Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Willkommen in Dachau

"Willkommen in Dachau" : Found photograph with graffiti addition : 2014

Talking yesterday in a tutorial about crass commercialism, our tutor put up this photo. I couldn't believe no one else was insensitively crude enough to make the obvious joke, so it had to be done...

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Artist review - 40 days with the Wacom Cintiq Companion - Part 5: ArtRage

This review is of ArtRage on the Wacom Cintiq Companion - hopefully useful for artists considering just that combination.

Update: 03 Oct 2014: Please read together with the first comment below, from Ambient Design, the publishers of ArtRage - apparently most of the issues I picked up on are either fixed in the latest version of the software, or are features I didn't manage to find!

My test period with the Wacom Cintiq Companion tablet is close to ending and I haven't managed (of course) to do half the jobs I was hoping to do. I've had a quick play with all of the following software packages and will write some notes on them shortly:

Adobe Creative Cloud - Photoshop, Premiere & InDesign.
Microsoft Office 365.
ZBrush 4R6

My main object in trying out the tablet, though, and the one I did manage to fulfil pretty well, was to give a thorough workout to ArtRage. This is the package I've used most in the past, and the one I still intend to use most in the future. For those unfamiliar with it, it's a drawing and painting package for Windows, Mac and iPad which seeks to simulate traditional media, including oil paints, watercolours, pencil, pens, pastels, and more. The result is work which can be more or less indistinguishable from that done on paper or canvas, without the mess and the expense of chucking materials at projects which might not work out!  I love the feeling of being able to try out whatever I want without wasting paper - looking forward to trying it for lightning sketches when I drop in on the undergraduate life-drawing classes at college! I first used ArtRage on an an old PC with one of the first Wacom graphics tablets and then progressed a few years ago to an HP Tx2500 series tablet PC running Windows XP, which I later upgraded to the Windows 8 Beta release.  The combination worked very well, and I was able to do some interesting work, but there were some disadvantages. The old tablet PC touch interface was clunky and unresponsive, and the processing power wasn't up to using complicated brushes like watercolour washes without the marks lagging annoyingly behind the stylus.

The old tablet expired and the new generation of light and fast tablets came along, and I was eager to see how ArtRage would perform in a suitable purpose-built environment, hence when offered the chance to test-drive the Wacom Cintiq Companion for 40 days I grabbed it!

So here we go. It works. End of review. Well, no, not quite, but to me the point about graphics software (and specifically software/hardware combinations) is that it should just do what you want it to do straight out of the package/off the download. Admittedly, as you'll know if you read earlier reviews, I had to upgrade the Wacom to Windows 8.1 and reinstall the tablet driver to get things working well, but that was pre-ArtRage Installation. So I installed ArtRage on the tablet - no annoying licencing issues - once you've paid for it you can install it on all the PCs you own (and Macs?  - as far as I remember one licence covers all). One nice little feature is that you can copy the activation key into the clipboard and when you fire up the program for the first time it automatically pastes it into the right space for you.

Then the user interface appears - none of the problems I had with PhotoShop (the interface elements were way too small, and when I used the 'experimental features' menu to increase the size, they were way too large, as that feature is designed specifically for the Surface 3's higher resolution screen. Variable scaling, please, Adobe… but I digress). The ArtRage interface on the Cintiq Companion's 1920 x 1080 screen was just the right size to use with either finger or pen.

Move straight to drawing on the screen - well, I selected the pencil tool first - the default selection at first startup is blue oil paint … god knows why.  It works - press harder, line gets darker, ease off, line gets lighter. Just what you want. Turn the pen over and scribble with the other end, it's an eraser. Press harder, eraser gets bigger. All good. The tip is very responsive to pressure - I found I had to tweak the settings in the Wacom management utility to get the full range of light to dark. The individual range is going to vary from person to person - evidently I have quite a heavy hand, and I had to experiment a little with the settings to get it just right. One gripe with the pencil tool in ArtRage, though - the Wacom pen sends tilt information to the app, and I assumed this would be mapped to tilt in ArtRage, i.e. that the more I tilted the pen over, the wider the line would become. This doesn't happen - it doesn't use the tilt info. in the pencil tool. Why?? That would seem like a pretty obvious implementation to me. It's not that it doesn't work at all - using the airbrush tool the spray pattern becomes conical if you tilt the pen. All in all, though, the combination of the Wacom pen and ArtRage is excellent. I was able to pretty much forget that I wasn't working with a real pencil on paper and just get on with creating, which is, after all, the goal.

So here's a shot of me working on the first proper drawing I did with ArtRage on the Wacom Cintiq Companion. I already published the complete drawing *here*

Drawing in ArtRage on the Wacom Cintiq Companion

Moving on, what else makes for a good drawing experience? Well, the screen texture on the Wacom is slightly matt, rather than the high gloss found on most tablets, like the Microsoft Surface 3. Imagine drawing with a fibre-tip pen on a piece of the non-reflective glass used for picture framing to cut down glare and you'll get the idea. It means the pen is easier to control and not as liable to skid around. I found it a comfortable surface to draw on, but there are a couple of downsides. Firstly, the screen is not as bright, vibrant and sharp as on a typical tablet. This isn't an issue if you're creating using a pen and drawing using 'natural' media - who cares if a pencil stroke is bright and glossy? It is an issue, though, if you also want to watch movies on your tablet, or edit photos, or videos using Premiere as I do. It's an indication to me that the Cintiq Companion is great at exactly what it's designed for - drawing and painting in the digital domain, but not so good as a general laptop replacement. Secondly, the coating used on the screen is apparently not perfectly scratch resistant. Wacom recommend not using felt nibs in the Pro pen on the Companion, which might be a disadvantage for some graphics professionals. The reason, apparently, is that people who use those nibs tend to press harder, making screen damage more likely. I've never used them, so can't really comment.

The other really important factor for natural media drawing verisimilitude is lag. Is the CPU power of the tablet good enough to render complex brush patterns in real time so your line doesn't lag behind the stylus?  The Cintiq Companion uses a Core i7 processor clocked at 2.7GHz, so the answer should be yes - and it is. The most complex rendering that ArtRage has to do is making convincing watercolour strokes, blending with the colour already on the 'paper' in real time, and I had no problem with this. Here's a drawing I did where the shading on the eyes was first roughed out using a watercolour brush, and it was just like painting on watercolour paper:

"Up Like Wildflowers" : Digital drawing - ArtRage on Wacom Cintiq Companion
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Herbert

One important tip though (thanks to Wacom digital hero type dude David Oduro for this!):  The Windows power management scheme you use is important. When running on battery I would use the 'balanced' or 'power saver' profiles in Windows. In this case you would definitely get very noticeable lag between mark-making on the screen and mark actually appearing. This is because under these power schemes the CPU speed is down-clocked to around 0.9GHz.  For a lag-free drawing experience on the Wacom Cintiq Companion - set the power scheme to 'High Performance'!  CPU speed goes right up and everything is much smoother. Another tip was to go into the BIOS settings and increase the GPU memory window size to 512MB - this will also speed up graphics performance.

The way I work in ArtRage is to set myself up a pallette of colours corresponding to the media I use in real life - sepia, terracotta and graphite pencils and Chinese White chalk and gouache for highlights. Here's a last drawing, using my 'default' toolset:

"A Leg to Stand On (Universal Credit II) : Digital drawing - ArtRage on Wacom Cintiq Companion
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Herbert

... which leads me to another tip. ArtRage has layers just like Photoshop - use them! The chalk tool in ArtRage, even setting the pressure to zero and using as little pressure on the pen as possible, is too heavy for my liking. I got around it by shading and blurring my highlights on a separate layer with opacity set to 50% or so, then merging down layers when I was happy with the results. Reducing the layer opacity gives you the capability to make much more subtle adjustments. (Obviously this doesn't work if you want the colour to blend with media already on the 'canvas'). It's when using layers that another advantage of the Companion becomes apparent - 8GB of RAM means no appreciable slowing down when using layers. I worked on all the drawings seen here at full size (30 x 40 cm) with a resolution of 240dpi, scaling up to 300dpi later for eventual printing, so makes them 2880 x 3840 pixels when working. I was able to use at least half a dozen layers at this size without issue. One slight quirk with ArtRage when working on a canvas this size though - the maximum diameter of the brush tools is quite small - they're designed for a smaller working area really, so if you want to do something expressive with oil or watercolour brushes, I would work small to start with broad strokes, then rescale the canvas to add details later. It's annoying, but the technology still isn't up to A3 paintings in natural rendered media at Retina display resolution with no visible lag. It will be, I'm sure, but give it 2 or 3 years, I expect.

Small complaint - it's necessary to zoom in and out and rotate the canvas quite a lot when working with large files, and the intuitive pinch to zoom and two fingers to rotate methods didn't work well (I was able to get pinch to zoom working by tweaking some settings, but rotate could only be done via the ArtRage canvas tool). This something that Ambient Design, the publishers of ArtRage, could usefully work on. Oh, and … feature request, ArtRage guys - I'd really like it if I could draw with the pencil or chalk tool using the pen, and then blur/smudge using my finger without changing tools - shouldn't be a problem, right? Just detect the change from pen to touch and change the tool mapping accordingly. In the next version, please. (Oh and by the way, I should say all this was done with ArtRage 3.5, so maybe all these issues are addressed in version 4! I'm just a poor artist and can't afford to upgrade right now).

So there we are - if your question was 'how well does ArtRage work on the Wacom Cintiq Companion?' then hopefully that goes some way towards answering the question. I think the Cintiq Companion is probably the best possible platform for ArtRage's natural drawing media, and I guess the same probably goes for other painting packages. I haven't had time try them though, so can't vouch for the experience (Wacom pointed me towards a trial of Corel Painter but I just don't have the time). It seems to me like ArtRage is the best package for painting digitally, and it's amazingly cheap for everything it can do (and this review is just looking at a very few features).  The Cintiq is the perfect Companion for it (cheeeezy!!).

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!

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Kindness of Strangers - Survey Results

"Encyclopaedia Xenopelagica Plate VII" : Digital painting : Copyright © 2005 by Martin Herbert

Crowd-funding is the modern 'internet-savvy' equivalent of the Amish barn-raising.  It's all about community.  Friends and neighbours rally round and donate their labour to accomplish a big task which the farmer would have no chance of ever completing on his own.  Because there are many hands, not just a few, the seemingly impossible is achieved in just a day or two.  Actually, though - all those willing friends, neighbours and family are not completely working for nothing - they are plied with ice-cold home-made lemonade, fed wholesome food, and talk into the evening around the fire, cementing community bonds which benefit everyone. Most importantly, that community spirit means that the next time a barn needs building, everyone will be there again, knowing that a warm glow of achievement and camaraderie will be theirs as reward.

Crowd-funding has a similar philosophy. Instead of the host trying to accomplish the impossible (typically, raise thousands of pounds for a new enterprise) on their own, or trying to recruit a few people to support them (making significant financial investments, loans or gifts), they prevail upon hundreds of family members, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, business colleagues or philanthropically inclined strangers to  contribute a few pounds each, ideally reaching their target in a short space of time with the help of many. But... where is the lemonade, the hog-roast, and the ice-cream?  Well, nobody (ideally), expects something for nothing. It is down to the host to offer people something engaging, fun, or valuable in return for their contribution.  In the case of tech startups, it's typically a discounted early-access version of the gadget for which they are trying to fund the development or manufacture. Film-makers might offer a signed and numbered copy of their finished DVD, self-publishing writers a dedicated copy of their book, and so on. As an artist, I'll be offering cards of my art, CDs of my music, fine art prints and completely unique original paintings in return for people's investments. At the end of the day, the barn-raisers all go home tired and happy, and hopefully with a renewed sense that with enough people, and the proper community spirit, all things are possible.

"Serenity" : Oils & egg-tempera on canvas : 5" x 5"

Being in the midst of starting a new career as an artist in middle-age, it became apparent that my credibility in the Fine Art world, saleability of my work, and therefore financial independence, would be enhanced by studying at art school. I could, of course, have chosen to do this at the age of 17 instead of 57 - actually, I'm glad I didn't, and sensibly studied sciences and went into computer programming instead. I know that life experience and the artistic knowledge I have absorbed and painstakingly learned along the way are going to make me a better artist, and mean that I really do have a chance of achieving something of artistic significance. Had I gone to college to study art at age 17, I believe I might have made a decent jobbing illustrator - nothing wrong with that, but ultimately I have my eye on the Venice Biennale, not the cover of a paperback. To start to acquire the credibility required to fulfil that sort of ambition, experience is not enough. Study at a recognised art school and a degree show (preferably reviewed and sold out) are also necessary.  So - I have a place to study for an MA in Fine Art starting in September, and a hell of a lot of determination.  I need to raise, by my reckoning, around £6,000 to cover 2 years' part-time tuition fees, materials, books and travel expenses, as I'll be commuting from home while continuing to work at my own art practice and do part-time work to help pay the bills.  I aim to make that £6k by a variety of means - I'm currently working my way through a list of around 50 possibilities including, but not limited to:

Part-time work in arts admin (pending the organisation in question getting the grant they've applied for!)
Freelance website design
Selling my artwork - some old digital print work wholesale to shops, and new paintings via dealers and galleries.
Selling some existing portrait work to the sitters at a reduced price, if they're interested
Making ACEO (Artist Collectible Editions and Originals) trading cards and auctioning them on eBay
Selling personal possessions on eBay
Applying for a career development loan
A credit union loan
Applying for postgraduate bursaries
A pop-up gallery in a closed-down high-street shop
Putting on one or more gigs with the aid of other musician friends
... and - running a crowd-funding campaign.

One thing is certain - I'm NOT expecting crowd-funding to cover the whole of my costs - I believe that is both unrealistic and lazy.

Having settled on as the ideal platform for a campaign, I last month sent out a survey form to around 1,500 people via mailing lists, social media, etc. to gauge attitudes to the idea in general. The results were at once illuminating and disturbing. I have to say, although the numbers were encouraging, I wasn't prepared for some of the comments which respondents added at the end of the form.

There was a total of 51 responses (3.4% - sounds pitifully low to me, but then I've never tried this sort of research before)

Of those who responded:
63% had heard of crowd-funding before and had some idea of how it works.
90% indicated they would be likely to contribute to a campaign raising money towards my tuition fees (yay!)
Of those who were prepared to contribute, most said that a contribution of around £10 - £20 seemed appropriate. To be fair though, I had made it a multiple choice question, and the lowest amount people could select was £10. A couple of people commented that a contribution level of one or two pounds would make them more likely to join in - noted!  The maximum possible contribution anyone selected was £100.

"Design for a Flying Machine to Escape the Bank Manager"
Ink, pencil, gouache & transfer on handmade paper
What was, however, unexpected was just how vitriolic were the comments of some of the remaining 10% who were NOT interested in the concept...

" ...if you are going to study an MA in an arts-related subject and consider yourself an artist already ..., why have you not sold enough work / earning enough income from your work to fund the course yourself ?"

" It would be useful to know why, at the age of 57, you are so short of money.  I don't mind helping anyone who has worked hard all their life and still had a struggle to make ends meet ... but I do object to helping people who are too lazy to get off their back-sides."

" Most of us would love to do some sort of hobby, (And that's what it is, your hobby, no one else will benefit) ... I think to ask for money for this is selfish. Children are going without food/clothes, elderly are going without heating, ALL charities are suffering and you want to spend our money on paint!"

" At 57 you should have enough experience to fund your own course..."

" Too many people trying to get money for themselves these days. i would rather give to a good cause/ charity or to a young person starting off in life doing art ."

It was apparent from these and other comments that there were two things in particular which worried people. The first was that the whole concept of crowd funding was in some way 'begging' - that people who use it are just selfish and are offering nothing to the wider community. In my case, and all cases, it is, of course up to the potential contributor to make their mind up just how valuable a cause is.  To be fair, the survey asked about attitudes to crowd-funding in general, which made that difficult to decide about. My campaign video and profile text goes to great lengths to explain that I'm not at the stage of having randomly decided to change career, but that in the last couple of years I've been short-listed for awards, received support from the Arts Council for my work, exhibited in public galleries, etc, and that the MA is but one step on the way to (hopefully) a career in the arts which will eventually have significant public benefit (as well as enabling me to make a decent living in a geographical area where jobs are more-or-less non-existent, especially if you happen to be over 50). My hope is that sufficient explanation of my motives and goals will win over anyone who distrustfully suspects I'm only in it for their money. Actually, I should point out that although I need around £6,000 in total, the crowd-funding campaign is seeking to raise £2,300 to guarantee I can pay the first year's tuition - at least that means I know I can start the course. The campaign funds are paid directly to the university - I don't get it myself. The rest of the money - well, I basically need to sell a lot of art!

The other big problem that people seemed to have was that I was just too old to be wanting to go to college, and besides, I should have enough savings at my age to pay for it myself without having to resort to strategies like crowd-funding.  Again, hopefully those attitudes are mainly down to lack of information. We all make life decisions - some good and some bad, and one of mine, 15 years ago, was to leave behind a £40k a year job, move to Mid Wales, and follow the dream of becoming an artist. I opened my own gallery, found a print publisher, and via many adventures and misadventures eventually made the move over to being a full-time professional artist. My work was commercial and niche-market in nature, and I made some sort of living for a while, then a couple of years ago it became apparent that things weren't going so well any more. In the 'current economic climate' art is not the first thing people think of buying. Nope - we make considerably less than what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation considers a 'poverty level' wage, we have debts instead of savings - the house is mortgaged as far as it will go, and something constructive has to be done about it. (Or should I just be "too lazy to get off my backside...")?  I made another decision - drop the work and the marketing methods which were no longer making me a living and change to a fine-art focus, admitting that trying to be a salesman is a waste of valuable time, and that I needed to do high-value fine-art work and find dealers and gallerists to do the work of selling for me (and thankfully the response so far has been encouraging). That probably constitutes a 5 year plan - and gaining more market credibility via academic qualification is just part of the process.

My decisions are mine, and nobody owes me a living. That's why I'm looking for help in building an independent financial future, not charity. In return for small contributions, I'll be offering pieces of art (see more at - whether people think that's going to worth 10 times more in a few years when I'm established is their call. Personally, I think it's a worthwhile investment to lend a hand in raising that barn.

(The crowd-funding campaign to help fund my Master's studies starts on the website on Friday 11th July.  If you'd like to know more, please sign up for the newsletter here.)

Update: 6th August 2014 - For several reasons, I've decided to delay running a crowd-funding campaign until after I actually start the course. At the time of writing, I've raised around 25% of the total funds needed for the course, through selling art and services such as website design. If you'd like to donate anyway, you can always do so via PayPal to martin [at], or email me to discuss work for sale, painting commissions etc.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Artist talk tomorrow!

"Order & Chaos" : Copyright © 2012 by Martin Herbert

In my experience, if there's one thing artists (at least representational artists who do stuff that's a bit 'wierd') get asked more than any other it's "Where do you get your ideas from?"

"Functional Pumping Heart Model (Self Portrait 2011)" (Detail) : Copyright © 2011 by Martin Herbert

Well, now we have the means to answer this most important of questions - the Artists Talk!

"Pan in Ireland" : Copyright © 2012 by Martin Herbert

Accordingly, I will be talking tomorrow about my current exhibition at the Mid Wales Arts Centre in Caersws, addressing such matters as the inspiration behind the work, the techniques used in its creation, and a little about the meaning of each piece, as well as going on to talk about the latest project and where it's all leading! Want to hear the story behind "That Tracey Emin Says My Art Looks Like a Plane Crash"? This is the place to be...!

Not only that, but you can partake of a wonderful Sunday afternoon tea featuring MWAC owner Cathy Knapp's home-made cakes - Chocolate & beetroot, anyone?

Artists Talk by Martin Herbert
The Mid Wales Arts Centre
Sunday 6th April, 3:30

Free Admission

Click here for map.

Also on show is work by Julie Jones and Daniel Roberson, a rotating collection of work by other artists and the permanent collection of sculpture by Stephan Knapp.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Spirit of the Wood

Digital art by early man, circa 1995

I've just finished finally getting online Spirit of the Wood, an album of American Indian flute music, with assorted electronic accompaniment. So where did that come from ?

In or about 1995 (I guess - my memory for dates is unsurpassably bad) I was working for The Santa Cruz Operation in Watford, England. Reading that Wikipedia page about SCO, I actually remember being at the mentioned Jefferson Starship concert at UCSC. I also recall the result was losing my voice ahead of the presentation I was giving the next morning as leader of the Unix device drivers group .... ah, happy days. The week before that company conference I managed to take some time to and camp and hike for a week in Yosemite National Park, where I did not get eaten by a bear. I'm not sure whether it was on that trip to California or another that I stopped off in Capitola village at a New Age emporium the name of which I have now forgotten (I think it was owned by a nice lady named Cheryl!), where I spent a lot of money on a really nice Native American cedar flute made by Stephen de Ruby, then of San Diego, and a buffalo-skin drum made by Tom White Eagle of the Oglala Sioux. I do remember that right after buying the flute I went up the coast to one of the Redwood National Parks and played it for the first time sitting under one of the giant sequoias at sunset.

This was a time when PCs were big beige towers and if you had a bit of cash you could actually have sound available by installing a Creative Soundblaster PC card and hooking up a pair of speakers. This was cutting-edge hi-tech in those days. I do seem to have been one of the first to realise that those sound-cards had inputs as well as outputs, and that meant it was suddenly possible to make high quality digital music recordings at home. Suddenly digital quality was no longer the sole preserve of big-money studios.

Accordingly, with the aid of a camcorder mic, the built in MIDI synth on the Soundblaster AWE32 soundcard, and a Korg synth, over many months of long evenings after work, I recorded the album 'Spirit of the Wood' - largely improvised along to electronic backings created using all sorts of software tricks as well as playing the keyboard. I used notation software, algorithmic composition, graphic scores and everything else I could lay my hands on to try out and played the flute over the top, lovingly hand-crafting every note in the Digital Orchestrator Pro sound editor module until it sounded (to me at least) perfect. The very wonderful Justine Hart contributed vocals. This was before the days when you could go straight to CD (at least within my budget) so I mastered the album digitally onto a DAT tape machine borrowed from sound engineer Chris Braclik (recently spotted on a documentary about Mike Oldfield & Tubular Bells!) and made some demos which went off to record companies.

Spirit of the Wood was eventually released a year later on cassette tape on the now defunct Blue Crystal Music label. It never made any money and although they made a CD master it was never actually released as a CD. When the record company deleted it I got the master back and it sat on my shelf for a long time. At some point I ran off the CD image onto my hard drive and it has lain there ever since.

Spirit of the Wood was made during several intense months of musical effort, largely 'in flow' as a meditative experience, and I always meant to do something more with it - it's not likely I'll ever have the time and energy to make another album, so it should be out there somewhere. Since it became possible to release music online, I finally decided to do something about it. No one may ever notice, but hey, I made a solo album and it's out there in the wild! Feel free to go get it.

Spirit of the Wood: American Indian flute and electronica: is available to stream and download on my website:

You can also stream it on Spotify.

Or if you'd actually like to optionally part with money, try these places - all sales will be helping to fund my MA course starting in September, so thanks in advance!

RouteNote (If you buy via RouteNote I get the money straight away, otherwise I have to wait)

Friday, 14 March 2014

Zen and the art of tempera medium

Magic potion ingredients
Why is adding a layer of egg-tempera medium over the under-painting not only a practical, but also a philosophical and spiritual experience?

... because, having taken to doing my underpaintings using Chroma Atelier interactive acrylic, to avoid the extended drying times of oil glazes in this benighted climate, (I have waxed unlyrical before about the fact that an oil glaze that took a couple of hours to dry when I was living under the Spanish sun now takes a couple of weeks in a more liberally humid mid-Wales), it is necessary to prepare the surface in a suitable way to get the final painting in oils to actually stick, without it embarrassingly parting company with the canvas at a sensitive stage of my career.

Egg-tempera medium is an emulsion, which is to say it contains both oil and water bound together precariously in a more or less stable mixture by the addition of a binder - in this case a beaten egg. I quickly brush on a quick even layer over the completed acrylic underpainting, to which it sticks nicely on account of being water based, and when it's dry it makes the perfect base on which to begin painting in oils, to which it sticks nicely on account of the varnish component, which contains resin and turpentine.

A practical measure then, for convenience's sake, but also a gateway from one realm to another. It marks a transition from the modern technological water-based world of working with acrylics to a realm of working deeply rooted in ancient traditions - the alchemical  discipline of oils and tempera.  I leave behind the modern and embrace the world of Leonardo and Michaelangelo.

Not only a gateway, but a transformational passage - the early stages of the painting are a technical and mechanical process, optically mixing glazes of primary colours masked by opaque white, carefully blalncing the textures of the different layers to create a 'monochrome' ground which is made, on closer inspection, of carefully controlled rainbow colours. At this stage I can still see distinctly and separately every constituent part of the process up to that point, like a complex technical drawing.  When the tempera medium is applied, however, it is a unifying force, binding all that has gone before into a single surface, a blank canvas that is no longer blank, ready for alchemical transformation.

From this point, anything can happen.

Recipe for egg-tempera medium (adapted from a recipe given by Ernst Fuchs):

1 egg
Dammar varnish (I use Kremer Pigmente no. 79300)
Refined linseed oil
De-ionised water

  1. Break the egg into a ramekin and with the tines of a fork, remove the amniotic sac from around the yolk.
  2. Put the egg into a small jar, screw on the lid and shake until the yolk and white are completely mixed.
  3. Add an equal quantity of dammar varnish and a few drops of linseed oil.
  4. Seal and mix again.
  5. Double the volume with distilled/deionised water.
  6. Mix for a last time.
The sealed jar will keep for up to 2 months in the regfrigerator. A slight smell of rotten eggs is nothing to worry about as the turpentine acts as a preservative. Discard if it gets too bad or if it curdles to the point where it can't be remixed to a smooth emulsion by vigorously shaking to jar.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Private View at the Mid-Wales Arts Centre - Sunday 23rd March

 What's on at the Mid-Wales Arts Centre

Invitation time!

As I start gearing up for the next project, "New Artifices", some of the work from the 2012/13 project "Synthesis" is going to be part of a 3-artist exhibition at the Mid-Wales Arts Centre near Caersws, Powys.

The show runs from sun 23rd March to Sun 27th April, and after the gallery's winter closure, they are reopening with a private view of all 3 exhibitions on Sunday 23rd March at 3PM.

You can read all about "Synthesis" (and have a look at some work in progress) on the website at The other artists showing work:

Julie Jones responds through painting to her relationship to landscape in all its forms, from the strange urban hinterlands to weather-beaten derelicts. Her studio work aims to develop approaches to painting alluding to both a feeling specific to a moment along with references to memory of an experience over time.

Daniel Roberson paints everyday in his studio located on a sheep farm perched at the top of a hill overlooking the beautiful Dyfi Valley in Machynlleth. A lifelong painter, he returned to education as a mature student in 2006, Daniel obtained a first class degree in Fine Art from Aberystwyth University, and a Masters degree with distinction. Since completing his education, as well as exhibiting widely throughout the UK, he has been teaching life drawing and oil painting at MOMA Wales. In 2011 Daniel was shortlisted for the Welsh Artist of the Year. He would describe himself as a painter who finds inspiration equally in both the people and places that surround him and the seemingly endless possibilities of colour and mark making.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Exhibition: Mid-Wales Arts Centre from Sunday 23rd March

 Click for the artist's website

Heads-up: While getting new projects under way, drawings from the last project, "Synthesis" will be on show at the Mid-Wales Arts Centre at Maesmawr Hall, Caersws, Powys, SY17 5SB from 23rd March to 27th April.  Selected works will continue to be shown there afterwards as part of the group exhibition for Powys Arts Month, which continues into May.

A chance for those who didn't quite make the opening at MOMA Wales last year to come and see the project. All works will be for sale. Private view details will follow soon ...

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New year, new art, new happenings

Still from "Hollow Lands" - video project in progress - 2014

So here we are with a whole new year to play with. A couple of things to report on...

Firstly I spent a lot of time at the end of 2013 preparing a grant application to the Arts Council of Wales for a new production project following on from last year's successful R&D project Synthesis, only to fail to get the funding. It looks like my plans were a little to ambitious. However, the news isn't all bad. It looks like if I revise the plans and budget and get together a little more professional support, an updated application at the end of January is apparently likely to be more successful, so I'm going to be working flat out for the next 3 weeks putting that all together. I should know the results in mid-March. Meanwhile, I have at least 3 exhibitions lined up for 2015, so I'll be spending most of this year preparing work for them, with our without funding!

As soon as the grant application is out of the way, I have to follow up on some better news - it looks like I will get a place to do a part-time MA in Fine Art at the Art School of Aberystwyth University starting this autumn, so I need to get my application form and references etc. submitted during February. Now I just need to figure out how to pay for it... hmm... maybe I feel another crowd-funding campaign coming on...

So Happy New Year, everyone - here's to 2014, and I guess I'd better get on with some art!