Digital ink vs. the real thing

Kuluttaja magazine 1/2015 – Manga Studio 4 EX and Photoshop CC

Is it possible to ink in digital like you would on a dip pen or a brush and actual ink?

Cutting out the scanning and printing phases does save a lot of time, but is the quality there? Which computer hardware and software equals or even surpasses traditional media?

On the input side, there is little choice: Wacom is beginning to have some competition, but the competitors I know of, have problems with software integration. Wacom's Companion tablet has production quality issues and the various tablets (iPad, Surface pro 3) have inferior digitizers, which seriously affects line quality and accuracy. Basically, you still have two to choose from Wacom: an Intuos tablet or a Cintiq screen.

The Cintiq is much more intuitive and does not require much practise to master, but suffers from accuracy problems due to the interference the screen's own magnetic field causes on the pen digitizer. You can test this by drawing straight lines with a physical ruler. The lines will undulate quite a bit.

On this front, the Intuos tablet seems like the better choice, and it is much more accurate. But then you have to take into account the disconnection of hand from line: you are drawing on a tablet and looking at a screen. This takes a long time to get used to. I never did despite trying for four years and I still can't produce an acceptable drawing on an intuos. Some people even prefer this working method and it might be a good alternative if you suffer from back or neck problems.

Of the several pieces of Mac software I have tried, three show promise.

1. Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop is the industry standard for a good reason. The versatility of Photoshop is unmatched: from vaguely oilpaint-like painting to extreme image manipulations and elementary 3D graphics. Photoshop has amassed an impressive feature list in its decades of history. But there are drawbacks to this breadth – parts of PS have remained unchanged for a very long time.

The brush engine in Photoshop has not changed significally since Photoshop 6 in the previous millennium. Some bells and whistles have been added but the core is still the same. This is a problem because the engine does a very poor job of smoothing out the wobbly line the Wacoms produce. It also handles pen pressure comparatively badly, especially if you have a light touch. For painting, it's not bad, although slower than it should be, but trying to get a silky smooth line quality out of it is like trying to wash a cat with lemon juice.

+ Very versatile
+ You already have it
+ Mostly bug-free.

- Very old and bad brush engine
- Super expensive to get if you don't already have it
- Doesn't have ruler guides (guides that allow freehand drawing but locked to a perfect curve or a straight line)

2. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6 / 7

Sketchbook Pro is a lightweight, cheap drawing app that just happens to have a very good brush engine specifically for smooth lines. It doesn't have a lot of features but the ones it comes with are all business (except for those product placement copic markers, what's up with that?): on top of the brush engine, SBP comes with extremely useful ruler guides for straight lines, ovals (no snap to a perfect circle *see below), french curves and a perspective grid in version 7. All the guides are easy to manipulate and work like their physical counterparts do, except you can use the full line width variance of your brush. This is enough reason alone to get this app.

Where it falls down is handling bigger files. If you're working at 1200 ppi on an A3 size canvas, you are going to have problems. Otherwise, version 6 is very stable and 7 is getting there.

As the name suggests, SBP is aimed at sketching rather than finishing drawings, and is unparalleled for this, but inking on it is pretty good too.

* Sketchbook Pro does have perfect circle guides after all! The manual is incredibly vague on this but I stumbled on it today by accident. Double-click the width-modifier of the oval guide to snap it to a perfect circle. I haven't seen this in any tutorial yet but that just goes to show that I haven't watched enough of them.

+ Cheap!
+ Quick to use
+ Pretty good brush engine
+ Best ruler guides in the business
+ Stable
+ Opens and saves basic Photoshop files

- Not a lot of features
- Can't handle big files, so no super res B&W line-art prints
- Also doesn't do colour profiles

3. Corel Painter (any version)

Is a buggy mess. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

+ Incredibly detailed oil and pastel simulations

- Will crash at the drop of a hat and destroy all your work
- Has generations of unfixed show-stopper bugs that are unlikely to ever receive attention 

4. Manga Studio / Clip Art Studio Clip Studio Paint EX

This puppy with two equally unfortunate names, has been designed by listening to artists and what is important to them. The brush engine is gorgeous. I have MS 4 EX, which is the previous version and the current one should be even better. It has controls to taper the line at the beginning and end, or not if you prefer to use pen pressure to taper them yourself, easily adjustable line smoothing, which is very effective, and handles big sizes like a charm.

For comic artists, there is the added bonus of being able to do the complete work within MS / CAS. You can do layouts for a full book, and title them as well. The balloon generation system is pretty good, comparing to all competitors which don't have anything like it.

On the other hand, the UI can be a bit overwhelming, the ruler guides, which it does have, are very hard to use quickly and effectively and you need to export your image if you want to use it in another app. I wouldn't recommend importing back from another app if you are not very experienced with computers.

Update 9.5.2015: I have since upgraded to Manga Studio 5 EX / Clip Studio Paint EX which corrected most of these problems, specifically the ease of importing and exporting. Guides are slightly less cumbersome to work with and the UI is generally much easier to grasp. It is still easily the most cryptic of these apps, but getting better. The brush engine is droolworthy. Custom brushes elevate this app into its own category. Seriously, if you do line work on a computer, this is the app.

+ Best brush engine in the business
+ Useful and easy controls to adjust the brush
+ Additional features for comic artists
+ Mostly stable (and saves your work if it crashes)

- Convoluted UI (slightly better in MS5 / CSP)
- Ruler guides are cumbersome (slightly better in MS5 / CSP)
- Need to export to continue work in another app
- Import is flawed (fixed in MS5 / CSP)


So, there are a couple of good options for inking on the computer. How do they compare to an actual pen or brush and paper?

Well, a brush does exactly what your hand tells it to do and if you have good paper, that's about it. It depends completely on your skill with a brush if that's better or worse than a stylus and Manga Studio. You can get perfectly smooth lines in MS without really trying, but you can't get the slight nuances of traditional brushwork on any computer app – the Wacoms just aren't accurate enough. So you inevitably lose some of the signature quality of your work. But whether it's enough to offset having undo, layers and freedom from scanning (and cleanup), and potential ink stains, is up to you.

On the speed difference: I have seen comments by professional comic artists like Sean Phillips, who are extremely fast with traditional inks, but also from new school artists who are equally fast on the computer. It takes about as long on each for me, but I save drying and scanning time by working digitally. Speed seems to be far more dependent on the artist than their equipment.

Brush and India Ink

+ Does exactly what you tell it to do
+ Incredibly versatile and quick medium
+ Surprisingly forgiving on paper
+ A lot of fun in a scary way

- Does exactly what you tell it to do
- aaaAAA! Ink blot!
- No undo
- Surprisingly unforgiving on brushes
- Very dependent on brush quality
- That scanning

The following four images show the same head inked in the four methods discussed here. You can click on them to open a larger version.

The original is the real ink version, which is a crop of an A4 full shot. The crop measures about 5 cm high.

I reproduced the inking on a Cintiq 21" in the three apps discussed above. You can get a good idea of the accuracy difference if I tell you that my working size on those is to fill the monitor with whatever I'm doing.

As you can see, the differences are not very noticeable at this size, but the feel of drawing with these apps is completely different. My hand relaxes when I use Manga Studio compared to Photoshop, because I can trust the line to look good. The lines are cleaner than my traditional inks, but I do feel like I lose some "character" from the line.
Photoshop CC
Sketchbook Pro 6
Manga Studio 4 EX
Real Ink

Akava Camp 2011 – Ink & Photoshop Colour