Review: Autodesk SketchBook Designer 2013

Combine the basic brush and pencil sketch capabilities of Painter with the vector brush of Illustrator and you more or less understand what it is you can do with SketchBook Designer 2013. SketchBook Designer 2013 is a hybrid illustration program with vector and bitmap layers. It’s designed to support sketching, and is actually two programs in one; with SketchBook Designer 2013 also comes a copy of SketchBook Pro!

IT Enquirer rating

8.5/10
URL: autodesk.com

Pros
  • interface
  • ease-of-use
  • support for symmetrical drawings
  • two apps in one
  • support for pen and tablet
Cons
  • some limitations like smooth curves can’t have corner points
Price (approx.):

Tested as part of Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate which also includes Maya, Mudbox, Composite and MatchMover 2013 on the Mac (appr. 5,000.00 USD)

SketchBook Designer (and Pro — but I’ll concentrate on Designer) 2013 has a full set of pencils and brushes to draw and paint with. When you start the app, there are three layers by default: a vector layer, a paint layer (bitmap), and a canvas layer. The toolbar is a floating thing that gives you direct access to all of the drawing and painting tools, selection tools, even colour fill and curve alteration tools.

Copic marker colours.

The colour editor is a round floating button which immediately transforms into a full blown colour picker tool when clicked. Colour tools include a Copic colour library as well as the usual suspects. A tab gives access to a special feature that I’ve not seen anywhere else: a 3D object that you can select a colour from — with the hue and luminance differing depending on the light angle and strength. Another floating control lets you tweak your brush or pencil.

SketchBook Designer is best used with a pen and graphics tablet like a Wacom Intuos. A graphics tablet gives you the best possible control over your sketching movements, but in SketchBook Designer’s case, also over the interface itself. For example, creating a colour gradient fill in Illustrator can be done with a pen, but in my experience it is better done using a mouse; the control handles are too “jumpy” unless you zoom in.

With SketchBook Designer you don’t need to zoom in. The gradient is much easier to apply; controls are much more pen-friendly, and the whole interface to create gradients is just more cleverly designed than Illustrator’s — I am aware this is also a matter of taste, but in general SketchBook Designer is more targeted at quick drawing from the heart, whereas Illustrator really is a vector illustration application.

The gradient tool is a real joy to use.

After having played with SketchBook Designer 2013 for a couple of weeks, it’s clear this is a real sketching program — especially useful for creating presentations of design ideas — not an illustration app or an art program — although you can create finished drawings with it. For example, when sketching, you’ll often draw lines that aren’t neatly cut off at “junctions”. These curve segment tails can easily be removed with one of the tools — tap-dragging is all it takes.

The symmetry manipulator looks like a sea navigator’s tool, but is really intuitive to use.

Symmetry is about the only feature that doesn’t quite fit in with the “I’m only a sketch tool” approach of SketchBook Designer. It’s a sophisticated functionality that allows you to draw elements symmetrically along more than one axis. With the symmetry manipulator you can draw symmetrical patterns along a vertical or horizontal axis, but by rotating one of the handles on the manipulator, you can also draw as if you were using a kaleidoscope.

Except for symmetry, SketchBook Designer 2013 also has a brilliant perspective grid that really helps when drawing in a correct perspective without having to create guides — as in Illustrator.

The curve manipulators. Even when you zoom in strongly, you won’t get sharp corner points if the curve started out as smooth.

Of course, the application has its own peculiarities that may drive you up the wall. One is that open paths will not accept paint bucket fillings; only when paths come close enough in each other’s neighbourhood will the paint bucket “see” a closed path. As soon as you manipulate the path and the gaps between end points open up, the paint is gone.

That’s OK, but it would be nice if you got a few more visual clues that warn you when this happens, especially so because when on a paint layer, the behaviour is slightly different.

Another thing that drove me nuts is the inability to create corner points with the smooth curve tool. The smooth curve tool only allows you to draw… smooth curves. If you need one of the points on the curve to make a sharp turn, you’ll need to manipulate the curve with another tool, and the sharpness will never be really abrupt.

You might want to use the straight corner curves tool instead, but that one only knows about straight lines…

SketchBook Designer 2013 is not the only SketchBook you’ll get with the 2013 version. You’ll also get — for free — the SketchBook Pro application. Switching between the two is done by selecting a menu item. However, I found this whole integration to be another rather quirky way of doing things: while (in theory) you have purchased a license for Designer and cannot open SketchBook Pro from the Finder, you can’t actually send a Designer file straight to SketchBook Pro — the other way around, however, is perfectly possible.

Apart from these details, I think SketchBook Designer 2013 is an extremely nice sketch application, with good support for the starting phase of a design process that ultimately will end in AutoCAD, Maya or Mudbox.