fantasy art

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.

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.