Surface Pro 3: A work of art in the making?

Microsoft launches Surface Pro 3 in the UK with specially commissioned works at the National Portrait Gallery.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 goes on sale in the UK today, and as part of the launch Microsoft has worked with the National Portrait Gallery and with artist James Mylne to use its new tablet (and its free Fresh Paint natural medium painting tool) to re-create three famous portraits: the Bronte sisters, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, and the only known image of William Shakespeare.

Dame Christabel fina
James Mylne's Surface re-creation of the portrait of suffragette Christabel Pankhurst

Mylne is best known for his ballpoint work, and so was a logical choice to showcase the pen-based features of the new Surface. At an event at the gallery he described how he'd varied strokes, to replicate the different effects in the different works of art, and how he'd taken advantage of various Surface features in the two weeks he'd spent with the device — and with the original paintings.

He said that he appreciated being "able to lean over and work on the pictures, with palms on the screen," as well as being "unable to see the pixels, it feels like working with paper — especially with the weight of the pen". That last point was an interesting one, as pixelation has often been a criticism of natural media painting tools. Mylne also talked about features in Fresh Paint, particularly the ability to change paper types and pen styles to replicate effects in the original paintings.

Artist James Mylne looks on as a National Portrait Gallery art historian describes the story behind a portrait

The resulting pictures are quite fascinating; clearly Mylne's own work yet obviously inspired by the original works. You can see the pen strokes, and how Mylne has used the pressure sensitivity built into the Surface's N-trig drivers and Fresh Paint's various brush types to turn his normally photo-realistic style into one that mixes pastels, pen and oils in a single black-and-white image.

Shakespeare complete
Mylne used Fresh Paint to re-create the famous "Chandos portrait" of Shakespeare.

Showcasing the Surface Pro 3's creative features this way makes a lot of sense, as Microsoft is positioning the combination of its tablet and OneNote as a successor to the A4 pad of paper. It's an interesting alternative to its previous attempts to drive tablet computer sales, still focusing on the pen as a differentiator from touch-only devices like the iPad, and from traditional laptops (whether PC or Mac).

It's also amusing to see things go full circle, as Microsoft launched the original Tablet PCs by providing Leicester Square caricaturists with HP slate devices — using them and early natural media paint tools to create quick portraits of passers-by. Those digital portraits weren't as detailed as Mylne's recreations in the National Portrait Gallery, not just as a result of the 12 hours Mylne put into each picture, but also because of 10 years' worth of technological change.

There's a long road from the original HP Compaq TC100 hybrid slate to today's Surface Pro. While pen-based Tablet PCs have been around for much of the last decade, much of what differentiates the new Surface from its predecessors is technology that only hit the mainstream in the last year or so; Bluetooth LE for the pen-based app launcher, Haswell processors for long battery life, and high pixel density screens.

It'll be interesting to go back to Mylne's work in another 10 years, and to see just what a decade can deliver in technology — and what those changes can do with a portrait.

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