Autodesk is synonym with AutoCAD and the Maya 3D animation software, but the company also has one of the best sketching and painting applications money can buy. Currently in its eight reincarnation and available under the terms of a yearly subscription fee of some 20 Euros, SketchBook Pro 8 is a dream for designers, artists and people who like to make their inspiration flow by doodling.
When it was first released, SketchBook Pro offered a new experience with its clean white paper window and its “lagoon”, an innovative control panel tucked in a bottom corner of your screen. The lagoon has survived, but it now is only one of the several ways you can control brushes, colour and everything else. As a consequence, the interface looks more mainstream again, with toolbars, layer panels, etc. While the lagoon is still tucked in its corner, the extra panels haven’t cluttered the screen any bit.
Besides the lagoon, the interface also has its fair share of innovative elements. For example, there are two “pucks”, one to control the brush, the other to control your colours. There are other control ‘pucks’ as well, like the pucks that appear when you create selections and then move them or distort their shape. Pucks and guides offer much granular control, make it easy for you to know what exactly you’re doing and are fun to work with.
Almost everything about SketchBook Pro can be customised. For example, you can have brushes behaving in random ways with the characteristics reacting to the way you apply pen strokes on your graphics tablet. Pro members can create colours and add them to a limited-number colour palette.
You can download and use SketchBook for free, but that’s only exciting for a short while and then only if you’re just dabbling in drawing and painting. If you’re more serious into digital art and conceptualising you’ll definitely want to subscribe to the Pro version. SketchBook Pro comes with extra brushes, colours, colour capabilities, libraries, layers, selection features, perspective guides and FlipBook animation functionality.
While reviewing SketchBook Pro 8, I couldn’t resist occasionally comparing the app to Corel’s Painter. Well, let me tell you there’s no comparison. Not only has Painter a still much more cluttered interface, it also tried to be a digital replacement tool for creating analogue art. That’s fine if you like digital art that (tries to) looks like “real” art, but SketchBook Pro takes a different approach. It’s clearly aimed at digital artists who create art for games and movies, who design product concepts, sketch architectural setups, etc. It’s not aimed at trying to make digital tools behave as if they were analogue.
Nevertheless, there are overlaps between the two apps. For example, there’s a mirroring guidance system, you get several different perspective guides, selection and deformation tools… But in SketchBook all of these are simpler to use, with less menus or panels to go into — you’re more on your own.
In essence, what you get with SketchBook Pro is a clean slate, ready for you to create whatever you want. The focus is on your skills, not on the myriad of different tools you can use to fool bystanders into thinking you can actually draw or paint. Given that Autodesk started out a long time ago as a CAD software developer in the first place, the focus of SketchBook Pro is more on design than it is on art. For example, instead of offering you a whole range of colour palettes inspired by living (and dead) artists, SketchBook Pro 8 comes with the Copic colour system.
Copic has “real” art markers too and they’re used in the product design and architecture mockup world. Besides Copic colours, you do get the classic colour picker with the ability to pick colours from the art board. Pro users also get gradients and cleverly implemented opacity capabilities. Minimal art creators will love SketchBook’s artist brushes. You can even create your own like I did with my successful attempt to make a brush that works like a Chinese or Japanese calligraphy brush.
Another example of this less ‘artsy’ approach is that you get all sorts of helping hands with drawing lines and forms. An excellent example is the Steady Stroke feature that enables you to create smoother strokes — with smoothness defined by a slider you can change while you draw. Another example is the French Curve guide — actually three of them in one.
Game designers and storyboard designers will love the FlipBook animation capabilities of the Pro version that allows you to create simple animations. Product designers can even show clients what a model will look like in 3D by using the FlipBook feature to virtually rotate the model around its axis.
If I were to dislike anything about SketchBook Pro 8, it would have to be the lack of textured layers. In my iPad app Morpholio Trace — an architecture drawing/sketching app — I can have textures and guide layers with a semi-transparent isometric (or other) pattern that exists as a background layer to my drawing layer. I don’t get that from within SketchBook, but of course I can create my own textured background layer. However, that’s not as elegant a solution.
And so, SketchBook pro 8 is a concept designer’s dream, but can be used by everyone who wants to create digital art for any reason at all. Its yearly subscription fee is inexpensive enough to even entice amateurs. However, if you can’t draw or paint, but want to make it look like you do then Painter is a better choice. The latter even allows you to paint automatically from digital images. SketchBook only let’s you use an image as a traceable layer.