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Sketchbook Pro and the Wacom Cintiq 18sx as a Working Pair

John Cawley interviews David DePatie about the creation and evolution of the Pink Panther.

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The Wacom Cintiq 18sx tablet and a screenshot from Sketchbook. © Wacom. © Alias.

At the 2003 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Jose, California I came across what I believed to be the next big thing for computer artists. At the Alias booth, they were running a copy of their then brand new software Alias Sketchbook Pro on Wacoms also new 18 Cintiq LCD tablet. Without even trying it I knew that this was huge. These two tools just immediately felt like the next generation. I was lucky enough not only to try it back then, but again this past month. I would like to take this opportunity to review the two tools independently and also as a working pair.

Wacom 18" Cintiq First Impressions

Wow. That was my first impression. I remember back in 1990 when I got my first Wacom tablet. It was a huge, non-pressure sensitive monster. It was heavy like you would not believe with a bunch of thick cables connecting it to my computer. Learning to use a tablet took time since you had to become accustomed to drawing in one place and looking at another. As the years passed, my tablets got smaller, lighter, more comfortable and pressure sensitive. Now with the invention of the Cintiq series, the tablet is once again a huge monster but it is worth it. The tablet portion alone is 17 lbs. and its dimensions are 18.4"x16.0"x2.8." On top of that is a really thick cable that adds a pound or two and then there is the metal stand. Later, I will talk more about the weight, but as a note, that is basically the only major drawback of this Wacom.

Alias Sketchbook Pro First Impressions

At first glance, one might think that Sketchbook Pro is just a simple drawing program with a lightweight interface. Well, that is correct, but in a good way. Alias did an amazing job at getting rid of all of the junk and left only the most important tools for drawing. All of the extra selection tools, filters, complex alpha channels, etc are nowhere to be seen. The interface has been equally simplified. Just a small little nub in the bottom corner of the screen suffices as a portal to all of the tools in the package. The drawing tools were a breeze to use and immediately yielded great results. It really felt like a digital sketchbook.

Setup

First things first: setting up the new hardware and software. Alias Sketchbook Pro installed with no problem. The Wacom needed the Wacom drivers, which I downloaded from its site. Only the physical placement posed an installation issue for me. I run a dualview setup, so I figured I would replace my main 19" monitor with the Wacom Cintiq. The 18 Cintiq ships with an Imac-like adjustable stand. You can position, tilt and rotate the big tablet monitor so that it is most comfortable for drawing. Rotating the tablet while drawing is a snap. It is a great bonus to be able to spin the tablet around as if you were spinning paper around while drawing. Placement on the desktop exposed a few issues:

Where do I put it? It is large, so I will need to actually move my monitor off of the desk.

If I want it near me to make use of the awesome new adjustable stand for drawing, my keyboard needs to go somewhere else but where? You see, if the tablet and stand are right in front of you for drawing, there is no room for anything else. So my keyboard needed to shift to the side. This is no problem if I am in Sketchbook Pro because they ingeniously created the software for tablets so no other input is needed. However, as a production artist I need to work in 3ds max, Photoshop and also mail and web apps like Firefox and Thunderbird. All of these need keyboards either for writing text, navigating 3D or using shortcuts.

The solution? Well, you could maybe get a swing-arm for your keyboard and move it in place or get one of those sliding drawers for under your desk. The whole keyboard issue is sort of a big deal. Personally I would have liked to see the Cintiq ship with software that emulated a keyboard on the bottom of the screen or even put a physical, lightweight keyboard into the Wacom hardware itself. Even a Palm Pilot-style writing system would have sufficed for the text apps issue.

Since I was focusing on the Sketchbook Pro/Wacom tag-team review, I threw my keyboard aside and moved on. After launching Sketchbook Pro, I hit my first hurdle. For some reason, the software cannot handle dualview. When you make a mark, the mark is drawn many inches away from the actual stroke that you created. I read some online help and found that I can shut off dual view and the software will work fine. This is unfortunate since many digital artists use two monitors in a dualview setup.

Alias Sketchbook Pro is so incredibly lightweight that it launches in just a few seconds. Once everything was installed, the app was open and the tablet was ready the magic started.

Using the Two Tools as a Pair

These two tools are fantastic together. Alias Sketchbook Pro is incredibly easy to use and it took me about two minutes to become totally proficient at the new gesture based interface (read below). In seconds I was sketching using a realistic pencil tool, spinning the tablet around to make quality marks, moving the tablet closer to me and zooming in to do some inking with the marker tools. It was amazing.

The realistic pencil tool is a big bonus for Cintiq 18sx. © Wacom.

The Cintiqs pressure sensitivity is top notch and the drawing surface feels very natural. Early tablets were too slippery but every new generation of Wacoms bring a more tactile, paper-like drawing surface. The biggest bang with the Wacom is, of course, the ability to look at the same surface that you are drawing on. This is enormous! No more disconnection between looking at your monitor and drawing two feet away on a tablet on your desk. The only improvement that I can imagine regarding the drawing surface is that, currently, you draw at what appears to be a millimeter off the digital paper. When these two surfaces meet, it will be perfect. Finally artists can draw and paint like they are supposed to! I really cannot over exaggerate this point. This is a big moment in art/tech.

Alias Sketchbook Pro is nothing to scoff at either. This incredibly intuitive program does just one thing and does it amazingly well. The drawing tools are excellent and the traditional-tools style of implementing layers is great. In fact, reviewing Alias Sketchbook Pro is difficult because it is simply an amazing simulation of sketchbook drawing. It feels just like normal drawing (especially if used in conjunction with the Cintiq). Pencils feel like pencils, markers like markers, airbrushes like airbrushes, etc.

The one issue that I had with Alias Sketchbook Pro is that there seems to be a bug where some tools cannot smoothly transition from sub-one-pixel thick strokes to thick strokes without an obvious jump. (Picture 1). I tried many computers and even multiple Wacoms (Cintiq, intuos and graphire), but could not solve the problem. Hopefully this bug will be addressed soon.

Alias implemented a gesture-based tool picking system a trend that is becoming increasingly popular (Firefox, Maya, Opera, 3ds max). The tools can be placed on the bottom right or left for artists of both preferences. (Picture 2) While the pen-flicks are very easy to pick up, it would be great for Alias to use the middle click button on the tablet stylus as a hotbox of some sort. That way you dont even need to go to the toolbox to switch tools.

The layers are a breeze to use. Each layer has a context sensitive gesture system affiliated with it, so that by flicking while over a layer (in the toolbox) you can hide, show, add, delete and merge layers. In fact, one really fun thing is that the layers are labeled with your handwriting. When you choose to name a new layer, it opens a box. Just scribble what the layer is and it shows it to you in the toolbox. You could even do iconographic shorthand instead of text it is up to you. (Picture 3)

While drawing, keeping the tablet up on the stand is a real pleasure, but trying to draw with it in your lap is not really an option. As I mentioned earlier, the tablet is quite large and the cable is cumbersome. In a few years when LCD tablet technology is paper-thin and wireless these will be great for lap drawing, but right now the 18" Cintiq is not quite there. (Note: I have never used the tablet PCs or the smaller model of the Wacom, but I imagine these are quite a bit easier to use as lap-tools.)

From sketching to more detailed work, the Cintiq 18sx and Sketchbook may change the way digital art is created forever. Images Courtesy of Alias.

Conclusion

Will these tools change the way digital art is created forever? Yes, I believe so. Alias Sketchbook Pro is a sleek, inexpensive application that is near flawless as a drawing tool. Industrial designers, concept artists, fine artists and more will find this a refreshing change from the now bandaged-up, archaic Photoshop and the way-too-complex and hard-to-use Painter and Deep Paint.

The Cintiq, while not perfect, is pretty close. It is a dream come true for digital artists. While the price tag of $2,499 (recently reduced from $3,499) is still quite steep, it is an investment that some digital artists will find more than worth it. I have found that the Cintiq has really revolutionized the way that digital artists create their work. Some day these will be as affordable as a standard Wacom Intuos and that is the day when digital art will really blossom.

Ryan Lesser teaches animation at his alma mater the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His animation company (Mammoth Studios) has worked on projects for Phish, Sony, MTV, De La Soul, Madison Square Garden and others. Since 1999, Ryan has served as art director and game designer at Harmonix, a Playstation2 game developer. Here he has helped produce award-winning games like Frequency, Amplitude and the Karaoke Revolution series. Ryan also maintains a Providence, RI-only underground music site.

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