As an artist who specializes in combining traditional and digital tools, I’m always in search of a better way to create artwork out in the “real” world that I can later edit and rework on the computer. In a previous CreativePro post I explored vector sketching with the iPad. Although the iPad Pro amps up raster drawing considerably, vector drawing isn’t much improved. The iPad still constrains drawings to the size of the tablet surface. Furthermore, the software available to the iPad is still in its infancy compared to using Wacom tablet connected to Illustrator or Photoshop, and all tablets are less tactile than pen or pencil on paper. Lastly, for now anyway, no electronic devices are as discreet, flexible, and responsive as the sketchbooks that I carry along with me wherever I go. But happily, a new variant on technology has entered onto the scene. For the past few months I’ve been testing a workflow that, although imperfect and even a bit frustrating at times, has already changed the way I sketch when I’m out in the world.
The Neo SmartPen
The Neo SmartPen allows you to bridge the analog and digital worlds by drawing on special paper. The pen records your drawing with a tiny camera, and then sends the information via Bluetooth to your digital devices.
While there is room for improvement, this little device has quickly warmed its way into my heart. In this first post I’ll give you the basics about this new workflow—if you’re hungry for more details, let us know in the comments, then we can do a follow-up part two with practical tips and tricks.
It’s important to know that in a big way, adopting this technology now is like signing on for a beta test. There are lots of ways I’d like this new tool to work better or differently, and in truth the drawings don’t always record the digital markings properly, but somehow something about the feel of materials and the way I can rework the drawings, compensates for the frustrations.
With the latest version of Neo SmartPen I can covertly draw in a small sketchbook while riding a bus, or spread out with larger lined or unlined paper. The pen feels quite comfortable in my hand, and the required specialty paper comes in a variety of sizes and formats, ranging from hard-bound notebooks with blank and lined pages, to A4-sized white lined or unlined pads. To work, I simply turn on the pen and start drawing. At a more convenient time, I can download the digital drawings to my iPhone, which I can then send to my computer as SVG. Once in the computer I can open a single-line path vector version of my drawing into Illustrator where I can style and modify the paths infinitely to my heart’s content.
The single line path SVG file with 1-pt line as it comes into Illustrator, and then with a 2-point stroke, and then set to the first Variable Width Profile.
A Work in Progress
I have to admit that as someone who has worked on testing art-making digital hardware and software for more than three decades, I tend to be impatient with technologies that are flawed or not working fully. And while it’s off to a good start, the Neo SmartPen isn’t quite yet working fully yet. As I mentioned, a good proportion of the time the drawings don’t digitally record well enough to use. So I’m not sure why I feel more forgiving of this new imperfect workflow. Perhaps it’s in part because I have my actual drawings on paper, regardless of whether the digital versions are garbled. It may also be that I can feel where this is heading if the product continues to be refined. Or it’s possible I just want to help steer the course of this technology. In any case, whatever the reason, this new way of working has indeed completely transformed the sketching part of my art practice. If you’re looking for reliability or you aren’t comfortable editing in Illustrator, then I’d encourage you to wait before hopping on board. I’m not convinced that the Neo SmartPen will be my tool of choice once competitors catch on to what these folks are doing right, but I can tell you that the Neo developers seem eager to implement updates and user comments that have already transforming this early version along the path to being the powerful, professional tool it promises to be. My regular sketchpads and pens/pencils are now on a shelf, almost always now replaced by the Neo SmartPen and sketchbook. As it is right now, warts and all, it’s still pretty darn cool.
Options for Bridging Paper and Digital
Bringing this paper-to-digital technology to consumers appears to date to 2009. At one of the last San Francisco MacWorld Expos, a small company won “best in show” for LiveScribe SmartPen, a supercool pen and special paper that is geared towards enhancing notetaking at lectures and meetings. Their digital pen draws with ink onto special paper that digitally records your handwritten notes and records audio into the pen at the same time. You could then download the notes to your computer, share them with others, or if you tap on a spot in your notebook with your pen, you can hear the related audio.
Skip forward a few years and there are a bunch of new products based on this and similar technology. Wacom’s latest entry into the digital pen and paper field is the Bamboo Spark. Their previous Inkling technology (no longer for sale on their U.S. site) transformed a secure sheet of paper into a digital tablet that can input both raster and vectors, replays your drawing as an animation. It was fun to test out, but I found it a bit awkward to put to practical use as it requires a stationary surface and doesn’t easily allow you to add to your drawing once you’ve unclipped the device.
The Bamboo Spark’s allows you to clip any paper (from art paper to post-it notes!) to their plastic holder—making it significantly more portable than the Inkling. As of now, notes and sketches created with the Bamboo Spark translate only as raster images, though I’m guessing it’s likely to eventually incorporate Inkling’s vector translation. The holder keeps the paper in place so drawing with the special pen can be created in multiple sessions, but only if you don’t clip something else to the device in the meantime. My main issue with the Spark though isn’t technological, it’s aesthetic. As much as I love the Wacom tablets that I rely on to draw and paint directly into the computer, I find the tactile feel of the Spark disappointing; with a fixed paper size that’s clipped into a bulky plastic holder, I’m constrained to a device that frankly feels more like I’m drawing into child’s plastic-toy device than a professional artist’s tool.
Advantages of the Neo SmartPen
Like the LiveScribe and Bamboo Spark, the Neo SmartPen records with a real pen on real paper, but the implementation then diverges in a number of subtle ways that, to me, add up somehow to it being an overall game-changer. With the Neo SmartPen you have 1) a variety of different papers in different sizes and formats to choose from, including portable small notebooks with unlined pages, 2) a pen that is fairly comfortable to hold, 3) marks can be recorded as single vector paths for future editing, and 4) you can draw with your pen on paper—untethered from any device. If that combination sounds interesting to you, read on for some of the details about how it works.
Using the Neo SmartPen
As of now you need a USB connection to charge their pen and an iOS or Android device to download the NeoNotes app. After charging the pen, turn on your device’s Bluetooth, launch NeoNotes and follow directions to pairing your device and setting defaults (including the size for your digital path). Once you’re charged and have initially paired your pen to your app you can conserve your device’s battery by turning off the Bluetooth and disconnecting from the pen.
Next, you can simply turn on the Neo SmartPen and start drawing onto one of their notebooks or pads (or onto paper you’ve custom laser printed with their special configuration of dots). As long as you keep the pen as perpendicular as possible to the paper, you can now move about your life, sketching whenever inspiration hits, using your slightly bigger-than-usual pen on real paper—and this works even when you’re not anywhere near a smartphone or computer. You’ll have your real-life actual drawings, and (when it works correctly) you’ll also be recording digital versions of the drawings into your pen you can later download and modify. If you’re comfortable in Illustrator, for maximum flexibility when later editing your digital files, choose the smallest nib size in your NeoNotes setup preferences so your marks are recorded as single-line vector paths. With single-line paths in Illustrator you’ll not only be able to “dress-up” with custom brushes and stroke profiles, but you can easily modify, add, remove, adjust, smooth, simplify, cut, and otherwise reform.
Adjusting the stroke and width profile I deleted a few unwanted marks, and cleaned up and re-wrote some of the text with the Pencil tool.
If you’re not planning on editing the paths, you can choose a thicker nib size to give your default digital lines a more naturally tapered look with marks that respond to pressure, however these “outlined” paths are much more time-consuming to tweak in Illustrator.)
This drawing was created with the slightly thicker nib setting in NeoNotes, which looks better without any tweaking but is trickier to adjust and edit.
The current paper choices includes unlined and lined note pads, as well as medium and small hard-bound notebooks. The default pen nib doesn’t flow very smoothly, so you’ll probably want order some of the “better” refills for the pen, I like the MonteVerdi, and (I’ve been told the more pricey Mt Blanc is even better). I was unable to find the correct nibs locally in any of the office or art supply stores in San Francisco so if you can’t find them locally, you can get refill links here. Unfortunately permanent archival inks don’t record digitally as well as the standard non-archival (and can eventually fade) inks—however, hopefully you will end up with the digital version that can be backed up.
Issues and Solutions
If you’re anxious to get started right away testing the pen, here are a few issues and solutions to be aware of. Drawings record best when your pen is perpendicular to the paper. Light marks or marks drawn too rapidly might not record at all, so press fully into the paper (not too hard though!), and try to avoid scribbling fast. Sometimes the download to the NeoNotes app syncs very slowly, more than once I’ve thought it wasn’t getting the latest drawings, so be patient. The current version of the app sometimes crashes if you choose the “background mode” for downloading the drawings (more about background mode in my next article).
Although you can export raster versions of your entire notebook all at once as a PDF, currently the only way to get vector artwork out of the NeoNotes app is via email for each page— though I assume that exporting of vector workflow should be improved soon. And if you’re willing to modify the character of your pen and paper drawings, if your image didn’t record properly, you can try to add them to the digital drawing by retracing the portions of your drawing that are missing from the digital version, or just draw some new lines in Illustrator with the Pencil or Paintbrush tools.
The drawing as it was recorded on the left, missing some of the details and lines, middle is with the stroke width and profile applied, on the right is after I added back some of the missing detail using the Pencil tool.
Want to Know More?
If you’re intrigued but want more details first, let us know in the comments! In a follow-up article I can go into more detail about the features, and offer some specific advice and useful tips and tricks for getting down to work with the Neo SmartPen. Here are a few of the areas I can cover:
- tricks for getting your vectors onto your computer more easily
- how to use Illustrator to smooth paths with too many points
- quick ways to dress up your paths to mimic natural media
- how to draw in a way that can be converted into layers
- how to watch your drawing “animate” to the screen