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Digital tablet maker set to join the creative community in Portland in 2016.



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Anolog meets digital: Steve Lieber of Periscope Studio in Portland uses a Wacom screen to draw his illustrations in native digital format.When Wacom announced in March it was selling its 56,000 square foot cube farm in Tech Center, Vancouver, and moving to a brand new building in Portland’s Pearl District, it was visible proof of something economists and politicians love talking about.

Portland is a creative hub, and the more those companies cluster together the stronger they will be.

Wacom makes tablets and styluses that are market leaders in creative industries, but may not be known to consumers who are happy fingerpainting on their iPads or scribbling on their Surfaces. Wacom’s gear is expensive (about $100 per inch of screen size; $2,700 for a 27 inch display) but they are bought by the dozen in creative companies. Anywhere architects, illustrators, industrial designers, comic book artists and photographers work, these days they perch upright, mighty pen in-hand, drawing on their Cintiqs and Intuoses.

The company was founded in Japan in 1983 as a way to enter hand-drawn Japanese characters into a computer. As software programs such as Mac Paint and Fractal Design appeared, artists adopted the pen to take advantage of them.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Live by the pen...: Ron Chan draws a Plants vs. Zombies comic book for Dark horse Comics using digital ink on his Wacom tablet. His left hand constantly makes adjustments to the pen tools as he works. A computer processing power ballooned, even the most luddite of artists made digital their default. No more repetitive strain injury from using a mouse or erasing pencil marks on paper, it soon became all about rapid prototyping, 3D modeling and bouncing files off the cloud for comment.

Now software packages abound that are pressure sensitive: Photoshop, Sketchbook, Illustrator, Corel Painter, SketchBook, ZBrush from Pixologic, Mudbox (sculpting) and Maya for 3D animation from Autodesk.

Wacom works with software manufacturers to make sure power users have all the tools they want, from virtual pen nibs to lassoes. The company also has a large components group, a non-branded business, selling its technology to the likes of Fujitsu, Lenovo, Panasonic and Sony. For example, Samsung puts Wacom’s C-switch, which can detect 2,048 levels of pressure, in the stylus that comes with the Galaxy Note.

The exact calibration between tip and the electromagnetic grid beneath the screen’s glass is the secret sauce that has professionals clinging to the brand.

Wacom’s USA division specializes software engineering. These are the core of the 160 staff who will migrate from Vancouver to the Pearl in 2016. It is leasing the top three floors of a nine-story building a couple of blocks south for REI on NW 14th Avenue, and will have naming rights. The ground floor will include a retail store: Wacom products are hard to try-before-you-buy. Plus an Experience Center for lectures and product demonstrations.

“It will be super creative, bright colors everywhere,” says spokesperson Doug Little walking though the cubicles at Tech Center. “Just what Wacom needs, not this...” he says gesturing.

The Experience Center will feel somewhere in between the Microsoft store and the Apple store, although nothing is beyond the concept stage yet. It’s all in an architect’s computer.

Jim Davis draws that fat cat Garfield on a Wacom. Ditto Scott Adams and his Dilbert. The company is close to many artists. They recently hosted DreamWorks animator Jason Scheier to present to 55 Japanese exchange students in the current space.

But they want to get closer still to the users at Nike, Columbia Sportswear and Adidas, as well as in ad agencies such as Wieden + Kennedy, the students at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and the animators at LAIKA and downtown’s Periscope Studio.

TruckproofTRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - O joy cube farm: Wacom Technology Services will be moving 160 employees from the Vancouver facility to a new office in the Pearl District in 2016.

Seven years ago at Persicope Studio — a private collective of cartoonists on SW Fifth Avenue — you were hard pushed to find fans of the digital tablet for drawing and inking. But on a recent afternoon pretty much everyone was using them. Most have two — one at work, one at home — because they are not very portable. Cartoonists treasure their elbow room, and constantly unplugging cords can be a bane.

Steve Lieber swears by the Cintiq he bought, used, eight years ago. He estimates he makes five to six thousand pen strokes a day, on a screen that sits at a 60 degree angle to his desk as he draws “Quantum and Woody.”

Like his colleagues, his right hand works quickly and deftly, adding black lines, while his left hand hits chords on a keyboard, undoing marks, zooming in, changing brush widths and recentering the image.

Periscope is a banter-happy workplace and people are keen to volunteer their opinion of the tool so intimate to their work lives.

Erika Moen, who draws a web comic called Oh Joy Sex Toy, where she reviews sex toys with a sex-ed teacher’s unabashed pragmatism, draws on a Wacom 12WX. TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Anolog meets digital: Steve Lieber of Periscope Studio in Portland uses a Wacom screen to draw his illustrations in native digital format.

“I like that you can put a felt nib in the stylus, it has a nice bit of drag,” Moen says. “It feels like I’m making lines, as opposed to to just sliding across plastic.”

Comics and illustration are her full-time business, which she runs with her husband. Necessity is the mother of invention: Moen went digital when one weekend she was forced to take a bus to Seattle and work at the same time. “I still got my work done faster, and ever since then I’ve worked digital and met my deadlines. Although it makes me sad there’s no physical page in my hand.”

They all use Manga Studio software. It’s designed for comic book artists and does tricks such as snap lines to perspective, which makes drawing dozens of little windows in skyscrapers a breeze.

By way of saying how durable they are, artist Ron Chan tells how his friend accidentally drove his truck over a Cintiq, duct taped it back together and it still worked.

Angry Birds

Chan works at a stand up desk on a small Cintiq 13 HD which costs him around $1,000. It is attached to his laptop, which is also his communication hub. Space is tight at Periscope, but he shares it with a sleeping dog and various bags and boxes. A jar of sable paintbrushes sits to one side, a reminder of the old days. He’s drawing a Plants vs. Zombies comic book (published by Dark Horse Comics), based on the mobile video game.

Chan, 32, learned to draw on paper but he’s been working digitally most of his career.

“I got a little Wacom in high school and I just moved up the ladder. I’ve never had to deal with customer service because I’ve never had anything break.” He upgrades because he wants new features rather than to replace broken gear.

At work drawing a little creature facing off against a zombie, he makes a line, erases it, makes another, erases, makes a third, accepts. It’s all with the mesmerizing rhythm of an action painter, albeit at a scale of inches.

Digital, to Chan, is freeing, because it lets him constantly erase, keeping the best mark.

“It lets you be brave. You go for it. I kind of resent going back to paper. This is my default.”

Reliable digital mark making is one thing. Workflow is another thing that the tablet has changed. Artists can crank out a story board for an ad agency and have comments back in hours instead of sending them by bike messenger.

“I get a lot more work done,” says Chan.

“It gives artists the freedom and flexibility that writers with word processors have taken for granted for 30 years,” says Lieber. “Going back to paper and ink would be like forcing a newsroom to use Selectric typewriters.”

While they like the Wacom brand, they are not in a thrall to it. “The Cintiq Companion was the first Windows device I’ve bought in 25 years of buying computers, which shows you how good Wacom are,” says Lieber, an Apple fan. “But if someone came out with something better that cost less, we’d use that. There’s not the glamor of the brand like Apple. They’re just reliable.”

Chan says he bought a competitor’s 18-inch model for $600. “It seemed like a deal, but I thought it felt like s—-.”

In another corner, Ron Randall is drawing superheroes for Rovio in Finland, based on their Angry Birds property. He used to photocopy a drawing and boost its size by 10 percent, then trace it in. Now he can scale objects or perfect his composition in seconds.

“It’s a tool, it won’t teach you to draw,” he warns. Randall recommends looking at self-published indy comics for examples of slick, colorful comics that are poorly drawn and characterized.

Creatives vs. Zombies

With PNCA expanding into 511 NW Broadway, Wacom will have more test subjects.

“In Animated Arts we use (and love) Wacom tablets especially the Cintiq,” wrote Rose Bond, Chair of the Animated Arts department. One of her students won the national LG Electronics animation prize of $50,000 for the school.

Martin French, chair of Design Arts, said “We’ve used Wacom tablets in illustration for a number of years. [They are] an essential tool in our process and curriculum.”

Joe Sliger works alone in a dark room at Wacom making videos. As Ambassador Program Manager he has all the toys: cameras, computers, tablets, screens.

“I have’t used a mouse for 13 years,” says Sliger. “Except as archery targets and as car chocks.” He touts the three-day challenge: put away your mouse or trackpad for three days and use a stylus and you’ll never go back.

“After three days it becomes muscle memory. I even persuaded the doctor who did my hand surgery to do it.”TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Wacom's Joe Sliger gets to play wth all the toys first at Wacom's Vancouver HQ. Next year he'll be doing it in the earl District at the heart of Portland's creative community.

Wacom tablets themselves are designed on Wacoms by a guy in Germany called Holger.

Sliger points out that in our digital world, everything still begins with a sketch. New cars are drawn, turned into 3D computer models and then sculpted life-size in clay.

The company aims to grow to around 300 staff in Portland in the next five years. Part of the outreach is to target young people.

“We’ve been behind the scenes so long,” says Sliger. “Only recently the budding artist is discovering us. Look on Deviant Art and they’re all talking about Wacoms, but they can’t afford them,” he says with a smile. His next push is to try to get Google to open up its hardware. Google’s cheap Chrome notebooks are being adopted by school systems but only used for tests. Sliger thinks they would be more useful with a pen interface. He has “The Doodle Revolution” on his bookshelf and is a proponent of visual learning. He counts Sal Khan, whose Khan Academy teaches math through handwriting, as a Wacom fan.TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Doug Little, Public Relations Manager at Wacom Technology Services in Vancouver, says staff are excited about the move to Portland, where many of them live anyway.

“Creativity is not just illustration, it can be math. You can’t do advanced equations without a pen.”

Wacom’s Little says the increase in the cost of office space is a gamble they’re happy to take. The company is sure it will pencil out.

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