digital illustration

Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2 A Digital Artists Experience

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When the Microsoft’s Surface Studio was first launched it has been both celebrated for its concept, screen experience, design and build quality and equally reviled for its component choices and hardware options. The concept of the Surface Studio was to take the Surface, itself a version of a tablet PC and create an All In One desktop. I’ve been using digital art and creative tools for a couple of decades now and have been working entirely digitally for ten years, so any new digital art technology is of great interest to me. I have always worked with Wacom’s Intuos, a drawing system which uses a digital pen that draws onto a blank tablet, the cursor then replicating what you are doing onto the screen. It’s a great affordable way to get into digital art and design, although it can take a few hours to properly get used to using it. There many other manufacturers that make this type of tool but I have only used Wacom’s version.

I’ve been working happily like this for 20 plus years but technology moves on and now screens exist which allow you to draw with the pen tool directly onto the actual screen. Having drawn traditionally for most of my life, I felt I really wanted to have an experience that was the most like drawing onto paper, while being able to create completely digitally. There are a number of manufacturers that create this type of screen Wacom was the first and now it’s more common place with devices like Apple with the iPad, Samsung tablets, Lenovo PCs and Microsoft with its Surface line of devices. See my previous post regarding digital drawing tools for more about this subject.

When moving to screen based technology, there were two important factors I needed for my choice of device; the first was the need for the largest screen area and highest pixel count I could get as I like work large and have enough physical space to make natural pen strokes. The second was a drawing experience that was as close to drawing on paper as possible. The big draw back with such a device is the cost, there are plenty of smaller screens available now for reasonable prices but I knew I wanted a big screen and with digital drawing tech; big costs. Finally when it came to the time for me to be able to purchase a device that would suit, I narrowed it down to two choices; the Wacom Cintiq pro 24 or 32 and the Surface Studio. Both devices have big screens and are 4K, Wacom has the higher amount of pen pressure sensitivity 8192 levels against Microsoft’s 4096. Pressure sensitivity is the ability the computer has to detect how firmly the pen is touching the screen, the harder you press the thicker the line, it’s the way the flow of a brush or pen can be replicated digitally. The higher the number the more pressure can be detected and better the line flows from thick to thin. It’s the main thing us digital artists obsess over, it gives energy to the line and life to your drawings. Wacom with it’s count of 8000plus is the best available. However the big difference between the two devices for me was the ratio of the screen, the surface has a 3:4 screen size which is a “squarer” shape than the more letterbox 16:9 size of the Wacom. 16:9 is really useful for animators and video makers because it’s the same ratio as a widescreen TV. Because I only do art, I decided the squarer size of the surface is better suited for me, plus the appearance of the Studio is like a traditional drawing table which I always liked. Microsoft have conceived the Studio to be a digital drawing board and that’s the experience I take away from it.

Drawing on the Surface Studio 2
Drawing on the Surface Studio 2

When you match that with an excellent touch screen experience with good palm rejection which pretty much ignores your hand when you lean on it, as well as being able to rotate your image by twisting it with your fingers as if it’s a piece of paper on a desk, it adds up to a very natural experience.

Rotating the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2
Rotating the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2

What is also very useful is the ability to pinch the screen so you can quickly zoom in and out on your image. Wacom’s screens also have touch versions, the 32 is available touch only so you can do the same thing with those devices. I can’t give a proper verdict on Wacom’s devices, I’ve only briefly tried the pro 16. My main worry with choosing the Studio was how the drawing experience would compare to Wacom who are the market leader in terms of digital drawing. However it has proved to have excellent pressure sensitivity not as standout as Wacom with double the pressure but more than good enough. I do adjust the pressure settings in both Clip Studio, my art software of choice and in the Windows Surface Pen settings if I’m not getting the kind of result I like and would do the same with Wacom, as it’s not a fixed thing. Also a major element in the performance of any digital drawing system is the software. The software creators have to support the hardware you are using, paid for software like Photoshop and Clip Studio support both Wacom and Microsoft pen systems. In terms of the drawing and the touch experience, the device it reminds me most of is the Apple iPad Pro with Apple Pencil. I have an iPad with Clip Studio and I share the same sets of pens and brushes across the devices. The glossy, glassy feel of the Surface screen is identical to the iPad as well, a lot of reviews of the Surface Studio tend to find the glossy feel of the screen a negative against the matt surface of the Wacom which is more like paper. It’s a personal thing but I have no problem with a glossy screen, the ability to draw directly on a screen far outweighs the unfamiliar feel of the glass and I like the brightness and contrast of the screen, as I said if you have used an iPad to draw on, it’s exactly the same feel.

Almost all the tech reviews I’ve read or watched have identified the choice of older hardware specs as a huge draw back to the Surface Studio particularly the first version which had a spinning hard disk. I do agree the hardware options could be less than ideal for users creating video and possibly high end 3D animation particularly if you need to create 4K content. The version of the Surface Studio I have is the base model with 16GB Ram and I work on 300 dpi files 8000×6000 pixels in size, about 60x40cm in final print size with no performance issues.

Zooming into the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2
Zooming into the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2

When deciding on the Surface Studio, I studied as many reviews I could find. Although the reviews were honest they mainly judged the Studio from the point of view of an all in one PC product which might have interest to creative types. From that point of view it comes across as an expensive device with lower than expected hardware for its price point, it’s a fair assessment but it misses the point. The main strength of the Surface Studio is as a creative art tool like the Wacom Cintiq, so I wanted to give my opinion as an artist using the Surface Studio to create professional work. In those terms the Surface Studio is an excellent piece of kit for creative’s who draw digitally as part or all of their practice. The other huge plus for the studio is the much celebrated patented zero gravity hinge which allows you to move the screen from an upright position to a 20 degree angle plus all points between. Many reviews have demonstrated the lowest setting as its default drawing position. However I have drawn on the screen in a variety of angles, changing the position constantly and although I lean onto the screen with as much weight as I need and it does not move. Again this a huge plus considering how much back pain is caused by long drawing sessions in the same posture. The other advantage of the Studio being an all in one drawing screen, stand and PC is that you do not need to buy anything else in order to work. Again I wanted a large 4K screen drawing surface which meant I would need a new computer to run it also a stand or Ergo type arm which are extra costs. Again considering I needed completely new equipment, my current PC was in its eighth year of service, I knew would have to spend a lot of money. There are better value options, a smaller Wacom Cintiq together with a decent laptop Mac or PC would be excellent for someone who wanted to move to an on screen experience or an iPad Pro with pencil is equally recommended.

So, as this is a digital artists experience of the Surface Studio I think it’s a fantastic digital drawing device. I wanted to share my thoughts about the Surface Studio, since I feel a lot of reviews don’t give a creatives experience of it and sell it short. Yes there are a lot better value PCs with much better specs to be had and I’ve seen bad reviews which are just excuses to troll Microsoft for charging so much money for a PC. There are things to criticise, ports on the back (given it’s design I don’t know where else you could put them), lack of bass on the built in speakers, using touch on apps like Clip Studio which have small icons can be a little tricky (it’s recommended you set the screen display size to 200% for the best touch experience, I have set it to 175%). However these are completely outweighed by how good it is as a digital drawing workstation. It doesn’t compare that well in tech specs compared to a high end iMac, but they are different beasts, for one the iMac isn’t supporting a touch screen. The biggest issue with the Surface Studio is how very expensive it is, but so is all professional level hardware whatever the manufacturer. I wish it wasn’t but that’s always been the case with top tier creative tech. On the other hand it’s a golden age for creative technology, both in terms of hardware and software.

At the end of the day I wanted something I could create on and would help my work improve and progress. I those terms the Surface Studio does what I want it to do and does it really well.

I made it into ImagineFX

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Wow, I made it into the FXPose section of July’s edition of ImagineFX magazine. It’s really a dream come true for me, I’ve been a fan of the magazine since it started over ten years ago. This was my second attempt, I posted work in March last year but it didn’t get accepted. Looking back I’m not surprised, I feel myself that my work had yet to come together at that time.

I well as the very welcome exposure for my work, it allows me to be objective about the images I create. When I changed from animation to illustration/art I thought my work might retain some fragment of movement or a trace of ‘cartoon’ atheistic however I think it’s the opposite, my artwork has a stillness, a moment of action frozen. I also realised I like to add a lot of detail to my work, something that wasn’t possible in my animation. This is not because I want it to be photographic but rather I want to try to make the surreal, fantasy, elements as real as possible.

The Next Generation of Digital Drawing Tools

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The next generation of digital drawing tools…. is the theme music to star trek the next generation playing in your head, it is in mine.

This is my current digital workspace consisting of:

Chillblast PC running windows 10, Quad core i7, 18GB RAM
Wacom Intuos Pro Large
Dual QHD monitors running a single desktop
Epson WF-7515 A3 printer and scanner

My digital drawing set up
My digital drawing set up


It’s set up designed for my particular way of working; at a desk with a desktop set up using full 64 bit drawing applications, at the moment entirely using Clip Studio Pro (terrible name great software) and the largest amount of physical screen space I can get. I’m also Windows based… this is not an anti Apple rant in any way, I have an I pad and have drawn sketches on it, it’s great but I’ve always used windows.

I’ve been contemplating upgrading my digital drawing equipment for ages now. There’s nothing lacking in my current setup, it works really well for me, loads of screen real estate which I like to keep my work loose and fast. My PC, “The Beast”, is a real veteran now having been through three versions of windows and one RAM upgrade. It’s still utterly reliable and powerful enough for my needs (I’ve even animated, edited, sound mixed and rendered a 10 minute animated film on it). However now on its seventh year the hard disks are slow and an upgrade machine is on the cards. Also I’m still using the Wacom Intuos system, which I’ve used regularly for the past 20 years, wow how time flies. It’s a great low cost digital drawing system, which apart from getting used to the disconnect of drawing on one surface while looking at the screen, (which is easy when you get used to it) is excellent . However I’ve been keenly following the massive progress in digital drawing technology in the last few years and since I work entirely digitally, I really want to embrace a completely new digital drawing system. But which system to go for.

The choices that have attracted my interest are:

Wacom Cintiq 27 QHD

Wacom Cintiq Pro

Wacom Mobile Studio

Microsoft Surface Studio

Dell Canvas

I’ve read up every bit of news and watched every video I can find about these devices but as most of us would, I really need to physically try these devices for myself.

Then suddenly I had my chance when I attended the photography show at the NEC in Birmingham, where Wacom was demoing their full range of devices. I was hoping Microsoft would be attending so I could see the rare, elusive creature known as the Surface Studio but there was no stall shown on the list of attendees. So we went to the show and grabbed lunch before setting off to the Wacom stall, however as we passed the Adobe Arena my wife spotted something. Set up on a small desk was a chap in a Microsoft tee shirt, he had just arrived and was showing off one of the three demo surface studios in the UK. I tried drawing on it using Photoshop, just scribbling away on a blank document.

Surface Studio; The verdict (based on 10 minutes of doodling):

It’s a really nice experience to interact with the surface studio, I was able to grab the document I was drawing on and turn it with my fingers as if it was a physical piece of paper and then continue to draw. It was smooth and the palm rejection was excellent. The touchscreen interaction was also fantastic, I could click around the menus and tools within Photoshop with ease, the touch was crisp and responsive.

The pen was good, I’m used to Wacom pens so from the brief time I had they seemed to feel about the same. However to really get the best out of any drawing pen, you need to adjust the settings of the tools in the software you use to get the effect you are most happy with. To really test the surface pen system I would need to use Clip Studio Paint with my own preset brushes, with my custom pressure settings. There was one strange issue with the surface pen system, which I’ve also noticed when I tried the Surface Pro, the tool icon tends to drift a few centimetres from the tip of the pen. It gives a slightly distracting sense of parallax, I’m wondering if the tool tip icon can be adjusted or turned off altogether?

The screen quality is excellent and so is the gravity hinge, the lowest screen position 20 degrees, which is designed for drawing is just right for me. With the screen in this position touchscreen comes into its own, you are physically close to the screen and it feels natural to navigate using your fingers. Also the format of the screen, the squarer shape as opposed to the usual widescreen used by most other on screen systems is, for digital artists like me very welcome, since I do almost all my work in a portrait screen position. There is a lot of buzz around the surface studio and from my brief play with it, I can see why. Having an all in one digital desktop drawing desk/touch screen computer is exactly what digital artists have been looking for. There are downsides to the surface studio, the price is substantial and some tech reviews have been critical of the hardware choices used in its build, considering the performance demands of 3D and video editing. I only really work in 2D with still images, so I would like to try the surface studio again when it’s launched in the UK and see if it can deal with large layered art work files using the pen and touch.

It was off to the Wacom stall next.

Firstly I tried a Mobile Studio with a 13 inch screen and built in windows pc. I was really impressed with the quality of the drawing. I was using Photoshop and I picked a standard brush set to black. The line I drew felt like a brand new expensive ink pen on crisp drawing paper, the digital ink seemed to flow from the nib of the pen. The screen was clear, the system responsive and the touch was very good.

Next I tried the Cintiq pro 13, which plugs into an external computer. Again this was a really good drawing experience, the pressure sensitivity felt just like a physical pen.

However my issue with these two devices is the size of the working area. As I’ve said I work at a desk with big screens whereas these devices are designed to be portable, that said with the menu windows open, it felt like I was drawing on a post-it note unless I zoomed in. Unfortunately the 16 inch option in both machines wasn’t available so I couldn’t compare it, I would like to try them to see if the larger screen might work for me.

Next I tried the Cintiq 27 QHD touch, this was something I had considered getting before.

Sorry Wacom, I really love your products and I’m a long time user but…. I not sure about the 27 QHD touch. What had firstly put me off about it before I even tried it was the 16:9 widescreen, previously I couldn’t find a stand that would allow me to have it in portrait position. That was untill I discovered a video on Youtube by artist Lawrence Mann who has mounted the Cintiq on an Ergotron Desk Mount Arm which allows the Cintiq to be swivelled around from landscape to portrait:

It seemed it was all systems go then but when I tried the Cintiq I wasn’t massively excited. Firstly the touch is not great, it’s really unfair to compare it with the touch capabilities of the brand new surface studio but the studio beats it hands down. The drawing experience was very good but for me, not as exciting as the Mobile Studio or the Cintiq pro but again to be fair it is an older product line. The bottom line is that costing at least £2000 including the Ergotron arm I think I’d rather wait.

The other major player on the digital drawing tablet market is the Dells Canvas which is a 16:9 format screen like the Wacom Cintiq but thinner. Not having been launched yet there’s not a lot of information available but I would like to try a demo version when it is around.

So at the moment I’ll be continuing with my current, highly efficient, if not cutting edge setup and wait to see what happens next. The surface studio has no European launch date as yet and I’m also waiting to see what Wacom will bring out next; a new 21 or 27 inch 4k Cintiq … with a PC built in perhaps… whatever happens, it’s exciting times for creative technology.

Vintage Digital Drawings

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I was digging through a pile of old drawings from my days at college and I found some artwork I created on a computer in 1993.

vintagedigital1vintagedigital2vintagedigital3vintagedigital4I remember I created them on the office Mac, one a lot like this.


They were drawn using a mouse and the only drawing software available, Mac Draw which was bundled in with the Mac operating system.

Even back in the olden days of Mac tech there were Wacom type drawing tablets available, I used one a few years earlier on my BA degree, where I drew some even older digital drawings. I will try to find some prints of these if they still exist and post them.

At the time I drew these I was on the final year of my Masters degree in Animation and I was desperately trying to work out the story for my final film. At the time I was constantly drawing traditionally in sketchbooks at the time but I found this digital drawing process allowed me to quickly sketch through the huge amount of story concepts I was struggling with at the time.


I remember there was a stamp tool as part of the Macdraw software which I made extensive use of. It was handy for quickly visualising ideas.


When I graduated from my Masters degree in 1994, my graduation film was created totally traditionally on 16mm film, using hundreds of hand drawn, hand painted drawings. Although a few students created films with digital content, Computers were not quite ready at that time, not at least for college budgets.

Making these drawings did manage to create an early interest in the potential of digital image making. After all a computer is a device for drawing with, just as pen is… isn’t it?.

Ghost Madness

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or how I create stuff.

At the start of this year I entered the Folio society book Illustration competition. The competition was to illustrate three different short ghost stories, one of which was The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by M.R. James, one of the great ghost story writers. The golden rule with illustrating a text is to read the story and then identify a particular part of which inspires a vivid image in your head. I found this line did it for me;

‘I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it,’

I found the idea of a horrible ghostly face pressing against the protagonists face a striking visual image, the horror for me, came from this unwanted intimate contact with a foul creature. What is worse is this scene takes place in a confined space, inside a well, at night.

So with text chosen I started sketching out the image. I work completely digitally and I will start sketching directly in Manga Studio, in black and white and work up the image to completion in Manga Studio. The reason for doing this is I have complete freedom to erase things, to cut and paste parts of the image and to quickly block in with areas of tone. This approach works for me because sometimes I have an image in my head which I then try to ‘shape’ on the screen but on other occasions I’m not sure what I want and through experimenting on the computer, an image ‘evolves’.

With this illustration I had a strong image from the text of the man’s facing touching the face of the ghostly presence. Here are my first three roughs;

ghost story rough 1  ghost story rough 2ghost story rough 3

There was also a mention of tentacles in the next line, so I included them. So far ok, but because it is all to do with the characters facial reaction and the horror he feels I decided to stop doing roughs and work on his expression. I found some models of older men from my collection of photo reference books and created this…


I liked the character I came up with so I cut and pasted him into a composition with the ghost.

ghost story rough 1

The big problem with this approach was that the character I had designed in isolation didn’t quite look right when placed in the composition, he wasn’t looking at the ghost who appears from a hole in the wall of the well when the hero finds the hidden treasure.

ghost story rouh

So I scrapped the background and started on a new ghost. But the character wasn’t working for me now, there was no sense from his expression that he was utterly terrified. So I started again and created a new character, again based on photo reference.

ghost story rough

I liked the face but the angle was wrong.

I tried a completely new composition…

ghost story rough

This was working so I worked it up, adding colour.

ghost story rough

Tech note, I added the colour using colour adjustment layers, mainly set to Overlay. This feature will be familiar to users of Photoshop but they have been available in Manga Studio since version 5.

I liked the composition, the ghost is not clearly described in the text so I was going with a faceless presence kind of thing. I wasn’t happy with it, the character was younger than I imagined (my wife said it reminded her of Doctor Who), so it was back to the drawing board.

I was happy with the composition so far so I just redesigned the hero and ghost… again.

ghost story roughghost story rough

It was working for me and the Edwardian setting of the story was coming through. But the facial expression was not communicating terror so ….

ghost story rough

The gritted teeth went.

Guess what, I wasn’t satisfied and started the whole thing again from scratch. It was both the expression of the character and the design of the ghost that wasn’t working, the shapeless mass idea was not coming through.

ghost story rough

On this attempt I used reference photos of an ape’s skull for the ghost and included a hand on the human character to add more context. Oh hang on now it looks like they are having a smooch!

Here we go again… I changed the human character completely and worked into the ghost skull character to make it more of a face.

ghost story rough

It was working so I added into it.

ghost story rough

Then I added colour (maybe it should have stayed in black and white but I thought it might look too obvious for a ghost story).

ghost story roughghost story rough

I felt is was working but needed something more, so I added a hand to the ghost.

ghost story rough

When I reached this point two things occurred to me, one the human victim looked creepier than the ghost and two, this was much more important, I had created this finished piece…. WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SIZE GUIDE! The idea of the competition is that the winner is commissioned to illustrate the rest of the actual book, therefore the guidelines state that the images must be portrait format and must be in the size ratio supplied in the rules. I had ignored this pretty much and my image was far too wide!!!! There is an important lesson here, always use a size guide when a certain size is requested. Paste it into your working file if you work digitally or cut out a paper frame if you work on paper/canvas etc.

THEN I HAD AN IDEA. I’ll turn the human character from the last image into the ghost, this will give him a more solid look, more relatable. For the human character I found a face in a reference book. Note the size guide has appeared in my work file.    ghost story rough

 ghost story rough

This is the image with the previous human character, ghostified and pasted in as black and white line next to my new human character. Now it was working for me, it had that intimate horror feel I was aiming for.

I added a less intense and more limited colour palette, also I was adjusting the composition to fit in with the size/proportion guide.

ghost story rough

Finally I was happy with the result.

ghost story rough

Looking back I’m shocked at how many attempts I’d made at this illustration. There is probably a clear lesson here. I should have created far more initial sketches, different composition ideas, perhaps don’t focus on the faces alone, do more of the figures, express the horror through body pose maybe, even choose a different part of the story to illustrate. I would have suggested all those options if I was giving someone else advice, but I didn’t do that. I got obsessed by expressing that one line and the image it inspired. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to do but I enjoyed the journey. The other two illustrations plus the cover design are on the gallery page of my blog. I didn’t get on the shortlist for the competition in the end, but I learned a hell of a lot doing those illustrations.