Wacom Art Pen Review

I’d been toying with the idea for some time of getting an art pen for my intuos 5. If you don’t know what an art pen is then you’re probably in the majority, but my intention with this post is to provide a little info for those like me- who a couple of weeks ago who was considering buying one and couldn’t seem to find enough information. For the benefit of those who don’t know what one is: it’s like a normal graphics tablet pen- but as well as sensing the usual pressure and tilt it also senses rotation.

The art pen for intuos 4 & 5
Wacom art pen for intuos 4 & 5 – Like the old grip pen but fatter, and with rotation.

You may notice after a quick google search that this seemingly small feature comes with a pretty weighty price tag (£85 on amazon at the time of writing) and that you’d have to really want that fancy rotation sensing to buy one. Well I really wanted that rotation sensing, and I’ll explain why:

It’s always been my goal with my digital artwork to make it as natural as possible both in how it looks and also how it feels to create. One of the present drawbacks of digital art that we have to overcome is the limited input we have as artists and the limited processing power we can apply to making a computer rendered brush stroke look as nuanced and elegant as real brush stroke. The technology is getting there, but we’re not there yet. It’s true that once you’ve been around a piece of software for a while you start to notice it’s handiwork everywhere you look. Not just layer styles, filters and tacky effects, but even the brush marks you see in other artist’s work. When everyone uses the same tool with the same settings you get some depressingly similar results.

Art pen and the nib holder and nibs it comes with
The nib holder and nibs it comes with

At it’s simplest a digital brush is a series of shapes stamped in a successive line and trying with varying degrees of success to look like something more natural. Thus the desire for rotation sensing- it’s one step further away from the binary on/off state of computer code and one step closer to the intuitive natural feel of a real brush on canvas. Having the rotation sensitivity means you can start to emulate flat brushes and calligraphy pens in a way that isn’t possible without.

So obviously I eventually decided to get one. I’m always filled with trepidation at the idea of forking out lots of money on new kit when I have no idea how useful or reliable it will be, but in the end my curiosity got the better of me. So enough rambling, what’s it like eh? Well, If you’re anything  like me you’ll always want to hear the bad bits first- that’s what anyone who’s considering buying one really wants to know about right?

My main issue with the art pen is that it can quickly become quite laggy- not great for realism and natural feeling brush strokes. According to wacom the art pen sends a lot more data to the tablet than the default “grip” pen- which therefore means the delay before the data gets to your computer is greater. We’re talking fractions of a second here, but the effect remains noticeable when you make fast brush strokes. Annoying really. You can see the effect of a fast brush stroke in the image below:

Demonstration of art pen brush strokes
A fast stroke in photoshop vs a slow one. Both are made from right to left. Notice the taper on the top stroke where the rotation angle has changed.

Moving the art pen too quickly means the tablet simply doesn’t seem to have time to process the rotation data before photoshop wants to render its position data and so the brush rotation appears to veer wildly off towards its opposing axis. I made a post in the wacom support forum to see if there was any solution- apparently not- I was advised to paint slower. Hm.

One other lesser thing to be aware of is that the photoshop brush ghosting seems to lag a little. Basically, as you rotate the brush around the brush cursor doesn’t keep up with it very well, but when you’re painting you don’t really notice, since you quickly develop an intuitive feel for where it should be anyway. The only problem the software has with actually rendering the strokes correctly is the aforementioned speed issue.

So what about the good points? Well besides from the above I’ve found it to be quite good. It does what I wanted and it’s a pleasure to use. All but the fastest brush strokes work well. If you’re used to the grip pen it’ll take some getting used to as it’s a bit fatter and heavier, but it soon feels natural.  My art pen now functions as my brush, and my old grip pen with a high friction nib in it works as a pencil or a pen for linework.

So overall, I’d say it’s a worthwhile investment for digital artists looking for that little bit extra control and variation in their brushwork. Be aware that the extra data the tablet sends requires extra processing- so if your computer struggles much with normal strokes you may wish to give this a miss for now. Like I wrote earlier- digital art has a long way to go before it rivals the intuitive and chaotic pleasure of traditional media, but for me this is one step in the right direction.

Update (November 2014): After using the Art Pen for a year or so, I’ve found it to be very useful, but only for drawing with rotation brushes.

The stroke it makes is not as elegant as the grip pen at all- possibly I received a dodgy one, but it never seems to register the lowest levels of pressure. Even pressing at it’s lightest it makes a sudden splodge on the screen, rather than an elegant transition from thin to thick- so it’s really no use at all for delicate strokes. All in all my advice is to stick to the grip pen unless you really really want rotation.

For anyone who does own/decide to get one- I’ve uploaded some rotation brushes for photoshop which you can download for free here: http://spikedmcgrath.com/download/Toms%20Rotation%20Brushes.zip

Line Art

Lately I’ve been interested in trying something a little new for me and concentrating solely on black and white line in my personal work, here’s a couple of things from sketchbook:

The above image was drawn with a no.2 round brush with India ink, the below images were done with a number of technical and fibre-tip pens.


One of the key skills of successful freelance illustrator is the ability to prioritise, to be able to use one’s time wisely and effectively. After all, time is money.

Which makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing up at this time in the morning after having spent the last four hours or so creating the three pieces of artwork you see below, which are intended for my little sister to take into school tomorrow and give away to her friends (for free!(apparently eight year-olds don’t have money)). Still, I’ve been getting a little rusty at the traditional painting what with having been using Photoshop for long, and it felt nice to have a break from the computer in favour of drawing inks and foul smelling masking fluid.

I’m rather pleased with how the barn owl turned out actually. 🙂

Airships of Oberon

I recently completed some work for a lovely chap who’s putting together a new Steampunk-themed board game called “Airships of Oberon”.

I was originally commissioned to complete the above six card illustrations, which each represent an individual element in the game, from left to right: Autumn, Animal, Wind, Water, Metal and Grass.

After that, I was given the job of producing the box cover art for the game, based on a pretty complex brief. It had to include:

  • A happy couple in a steampunk Edwardian street
  • Airships flying overhead.
  • A steam-powered car or two
  • Clockwork dragons circling a tower in the distance.
  • Bright, happy colours. 

I’m still getting to grips with the best way to compose these complicated fantasy images with so much stuff going on, but myself and the client were both happy with how it turned out. Now, back to the last stretch of university work.

Norman’s Rocket

I’ve almost finished Uni. what a terrifying thought. Apparently I have ten weeks left to prepare myself and my portfolio for the big bad real world, which is… nice.

So having just finished the penultimate university project of life I think now is perhaps a good time to show you the stuff I’ve spent the last few weeks on:

These are all illustrations from my latest creative endeavour a children’s picture book entitled “Norman’s Rocket”. The title was inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark, though the story itself has very little in common with its inspiration. It’s essentially very stupid and involves vegetables. Also, it rhymes.

“Prince Norman was a beastly child
loud and rude and very wild.
In fact dear reader I can bet,
a more spoilt child you’ve never met”…

More stuff coming up soon.

Tales from the wasteland – The Airship Docks

Today I’m uploading another brief walk-through of how I approached one of the images I produced for Smokey Bastard.

This time it’s an image of a steampunk airship dock, port of origin for the crew of the “Widow Garret” which you can see docked in the bottom left of the images.

The brief was very clear as to what the band wanted, I had to show them as they are inthe cover image painting, stood on front of their airship with the bustling industrial docks behind them. Initially I didn’t know how to approach such a complex image so to get the image under way I started with a rough pencil sketch on paper to try and get the image worked out in my head (the sketch below is actually the 3rd I think). At that stage I still wasn’t ready to approach the final image so I made a very rough google sketchup model to give me a solid understanding of all the perspective involved. I then exported the model  into photoshop and painted over it until I had the beginnings of my final image.The next stage was simply adding more detail to the already blocked out image You can see I messed about with the colour scheme a bit. It was looking a bit too serene in the second image.The final stages of an image are often the most enjoyable, and by the time I was up to the images below I had the fun job of simply adding little details and correcting small problems. The sky colour got changed once again to look more oppressive and industrial, and a handful of airships got added to the sky. along with the crowds below.The finished image:You can buy the album here, which you should because it looks lovely and you can get a limited edition poster that I also did for the band (as well as a poster of the image above)
… Also, the music is very good.

Listen to some of the Tracks
Buy the album

Tales From The Wasteland cover art

It’s not often the ideal job appears, but I can honestly say that there’s very little else I’d rather do than be paid to make steampunk themed illustrations. This was one of those jobs.

With the recent release of Smokey Bastard’s new album; Tales from the Wasteland, I’ve been given permission to post the the artwork I made for it back in April. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a little bit of a step by step image showing how I did it. (Click the image to enlarge it)

This artwork forms the front cover of the album, however the entire album is illustrated so when you open it out you get a panorama of a wasteland with an airship flying into the distance. There’s also a double sided poster showing an airship dock and a cutaway plan of the airship. Basically- it’s awesome. Even if I do say so myself.

The first image in the sequence was actually drawn by Chris from the band so sadly I can take no credit for the idea nor the composition. The second sketch was my rough re-drawing of the original image in pencil.

The first monochrome image was roughly blocked out with the brush tool in Photoshop over the top of the scanned-in line art, then refined further to reach the third image.

Once I was happy with the tones and the forms I overlaid a layer of flat colour on overlay and started to paint the colours over the top of the tones. Admittedly this took me some time and didn’t look brilliant at the time, since I was new to the technique. I’ve got it nailed now though! The final image shows the completed artwork with a few colour edits and refinements.

Observe the final cover artwork above! I’m afraid I can’t lay claim to the lovely Victorian text, that was the work of Stuart Smith.  Copyright for the above image belongs to Smokey Bastard.

You can buy the album here, which you should because it looks lovely and you can get a limited edition poster that I also did for the band
… Also, the music is very good.

In a few day’s I’ll post how I made another one of the images for the album.
Listen to some of the Tracks
Buy the album

Yet more concept art

Here for your perusal is yet more exciting horror themed concept-art. For the most part I’m not too pleased with it. I can do better, but I don’t have the luxury of time. I have a uni crit session in 5 hours and I expect I’m going to get toasted. I deserve to. I ought to concentrate better in… oh look at that pretty cloud! Although I am pleased with how the nun turned out.

The McGrath Manifesto 22/09/2011

I’ve just finished writing the most interesting thing I’ve written for a long time; my swanky new manifesto. In uni on Wednesday we were given the enjoyable task of each writing our own personal manifestos in the spirit of recent popular art movements. In theory I dislike any kind of dogmatic rules or assertions that can so easily be bent out of context or broken under the weight of previously unconsidered facts, however I really enjoyed writing these as I’m quite opinionated, even if I later find myself to have been a narrow minded fool (which is OK insofar as I consider it progress). I was considering starting a one man art movement and calling it “Tomism” but I decided that was gratuitously inane. It is of course all opinion, so if you deign to read it please take it with a pinch of salt. That said, if you disagree with it you can sod off.

The McGrath Manifesto 22/09/2011

Being an opinionated list of idealised principles a true artist should aspire to maintain.

Art should be:

1         Sincere and unpretentious.

Art should never be made purely for the purposes of making one appear “avant-garde”, devoid of any depth, meaning or skill. A blank canvas or a lump of formless concrete does not constitute valid art and should not be elevated to an unwarranted status under the pretension that the philistine general public simply “does not get it”. Such “art” can only be described as posturing, uniting an elitist few in contempt for the majority. This posturing serves only to undermine hard working and genuinely creative individuals.

2         As original as humanly possible

Great art cannot be mass produced, nor should it be. So long as humanity possesses its capacity for original thinking humanity ought to think in an original manner. It is all too easy to replicate a tried and tested formula, to resort to clichés or to mimic earlier successes but to do so is to stall your development as an artist, by its very definition creativity demands originality.

3         Recognised as a skill like any other

To create great art requires great skill. Like any other discipline the artist must hone their skill though hard work, determination and ceaseless practice. While innate talent may account for some small measure of success, no artist ever achieved their potential without dedication and hard work. This truth is of particular importance no matter what stage an artist is at in their personal development. There will always be people better than you; the trick is to shorten that list.

4         Inspirational

A true work of art demands a reaction from its audience, anything less than this is purely decoration, incidental, on par with hotel wallpaper, pavement slabs, novelty toilet paper and every other mundane aspect of life we walk over, walk past or wipe up with. True art demands a reaction, good or bad, engages on an emotional level and does not require an explanation. An artist should not fear be a bad reaction to their work, but no reaction at all.

5         Not purely sensationalism

Since time immemorial schoolboys have been decorating their books, furniture and peers with explicit language, pictures of genitalia, bodily substances and opinionated messages about other people’s immediate relatives. Either it is time that this unappreciated art form is recognised and praised for the value it brings to our lives or we have to consider it is of possibly no value whatsoever. Sensationalism is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

6         In whatever form enables the artist to most closely realise their vision

Art can take a multitude of forms and appeal to a multitude of senses. Therefore an artist should feel no need to limit themself to one specific medium or sense. Any media that is capable of conveying the artist’s vision is valid, and that medium which conveys that vision most closely is also the most valid.

7         Able to impress a child

Children have the sublime gift to say exactly what they think when they want to and no one will ever expect any better of them. Children are unfettered by the obligation to pretend they like things; they assess things at face value on an emotional basis and have an appreciation for simple beauty. Consequently they are in a perfect position to assess the worth of a piece of art.

8         An improvement on the artist’s last piece

An artist must never accept that they cannot do better. To stand still is to stagnate. Every piece must differ and improve from the last. Take the thing you hate most about your last work and ensure it never happens again, this is the road to enlightenment.

9         Difficult

Making art is an uphill battle to some worthwhile goal, where you can stand atop the mountain of your achievement and admire the view. Challenge is the gatekeeper to success, without challenge to overcome there can be no victory and no distinction between mediocrity and greatness.

10     The artist’s greatest contribution to the world

If an artist truly loves what they do and seeks to master their field then it can only follow that the artist devotes as much of their time and love to their art as they possibly can. A great artist is remembered through their work. Make your work the most precious contribution of your finite existence, it will live much longer than you will.