Thursday, 28 August 2014

Artist review - 40 days with the Wacom Cintiq Companion - Part 4: A drawing for sale

Update: New revised version - that's more me!

"Is there honey still for tea?" : Digital drawing : 40 x 30 cm : Limited edition of 10
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Herbert
Due to the hardware problems, I'm about ten days behind where I wanted to be in evaluating the Cintiq Companion, but I finally had time to do a drawing using the excellent ArtRage package. I'll be writing an evaluation of ArtRage on the Cintiq shortly, but in the meantime, here's the finished result.

For sale as a signed & numbered limited edition of 10 copies on eBay here -> By purchasing you'll be helping pay for my MA in Fine Art at Aberystwyth, which I'm starting next month.

"Is there honey still for tea (detail) : Copyright © 2014 by Martin Herbert
My contribution to the 1914-18 war commemorations I guess - it didn't actually start out that way, I was experimenting with shapes and stencils to see what happened and it just sort of fell out. The title "Is there honey still for tea?" is of course from the last line of Rupert Brooke's poem The old Vicarage, Grantchester. It was written in Berlin in 1912 when Brooke was recovering from an illness, and it is widely held to reflect the idyllic England for which his generation would be fighting only two years later, and which was ironically to all but disappear as a result of that conflict, even though Britain actually 'won' in that struggle.

Two years later, in 1914, Brooke wrote what are undoubtedly his most famous lines "If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England." He died on St. Georges day 1915 en-route to Gallipoli.

"God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go"

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Artist review - 40 days with the Wacom Cintiq Companion - Part 3: Quo Vadis ?

Page of notes from 'Bamboo Paper' running on the Wacom Cintiq Companion
You'll recall that the Wacom Cintiq Companion which I have on loan for test and review purposes turned out to have a dodgy audio chip and selfie-cam. The replacement Cintiq Companion (a.k.a. Wacom ) has now duly arrived, and happily all hardware tested OK this time.  I have to say although the audio quality through the headphone socket or via Bluetooth speakers is fine, the internal speaker quality is complete rubbish, a problem which has been remarked on by other reviewers.

Whilst I was awaiting the replacement, I've been messing with some apps just to get the feel of the thing, and now since the replacement arrived, I've installed a whole lot more, including ZBrush 4R6, Photoshop CC and Premiere CC, Cubase, and Microsoft Office 365. I've also got the Reactable music synthesis/sequencer system running under the Bluestacks Android emulator, of which more later, undoubtedly!  I've started working on some of the items in my test plan (above - written in Bamboo Paper with the Pro Pen - nice!).

In the meantime, however, playing with all this stuff has thrown up some odd adjustment stuff ... when Wacom asked me to review the Cintiq Companion I suspect they were not after existential musings, but ... the following is transcribed from a Bamboo Paper notebook page written this morning.

Maybe this is a restart of the 'Artist Pages' (blame Julia Cameron's 'The Artist's Way') which I used to write longhand on my original tablet PC using Windows Journal, or maybe it's just a brief note, but ... Artist's Block is a thing. :-( Hear that?  I have absolutely no idea what to do.

Pick a different colour maybe (note: pen changed colour here) ?  Anyway ... I'm feeling constricted by having to put a piece of computer hardware though its paces, getting more and more anti-tech as I go along. I'm not sure why this should be - I found using a tablet PC before was a liberating experience - being able to experiment with different ideas, styles, even media without wasting a lot of paper seemed to free up some creative impulses which had been bound up before.

This time, since I started using the Cintiq Companion, I feel restricted in how I use my time, having an obligation to evaluate and report, but also creatively, like I just can't bring myself to put 'pencil' to 'paper' for fear that I'm wasting my time - for fear, I think, that I will fail spectacularly at actually producing any meaningful art.

I should just pull myself together. If David Hockney can exhibit 'paintings' made on an iPad, then I should be able to make something useful on this platform which is, after all, specifically intended for artists. So ... here goes - time to fire up ArtRage and attempt something creative.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Derwent Art Prize 2014: My shortlist

The organisers of the Derwent Art Prize (for works created using pencil media) have taken the decision to put online all of this year's entries so that members of the public can vote for their favourite for the 'People's Prize'.  The creators of the two most popular works will each win £700. ( I have no vested interest - I never have time to enter these things, and usually can't afford the entry fees anyway!). You can make your choice at up until 1st September 2014.

However, rather than just vote for a favourite, I thought "Let's play a game of 'adjudication panel'" and pick my own short-list.  Who would I choose as potential candidates for overall winner?  That proves to be quite a difficult choice - there are around 600 entries on the website to choose from.  I tackled it by going through the pages twice, stopping to click on and enlarge anything which especially caught my eye. My rule was that anything which continued to catch my eye the second time around made the short-list, and I came up with a surprisingly short list of 10 pieces (3 of which are by the same artist).

I thought the process was going to inform me about the state of drawing in current art practice, but I have to say that it ended up telling me more about my own aesthetic sense and critical faculties in ways I hadn't anticipated. My own taste in the past has run to complex lines and shading, realism and dazzling displays of technical skill. My own practice espouses a techno-steampunk-bio-organic-machinery aesthetic which seems sometimes to get more and more convoluted a time goes on. When looking at the Derwent Prize entries, however, I found myself drawn not only to style, but to content.  It became increasingly apparent that mere technical brilliance was not going to give me a sense of satisfaction with a drawing (on the other hand, concept without skill didn't appeal either). There were a great many entries which were figurative, realistic or hyper-realistic, and many were technically very skilled, but only one (below) actually caught my eye as also being artistic. Most of my choices were, surprisingly, more abstract or stylised in nature. So... my shortlist for this year's Derwent Art Prize, in no particular order ...

real fish


Choi A-Rom's real fish was the first item to catch my eye. I like that bio-organic aesthetic, and skeletons figure high in the list of subjects for that kind of art. There were many such entries, most of which looked like A-level studies (and quite possibly were) - technically proficient but soulless. real fish, however, immediately awakens my interest - it's not real - it has a tree for a tail - why? Darned if I know, but I like it.



One unfortunate thing about making up a shortlist from online photos is that subjects which aren't originally clear and simple suffer from the poor quality of the photos. If the organisers want people to make meaningful choices they need better quality photos next year! Hypnagogia by Daniella Turbin is just clear enough to make me want to see more. One of the principles I try to adhere to in my own practice is that a picture should, when seen from across the room, immediately make the viewer think "what's that about?" and prompt them to go for a closer look. Hypnagogia certainly passes that test.

time section 05


time section 05 by Auberon Bayley is again a piece which wants me to take a closer look. I love the juxtaposition of delicate colours with precise line - an ultimate expression of 'making the mark'.



I mentioned that there was one piece in the 'figurative/realistic' category which I thought was accomplished enough to make anyone's shortlist, and Rui by Lizet Dingemans is it. Supremely confident and expressive line-work makes this a serious contender in my opinion.

Feathered Remain


Now some drawings I found completely captivating in the sense of "I wish I could do that" ! Marjorie Moore entered three pieces, and I was unable to choose between them, so they all made my shortlist. They have just the mix of texture and detail which I'm trying to achieve in my own work, and the forms are instantly intriguing. Brilliant!

Drought Fire Ash #!


Feathered Flight


Feathered Flight immediately makes me think of C18th china patterns and wallpaper, giving a feeling of movement in nature.

a cure'


Sara Goudie's a cure (and its companion piece Sounding) struck me immediately and forcefully as an expression of pain and hope. I don't know the story but it makes me want to. It invites compassion, and yet tantalisingly, we don't know for what.

" muro de los lamentos "


What can I say? - I love the experience of exploring the content of collages like muro de los momentos by Cinara Kramer, and trying to figure out where the pieces come from and what they represent. I like the idea of creating collage from drawings, not by cutting and pasting pre-existing material, but by creating all the pieces individually and then fitting them together. It's a piece which draws  me in, and would probably occupy a significant portion of my time in the gallery.

Liverpool Town Hall facade


... and lastly, I had to have at least one architectural study in my list. I spent far too little time on the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year, but my feet were worn out by then! Liverpool Town Hall facade may be a bit of an uninspired title, but I really like the sense of movement, the drawing in of focus, and the feeling of a piece which is almost photographic and yet at the same time, obviously isn't.

So there we are - the shortlist I would have made in the unlikely event of my being asked to judge a major prize!  Picking two winners, I would have to say Feathered Remain by Marjorie Moore and a cure by Sarah Goudie stand out as best in show, and my choice for overall winner would definitely be be a cure. My tip for overall winner though - Rui by Lizet Dingemans. I would guess it's more likely to appeal to the public taste, but then it is a male nude, which could count against it.

It will be interesting to see if my choices tally at all when the winners are announced. The Derwent Art Prize exhibition runs from 15th - 20th September at the Mall Galleries in London and from 1st Dec 2014 - 9th Jan 2015 at the Pencil Museum in Keswick. 

Now - go and vote!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Artist review - 40 days with the Wacom Cintiq Companion - Part 2: First impressions

Wacom Cintiq Companion in the studio, teamed with Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and speakers

So - it arrived! I now have a Wacom Cintiq Companion tablet on loan for 40 days in return for some testing/reviewing/blogging, so here we go ...

First impressions:


This is where I expect the Wacom Cintiq Companion (OK - can't go on typing all that - for review purposes it's the Wacom from now on, OK?) to excel. After all, it's a premium piece of kit aimed at professional artists and designers, and the pen hardware is specifically the reason I was interested in the first place. First thing I noticed when unpacking was - it's heavy. Understand, my point of reference here is the Lenovo S6000 Android tablet I've been using as a general purpose ideas sketchbook and internet/email device for the last few months. The 10.1"-screened Lenovo weighs 550g, and the 13.3" Wacom 1.77kg. This is not a tablet I'm going to be toting round to use as a general purpose sketchbook. It's immediately obvious that one should regard the Wacom as an Ultrabook which just happens to have a touchscreen instead of a keyboard. It's a Wacom Cintiq which has become untethered from its PC/Mac mothership and is wandering around the galaxy on its own, independently powered by Windows 8, but that doesn't make it a tablet in the same sense as an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Note. Sadly, it's actually just a little too heavy to be able to comfortably hold it in one hand while drawing with the other - best think of it as a portable graphics workstation.

The screen quality, and the response of the all-important pen, are as good as hoped, and it runs the software I've installed so far perfectly ably. Unfortunately, there isn't so much of that because ... problems.  The audio subsystem basically didn't work - no sound output from the headphone jack, and the internal speakers are barely audible even at full volume. I also found that the front-facing (selfie) camera isn't working at all, so - I haven't installed a lot of software for testing yet because it's about to be exchanged for another unit which is on its way from Germany - an unfortunate start to the review period. Guys - if you're going to send out a review unit (and hope I'm going to keep and pay for it at the end) - you should probably have someone systematically test that everything works before mailing it, OK?

One other note about the screen - it's a full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels, which at 13.3" actually means the writing is a tad small for my 57 year-old eyes - I had to increase the text size to be able to use it comfortably, and using the XenoDream interface, which has a lot of little boxes full of numbers to fill in, is a bit of a strain. Not Wacom's fault, but it would be a lot easier if pinch-to-zoom actually worked on the Windows 8 desktop, which it doesn't. Frowny face.

Hardware conclusion - very chunky - not a tablet in the sense of the iPad, but more of a portable graphics workstation. Design is good (the function keys are already coming in useful, and the pen quality really is great, with 2048 pressure levels, 5000+ dpi, and 60 tilt levels). Screen density is a bit high for legacy apps. Build quality - meh. Two return-to-base faults, and I haven't even tested everything. I hope I just got a dud and this doesn't normally happen but rest assured, when the replacement arrives, I will be testing absolutely every port and feature before even thinking about a purchase.

Operating System:

Just a brief note since, as I say, Windows 8 isn't Wacom's fault, but.... why 8?  For an expensive bit of kit, surely it could come with the latest OS and drivers already installed ?  This is a salient point since one of the first things I discovered was that the pen calibration seriously didn't work in portrait mode (others have documented this problem on the net).  Fortunately, upgrading to Windows 8.1 and removing and reinstalling the latest Wacom driver as recommended fixed the problem. The pen calibration is now spot-on and it does indeed remember separate calibration setups for the 4 different screen orientations. This is important since if, like me, you're left-handed, you're going to want to use the machine with the function keys/feature buttons or whatever they're called on the right, since your left hand is going to be busy with the pen ... oh... that reminds me... if you're left handed, don't even think of putting screen brightness on 'Auto'. As soon as you move your hand to the left, it obscures the ambient light sensor which in this orientation is in the bottom left-hand corner, and the screen goes dim. Doh. Maybe a more central position would have been better?


There isn't any. There, that was easy, wasn't it ? Well, OK maybe there's a bit to say. Wacom's philosophy is that it really is a professional item, not a consumer one, so there's no point in putting in a lot of bloatware which no one wants, as every user is going to have their own ideas about what graphics packages etc. they're going to need. I'm a case in point - I'm a fine-artist, not a graphic designer. I have no interest in Adobe Illustrator or Autocad or most of the things that designers use. I do however use XenoDream quite extensively, and plan to make a lot of use ZBrush and Premiere. I want to write custom software using processing and p5.js and compose weird videos, and I plan on using ArtRage far more than Photoshop. Oh, and sound-art - I need those speakers working, OK? .. for Virtual ANS, MixTikl and Cubase ...

So .... I'm waiting for the replacement hardware before spending a lot of time installing software to test, but in the meantime, the one thing I really wanted to try was Wacom's own Bamboo Paper, just made available for Windows 8 and Android. I had the idea that I would have this instantly available as instant ideas sketchpad and notebook - maybe even use it for lecture notes during my MA course (about to happen in September. Yes, I know, I'm 57. Whatever). Hmmm... it works nicely. I can sketch and write, it feels natural, looks great and apparently there are new creative packs with different papers etc. coming soon which will make it even more useful. Now, let's save my sketch as a picture file. Oh. you can't. There is no 'Save to file' option, only 'share' to other installed apps. Specifically, OneNote and Mail. That's it. Sharing to OneNote is broken - the image doesn't appear in the note. Sharing to mail is OK but ... it's a bit of a clunky way to get a sketch into ArtRage where I need it, isn't it? What happened to 'Save file'?  Now for the notebook. Can I export my notebook to archive my lecture notes - nope. There's no export function either. Bamboo Paper notebooks can only be read in the Bamboo Paper app. Yes, I know, it's not specific to the Cintiq Companion, but seriously ... looks like I'll be using OneNote for lectures.


Not exactly off to a flying start - sorry Wacom - 4/10 so far. However, I have another 5 weeks or so to get some real software onto the replacement unit and try it out properly, so I have a Plan. I've been commissioned to do a book cover this summer, so I'm going to do it by creating an initial design in XenoDream, refining it in ZBrush, compositing in Photoshop CC, and rendering the finished artwork by hand-painting in ArtRage. That should put the machine through its paces, and most importantly, tell me whether I want to spend some very hard-earned cash on keeping the review model at the end of what Wacom are calling the 'UK Digital Roadshow'. (Note: I'm not in the running to win a free Cintiq Companion as far as I know - I've know idea who are these 'winners' of whom they speak).

More soon!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Artist review - 40 days with the Wacom Cintiq Companion - Part 1

Those who are attentive and have an interest in things technological for artists will remember that some time ago, I published this blog post, a comparative review of Windows 8 tablets that I thought might be  suitable for use by artists who want a pressure-sensitive pen solution for digital drawing and painting. Digital drawing is something which had become a bit of a mainstay of my practice, and which I've been a bit lost without since my old HP Tx2500 tablet PC died a couple of years ago.

Wacom Cintiq Companion
The object of the exercise was to decide which PC to specify in a large project grant application I was preparing for the Arts Council of Wales at the time. The clear winner in terms of functionality was the Wacom Cintiq Companion, which was about to come onto the market at the time. Sadly I didn't get the grant, and the project continues in a much reduced form. I resigned myself to carrying on using a standard non-pressure-sensitive Android tablet for the moment, and possibly getting a much cheaper Windows model like the Samsung Ativ Tab 3 later on…

Moving on a few months, and I happen to notice in passing a competition being run by Digital Arts Magazine.  The winners get a Cintiq Companion tablet (!), and the runners-up get a review unit free for 40 days in return for supplying feedback on its useability for art, with a big discount off the full price if they decide to keep it at the end of the review period. All that is required is my contact details and a link to my portfolio, so I spend 30 seconds filling them in, just entering a link to my website as the portfolio address, move on, and forget all about it. Obviously they are looking for illustrators and graphic designers to assess the product, and aren't going to be interested in a fine-artist specialising in oils and egg-tempera. Some weeks later I get an email from Digital Arts. Sorry, I wasn't one of the lucky few who won a Cintiq outright, but I AM one of the 50 who get a review unit for 40 days - yay!

So - I get my new tablet after all, for 6 weeks, with the option to purchase at a reduced price if I can raise the money in time (on top of getting together the cash for my MA course fees!).  I've just received notice that my new toy has left the manufacturers in Germany and should be here soon, and will be putting it through its paces for the next 40 days, writing about my experiences as I go. It's a timely happening, since apart from fine-art work, I have a book cover commission to do, and 2 website designs to thrash out over the next few weeks. I hope the blog posts will be useful to others who're considering what is, after all, a very expensive purchase for an independent artist (the full price is currently £1,599, so it's got to be worth about three iPads for that!).

So … here goes - a number of blog posts to come about how I get on. If you're an artist who's interested in how the Wacom Cintiq Companion performs in a day-to-day arts practice, please follow the blog (see top right for links). I promise one thing though - no crappy unboxing video!

… oh, and, expect me to try to sell you some art to pay for this thing if it turns out to be as useful as I hope!