I've been drawing and designing things all my life. Friends and family always told me I should 'make something of myself' with my art. But until the 21st century came along, one couldn't exactly get their work in front of the masses with ease. Sure, I had dreams of creating characters for cartoons and video games, but all the giant portfolios and stacks of bristol and newsprint wouldn't just magically end up in front of the right eyeballs, and I was far too young and confused to figure out the right path.
And of course, analog art tools have their inherent limitations. Limitations that force creative solutions, to be sure, but at the same time many of those limitations are simply arbitrary hindrances. My left-handedness assured plenty of smeared pencil and ink drawings over the years; too many erasures on a line and you'd burn a hole in the paper; watercolors never seemed to flow in their intended ways for me. Plenty of people have worked just fine with those limitations for centuries! But even those people might have thoroughly enjoyed a simple Undo button, no?
I say all that to say this: In the art and design world, I am absolutely thrilled to be able to work all-digital. While my style is more graphical these days, I can still break out a "pencil" drawing, or a painting. And in some cases I can change that look on the fly! Plus, creative people can instantly beam their creations to the entire internet - more eyes on your work equals more opportunities to connect with someone that really appreciates what you do, and more opportunity is never a bad thing.
It boils down to hardware and software, though, when it comes to executing in the digital space. Until those got to feeling "right," this digital-workflow thing was still only marginally better than analog, to me. This post's focus is on....
Hardware, or "Why do I keep hoping for a single machine that does everything?"
Tablet PCs. Remember those? Not quite in the fashion that we have tablets that are also PCs these days. Tablet PCs were what people would call "convertible notebooks" now, but some 15 years ago they were the only game in town for this kind of work in a self-contained format. Full-fledged Windows laptops, with swivel screens that folded down over their keyboards, and used Wacom or N-Trig digital styli with 'active digitizers' for drawing on the screen. Note that both of those technologies are still in use today. The difference? No real finger-touch on the early screens, as far as I remember. So you had to manipulate everything with the pen, or have a mouse handy, or leave the whole notebook open flat so you could use the touchpad (and many times I did that for the keyboard shortcuts anyway). And when touch did come about, it wasn't nearly as smooth or natural as it is now - deliberate button presses only - and artists would want to turn it off anyway so they could draw without their hand adding its own linework to the screen. Entire programs and hotkey extensions were written just to have a shortcut to turn the touch off!
My jam was the Fujitsu Lifebook line of TabletPCs. Fairly expensive! But for drawing, they were the Cadillac of laptops. Mostly in 12 to 14-inch varieties.
During those years (I'm going to say this was the mid-'00s) I also tried a couple other variations on the TPC theme as well, like "slates" - just a TPC laptop without the keyboard half - you had to rely on the onscreen Windows keyboard or provide your own - and even one or two sliders (imagine a slide-open phone scaled up to the size of an iPad Mini, complete with plastic clicky keys!) The convertible style won out every time.
Until, over in other parts of my life, I made the jump from console to PC gaming. THEN the issue became how to have a PC I could draw on... and still play all the games I wanted to!
So, I went big. Really big.
My rig went from laptop portability to all-out desktop domination. I built a PC worthy of gaming to my heart's content, and dumped oogobs of money into a Wacom Cintiq. A giant second monitor that you could draw on, while retaining all the full-PC function you could ever want. Sounded good to me. And it was. For awhile. Well, at first it wasn't so great - the 12" Cintiq was just not good, for me - but once I went for the big one, 21" I think was the large size at the time, I really loved using that for drawing and design work. Problem is, It wasn't just "not portable" - it was "this might be the single largest and most cumbersome thing I own besides my car, and at least my car has wheels" levels of not-portable. I couldn't easily show a drawing to somebody in the next room, let alone just pop out some work while on the couch.
A quick note: lots of digital artists use the Wacom tablets without screens, where you draw on the desk and the strokes appear on your monitor in front of you; I could NOT do that to save my life, it turned out. So I always needed a direct-draw screen situation, hence the direct dive into the TPCs and then the Cintiqs.
I used the big Cintiq. Then I used a slightly smaller, older model. Eventually, I conceded, waving the white flag of pragmatism. I would give this whole "have two machines" thing a try, even though it seemed so redundant. (And now, I look around at how many screens are in my house and I can't help but laugh at that. I still try to keep somewhat streamlined though!)
So this whole new tablet renaissance was happening, thanks to things like the iPad. I went back to the convertible Tablet PC form factor that I knew and loved, for a bit. Then I won an iPad in a raffle at work. I was hopeful, but in the end, I just could not get enough precision to do production-level art out of the thing, because fingers and big rubber styli just didn't accurately indicate where the line would come out when you dragged them across the screen. So much for this revolutionary new gadget, I concluded.
I did try the iPad 2 when it came out.
I tried the Surface.
I finally found love with the Samsung Galaxy Note tablet - the 10.1" model. Actual pen precision! A couple of drawing programs I was familiar with from Windows! Unbelievable! OK, the interfaces were never perfect, and sometimes I'd still mess things up thanks to imperfect palm rejection, but this thing was portable, but still big enough to draw on at almost the size of a piece of Letter paper. Dig it!
I upgraded that to the 2014 edition when that came out, as well. Samsung gave me everything I'd wished the iPad would have from the start.
Then, last year, my Note just started dying way more often, its battery reaching end-of-life I suppose. I had heard about the Note Pro 12", but it had already been discontinued, and the only ones I could find for sale seemed a bit high priced for deprecated hardware.
Ugh. Back on the hunt, then.
I tried the Surface Pro 4 - which made me almost think I could once again have one machine for gaming and for drawing, but its gaming performance was just a little lacking (I'm not trying to pay Crysis here or anything, either) and when drawing with it, the Windows interface elements are just a little smallish, while the whole thing was just a little biggish...
I begrudgingly decided to try the iPad Pro - also 12" like the Surface. Begrudgingly, I say, because I am not a big fan of iOS. I like having several buttons, not just one, for instance. But, I really enjoyed it - the Apple Pencil's precision is astounding considering Apple's previous stance on active styli - and some of the apps were very easy to pick up. Still, though, while the 12-inch iPad Pro is indeed very nice for drawing, it's just big enough that it becomes cumbersome for doing anything else.
So, I've sold the big Pro and settled on the 10.5" version that was just released earlier this year. And while I still find the OS way too fiddly, for how I use the tablet it's working out just fine. And some of the apps that are available now are pretty amazing, even game-changing compared to my workflow of even just a couple short years ago. I will note that palm rejection still isn't perfect, but some apps give you options to only register finger touches for UI and page manipulation, while only recognizing the Pencil for actually drawing. That is nice. I also like the partial-glove method for apps that don't allow that distinction.
...which brings me to my next point, which I will bring to you soon. Tune in next time for:
How I work: Software, or "GAHHHHH I just did all of that on the wrong layer!"