From Physical to Digital Art

By Nick Brown

I recently got a new toy. Well, it’s not so much a toy as it is a piece of professional digital art equipment (a Wacom Cintiq 13HD interactive pen display). I cannot overstate how much I love this piece of equipment. For those of you who may have flirted with the idea of getting into digital art like I had in the past, I’m going to talk through the best features and the few drawbacks that I see in this tool and discuss how it has changed my approach to digital artwork.

Parody of Rodolphe Salis' poster for Le Chat Noir featuring Kitty Pryde of Marvel's X-Men.

“Chat D’Ombre” courtesy of the author

The Good:

Display clarity – I do a lot of digital design work, but the screen on my average quality laptop is often good enough for my purposes. I have been known to patch my computer into 65-inch televisions, but this happens only on rare occasions. I often find that, when working with fine details, I want better resolution than my trusty laptop can be expected to provide, especially when I’m trying to create a bounded shape to bucket fill and I can’t find the gaps in the line.

This model has a 13.3-inch, 1920×1080 display that can render 16.7 million colors. If these numbers mean nothing to you, take my word that what I see on the display far outshines my laptop. The display also cuts glare, which is an amazing quality when spending hours staring at a screen.

At-handedness – I’ve worked with other digital drawing tools in the past (computer mice, laptop track pads, Wacom’s Bamboo tablet, and an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil). Although I have learned how to draw by looking at the screen instead of my hand, I find that my work needs less touch-up when I can look at what I’m doing as I’m doing it.

At-handedness is my clumsy way of describing the sense of presence I feel when I draw with my Cintiq display. I find that I become engrossed in the task at hand, at selecting the colors and the line weights and the forms that I am going to use. I lose some of the tactile experiences of drawing with graphite and paper (nothing compares to the feeling of my hand dragging across a paper with a nice tooth), but the benefits tend to outweigh this drawback.

Dimensions/weight – Wacom produces similar devices in a variety of sizes (both larger and smaller than mine). This model is about the size and weight of a slim-line laptop, which makes it easy to use whether resting on a table or in your off-hand. Given these specifications, this display is also easy to transport if needed (I would recommend a laptop sleeve to protect the screen from scratches, though).

Self-portrait of the author

“Self-Portrait 23 September 2017” courtesy of the author

The Not-So-Good:

The Cord – This device is a stylus display and it needs to be connected to a computer to function. If you are not planning to venture out to draw the world, you don’t need to worry about this. If you are planning to, however, you are better off with another device (such as an iPad Pro).

When researching this device, I was concerned to read reviews talking about how the reviewer had trouble with the cord required to operate the device. Some people complained about inconvenience, others about the cord refusing to stay seated in the jack, causing the device to lose power. While the design of the cord is cumbersome and less than ideal (two cords connect to become one with a power supply on one end and three different heads on the other), I have not had any real trouble.

The Driver – Drivers make software work properly, and the driver I’ve installed for this device doesn’t like to play nice. Functionally, this issue has not impacted my work in any meaningful way as of writing this piece. However, I will have to figure out the problem when I eventually need to calibrate the touch screen.

Illustration of Charlotte Wessels based on an unused photograph from Sandra Ludewig for Delain's Lunar Prelude EP.

“Lunar Prelude Charlotte” courtesy of the author

How My Work Has Changed:

Recently, I’ve made a conscious effort to change up my style of art. In the past, I leaned toward fine lines, soft color blends, and largely realistic renderings of my subject matter. Now, in preparation for the drawn components of my upcoming dissertation, I’ve opted instead to develop an illustrative style that has strong lines defining my shapes and blocks of color massing out those shapes further. Although the end results are far from flat (especially as I continue to experiment and refine the style), the individual blocks of color are. If I wanted to achieve this effect with analog technology, I’d have to spend a lot of time, patience, and money making sure that my color is even and flat. If I made a mistake I’d have to either figure out how to hide it or start over. Now? I take my stylus, pick a color, select bucket fill, and tap what I want to be colored.

Working with this device also encourages me to adopt different habits. I love inner contour lines and find myself drawing not only the physical forms that I see, but also the play of light across the object. Using traditional media, these lines function much like paint-by-numbers: I know what tones go where and the lines disappear by the time I’m done.

I still produce most of my drawings using traditional methods (graphite and ink on bristol board), but the scanner I use isn’t great at picking up line differences (like that between outer and inner contours). To avoid the heartbreak of seeing something that I lovingly crafted mangled by an unthoughtful machine, I supplement the inner contour when applying color. The original, physical drawing always looks flat (and odd, quite frankly), but the final digital version captures what I want it to and I can fill in what’s missing.

This device may not be able to usher in world peace or solve everyone’s problems for the rest of time, but it can definitely help you to create something pretty.