This is a guest post by synesthete artist, GeekGirlfriend, and bon vivant Brandy Gale.
A digital sketchbook that uses real ink and real paper? Yes, please!
I am a visual artist. So I when I make notes and drawing studies I prefer real ink and paper to a stylus on a tablet. That’s not very geeky, I know. And it leaves me with the problem of how to get my drawings, notes, and ideas onto my computer for sharing or further digital development. I work in the field on location almost exclusively, and lugging a flatbed scanner with me on a dive boat in Fiji is not ideal. But neither is getting back to my studio with a suitcase full of sketches, value renderings, composition layouts, and written notes to scan.
My talented photographer pal (and fellow Canadian) Benjamin Von Wong and I were chatting about this problem and he suggested I use a paintbrush stylus with my phone to make sketches in the field. Sadly, it lacked the tactile feel of pen on paper that is an essential part of the process for me.
My GeekGirlfriend, though, thought she could solve this with tech that understands this need for the tactile. She sent me a Wacom Bamboo Slate Smart pad to review. Paper, pen, brush, and instant digitization? Say what?! Thrilled, I dug right in.
The Bamboo Slate consists of a patented electromagnetic resonance sensor sheathed inside a grey fabric and vinyl covered notepad base, along with a ballpoint-type pen, and a perforated notepad made of real paper! It also came with an extra pen refill, a refill remover tool, and a microUSB cable for charging via the built-in microUSB port.
The Bamboo Slate is available in two sizes: The Small Slate ($110; half-letter or size A4) and the Large Slate (letter or size A5). (There is also the even-more-deluxe Bamboo Folio that protects your paper with a fold-over cover.) I received and tested the Large Slate.
After downloading the required (free) Inkspace app from the app store, I paired my fully-charged Bamboo Slate with my iPhone 6s. Your device (iOS or Android) then syncs with the Slate via Bluetooth, sending the what you create on paper as a 1748 x 2551 pixel JPG or PNG, or PDF, or Wacom’s own WILL format, to the cloud. The Inkspace app includes free cloud space for up to 5GB of content ad you can get more space with a paid Inkspace Plus subscription. I already have DropBox. So I used that and it worked perfectly, as did emailing files to myself.
The pen drawings and notes I made looked exactly like the resulting digital images:
I tried a pencil, my fingers, charcoal, and some other pens and styluses, but the Bamboo Slate only worked with the included Wacom pen.
You can write on any paper, front and back, and the process still performs seamlessly. Even a cocktail napkin worked!
I also evaluated an assortment of paper stock from my studio inventory and found that thick paper does not pick up finer lines as well as thinner sheets. The various surfaces of watercolor papers caused the pen nib to move differently, changing the texture of the composition in subtle ways.
I really like that I didn’t have to sync to my device immediately after making a drawing. The Bamboo Slate holds up to 100 pages in its memory, so I can sync to the Inkscape app later when I am back in the studio, office, or bunk. I uploaded a multi-page PDF of sketches and handwritten notes I made on one excursion to a single file, creating a fun digital sketchbook of my journey. I didn’t have to scan anything! Battery life held up well, and the product’s overall durability was fine for my adventures.
Using Wacom’s Live Mode, my strokes appeared simultaneously on the Inkscape app and on my device. I used this feature to practice using the Slate. But this mode could also be fun for live streaming a drawing to a screen. I noticed that the pressure detection was excellent using the provided paper and pen. The Slate easily recognized even thin, soft strokes. The harder you press, the thicker the stroke. This took some getting used to but there was no noticeable digital lag.
Apparently if you pony up for the Inkspace Plus version, it can convert handwriting to searchable text. This is something I would like to try in lieu of my current writing/composing journals, dream diaries, and early morning bedside ramblings hand-scribbled on whatever scrap of paper is within reach.
The build quality is attractive, but the fabric surface may prove a challenge to keep clean, especially when working in the field and/or using various artist’s materials nearby.
The feel is truly like ink on paper. Because it is ink on paper. Yummy.
Though Wacom recommends the product for indoor use, I reckon I could use it anywhere within reason where I would use paper. So, I’m not taking it underwater or into a snowstorm. But I’ll certainly bring it – carefully — on a picnic table or sunny meadow, just as I do with paper.
Like with pen and ink, there is no erasing capability. So I do this in post-editing software. And smearing the ink with my finger as a sort of shading/blending method was not picked up in the digital upload.
Nib replacement and ink replacement are to be considered. The ink comes in black, and you can order refills.
My wishlist for this product would include different pen nibs. An optional gel ink pen and a brush pen would be fabulous.
All in all, the Bamboo Slate fills a rather specific niche. If you have the time and inclination to scan your handwritten notes and sketches, there is no need for it. If you prefer to draw directly on a tablet, skip this product. But if you want something that works on the fly or in the field, uses real paper and pen, and saves time and organizing later, then the Bamboo Slate is quite functional and convenient.