As an artist accustomed to trying and sketching on paper, adapting to a digital format has been a challenge. Though a good fit for my lifestyle because it is also my primary computer, the Surface Pro 4 (and later Surface Pro 6) initially proved a bit of a disadvantage in a market saturated with apps and free tutorials catering to Apple-product based artists and illustrators.

Unlike drawing on an iPad or Wacom tablet, there aren’t standard best-practice apps, so this format required lots more experimentation on my part in the learning process. In this post, I’m sharing a few of the hacks I’ve discovered along the way, as I’ve begun moving some of my professional illustration work to a digital format via the Surface Pro with the Surface Pro pen.

With some inexpensive hacks, the drawing power of the Surface Pro and Surface Pro Pen can be unleashed.

Time spent drawing on my Surface Pro has been the best way to learn, and I think that I can actually see my digital-doodle proficiency improving with each week that I consistently practice. Although practice is important, as I’ve experimented I have found that practice has actually not been the most helpful thing in helping me learn to do art with the Surface Pro and Surface Pro Pen. The most effective solutions have been little tips and tricks I picked up from various sources. In this article I’m going to bring you in on a few of my secrets for drawing on the Surface Pro with the Surface Pro pen.

1. Using (and Improving) the Surface Pro pen

When it comes to regular felt tip pens, I write with quite a bit of pressure. When I swapped ink for the Surface Pro pen (which has a much harder “nib”) I found the pen painful to use for longer than 20 minutes!  Contributing to the problem, the Surface Pro pen also has a very slick metallic shaft, and the extra grip required to hold the pen securely, combined with my typical pressure on the nib, created discomfort and ultimately lower quality output.

Solution: To counter the difficulty of holding the Surface Pro pen there’s a simple fix:  the same cushy, foam pen-grips that I used when I was in junior high. Though a tight squeeze to get on the slightly thicker-than-normal pen, once on the pen was in place, my grip dramatically improved and I was able to draw with the stylus for long periods without pain or fatigue.

90's style cushy pen grips improve the grip-ability of the pen, making it easier to draw for long periods without fatigue.
90’s style cushy pen grips improve the grip-ability of the pen, making it easier to draw for long periods without fatigue.

NOTE: A pen grip does seem to cover and limit use of the buttons near the tip of the Surface Pro pen, as well as decreasing the effectiveness of the included magnet, but in making the pen easier to grip and hold stable, my drawings have improved significantly, and the buttons are still usable with a more deliberate action, so for me the pen grip has been worth it.

tips for using the Surface Pro 4 for Digital Illustration

2. Create Pen Nib Friction with a Screen Cover

Like most tablets, the Surface Pro screen is an ultra-smooth glass surface. The hard Surface Pro pen tip on glass creates the sensation that the pen is slipping across the page rather than dragging like a pencil or pen on paper. To some degree, this is just the art of adapting to a digital format, but as I researched solutions for combatting this slippery sensation, I discovered a number of screen covers that include a slight texture, that helps create friction as a pen nibs slides along the surface.

tips for using the Surface Pro 4 for Digital Illustration
A screen protector can protect your investment and improve your digital doodles by creating drag.

For me, the purchase of an $8 screen cover, advertised specifically as working well with digital pens, made a massive difference in my perception of control over my pen. With a screen cover in place, there is a tiny layer of flexible material between the stylus and the pen, which compresses under the tip of the pen and helps create a slight sensation of drag and more control for the user.

3. Experiment to Find the Right App

Windows has a few good digital art apps available for the Surface Pro 4 and 6, for me, the app Sketchable has worked well. For a nominal fee, sketchable offers a dizzying array of options.

Sketchable offers a minimal interface to interfer with drawing, but lots of features including the ability to work in layers.
Sketchable offers a minimal interface to interfere with drawing, but lots of features including the ability to work in layers.

The learning curve for Sketchable has been steeper than I’d like, and since it is a on a less popular platform for digital art, learning from video tutorials hasn’t been as accessible. But with practice and experimentation, I’m becoming proficient at making digital art using this app.

Though it lacks a playback feature like the iPad pro’s “Procreate,” it is extremely customizable. For me, the best feature of Sketchable is the ability to create drawings in layers and then export those layers to Photoshop for final edits.

Sketchable's brush selection panel
Sketchable’s brush selection panel

4. Try New Nibs to Find your Comfort Zone

Windows has released a package of Surface Pro Pen Tips in various sizes and levels of hardness. They’re easy to swap out using the special tweezers that come with the tips, and experimenting can help you find a nib that creates a drag and line most similar to the type of pen you like to use when drawing on paper. The assorted-pack include pen tips that feel like ballpoint, hard nib pencil, and fine point Sharpie Pen, but I’m still waiting for a softer felt-tip feel nib.

Swap surface pro pen nibs to find the nib that replicates your favorite type of pen
Swap Surface Pro pen nibs to find the nib that replicates your favorite type of pen

 

tips for drawing digitally with a Surface Pro

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