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Digital painting and pencil and paper | realusers.club #2

Howdy folks! 👋 This week my friend Elle Sullivan is going to show us how she paints digitally with Sk
Digital painting and pencil and paper | realusers.club #2
By Real Users Club • Issue #2 • View online
Howdy folks! 👋
This week my friend Elle Sullivan is going to show us how she paints digitally with Sketchable on the Microsoft Surface Pro 2. 🎨
I’d like to give a big thanks to everyone who provided feedback about the first issue! 🙌 I’ve redeveloped the format for this week’s issue, so instead of a full transcript of our interview, I’ve grouped my analysis and quotes from Elle into the core themes we discussed. I hope you find this format easier to read and more valuable. Here we go!

Our user-of-the-week, Elle Sullivan, with dinosaur
Our user-of-the-week, Elle Sullivan, with dinosaur
Hi Elle, thanks for taking part in realusers.club! Can you introduce yourself?
“Hello, I’m Elle Sullivan. I’m an iOS developer by day, and by night I do drawing, illustrating, game development, procedural generation, lots of different creative things.”
What does a typical week look like for you?
“I wouldn’t say I have a typical week, I would say it goes in phases of say, a month at a time. There will be a month where I do nothing but painting, or nothing but procedural generation. Some days I’ll get straight home and get to work on something and basically work on it all day every day for two weeks. Sometimes I won’t do anything for weeks. It’s very variable, I just take it as it comes. I find I’m ultimately more productive if I just work on what I feel like working on.”
Can you tell us a bit about Sketchable?
“It’s a Windows program, aimed mostly at Surface users, for painting and drawing. The idea being it’s essentially like [Adobe] Photoshop but much more touch screen and graphics tablet friendly.”
Some examples of Elle's artwork, shown in Sketchable's flipbook interface
Some examples of Elle's artwork, shown in Sketchable's flipbook interface
Elle demonstrates sketching a bird in flight using the main interface in Sketchable. She adds a layer to demonstrate how she progressively adds detail to a painting.
Elle demonstrates sketching a bird in flight using the main interface in Sketchable. She adds a layer to demonstrate how she progressively adds detail to a painting.
How does digital painting compare with traditional oil painting?
“For painting, I just feel that digital painting is so much easier. Hand oil painting doesn’t have the same usability as drawing does, you have to wait for each layer to dry, and mix colours. So whereas a pencil feels like a very well-defined tool – you can erase anything, you can draw it again –, you don’t have that luxury with painting, so I find digital painting much better in that regard. I keep trying to do more traditional painting, but I just keep finding it not very practical for the kind of things I want to do. My goal isn’t usually to have an oil painting to hang up, it’s to have some concept art or a graphic for a website. It’s usually quite practical, for another project I’m working on like an asset for a game, so I almost always gravitate towards digital.”
Artistic vs technical UI
“The UI is the main reason I use this software instead of Photoshop.” Sketchable has good support for gestures, like scaling, rotating and panning the drawing canvas, and Elle finds these “fiddly” in Photoshop. The UI is decidedly more focused in Sketchable as well. “[Photoshop] lacks a certain conciseness in the UI. There’s a lot going on, a lot of it is not relevant to illustration, which just makes everything take too long, and every tool is buried down four different menus. You lose efficiency.” The positioning of controls and use of icons allows Elle to focus on her drawing, instead of the software.
On the other hand, some of the tools in Sketchable are not powerful enough for Elle’s use cases because of this focus on a simpler, more artist-friendly UI. “Photoshop, I would open up if I knew exactly what I wanted to do and do it fairly precisely.” An example of this is the smudge tool, which she demonstrates on some antlers. “What would be really nice would be if I could apply this effect in a more structured way, like if I could select part of it and just blur that to a certain degree, and have the blur vary along the length of it, that would be much faster.”
Elle uses the smudge tool to blur the left antler into the background.
Elle uses the smudge tool to blur the left antler into the background.
There will always be tradeoffs like this, particularly along this artistic-technical dimension. When designing a UI, we might consider how often people will use different tools or need certain information, and if certain tools or pieces of information will be used together. When we make a decision about what to hide, where things should be located and how they will be grouped, our design will influence the workflows that our users create, and can change the ways our users think and feel. It’s not bad to craft our products in this way, it is the essence of what it is to ‘do design’. We can look for workflows that may be suppressed by a particular design, and ask ourselves if we can achieve our original goals without hurting these peripheral or uncommon use cases.
The multi-tool workflow
Returning to the smudge/blur feature, Elle could achieve the effect she wants using Photoshop, but she isn’t able to move freely between Photoshop and Sketchable. “I would lose my layer history”, which would make it difficult to use the tooling in Photoshop – blurring the antlers would now also distort the background –, as well as depriving her of the freedom that layers bring. We can’t anticipate all of the features our users need, and sometimes they will want or need to use multiple tools to solve a problem in a way that works for them. By providing interoperability at a low level – in this instance Sketchable could support Photoshop’s PSD file format – we can amplify the utility of our products, allowing users to insert our tools neatly into their workflows, instead of painting them into a corner. 😉
Complexity requires community
Sketchable offers plenty of options for tweaking the different brushes, which can be great for more exacting work, but because the community is much smaller than that of Photoshop it can be difficult to know how to use these parameters to get the desired effect. “If you know what you want the brush to look like, it’s really hard to achieve that, but with Photoshop someone has probably done it already, and there’s loads of information out there on what these settings do. Whereas with this, you’re a bit more on your own.”
Elle scrolls through the myriad options for customising the brushes.
Elle scrolls through the myriad options for customising the brushes.
Elle doesn’t really play with the brush parameters much, partly because of this but also because she doesn’t really need it for her work. “For me, I just find it’s not worth the effort. When I draw I always use a 2B pencil and I’m pretty much the same when it comes to digital. I just want to be able to draw lines of different thicknesses.”
Because neither of us have done any real work with the brush parameters, we don’t know how similar they are to the ones in Photoshop, but it made me think about the community of our users, and how they build and share knowledge about how to use our products most effectively. If we consider the different spheres of artists, digital artists, Photoshop users and Sketchable users, there will be an overlap in the language they use to describe a stroke on a canvas. By looking to existing domains when we design our products, we can draw on and contribute to these collective bodies of knowledge, and create much more value for our users.
Don’t limit the core offering
The killer feature for Elle is layering, it’s this feature that removes the anxiety from painting. “It really encourages experimentation. It makes it so much more enjoyable and less stressful than traditional painting. I no longer fear making a mistake, I can undo things, redo them, create a new layer and take things in a totally different direction. If I don’t like it I can just delete it and go back to the original layer.” Elle also uses layers for working with reference material.
Elle has a photo of an elk on its own layer to help her draw the antlers
Elle has a photo of an elk on its own layer to help her draw the antlers
Unfortunately the maximum number of layers that you can have is limited, and this harms Elle’s workflow. “I end up having to merge layers down a lot and losing history that I would otherwise want to keep.” Rearranging layers in a complex painting can also be frustrating, and Elle has to open the context menu to merge them down.
It’s important that we discover and understand which features provide the most benefit for our users, because this will motivate us to streamline these features and make sure we consider them as part of our core offering. Otherwise, we will miss opportunities to deliver real value.
Elle demonstrates rearranging and merging layers together. Before this step, the antler highlights were on a different layer to the main antler layer, and Elle merged these layers in order to demonstrate the smudge tool.
Elle demonstrates rearranging and merging layers together. Before this step, the antler highlights were on a different layer to the main antler layer, and Elle merged these layers in order to demonstrate the smudge tool.
The feel of the hardware is vital
Despite the great deal of freedom afforded by digital painting, it isn’t perfect for every use case, particularly sketching and drawing. “For drawing I use a 2B pencil, I prefer the tactile feel of a pencil. I find line work, even with a felt nib, very slippery and hard to control compared to a pencil. So I abandoned this and did it on a piece of paper.” Elle shows us an original digital sketch of a bird flying with an envelope, which she uses on her portfolio website. Compared with a version she drew using pencil and paper, the lines are not as fine or well-defined, and there is less variation in the hardness of the lines. In order to achieve the level of detail she wanted, Elle ended up scanning in the pencil drawing, cleaning it up in Photoshop, and then (digitally) painting over it.
Elle's original digital sketch, annotated with notes
Elle's original digital sketch, annotated with notes
Next, Elle sketched the bird with pencil and paper instead. Notice the finer lines and greater range of hardness.
Next, Elle sketched the bird with pencil and paper instead. Notice the finer lines and greater range of hardness.
The final piece, which Elle uses on her portfolio
The final piece, which Elle uses on her portfolio
“What I really want to see is improvements in the pens. I don’t really feel like anyone is trying to make it feel like more traditional drawing or painting. For example, most pens or styluses you buy come with a plastic nib, so I have replaced this one with a felt nib, which was a big improvement for me, but a lot of them like the Apple Pencil you can’t replace the nib. It’s kinda a mix between a hardware and a software problem.”
Another thing Elle mentions is the utility of an integrated touchscreen solution. “One of the main benefits of this isn’t that I can rotate the canvas [with gestures], but that I can literally rotate my device, just as I would a piece of paper. That’s when it suddenly clicks and it feels like drawing, and not just like I’m tapping through glass. I have tried using a separate graphics tablet and screen but it’s never worked for me, it just feels too disconnected. At that point I’d rather get a piece of paper.”
These two points really highlight how important the hardware is for use cases that have an aesthetic or physical quality. When we make something to mimic or replace other tools, we are competing with a long history of expectations that our users have developed about those tools. When we get it right, as with the display-as-input, we can extend the capabilities of our users significantly. But if some elements aren’t just right, like the feel of the pen, then we fall into an uncanny valley where the user loses their connection with the tool, and has to build a workflow to get around these limitations.
That’s everything for the second issue, thank you so much for reading!
If you’d like to see more of Elle’s work, you can follow her on Twitter @THISISDINOSAUR, or visit her portfolio at The Creative Period.
If you enjoyed this issue, please share it with your friends and followers. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear from you. Just hit reply, and we can make this newsletter a great resource for the UX and maker communities. 😁
Finally, if you have a product you’d like to talk about and half an hour to spare, hit reply and get in touch and you could be featured in the next issue!
See you next time,
John
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