Testing and reviewing the Wacom companion (1st gen) in the wild – Australia Northern Territory
I’ve always been fascinated by nature, by the way things grow, by the unexpected combination of colours and the infinite shapes and surfaces that exist for unique purposes. There is beauty in nature but there is also function and I constantly refer back to it when creating a new artwork or developing a concept, because it helps me achieve something that is believable whether it is sci-fi, a creature or a fantasy landscape. I wanted to refresh my ideas and find new sources of inspiration, so I set course to the remote regions of the Australian Northern Territory to study, observe, and simply be amazed by the intricacy of all the living things that often are taken for granted. Packed in a bag there was a camera to document the trip, a sound recorder to capture what the wild had to say and, a recently acquired Wacom Cintiq companion to do one of the things I love doing the most… but this time with the Australian outback as my ‘studio’.
You learn a lot about yourself as an artist when the subject you choose to draw or paint is constantly moving and the light is constantly changing, or when you can hear the sound that your scene makes. Suddenly, everything has a personality and all the variables in your surroundings make an imprint on what you are doing… The dry leaf that fell in the spot you were drawing, the little bug that sat on your hand as the pen glid in a straight line or the moving clouds that cast a long shadow changing the contrast and colour of everything around. In other words, there is another dimension to what you are creating when you can smell, hear and touch the object you are depicting… You can begin to understand their space simply because you are in it. I felt an urge to create… Everything I saw was worth noting, and with every new location I visited, a new set of ideas were effortlessly formed in my head. I recorded and photographed as much as I could and I end up with over 10 hours of RAW video that I have summed up into this short video conveniently called Companion in The Wild.
Music by Hugo Lippens – used with permission (www.soundcloud.com/hugolippens)
Before I tell you about my experience with the Wacom Cintiq Companion, I want to make a couple of things clear: I have been using Wacom tablets for 7 or more years, however during my trip, was the very first time that I had actually worked with a Cintiq for an extended period of time. This took a while getting used to. I won’t give you a super detailed description of all the amazing specs and how many UBS ports is has or how much space is in the hard drive because there are plenty of excellent reviews out there. I just want to share my experience as an artist and show you some of the things I’ve done with it since I got my hands on it. I do, however, have to mention that this thing boots up FAST! AND it can handle a several tasks at once (when I say task I mean – I can run Photoshop, After Effects, ZBrush, etc., all at once and they run very smoothly). I honestly thought that given the size of the tablet it was going to catch fire with so many things open at once, but it kept its cool!
The accuracy and pressure sensitivity is a real treat, it is amazing how natural it feels and of course you can customise the settings for each program individually, but generally speaking is the closest thing to drawing with pen and paper that I’ve ever used. Also I think is fair to mention something about the accessories because I’ve seen some reviews criticising them, particularly the stand. I must admit that when I first took it out of the box I was not impressed, if anything I was scared to give it the responsibility of holding my new tablet but I did it anyway… Turns out, that it is absolutely perfect: it holds the tablet firmly in place, it has 3 different angles you can work at; once is on a table it won’t slide or move even when you press hard on the screen and is really light.
Ultimately, you will use it only when sitting at a desk or at a cafe, in which case you could also pull out the brilliant bluetooth keyboard and just use it as a normal PC.
In terms of portability it is perfect for me, is not as light as an iPad or a Surface Pro but is not as heavy as a laptop computer either. I used to carry my iPad around and do a few sketches or edit some photos while I was away from home, but obviously wasn’t able to do anything polished with it. I stopped most of the ideas at this point:
Well, with the Companion, this is a different story. I was really putting it to the test, I updated my work-flow to make use of the “Radial Menu” and “Express keys” which helped me to do full illustrations from the conceptual stage to the final compositing stage using just the Cintiq. I even edited and colour corrected the short video (Companion in the Wild) using all the software and plug-ins I would use on my desktop computer. Just to be a bit more explicit on the flexibility and freedom this device offers, I recorded a few videos to share the process of how and where those illustrations where created. This is a time lapse from a speed painting I made sitting on a rock at Burrungui (Nourlangie Rock).
Music by Hugo Lippens – used with permission (www.soundcloud.com/hugolippens) Here is the final image:
This is another coloured sketch from the Botanical Gardens in Darwin:
Here is the final image:
The battery life is fantastic. I was very surprised to see that I can go for 2 – 3 hours sculpting, sketching or painting non-stop. Obviously more demanding applications like Zbrush will eat up the battery life faster but you can still do a lot with a full charge. For example, with this image I started from scratch and with a full battery I managed to get it to this point (also keep in mind I was recording the screen):
Overall, it was an amazing experience to be in such a remote place and yet to be able to create on the spot, with no set up and no hassle. If I saw something I liked or that inspired me, all I needed to do was to pull out the Cintiq, get comfortable and create. Here is an example of that scenario when I felt the urge to materialise the idea that got into my head: Walking through the bush I found a spot where I saw the spider from the first shot of the video and at least 100 more massive spiderwebs around. I proceeded to find a nice little rock close to it to sit down and this is what came out from a spontaneous creative session.
I was very pleased to see what I was able to achieve with the Cintiq and it felt great. As I mentioned, I have been using Wacom tablets for a while and for most of my recent work I’ve used an Intuos 4 which is awesome, but in my opinion there is an invaluable feature in the Cintiq which is obviously the fact you can draw directly on the screen. I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get the hang of it, although it felt very natural, like holding a notebook and a pencil. When it comes to digital painting / sculpting I am absolutely dependent on keyboard shortcuts. Fortunately, the level of customization for the Rocker Ring, express keys and radial menus on the tablet is absolutely brilliant! I think I have learned the shortcuts of the various programs based on a sequence or a position of the keys in a keyboard. After spending some time setting up my shortcuts in the Wacom Cintiq and getting the gestures right for a specific action, it became really easy to navigate menus, speeding up the whole process and now is kind of hard to go back! I rearrange my ZBrush User Interface to suit a more vertical layout for the tablet
If you want to try out my UI you can download it from the resources page. So, with all my shortcuts in place, and having adapted a good workflow to work just with the Cintiq, I decided to push the limits a bit more and create something that would be, on one hand, more polished and refined piece of work, and on the other hand more demanding for the tablet in terms of computing. The following two illustrations were made in ZBrush and Photoshop. The polygon count is very dense, and the original images are very high resolution. I also did the rendering of the different passes and compositing just using the Cintiq.
Here are some other bits and pieces of the process:
And here is another little creature I started with the Companion: