Digital Sketchbook : August 2019

How time flies. Today the rain pours down and a cool breeze seems heavily to imply that summer is over- which is shame because I like that bit. Here’s a few assorted sketches from the past few months. Never as many as I’d like!

Lenovo Miix 520: Artist’s review

Lenovo Miix 520 hybrid tablet
The Lenovo Miix 520. The pen has a little clip that slots into the USB port.

I recently bought a Lenovo Miix 520. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now so I thought it was time for in-depth review for all the artists out there who might be considering buying one. This is intended to be an artist/illustrator specific review as there’s plenty of more general reviews out there.

In my opinion the Surface Pro was too expensive for what you get. Another £150 for the keyboard and pen? No thanks, Microsoft. Apple’s much lauded ipad pro and pencil was out of the question for me too, as I wanted to be able to use my current (windows) software.

The Pen

Lenovo active pen 2
Lenovo’s Active Pen 2

The pen (Lenovo Active Pen 2.0) feels OK- though it’s a bit like drawing on glass with a fine marker. It provides very little grip so it’s hard to do fine detail work. The sensitivity is fairly good but you have to press quite hard for the initial register. I’ve noticed other people do this so it’s not just me. Parallax is not an issue, and you can calibrate the pen in the Wacom settings program if you feel like it’s a bit off.

It’s quite uncomfortable for my big hands. I find pressing the bottom button difficult without cramping my hand up a bit. For some people this may not be issue at all. The top button only works if Bluetooth is active, and has it’s own separate battery. Bit daft. I haven’t found myself using it very much.

Part of the reason I chose this tablet over other options is because the pen uses Wacom technology. I hoped this would give it an edge over other pens for actual artwork- not just note-taking. Who are these students in reviews spending nearly £1000 on a device for note-taking!? Anyway I digress…

Lenovo Active pen 2 Wacom settings app

The Wacom pen software is quite limited. There’s no way to set application-specific settings to to the buttons, which I would have found very useful.

This may all seem overwhelmingly negative- but buttons aside the pen itself feels nice and solidly made, and after the initial phase of getting used to it I found it quite pleasant to sketch with. Just don’t expect it to be as natural as a dedicated graphics tablet.

The Screen

Tablet using built in stand.

The quality of the screen is fine. Nothing special. I have noticed it gets quite hot with sustained drawing or any intensive work. The combination of processor waste heat, your own body heat and the screen itself occasionally make for a pretty toasty experience.

The brightness is good but not great. You can’t really see it outside unless you’re in heavy shade, even then the glare from the reflective finish makes it hard to see. I’ve found that polarising sunglasses help – but only when in portrait mode! Otherwise the filters simply block out the screen. This a fairly common situation of course- most tablets have glossy screens- but it does mean you can’t really use it for a spot of digital plein air painting.

Other hardware

Keyboard, Active pen 2 and case. The case is a pretty simple fabric pouch,
but it does the trick and it comes free with the tablet.

The keyboard is very nice. I love how it feels. This is subjective of course. I’ve never cared for those hipstery mechanical keyboards that are really tall and clack like a Victorian typewriter. It can also light up so you can see the keys at night, and because it’s magnetic it snaps easily into position when you need it. I’ve also bought a separate USB wireless keyboard and mouse though, because a mouse is always useful and the vanilla keyboard gets in the way of your drawing hand when it’s on the screen. It also prevents you from using the tablet in portrait mode because it snaps onto the bottom edge.

Battery life is poor. When drawing or painting it can only be described as terrible. Id say about 2-3 hours max. Ive been doing nothing more intensive than writing this review for the past hour and I’ve already drained it by 50%.

It also has a noisy fan. The noise is not intolerable, but it does imply that the CPU would fry itself without the fan. It’s a moving part that uses extra power, and a potential point of failure. Fortunately it doesn’t always need to be on.

It has one USB3 port, one micro USB3 port, and a micro SD card reader. Since I’m focusing on the art sides of things here I’ll let you read more about the other hardware elsewhere.

Remote Desktop

This is something that I’ve wondered about for a while: “Can I use my powerful but location-bound desktop to do all the heavy lifting while I simply stream the output to something more mobile?” In short- “Can I work in the garden instead?”

The answer is “Sort of, yeah, a bit.”

One of the perks of using remote desktop on windows 10 is the ability to stream pen pressure input to the host PC. This works well in theory- but in practice the resulting line quality in Photoshop is so severely compromised and you can’t realistically use it for finished artwork. It doesn’t seem to have the same smoothing compared to when you use it on a local machine. It ends up a wiggly lined mess. There’s a also the additional element of network lag on top of the time the line takes to process- which makes for a rather sluggish experience.

Red arrows point to wiggly lines caused by drawing over remote desktop.

Another issue I’ve had is that certain applications throw errors when you try to start them up through remote desktop. They seem to be confused about the hardware they’re running on and won’t start. Annoyingly, this seems to apply mainly to graphics programs that are dependant on the graphics card. You can in some cases get round this by starting the program and then connecting to the computer with the application already open. However- they may still crash.

Generally speaking, if you have a decent LAN speed you can use remote desktop pretty well for most basic things. It’s sadly not yet quite there for finished artwork.


Lenovo Miix 520- The back of the tablet and the stand

I opted for the “Miix 520-12IKB ” so that’s an Intel i5 8250u and 8 gigs of RAM- which is a pretty good amount for most 2d graphics work.

Personally I want maximum performance mode for most work. Pen lag irritates me. This obviously drains the batteries faster but so be it! To get the best performance you need to ensure Windows and all drivers are up to date. You’ll also need to tweak the Intel graphics settings and make sure your windows power options are set to performance mode.

The Miix 520 works well with Photoshop out of the box- no need to disable the hated windows ink like I have to with the old intuos pro on my desktop. I’ve used it on files up to about 5000*7000px with a handful of layers. If you keep to the smaller brush sizes it works perfectly. Gestures are a pleasure to use and very responsive.

Overall I’ve been enjoying using it- mainly as a laptop. It’s performance is very good in that respect. I’ve also been doing a bit of sketching in tablet mode- the wireless keyboard works well for that- assuming you’ve got the space to set it up.


Knowing what I know now, I’d probably still buy it simply because I don’t know of any comparable alternatives that do what it does better and at the same price point.

It’s got it’s weaknesses but I’ve produced a few satisfactory sketches on it and used it for client work so I can safely say that it does it’s job. I can sketch in the garden, but I still have to go back to the desktop for the bulk of the work. Ultimately, to me the technology feels like it’s still got such a long way to go. But then I always feel like that.

TL: DR It’s alright. It’s not perfect. If you’ve been stuck at a single desk for years because you need a desktop PC to work then this may give you some other options.

Other reviews:

The Brotherhood Cover art

Here’s some more cover art- painted late last year for a book that’s just launched- “The Brotherhood” by Phil Smith

A young woman scales a giant aqueduct overlooking dark city.
The Brotherhood: Full cover art

Here’s what the blurb has to say:

Paige has a secret. A terrible, horrible secret. The worst part: she doesn’t even know what it is.

Her elvish mother’s heritage set her apart. Her father’s secret ripped her world apart. And her sister’s capture tore her apart. Paige’s life wasn’t perfect, but she was happy. But when her village is attacked, her people slaughtered, and her sister taken hostage, Paige soon learns that her parents harbored a deep, dangerous secret – a secret her sister, Olivian, may end up paying the ultimate price for.

Running for her life, Paige stumbles into a small, but formidable ragtag Brotherhood of rogue warriors hiding in the forest. Her challenge now lies in convincing them to help her rescue her sister from the clutches of the same wicked prince who tore their lives apart, all while discovering the secret that destroyed her world in the first place.

Filled with heroic tales, thrilling action, and non-stop adventure, this first installment of the ‘Eirensgarth Chronicles’ will take both young adults and old alike for the quest of a lifetime one page at a time!

If you’re interested in checking out the book you can read the prologue for free over on

The book is available for purchase on

The Brotherhood- Front cover art.
The Brotherhood: Front cover

As usual- I had a good time doing this. Book covers are one of the most satisfying things to illustrate. Thanks again Phil for the generous creative freedom!

Cover art for “Ozel the Wizard”

Here’s some recently completed work that I did for Author Jim Hodgson and his latest YA (young adult) series dubbed “Ozel the wizard.” Here’s the blurb from the back of book one- Apprentice Quest.

Cover illustration for book one: Apprentice Quest

A hopeful orphan. An incredible wizard. One boy must do the impossible to change his life forever…

Ozel wonders if he’ll ever escape his angry, fat caretaker. As the orphan hopes for a better future, a mysterious wizard gives him the gift of an apprenticeship and some unbelievable magic. But when Ozel discovers he’s the lone heir to a massive fortune, he’ll need more than a few spells to claim it. 

After learning his portly caretaker plans to steal the money first, Ozel races through a forest of blacksmiths, witches, and even the undead to protect his birthright. If he survives the treacherous Tangul forest, the orphan and his wizard may just have to stop a twisted mage to go from zero to wealthy hero.

Apprentice Quest is a young adult fantasy novel full of action and humor. If you like powerful wizards, twists and turns, and coming-of-age tales, then you’ll love Jim Hodgson’s worthy successor to the magical genre. 

Cover illustration for book two: Journeyman’s Trial

The last book in the series- Wizard’s Resolve– launched just before Christmas. If you’re looking for something that has wizards in it and doesn’t include all that tedious Quidditch nonsense then check it out over on Amazon.

Cover art for book three: Wizard’s resolve

It was a great pleasure to work with Jim, and hopefully the future will see many more opportunities to do so!

“Airlock Love”

Something a little different for me- I heard this song:

An image immediately popped into my head. It’s rare that that happens! It was a fun little distraction from my “proper” work, and a nice excuse to experiment with style and some new brushes in Paintstorm.

Vintage steampunk posters

Here’s a couple of posters I designed for a client some time back, both of them are vintage, Victorian-inspired steampunk styled efforts.

The first is a poster for a fictional airship race over the streets of Paris. “La Grande Course d’air de Paris!” I spent a long time trying to match up google Earth data with old photos of the city to get as realistic impression of the city in 1986. The design even features an old version of the Eiffel tower with it’s original top and it’s briefly-featured yellow ochre paint job.

Below are the thumbnails I presented to the client with the possible options for the finished illustration. I often think that some do a much better job of selling the idea than others and I’m often surprised by what gets chosen.

The second poster is a handbill advertisement for a lecture by the Great Detective himself- Mr Sherlock Holmes. This one features a purely typographical approach, with hand-drawn decoration similar to some period examples.

There’s a whole world of Victorian typography and hand-drawn lettering out there that’s really incredible. Despite it’s imperfections, hand-drawn lettering has a lot more charm than a digital font. It’s definitely something I’d like to explore further in future.

Prints available!

If you’re interested in purchasing any prints of my work please know that I’ve opened a print shop over on with a selection of my artwork


If anyone is interested in buying prints from me directly, or you don’t see the particular piece you’d like- just shoot me an email and I’ll get back to you when I’m able.

Please note that sometimes I can’t sell prints of particular artwork because the rights are owned by publishers or other clients.


Barbel- Notes from the character creation process

Barbel- my Overwatch style character design- is finally complete. Two and a half months of focused work has left me with something I’m relatively pleased with. There’s always room to improve though, and one of my favourite ways of doing that is to review the latest project and think of how to get better results next time.

The idea for Barbel was born sometime in early 2017- I knew I wanted to make a 3d character in the style of Overwatch, but I din’t have any specifics beyond that.  Then one day, the idea came to me- almost fully formed- which never happens usually and is not be relied upon.  I wanted a giant catfish armed with a trident like one of those Roman gladiators. I could see him hunched there in my mind’s eye doing some kind of daft “play of the game” pose and making weird fish noises. He had a space helmet full of water though. I ditched that early on.

What I learned:

In concept art 3d is superior to 2d.

Sketching is obviously a very fast way of presenting ideas, but the fact is that some ideas just don’t occur to you simply because you’re thinking in a 2d way.

When you have a lump of 3d clay and you can quickly manipulate it without preconceptions- you begin to think in a more 3d way and consider how forms twist and turn as they travel through space- how the silhouettes look from all angles rather just one or two key profiles, or how things overlap. All this stuff is obviously possible in 2d- it’s just harder.

It’s also pretty tedious to redraw a character from the back or the side, just so you can see a few areas to decide how they’ll look. In 3d you have one model- and you can see any angle you desire and what’s going to go there. Playing around in Gravity Sketch and Oculus Medium led to a few happy accidents that helped me overcome design challenges I was having at certain points. Which leads me on to my second point…

VR is the best way to concept design in 3d.

Wherever I thought that the 2D concept was underdeveloped or not clear enough I would play around in Medum or Gravity Sketch and quickly come up with a solution. Arguably you could use Zbrush or Maya or something traditional, but the immediacy of reaching out and drawing a line in the air, of genuinely working with three dimensions of input rather than the two offered by the monitor screen, of  being completely immersed in a world where only you and your work exist- is pretty damn special! VR may be a little clunky at the moment, but it more than compensates for it by allowing for a state of flow that surpasses traditional modelling.

It’s also really fast. The aforementioned three dimensions of input mean you don’t have to move the camera every time you want to do a simple operation such as moving an object along an axis that isn’t perpendicular to the viewport. True stereoscopic vision means you don’t have to move the camera to get an understanding of form either. On top of all this- you can move, rotate and scale objects all at the same time, even as you move your view around.

Colour and form should be designed together

Good colour design requires you to balance different key colours, secondary colours and accents. If you have a model ready to texture and you haven’t decided how to balance these colours, you may find some areas of colour or material are bigger or smaller than you’d like, and it’s too late to change it easily.

By contrast- if you deal with colour and form at the same time you’ll get a much more immediate impression of how your design is going to look when it’s finished and textured. If you deal with this at the concept stage you have a lot more freedom to play with the design so that the hierarchy of shape and colour works as you’d like.