Joyous digital art creation, keyboard-free, with Surface Pro 4.

Staying sane and happy when drawing on Surface Pro 4.

I’ve spent a long time experimenting with portable setups for digital artwork. I’ve used laptops with Wacom tablets, and I’ve drawn on iPad and iPad mini for years, but ultimately I knew I needed something better.

Jens was right! I should have listened! I bought the Surface Pro in Nov 2015, and I’ve used it every week since to create new artwork.

Most of all, I never use keyboard shortcuts for drawing. Removing the keyboard keeps me away from emails, twitter, and distractions!

A few examples of pieces I’ve drawn on the Surface Pro 4. More can be found on my instagram.

I’ve been using my Surface Pro 4 for about nine months now, and I’ve enjoyed drawing with it more than any other computer. I spent two years prior coveting the Wacom Cintiq Companion owned by professional comic artist friends, especially when they were able to work on high resolution artwork whilst slumped on a bean-bag, on trains, or any table they can find. The Surface Pro’s compact nature suited me more than the Companion, and I’ve often used it keyboard-free while travelling.

The airline didn’t regard my Surface Pro 4 as a ‘laptop’, so I drew throughout the whole flight. (I shut off wifi!)

The Surface Pro 4 is an amazing alternative to the Companion. It’s lighter, smaller, and has a higher resolution screen. It’s also cheaper (I opted for the lower spec i5 model with 4GB RAM). The compromise is that it has no buttons whatsoever, which makes using certain drawing software quite tricky unless you keep a keyboard nearby.

Look mum, no buttons!

The solution comes down to choosing which software you draw with. Older software like Paint Tool Sai has no touchscreen features at all, so the missing keys are especially annoying.

Photoshop CC 2015 introduced a ‘modifier keys window’ which helps for Ctrl/Shift/Alt, but you can also use ‘toolbar’ software to act as virtual on screen buttons

Clip Studio Paint (a.k.a. Manga Studio 5) is my favourite choice for drawing on the SP4. It has really great touchscreen controls, and a heavily customisable interface. I use it for almost all my drawing now, and I now rarely use Photoshop for anything but image cropping and resizing.

Despite Clip Studio Paint’s amazing touch screen controls, I still rely on toolbar software for a few small features.

Sadly, toolbar software is all pretty horrible. Toolbar Creator, TabletPro, and TouchKey are very fiddly to setup, and are bad at ‘hold’ behaviour (such as hold Alt to grab colour from the canvas). There are tutorials, but it’s all pretty bad. My approach is to keep my toolbar needs modest, with just three buttons. (grab my setup from my dropbox)

My modest choice of virtual buttons: Tab (show/hide GUI), Enter (confirm) and Escape (cancel).

Clip Studio Pro lets me modify the shortcut bar at the top of the screen, which gives me access to most things. The top of my screen gives me access to undo, redo, canvas flip, deselect and show/hide for brush size, palette, and colour history. This shortcut bar stays open even when I hide the menus with Tab, so I often draw in full screen portrait view.

I don’t need the ‘Alt’ key to grab colours when using this software, because it’s mapped to the button on the pen. So useful! Just a shame the Surface Pro doesn’t let me customise that button in different apps.

Clip Studio Paint’s customisable Command Bar allows for a good keyboard-free drawing setup.

I recommend you try out different software, and try some of the different toolbar options for extra keys. My portable drawing setup is the most I’ve enjoyed drawing in years, and I hope you’re able to find a setup that suits your needs too.

I’ve been an artist for games, comics, and mostly for fun since 2002. If you want to see more of my artwork, check out dockydraws on instagram.

Any questions? Want to hear me waffle about games dev, and art fun? Grab me on twitter as @docky.

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