AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue
#30 (May 29, 2008)
Brainstorming with Autodesk SketchBook Pro 2009
Book & Video Author
I have never been able to design 100% on a computer. In my experience, CAD and BIM are way too specific in the brainstorming stage, when you are formulating the parti or "central design idea." Google SketchUp is great for working existing concepts out in 3D, but if you're like me, you prefer to come up with concepts by sketching.
For years I have sketched in bound books, on loose sheets of paper, using rolls of tracing paper, and even the odd napkin. Finding old sketches is a challenge (most are thrown out) and using them in a digital workflow requires scanning—which for me is more than the activation energy required to make it happen.
Enter SketchBook Pro. I just discovered SketchBook even though it's been around for five years, probably because it's been marketed in the Media & Entertainment channel rather than in AEC. Don't let that dissuade you because SketchBook is a joy to use and extremely useful to anyone who sketches, priced at only US$195. A 15-day free trial of SketchBook Pro 2009 is available on Autodesk's website.
SketchBook Pro was originally created by Alias in 2003 and it went through two releases until Alias was acquired by Autodesk in 2005. SketchBook Pro 2009 is the third release of this software and the first release under the Autodesk banner—now available on XP, Vista, Tiger and Leopard (PPC & Intel).
Would you rather sketch with a bar of soap or a pencil? Sketch with a mouse if you must, but SketchBook is optimized for a TabletPC or a pressure sensitive tablet. By the way, I can't recommend Wacom tablets enough. The Intuos3 6x8 tablet is the best peripheral device I've ever owned and greatly improves my productivity in all applications.
Innovative User Interface
SketchBook Pro has a very understated and elegant user interface. Aside from the menu bar (which you can hide) the only thing you see on your sketchpad is an arc with a few icons. The area inside the arc is called the lagoon—it's transparent so you can see your sketch right through it. The Undo and Redo buttons are in this lagoon, along with the Brush Palette toggle button (which shows the current tool), and the Color Picker.
Each one of the icons on the arc pops up revealing a wheel of eight icons. Select an option by dragging the stylus (or mouse) outward in any one of eight directions. You don't have to wait for the wheel to appear to choose a tool; flick toward an icon and let go of the mouse button or take the point of the stylus off the tablet.
The Brushes wheel contains the following tools, clockwise from 12 o'clock: pencil, chisel tip pen, airbrush, hard eraser, swap between 2 brushes, ballpoint pen, marker, and airbrush. Pressing the S key is an alternative to the tool for swapping between the current and previously selected brushes. I find it handy to swap between the pencil and marker when penciling in an object and then adding tone with the marker.
There are deeper levels to the user interface. Click the Brush Palette button in the lagoon to toggle the floating Brush Palette on. There are five additional tools in the Brush Palette: felt tip pen, smear, soft eraser, flood fill, and flood fill all visible layers. Click the down arrow at the bottom of the Brush Palette to expand it so you have access to Do-It-Yourself brushes.
The two buttons at the top of the toolbar are toggles. Click the left button to toggle the Resize Brush pad. The pad is an innovative way to resize a brush on screen rather than having to keep pressing bracket keys as in Photoshop. Drag within the pad and you'll see the brush tip change size while a numerical value constantly changes as you drag. The numerical value is helpful to note in case you ever want to match the brush size later in your sketching process. I like to place the pad within the lagoon to reduce visual clutter. Note that you can press and hold the B key while dragging to change brush size without having to use the resize brush pad.
The right button at the top of the brushes palette toggles the Brush Properties window where you'll find additional controls for each brush. You can get this also by double clicking any brush tool. Every brush has different sliders and controls according to what type of stroke it makes.
The Do-It-Yourself brushes have the highest level of control and I'll leave it to you to explore this feature. Each DIY brush must be based on one of eleven pre-existing brush types. You can't create custom brush tip shapes, nor can you paint using texture, multiple tips, or anything too fancy. SketchBook Pro's brush engine is primitive in comparison with Painter or even Photoshop. SketchBook is not for making works of art—just sketching.
Freehand sketching in SketchBook is very intuitive because it works just like traditional media. Select a tool and start sketching. If you're using a Wacom tablet, then SketchBook's brushes are sensitive to how hard you press the stylus onto the tablet. Press lightly for a fine stroke, press hard for a dark, thick and more opaque stroke. Here's a quick sketch I just made.
I started with a Pencil and sketched in the vanishing point and a few lines of perspective. Then I drew in light pencil strokes where I wanted structure and used the Chisel Tip Pen to emphasize certain lines. The marker or felt tip pen are good for adding tonality just like they are in real life. The Ballpoint Pen is good for annotation because it is not pressure sensitive. Everyone's sketching style is different so the best thing to do is play with the brushes and see what you like.
SketchBookSnapshot is a separate application on the Mac, and appears as an icon in the system tray on Windows. On the Mac, drag SketchBookSnapshot from the Applications folder into your dock for easy access.
The idea with this feature is that you can take screen captures and annotate them seamlessly in SketchBook. For example, I'm running AutoCAD via Parallels on the Mac and I want to annotate something and email it to a colleague. I pan my screen in AutoCAD to the area of interest and hover the cursor over the dock and click SketchBookSnapshot (on the PC, click the icon in the system tray). A few moments later the screen capture appears in SketchBook Pro on its own layer (more on layers later).
Choose File > Send Mail and you'll have the opportunity to choose JPEG, PNG, or TIF before SketchBook hands off the sketch to your default mail client as an attachment. It couldn't be any easier to send sketches over the Internet.
Aside from capturing the screen, you can import any type of image into SketchBook: photo, 3D rendering, scanned sketch, CAD drawing, etc. I chose to import a CAD drawing. To avoid sketching on a black background, I elected to change AutoCAD's viewport color to white and turn off a few layers before plotting to file with the raster printer. Choosing File > Add Image is all that is necessary to import the plotted (raster) drawing into SketchBook.
Once the image appears you'll notice a very interesting interface element. It's like a moving bulls eye with three concentric circles labeled move, rotate, and scale. You can use this interface to transform the drawing on screen. I'm concerned here with the deck so I moved the area of interest down on screen so I'd be left with some sketching room.
SketchBook is refreshingly simple, but without layers it might be a bit too primitive. Fortunately the implementation of layers in SketchBook is what you'd expect—clear, just powerful enough, and accessed in a cool way. If you want to work with layers, you have to ask for it by flicking toward the Layers tool in the Tools & Views icon well.
Layers are managed through their own floating window. Click and hold on a layer and you'll see a wheel of layer icons. Clockwise from the top, you can add, delete, rename, merge, merge all, lock, hide, and duplicate layers. Add a layer by flicking upward. The Layers window also has additional controls for changing opacity, locking transparency, and reordering layers. The opacity control is clunky because it brings up another dialog box; . Tip: Unless you are making an elaborate sketch, don't worry about naming layers—you'll be able to tell Layer1, Layer2, Layer3, etc. apart by looking at their thumbnails.
Making Technical Sketches
There are two keys that make SketchBook much more suitable for making technical sketches: Shift and D. The Shift key constrains the brush to move horizontally or vertically. Unfortunately you must hold down Shift before you start sketching for this to work.
The D key constrains the brush diagonally so you can make 45-degree strokes in four directions. Unfortunately there is no "polar" mode or way to constrain other angles like you can in most CAD programs. Keep in mind this is a sketching program so let's not get carried away with precision. Here is a sketch I made on top of an imported drawing.
I chose to create a few layers and use a different color on each layer, but that's just my CAD training talking. On the other hand, you can sketch with many different brushes and colors on one layer if you prefer. The advantage of using layers is it makes it easier to throw away parts of sketches you don't like, or to explore multiple alternatives by toggling layers off and on.
In addition to all the brushes, you can flood paint into enclosed areas with either of the Paint Bucket tools in the Brushes palette: flood fill, and flood fill all visible layers. The latter tool allows you to flood a bounded area, even if it's on another layer. The paint bucket tool is useful for adding even tone quickly.
Flipping Through Multiple Pages
The last feature I'll bring your attention are the Previous and Next Image tools in the Files icon well. These tools put the "book" in SketchBook. Previous and Next allow you to flip through multiple pages without having to think much about folders and file names. You can also use the PgUp and PgDn keys as an alternative to the Previous and Next Image tools.
The first time you save an image, you are in effect setting the working folder. All the subsequent images you save will default to that folder and their names will also default to being numbered sequentially (Sketch001, Sketch002, etc). I recommend that you avoid breaking this convention or you'll interrupt the ease with which you can flip through a whole "stack" of sketches. You can save in TIF, JPG, PNG, BMP, and PSD formats. Saving in Photoshop (PSD) or TIF formats records layers. I find it liberating not to have to look a sketch up by name (although that is possible). Instead, flipping to it visually is more in line with the spirit of this product.
SketchBook Pro is a joy to use and is worth checking out if you ever do any sketching or want to sketch on top of other applications as a means of basic collaboration. It fits nicely right at the start of any design workflow and allows you to create digital assets with a minimum of fuss that can continue on into your vector design application of choice. SketchBook certainly comes at a bargain price, and maybe you can rationalize buying a Wacom tablet with the money you save on all those traditional art supplies you'll avoid buying.
About the Author
Scott Onstott is a book and video author of
AEC software tutorials. He has a degree in architecture
from UC Berkeley and has served as an instructor
there, in addition to working in several prominent
engineering, architecture, and interiors firms
in San Francisco. He has also worked as a technical
editor and technology consultant.
Scott has contributed to over two dozen books
and videos on AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop,
VIZ Render, Revit, 3ds Max, VIZ, Photoshop, Illustrator,
Painter, Fireworks, and Dreamweaver. He can be reached via: www.ScottOnstott.com.
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