings on the desk need constant sweeping (if you’re anal like me).
  • might need to make trips to the photocopy place if you don’t have your own machine.
  • when the shot should have been ‘just a bit wider’ so you re-do it (to avoid a trip to the photocopy place).

Now the other side:

Pros for storyboarding digitally

  • re-sizing ease…no need for that damn photocopier.
  • cutting and pasting backgrounds rocks.
  • cutting and pasting characters rocks.
  • more environment friendly by lack of paper.
  • more studios are probably going this route so it’s a good skill to have.
  • typing action notes is much less of a pain in the ass (unless you can’t type).
  • no eraser shavings!
  • easier on the hands (as in less callouses…better for the ladies).
  • you don’t tend to press so hard with the stylus…less hand strain.
  • your straight lines are very straight and very neat.
  • the program may number your scenes and panels automatically…very sweet.

Cons for storyboarding digitally

  • can be quite costly to start up.
  • upgrading software can also be costly.
  • if you can only afford a tablet (as opposed to a Cintiq), some might find it frustrating drawing in one place while looking at another.
  • doesn’t quite feel the same as using a pencil (but it is getting pretty darn close).
  • eye strain! After 16 hours you may start to see little floaty things and think you’re insane.
  • you’re always stuck at that work station…not very portable (but to be fair, I rarely take my traditional storyboarding ‘on the road’ either). And I’ve never used a tablet laptop, so I have no opinion there.
  • easier to get distracted with your email and Internet ‘right there’ beckoning you.
  • because you can zoom in so easily, you can get carried away putting every background character on model. If you had worked in pencil, they would have been a little doodle…refrain from this obsession, trust me.
  • in my experience, it’s no faster than storyboarding traditionally…really.
  • hard drives can crap out.
  • Flash files can become corrupt.
  • if you don’t save many versions, you can lose days worth of work and end up crying in a fetal position on the floor and have to re-do it all from memory.
  • see a pattern in those? Learn from my hell…save obsessively and back-up your files!

For the Flash job, I was given a pre-made template for the show and just drew on a Wacom tablet with the brush tool. The template had separate layers for the background, characters, camera moves and the like. Which is how it should be. Don’t draw everything all on the same layer all the time. It will become very frustrating. Use the digital tools to their advantage.

But I don’t want this to be a tutorial so I’ll stop there.

I know some colleagues are using Sketchbook Pro to draw their storyboards. I’ve heard it to be very artist-user-friendly. If I ever try it out in the future, I’ll give you my review.

And there is also ToonBoom Storyboard. I really want to try this out and give you my opinion on this one too. I just find it a bit pricey for the independent artist that works professionally right now. We’ll see what happens in the future because I think more studios will be using ToonBoom products as time goes on. So it could be a good skill to have. Most software has a 30 day trail, so check them out for yourself and see what you think.

Here’s a weird observation from working in both mediums. I did storyboards in Flash for 13 months and got quite used to it. When I went back to paper for this job, I started pushing a mental ‘undo’ button whenever I drew a line I didn’t like. It took a second to realize I had to erase it. It’s the freakiest thing!

To wrap up, it basically comes down to your choice and what your client wants. But anything that makes you more employable is always a good idea. So learning some of these tools as well as improving your traditional drawing skills is recommended.

Heck, it can’t hurt.

Have you used any of these tools? Have something to add to my lists? Put them in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts (good and bad).

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22 thoughts on “Pencil vs Pixel: A Storyboarding Showdown

  1. dan szilagyi

    Hey Karen,

    Great topic! i think you’re totally right about it coming down to what you like to work with and also what the cilent wants.
    I know Joe(gilland) over on awn had an article about something similar ( his was about animation though) but i think the way things are going digital for sure seems to be the route studios are taking, one other good benifit that i think digital has is that you can send files much faster and know it’ll reach the cilent for sure ( if you work/live far away) also ( and hopefully) it keeps work within the country ( less overseas studios) but i think nothing can beat a good old pencil, i like how you can really detail something with a pencil as oppose to digital where i find that a bit harder.

    As for software, sketchbook pro is amazing! its user friendly and you can do quite a bit on it, there is tons of software out there like plastic animation and art rage that are good for boarding or posing, I’ve used sketchbook pro recently and i’m quite liking it.

    for myself personally i like the old school methods because i think there is alot of people who heavily depend on software to do there art ( more so for digital coloring

  2. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Dan,

    Yes, the digital files can make delivering a job that much easier. No FedEx, no traveling…no problem!

    Thanks for the input on Sketchbook Pro…I’m getting quite curious to give it a try as I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback about it. When my time gets a little freed up maybe.

    And coloring is where digital has traditional beat, I think. Just a couple of clicks to change your mind and experiment. Doing that with markers and the like is much more time consuming. And could you imagine having to hand paint your student film? You’d still be doing it! 🙂

  3. Dan Szilagyi

    Haha you’re right about that part Karen, i should have been more clear about that, i meant for illustration and such, I think lots of times color ruins really great pencil and line work and alot of people i see ( blogger and DA) seem to focus more on color and effect rather then develop solid drawing skills.

    But yes for sure try out sketchbook pro when you get some time, i think you’ll like it.


  4. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    I’ll do that.
    And yes, I too prefer looking at great line work (like rough animation) over too much polished color.

    BTW did you get my answer to your email? Hope so. 🙂

  5. Michael


    I really did enjoy your blog. Currently I am the Creative Director of Creative Advertising Services.Net but I started my career as a storyboard artist at W.B. Doner & Company in Baltimore. (Too long ago to confess).

    Although I make my living now consulting and training I must confess there are moments when I miss the feel of a pencil and the glide of marker strokes on Strathmore paper.

    Just out of curiosity…how much are storyboard artists getting for panels these days? And, I fear to ask, is the storyboarding software really replacing ‘us’ (as rumor has it)?

    Best of luck to you!


  6. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Michael and welcome,

    I assume you’re asking about storyboard rates for advertising (since that seems to be your business). In that case, I’d have to say I have no idea. I’ve never done storyboards for advertising so I won’t even guess at those rates. Sorry about that. 🙁

    But for animation storyboards (which I do know), an 11 minute show can run anywhere from $4500-$6500 (on average).

    And as far as software ‘replacing us’…how could it? No more than a pencil could. It’s just a tool and someone has to USE that tool to create a storyboard. As I said in my latest post, I feel storyboarding is 70% thinking and 30% doing. No software could ever replace the thinking and planning stages of storyboarding. So I think we’re safe. 😉

    Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Debi

    I got one huge disagreement with you this time…tablet “pens” can cause killer hand cramps!! Mine were way worse than what I’ve ever gotten with a real pencil. Oy it hurt!

    I use Adobe Photoshop for all my computer drawing needs. It might not be specilzied for boarding, but it can do just about anything you can imagine.

    As for which is best, I find a mixture of the old and new work the best. I tend to draw most of mine by hand (love that pencil feeling), then tweak stuff in the computer. If some panels have the same basic image, but with some small change, you can just draw it once then copy and paste it in the computer and tweak what needs tweaking. You can also do focal changes with the selection and blur tool that end up looking really nice.

    And since my handwriting is beyond pathetic, I can always add notes to the hand drawn files (once they are scanned in) by typing. Best of both worlds.

    And that mental undo button has visited me too! Someone needs to invent one.

    Also, since Michael brought up payment…I was wondering if you might ever do a post with hints on how to bid for a job. I know since you work in a studio, you might not have done this for a while, but I’m still curious.

  8. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Really, eh? I found I grip the stylus much looser, so my hand seems to be more relaxed when I use it. Mind you it has been a while since I worked ‘the long hours’ with one so maybe I’ve just blocked out the pain? 😉

    I do know my elbow on my other arm was starting to give me problems from resting on the arm rest for hours on end (while at the computer). Or I’m just getting old(er).

    Yes, Photoshop can always do the job…any job! It would just take some work to set up templates and the like, I guess (and it’s pretty pricey).

    As I mentioned, I love typing out the notes too. Hate hand writing them as I have to do now…ugh. But the best is to do little chunks. I always label what I did that day…don’t save it till the end, it’s a nightmare!

    Adrien might be better to talk about bidding for jobs too (you out there guy?). For almost my whole career the studio tells me what they’re paying for that show and I can take it or leave it (I usually take it). They have pretty tight budgets to stick to. So I never really bid for jobs. On the odd occasion I have been asked, I usually calculate it based on the rates I stated above by how many minutes the board is.

    This could be different for live action though. How are you figuring out your rates right now?

    Thanks for the input…as always. 🙂

  9. Debi

    I tend have a death-grip on the stylus. I think I find it harder to control so the grip increases. Coloring comic book pages with it for days on end led to much, much discomfort.

    And you’re not getting old(er)…you’re becoming “well aged”. 😉

    Rates…right now I’m kinda stumbling about in the dark. I have a few references on what the current market value is, but then it gets tricker when I’m trying to figure out how to adjust it for a small budget film especally when I’m really not sure how small is small to them. Don’t wanna bid to high and yet, don’t wanna bid to low. Feels like I’m playing poker…and I don’t like poker…unless its for M&M’s (or Smarties for you).

    And I must mock the “eh”. heheh Canadians. hehe (I think I’m allowed to mock, my best friend is one.)

  10. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey, if we Canadians weren’t throwing those “Ehs” out to give you guys something to mock, where would the fun be?? 🙂

    “Well-aged”…yeah, that’s it. Like a fine wine (or shriveled grapes).

    And another Canadian fun-fact: we have Smarties and M&M’s!
    We like to eat them in our igloos. 😉

  11. Koni

    And don’t we also like drinking ice-cold Canadian beer
    inside those igloos, Karen? : )

    Well-aged like fine wine……well, where would that put me Debi? Haha! I guess I’d be vintage…..double vintage,actually (KJL, let you in on a secret……I’m about a decade ahead of you).

    Hi, Karen this is your ‘dino’ reader back in town! Never really left but just zipping by all the time. Now that I’ve come out for air, I thought I’d just say hi to you. I had my own version of ‘ell weeks, nothing compared to yours but still crazy. No I haven’t gotten a boarding gig yet and I had to put my board ‘quest ‘aside (thus my storyboard samples production) for the time being to finish my (paintings,paintings and paintings) commitments.

    Just want to tell you again how much I appreciate your blog! All that great ‘melange’ of useful infos, tips, advice, comments, fun moments and more!

    I really came very close to getting an Intuos 3 tablet. I thought with the ink pen, it was the next great thing after the Cintiq. After careful deliberation and in line with being honest with myself, I concluded ‘pixel’ is not for me. True to form as a “classic”, I’m addicted to the feel of the pencils, pens, markers gliding slowly to fast and furious across the paper. Besides, I’m computer graphics defficient.
    Has anyone of you tried the ink pen? I’d imagine it would be easier… actually see what you’re drawing
    especially that you don’t draw directly on the screen.

    Ok Karen, I’m diving back into my burrows……see you again in a few weeks. Will e-mail you from there.



    p.s.: How many frames do you have to draw for an 11 minute animation?

  12. Dan

    Hi Karen,

    Great site.

    Started working digitally over ten years ago and haven’t touched paper since.
    (I use Corel Painter X) I found it completely changed the way I work. Much more efficient and flexible. and to be honest, it re-energized my love for my work.

    I still love traditional media, but nothing touches digital boards and concept work for fast professional results.

    Portable? Heck yeah, I also have a small Wacom and a power book. I was recently was traveling and had a good client request a board. Did it in my hotel room while enjoying my morning coffee. Simply uploaded my files to my FTP site using the hotel free wireless Internet. Happy client.



  13. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Koni
    Hey girl! Long time no read. I was wondering how you were doing…glad to see you back here. Yes, we do love our beer and the igloos keep ’em nice and frosty. 😉

    I’m not familiar with this ‘ink pen’ you’re talking about. Is that a different kind of Wacom thing? I’ll have to google that one.

    Don’t worry about your boarding…all will happen in due time. Sounds like you’re still drawing, so that’s what’s important.

    And an 11 minute animation storyboard will run you about 600 panels. Sometimes more, sometimes less (right now I’m averaging more). It’s a lot of drawing! Take care. 🙂

    @ Dan
    Dude, you’re getting an ‘Artist’ link! Your stuff is awesome and should be seen by the folks on this site (go! go look at his stuff people).

    Corel Painter eh? I don’t hear about that one too much. (I remember Corel Draw a while back). Another one to look into…thanks!

    If you had all your equipment with you, that way of working would be more portable than paper. Also you probably wouldn’t be traveling with traditional supplies (I know I don’t 🙂 ) And yes, uploading to an FTP sure beats going to the studio yourself and making photocopies. I loved that part.

    Thanks so much for dropping by and for your input. Hope you come back with more.

    (BTW if you have any advice on advertising and film board rates, feel free to share)

  14. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Cool! Thanks for that…I may add the link in my next post too (edit: not the next one, but soon).

    I want to do artist interviews in the near future so I’ll just ‘borrow’ this one for a start. 🙂

  15. Koni

    Hi Karen,

    From what I know, a Wacom Intuos 3 Inking pen is for use with an Intuos 3 tablet only. It does not support any other Wacom tablet. It is pressure sensitive and similar to the classic stylus pen but is able to write/draw with ink. A sheet of paper is put on top of the digitising tablet which makes it easier because you can actually see your drawing on the paper, as well as on the screen. I have not tried the inking pen nor worked with the tablet myself , but I stumbled upon a user demo on the net.

    Checked out Dan’s work and as you’ve said his stuff is awesome! Truly inspirational! Sigh!

    ‘Til next time,


  16. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Koni,

    No, I haven’t seen that ink pen for the Wacom (not that I’ve been looking either). Thanks for pointing that out! Some might find that easier with being able to see the lines they draw. Neat.

  17. Paul Bouchard

    Great blog Karen,

    I just wanted to chime in about Toonboom Storyboard Pro. I’ve used it for about a year now on a variety of shows and I couldn’t live without it. I can draw larger than standard panel sizes so I don’t feel the same amount of neck strain. The ability to lay down a nat. pause track and edit it while I draw the visuals (plus see camera moves and panning elements) makes me feel more like a film maker and less like a tiny slice of a production chain. I find the labour is more fluid and absorbing.

    Ergonomically, the Cintiq 20WSX has 14 shortcut keys plus touch strips for zooming and scrolling.. it’s the biggest time saver I have. I found that taking the rubber grip off the cintiq pen reduces it’s circumference to about the same as a standard pencil and it’s less awkward for me to hold (especially if it has a thin rubber band wrapped around it a bunch of times to act as a rubberized grip. Likewise, I’ve found that you can carve the “hump” off an Intuos2 pen without cutting it open (go slow and be careful of course).

    All the best,
    Paul Bouchard

  18. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Paul and welcome!

    Thanks so much for all the great tips and for sharing your experience with TB Storyboard. Much appreciated!

    Never thought of removing the rubber grip off the pen and using a rubber band…good one.

    I personally don’t have a problem with the pen, I find it pretty comfortable. But for those that do, your tips could really help them out.

    Thanks again and feel free to add your 2 cents anytime. 🙂

  19. LudO

    Hi all,

    What is better for storyboarding?
    Language, image, everything goes through a computer today.
    The artist will use one.
    What is better for the (storyboard) artist?
    I am for the pencils,
    Paper is green. At least as green as computers.
    Computers are made of all this plastic bits and metal bits that are extracted from soil, treated, transported, shipped,thrown away.
    (What is actually a computer made of? That’s all I could think of :D)
    With a tablet, whatever tool the artist uses, it feels the same – plastic sliding on plastic whatever the brand.
    Paper has different qualities, different feels pencils need to and can be adapted to a unique way of drawing, the artist’s, yours!
    Pencils and paper are not often stolen unless they are in a bag that looks like a laptop case. They don’t need power supply.

    Paper is a pain to carry and store
    but it will never alienate you with an uncontrolable crtl+S, ctrl+Z debilitating back thought to anything you do, even crossing the road.
    I am a heavy category computer user and I know what I am talking about.
    I see those little floating stuff all the time.
    In fact drawing is my way out, my break from the screen and keyboard-shortcut hand cramps.

    I wish my computer breaks down right now but then I couldn’t have the pleasure to read more, this message would end now and it can’t before I say:

    Long Live Pencils!


  20. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ LudO – Yes, nothing beats the feel of a good ol’ pencil.

    But these days you don’t always have a choice of medium. A lot of places want digital boards now. So you have to adapt if you want the work.

    It’s good to be comfortable in both mediums. Can’t hurt. 🙂


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