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October 25, 2013

Getting The Most From The Surface Pen

It is incredible to see what people are able to create on a tablet like Surface.  In the past we have introduced you to some artists on this very blog. Roz Hall, the UK-based tablet artist working with Microsoft’s Fresh Paint application – which, by the way, now comes pre-installed on Surface 2 & Surface Pro 2, and Mike Krahulik over at Penny Arcade who creates daily comic strips on his Surface using  Manga Studio and other applications.

Habib Zargarpour – Fresh Paint on Surface Pro

The Surface Pen is far more powerful than a traditional stylus because it is pressure sensitive – meaning that you have control of the thickness or darkness of the lines or brushstrokes you’re creating based on how hard you press the pen against the screen. If you apply only light pressure, you’ll get fine, quick lines and as you press harder you’ll see thicker, darker lines. Whether you are a serious or aspiring digital artist or just someone who likes to doodle, pressure sensitivity allows you to refine your drawings and enable great detail in your sketching. Pressure sensitivity is enabled by default in Windows Store apps like Fresh Paint and Autodesk’s Sketchbook Express, but to enable pressure sensitivity in applications like Adobe Photoshop or Flash, or Manga Studio an additional driver is required. Directions to the driver are below.

Surface Pro 2 with Pen

Adobe’s Photoshop is one of the most frequently used applications on Surface Pro with the pen. Photoshop supports multiple pen tools: the standard pen tool gives the user the greatest precision, while the freeform pen mirrors the use of a pencil on paper, making it the best option for sketching. Finally, the magnetic pen draws a path which then snaps to the edges of a predefined area within the image. Many artists combine these different pen tools to create quite complex shapes.  There seems to be no limit to the works of art people are creating in Photoshop. Surface Pro 2 is a creative powerhouse that lets you take this powerful application on the road.  Now you are free to sketch whenever, wherever.

When we first met with Christy Karakas in NYC to chat about his use of Surface Pro in the production workflow of Adult Swim’s SuperJail!, he told us how he and his team use Adobe’s Flash application to storyboard each new episode. Check out our earlier post on Christy’s work here. I caught up with him again this week to learn what really stood out to him about using the pen on his Surface:

“I like to set my brush tool to a wider size than I would normally draw with because it’s sensitive enough to get a variety of line weight.  I can sketch lightly for a very skinny line and use more pressure for a thicker line, just like with a real pen or brush.  Also I like to sketch very quick and with a lot of detail.  Sometimes in the past I’ve had problems with digital interfaces not being good at picking up quick movements like drawing tiny dots or “hatching” but I am really impressed with the Surface Pro, it has no problem interpreting tiny nuances like that. I love sketching on it!”

The combination of 10 point multi-touch for app navigation, the Surface Pen, and our palm blocking technology all add up to a fantastic pen experience. Palm blocking technology basically ensures that you can rest the palm of your hand on the screen without it registering as a touch – when Surface Pro detects the presence of the pen, it registers the input provided by the pen alone. While drawing or sketching your hand can rest on the glass naturally — this is a huge plus over devices that support only capacitive pen input.


If you are going to take notes on your Surface or do simple drawing, the driver set that ships with Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 enables this today. If, however, you are an artist that requires pressure sensitivity for applications such as Adobe’s Photoshop or Flash, or Manga Studio you will want to install the enhanced tablet PC drivers from Wacom. This will give you the pen calibration options you rely on when using WinTab applications.  You can find the driver here.  This is not a necessary update, but if you are going to do some serious sketching and drawing on your Surface Pro, I highly recommend that you install this driver set.  It will enable the types of experiences Mike and Christy have talked about.  Your experience will be similar to drawing on paper with the pressure of your pen input directly controlling the weight of your drawing path.


Once you have installed the enhanced Wacom tablet PC driver (again, you can find it here), you should also calibrate your screen.  What you will find is that while drawing you will naturally tilt the device to be comfortable in your hands.  Every person will have a slightly different angle at which they sketch, hold the pen, and view the screen.  By recalibrating your screen you can ensure that the tip of the pen truly matches up to where you expect it to be on the screen.  After installing the Wacom driver, you will find an application called Pen Tablet Properties on your Surface’s Control Panel.

Here you can adjust the pressure sensitivity settings of the pen by adjusting the Tip Feel from soft to firm.

Next you should calibrate your screen.  Again, this will adjust the alignment of the pen tip with the screen cursor.  Depending on your viewing angle and the position in which you hold the pen calibrating the screen to your personal needs will ensure that the cursor will truly follow you to the edges of the display and exactly to where you are pointing.

Finally, if you would like to join a group of like-minded pen enthusiast, we welcome you to email us at [email protected].  We will set-up a mailing list for those that want to exchange ideas about using the pen on Surface.