Digital Sketching | Leveling Up my Tablet

For a while now I've been sketching around town using my iPad. I like using a tablet for sketching when I am in situations where I cannot bring my usual pastel kit or oil painting kit for plein air studies. The iPad is light weight, fits in my bag, and can be whipped out without questions or funny looks just about anywhere.

Sketching at the Art Institute of Chicago

Until now I've been making good use of my iPad. I use the Wacom Stylus 1 (not 2) and the fantastic Procreate app. My only on-going frustration was the sometimes lag of the stylus and inaccuracy of the pen tip, as well as brush sizes and other issues that have often felt like painting with a giant crayon that I don't have complete control over. 

Frankly, I have been frustrated with Apple's lack of support and indifference for third party vendors who make styluses to use with their sketching, writing and painting apps. (Having worked in mobile games I know quite well Apple has rigorous internal checks before any app can be launched in the App Store - so why not rigorous checks for 3rd party devices intended to use with their products?!!) Additionally, it seems, I've been waiting forever for Apple to upgrade the iPad to run OS X so that it can run Photoshop or Painter, and - dare I dream - have it's own digitizer stylus. The iPad is cool, I suppose, but a tablet that can actually run Adobe software and be brought along in a bag is powerful stuff. 

Jamie painting in Golden Gate Park

 Here's The Skinny

Since about 2013, rumors have swirled around the internet about the secret development of the iPad Pro, which would run OS X and have a custom stylus. 

Most recently, rumors were that the iPad Pro would be announced this March, but the iWatch trumped that as Apple leaps into the wearables market. Still, rumors continue to swirl that the impending launch of the iPad Pro will be announced later this year, fall 2015. Still others are skeptical of a launch this year or even next. Ugh - I am tired of waiting. There are already several tablets on market available right now with a few being relatively inexpensive. Whenever the rumored iPad Pro does launch, one thing is certain, it will be an expensive version of the current iPads. Most likely more than I really want to spend for sketching around town. Even my plein air oil and pastel gear each came in around $500-$600 for the equipment.

Given my quest and budget, I identified what I'd like in a tablet and then set out to find one. 
I wanted these attributes:

between $300 - $600 max
light weight and slim
good battery life 
can run Photoshop
stylus with a thin and more precise tip, and good response with no lagging

Best Options:
Wacom's Cintiq Companion, $2000
Microsoft Surface Pro, starting at $800
Samsung Slate, a retired line which can be purchased new or refurbished around $450-550 on Amazon Marketplace. (I've seen it even cheaper on eBay and B&H Photo)

I know there are other tablets, but many of them get poor reviews, so I narrowed my choices down to the three listed above. After a lot of research & recommendations from friends, I opted for the Samsung Slate. 


Samsung Slate 

Out of the box I spent an evening fumbling around the Windows 7 OS, which I am not accustomed to. After I watched the on-screen tutorial for a few minutes, I was able to navigate around the desktop with the excellent digitized stylus. After I connected to my wireless account and accessed the internet, Windows promptly updated. 

I was then able to load the Creative Cloud app at $10 a month to run Photoshop. Since the Slate also has a usb port, an older version of PS can be loaded if you prefer. 

While I was researching the tablet, I found a great plug-in for Photoshop that enables two handed use in order to use the hot keys without a keyboard. This plug in, Art Dock, is also customizable and can be configured for either right or left handed use. 

When loaded, Art Dock allows you to work with one hand using your stylus for painting/sketching/drawing while the other hand hits hot keys - a very nice workflow compared to the iPad/Procreate model, where the stylus alone must choose everything from brushes, layers, colors, brush size in addition to painting.

The link for the Art Dock plug in and instructions for left and right handed docking is HERE.

For saving art, you can, of course, keep your files on the desk top (not recommended), upload your files to Dropbox (or another cloud based service) or save everything on a thumb drive using the USB port. Incidentally, I found the cover on the USB port difficult to remove and ended up using a sharp knife tip to remove it. Seems to work just fine now.

I also like the size of the Samsung slate. It's longer than the iPad, closer to the 16:9 ratio, which I like for studies, especially when studying film shots. The tablet also comes with a Sim Card slot and a camera, though not capable of video. That's ok with me as I usually carry my iPhone or a camera with me that can record when I need to.

Side by Side size comparison

Because the on-screen keyboard is awkward to use, you can also get a bluetooth keyboard and also a docking station if you'd like to use it as a casual computer.  I haven't purchased either of these yet and probably won't since I don't plan to do a lot of typing on the machine other than saving files.

When I finally got down to painting I felt like I was in HEAVEN! Using the Art Dock plug in plus sketching directly on-screen using PHOTOSHOP and my own custom brushes (uploaded from Dropbox) felt like I had been liberated from all the clunkiness that I was trying my best to be patient with. Pressure sensitivity is not that of a full blown Cintiq, but frankly, it is good enough for me to complete this sketch, below, without any complaints, lag time, or inaccurate brush calibration. The only noticeable oddness was that the screen sometimes changed brightness when the light changed, but that was due to the extreme changes in brightness of the television screen that was also in the room. This might be an issue later; if it is I will surely update this post. 

A quick process video using Flipagram

The final piece. I worked in my bedroom at night in three 45 minute sessions was able to finish this sketch. 

I don't know what your needs are for tablet sketching, but you might want to consider these options. If you have a budget, the Cintiq Companion 2 looks amazing. If you are like me with a pretty limited budget (this was already a splurge!), you might want to look into a refurbished tablet or take the Microsoft tablet for a whirl. Whatever you choose, I hope you enjoy a new avenue for plein air sketching practice. Please leave comments if you have additional info, good or bad experiences or questions.

Thanks for reading!


A Couple of Plein Air Digital Paintings

For awhile now, I've been trying to come up with an easier take-with-me-everywhere method of plein air sketching. I have full plein air kits for pastels, oil and watercolor, but often I find that even though I keep one of these kits in the trunk of my car, I usually don't feel inclined to bring it all in to a restaurant, coffee shop or on an afternoon trip downtown. I wanted something MUCH more lightweight and accessible - and the iPad has been it.

Here is a sketch from a recent day trip to the ferry building in San Francisco, a busy tourist-heavy area of the city. 

My main objective with iPad sketching is to mimic plein air oil paint using the alla prima technique, direct painting, as opposed to more labor intense methods. The idea is to work quickly on site and get it all down in about an hour or so of working. That means everything from gesture, composition, hue, value relationships and light relationships.

About the hardware: I have yet to find a stylus I am completely comfortable with; I am currently using the Wacom Creative Stylus 1. I am not keen on recommending it, however, because it feels like painting with a giant crayon. I unfortunately purchased the Wacom Creative Stylus 2 and found afterwards that it is not compatible with many painting apps, including Procreate. A few friends have given good reviews of the Jot Adonit Stylus, which is far cheaper and compatible with a lot of apps. 

In the Procreate app, I created a set of swatches in the color picker that are the standard colors of my basic oil painting palette, plus a few white convenience colors so that I don't have to constantly mix the same color over and over. Using these swatches helped me in getting a similar look to traditional paintings, although I think I could still fine tune the set. 

In addition to that, I am still trying to refine my brushes to find a working method that mimics traditional brushes. Procreate provides a set of brushes that you can then customize, but  I have yet to find some that are to my liking.


I recently purchased a refurbished Samsung Slate series 7 because it can run Photoshop, Painter, Zbrush and other programs that you usually run on a full machine but on a tablet. 
I plan to merge over to that in the coming weeks. 

Also, I have some really exciting projects I am currently working on that I can't post about. Soon! Please stay tuned for more stuff!