People are sometimes surprised to learn that I sketch for recreation. My pieces aren’t very good as I have never focused and developed technique, but it is a way to express yourself and, more important, it is a way to think.
It turns out sketching is much more important to me than just recreation.
Much of my thinking is visual. It helps me observe and explore. When I’m exploring new ideas there is quite a bit of play taking place. Lots of little experiments with most of them failing, but you tend to learn from each one. Seeing what is going on is a terrific advantage. Sometimes you use computer programs to think visually1 , but there are even more times when creating a model in your head is faster and more powerful.2 The act of sketching can be powerful tools for getting to those mental models - almost like keyframes that allow you to easily assemble an animation that you can manipulate. A serious tool for quickly constructing and testing mental models and a tool that happens to be fundamentally playful.
I find some tools that support sketching to be very important - a sketchpad with the right paper, the right pencil, a proper slate blackboard and good chalk, a shared visual space with collaborators and so on.. More recently I’ve been using art creation applications on the the iPhone and iPad - two devices that have the fundamental ability to become immersive creative tools.
Among other things Autodesk makes high-end sketching tools. A few years ago they announced a $100 program called SketchBook Pro that ran on Macs and PCs. It had a powerful interface and seemed to be designed for serious art professionals who wanted to make sketches that could form the basis of more refined pieces. Using it required a Wacom drawing tablet - you can find one for under $100, but a tablet good enough for most purposes started at three times as much.
I had a good Wacom tablet, so I ponied up the cash and began to play. Although it was a very capable program, it was complex enough that it got in my way and I fell back to using other tools.3
A few years later they released a version of SketchBook for the iPhone. To say the least I was very skeptical, but it was only a few dollars a piece by Jorge Colombo had recently graced the cover of the New Yorker.
Somehow everything was different. Although the screen was tiny and the controls more limited, I was directly manipulating the objects just under the glass.
I was drawing.
I found myself using it to play with ideas and found myself recommending iPod Touches and iPhones to friends who have integrated sketching into their way of thinking.
A much more dramatic development came with SketchBook Pro for the iPad. Suddenly the interface was about the size of a piece of paper you might find in a physical sketchbook and interaction with your art could be completely immersive. For anyone who thinks visually and uses sketching as a tool this is reason enough to buy an iPad. The same is true for a kid who is learning how to think visually. Even, perhaps especially, if the kid has a mathematical and scientific bent, encourage playing with art and get them an iPad.4
Tools like SketchPad on an iPad have been disruptive for AutoDesk . The company now has a vastly expanded user base and many of them are finding use for sketches in their professional work and, I’m sure, as a playful tool to sharpen their thinking.
AutoDesk is having great success, but there are a variety of programs. I find my current favorite, Procreate, to have an even more natural interface.
All of these are inexpensive, so try a few of them and spend a few hours playing with them to see which works best for you.
Even the original iPad is still a very powerful and far from a mere consumption device if you are clever enough to approach it as a blank slate. It frees you up and helps your mind glide through playful thought.
Truly a bicycle for the mind.
1 Maple and Mathematica are both extremely powerful and useful tools that should be part of your playful thinking arsenal even if you have a modest background in math. Both are spendy in their professional versions, but the home version of Mathematica is under $300 and student versions of Maple range from $100 to $200. A regular reader of this blog is a fashion model who happens to have a serious interest in forest ecology. She has done some nice work using Mathematica as a modeling tool for exploration.
2 The creative arts are very important subjects and can form the basis for powerful tools for people who are expected to do “creative” work. De-emphasizing them in the schools is a tragic mistake. Even though my skills are limited, my ability to do a bit of art and music has given me a powerful advantage in the playful portion of creative thought.
3 Oddly enough Adobe's Photoshop can be immersive. I use it for exploration as well as what amounts to my own flavor of art. I don't know that I would recommend it as a general playful exploration tool though...
Find the tools that fit your needs and don't worry about the latest and greatest. But at the same time be aware of potentially game changing tools. I'm currently curious about the Wacom Inkling, but it is vaporware at the moment.
Some tools can be unusual and very individual. I find a bit of fine chocolate, particularly when working with collaborators, is very useful when used sparingly. A good Lindt is fine, but my favorite is from Mast Brothers.
4 You can find used original model iPads that are more than good enough in the $200 range.