Playing with Technology and the Limitations of Materials

A blank space is the most difficult thing to make marks on. Blank spaces, no matter the size of the page; whether it is a pocket sized notebook or the stretch of a whitewashed wall- put shackles on our creativity instead of freeing it up. Ask any concept artist, any architect or engineer- the best drawings are those that result from a need to solve a particular problem, the need for certain shapes to fulfil certain functions, the need to place and follow contours that establish direction, a sense of movement- or stillness, as the case may be.

This is the reason, I think, why limitations become so important. It is only when faced with barriers and obstacles that we learn how to push, and that act of pushing, circumventing, or working out a particular problem is only the thing that strengthens  creative muscle. I’ve already written up a post on my favourite traditional and digital mediums but the reason I experiment so much with media is that I’m always excited by the prospect of getting to know the properties and behaviour of a new tool, and learn from it and work with it.

Imagine if you were a professional jockey. You could own the best, strongest, fastest, lightest horse in the world but your love of riding would make you want to try new horses. You would want to use dressage horses once in a while, just to appreciate the difference and make your riding skill that much more versatile. You’d even want to ride a destrier, or a draft horse, a pony or even a donkey- not because they’d make better mounts than your own top preforming steed but because they’d show you new techniques and teach you to move in different ways. There’s something incredibly satisfying about adjusting your riding style to the gait of a creature you’re not used to.

It’s similar with drawing tools. Even though I own the first generation 2015 12.9 inch iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, I once borrowed my flatmate’s Adonit Script stylus to try on her iPad Air. Obviously, it was no match for my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. But I relished the challenge of sketching with tools that limited the full extent of my abilities. There are tools for every mood.Timidity is the least productive phase yet it is a phase and so must be worked through and not ignored. I use thin light pencil lines for my timid phases, which are usually brought on by some sort of rejection or perceived failure, or simply not drawing for a while. This is OK. It’s OK to lean heavily on references during these times. This is the time for building up on your visual vocabulary, about observing shapes and forms and light and shadow, and studying texture. This is the time to take an ink pen to paper and sketch, so that you may see all your mistakes and learn from them. This is the time to sketch in little notebooks on smooth paper during the times your mind is only partially engaged in drawing; while talking to a friend on the phone, in a meeting, a lecture, or at a friend’s house. Your deeper mind, beneath the layer of anxiety, doubt and fear, is still in full possession of all that you have learnt. You’re just teasing it out by keeping your hands busy and your mind distracted. Don’t go digital in this phase, or your timidity will ramp up with the knowledge that you can undo every stroke, and you won’t have the courage to accept the marks on paper and develop them.


Made in a timid phase- no pencils, no erasers, no undoing. Just lines and what you can build out of them.


The outcome of the timid, self doubting phase will be that you’ll have a few technically good but rather ‘tight’ drawings. No layperson can look at them and say that they are not good drawings. Yet they lack the character of truly good drawings. Truly good drawing does not happen with the tentative placement of light strokes and tight details. Good drawings come with strokes that may be calculated and premeditated, but when executed appear bold and effortless. You could take minutes to aim and hit the bull’s eye or you could notch, pull and release in a matter of seconds, and even if your arrow is slightly off- centre, you’d still be the better archer. Drawing is like that. The mind is where skills and knowledge is developed but the body is where this learning is stored, and it is through the body that they must be channelled. Your eye knows better than your mind where the arrow needs to go. Your hand knows better than your brain where that bold stroke needs to go. And at the very highest level, artistry is about showmanship. It is about keeping secret the years of hard work, of sweat and tears and torn up first attempts; to keep the labour of practice in shadow and thrust only the fruits of it into the limelight. So that the world may keep believing that artists are born, not made, and artistic ability is a gift, and not a set of terrifyingly diverse skills developed tirelessly over the course of a lifetime.

Those timid, tight drawings are the foundation for rebuilding confidence. When that happens, your drawings become gradually bolder and bolder. Still technically rooted in the knowledge of perspective, composition, anatomy, and lighting, but racing and rubbing up against these guidelines instead of tiptoeing gingerly in their lanes. This is the time for conte crayons, for chalk, for charcoal, for drama. This is the time for kneading an eraser to a point and streaking it through a cloud of charcoal for a beam of light, for spontaneously switching between thick coal stumps and broken bits of clay dust and sharp pencils for details. Trust your instincts. Timidity will tell you to detail everything with photorealistic perfection. Confidence will guide your eye to the focal point and detail it beautifully, and leave the rest with only an impression of form. This is natural, because this is the way that the human eye works. I would go further and argue that this is the way that the human mind and even the heart works. Our ability to selectively focus on certain elements is both a curse and a survival instinct. It is the root of our unhealthy obsessions, our paranoia, but it is also the ground upon which we build our most romantic notions of love, heroism, and happiness. And where would we be without those notions? What would we be living for, if not for love? The world may be a chaotic mass of grey but we are nothing without our abilities to draw in black or white. For all the emphasis on material reality, the fact remains that we are nothing without our fantasies.



Stuff like this- the opening of a battle scene in the fields- is much harder to do traditionally than digitally which is why practicing it traditionally is the best way to learn.



It’s the rapid, instinctive handling of a traditional pencil that makes it such an expressive tool. Blunt soft edges for rapidly defining shadows, sharp lines for contours, even just the way we can twirl them about in the hand.



At the end of the day there’s nothing like good graphite pencil and natural paper. The pencil still keeps up with the speed of the hand in a way no digital stylus can at the moment.


I am excited about the pencil making a comeback in the digital world. Steve Jobs once said that if you see a stylus, the manufacturer is doing something wrong. I wonder how he would have felt about the Apple Pencil today- the most worthy digital stylus I’ve ever come across. Ten years ago the iPhone was only its first or second generation, and the only way to draw on screens was through a dedicated graphics tablet hooked up via USB. Five years later Samsung’s Galaxy Note series of phones and tablets reignited the interest in taking hand written notes and diagrams that could be stored digitally without needing to scan. The Galaxy Note series was the first non Wacom device to use EMR (electromagnetic resonance) technology instead of Bluetooth, and suddenly the possibility of digital drawing on the go became a very real possibility.

Now five more years on, here on this side of 2018, Samsung, Huawei, Acer, HP, Asus, Apple, Google and Microsoft are all racing to woo creative prosumers. Apple’s decision to make the 2018 regular iPad (not Pro) compatible with the Apple Pencil is a brilliant decision, giving cash strapped students and young professionals the chance to experience the Pencil without breaking the bank for a Pro model. Even Google’s pixelbook comes with a stylus, and HP, Acer, Huawei and Asus all have their own styli- compatible convertible laptops. We have Microsoft’s Surface team to thank for the hype around digital drawing and note taking in recent times. Apple and Microsoft go head to head as champions in this particular arena, with the new blazingly quick Surface pen and the iPad Pro’s new Promotion technology competing fiercely with each other. What this means for us, as producer- consumers, is that we are slowly approaching an era where digital drawing needn’t be the compromise it is today, as the chasm between the real and the virtual continues to shrink.

I strolled through the mall stores yesterday, trying out the new Surface pen. The test unit unfortunately had a broken nib that made it difficult to be accurate because it kept bending, but even so I could tell just how much they’ve improved the lag and latency. The new entry level iPad for students also impressed me mightily; the smaller screen size isn’t a deal breaker when you consider the price (less than half of what I got my iPad pro for). I still think the 10.5 inch Pro is the most beautiful and practical solution, but I’m holding out for WWDC in June before upgrading.


Quick sketch on the new Microsoft Surface Pro (2017 edition). The Pen had a broken tip which kept bending the other way with pressure and so made it difficult to draw with accuracy but it was nevertheless fun.



A quick doodle in store on the new 2018 iPad. The tools were very limited, but limits, as I’ve discussed, are fun and oddly liberating.



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