A Smartphone, a Stylus, and My Season As a Sketch Artist

Illustration: Jake Swearingen

Last autumn, I spent a month or so using the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 as my phone, after having reviewed it. The phone itself is nice, with a good-to-great camera, a beautiful screen, and, praise be, a 3.5 mm headphone jack.

But the thing that really distinguishes the Samsung Note 8, as well as the more recently released Samsung Note 9, is the stylus that neatly slips into the body of the phone. In the promo material Samsung issued for the phone, it’s mainly shown being used by business people for business purposes, such as jotting down notes or making lists of, I guess, stocks? (I don’t really know what business people do.) But what I found myself using it for the most was surreptitiously sketching people around New York City.

I used to kill time in particularly boring classes in high school and college by sketching people a few rows in front of me, but actually drawing people is never something I took seriously. In my day-to-day life, I’d never carry a sketch pad around the city — it’d feel pretentious, and like I was somehow overstating my abilities. And the idea of staring at someone for a prolonged period while sketching them gives me the heebie-jeebies; if someone stared at me while stabbing at their phone with a little plastic pen, I’d switch train cars. But by using a simple drawing app and flipping back and forth between a photo I’d taken earlier on the ride, I could sketch in peace, listening to music and spending a much more relaxing commute than my normal routine of checking Twitter every five minutes.

Eventually, I had to send the phone back to Samsung, and I went back to using an iPhone. I tried a few times to keep up with sketching people I saw during my commute — it turns out you can creep-shot people on the subway with nearly any phone. But despite what Steve Jobs said about the stylus (“God gave us ten styluses. Let’s not invent another”), I found it nearly impossible to draw with my index finger. There are some artists and illustrators doing excellent (and well-publicized) work drawing on their iPhones. But poking at my phone with my index finger doesn’t feel great, and it’s impossible to get anything close to a natural drawing motion going. For 99 percent of the things you do with a smartphone, I think your fingers work just fine, but in this one isolated use case, you want a stylus.

And one of the nice things about non-Apple products is, they come down in price relatively quickly after release. The Note 8 cost $929 when I reviewed it, a shocking amount in the early fall of 2017, but now, of course, Apple has blown past that number by a fair margin. You can easily find a fresh Note 8 for $400 nowadays, a reminder of how quickly today’s flagship becomes tomorrow’s bargain-bin remainder. If you find yourself needing a phone and looking at my sketches and thinking that you could do better yourself (you definitely can), pick one up. It’s amazing what a stylus, a smartphone, and a little free time can allow you to do.

A Smartphone, a Stylus, and My Season As a Sketch Artist