I’ve written about my fondness of pen input on computers and mobiles before. I’m writing this article on my Galaxy Note 8 with the S-Pen in handwriting mode. Some of my posts feature digital sketches and drawings that I’ve done on my Note or my Surface Pro.
My son has also shown an interest in digital art. We share an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription which gives us access to all of their software; Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, and even their animation software is included. You can install the applications on two devices but can only use one of them at a time. It’s a good value in my opinion. I don’t think I’d ever drop the thousands it would cost to purchase all of the apps independently. They also give you a synchronization solution and 100GB of cloud storage so your works can be accessed from any of your devices at any time.
There are lots of free or inexpensive art and photo editing apps like Mediabang and Paint.Net, the built-in Microsoft Paint, and more; they’re good enough, but not the same caliber as Adobe’s software. In the same way that Open Office is good, but not quite as great as Microsoft Office. They make a great place to start if you want to make art, edit photos, or try your hand at animation while keeping costs down. They’re also great for learning how digital tools work.
Things like layers, lassoes, and pixel cloning are going to be new concepts if you’re used to paper. It’s features like these that separate digital and analog art techniques. For example; in the sketch of a truck that I’m using throughout this article, I only needed to draw one tire and then copy/paste. The truck is a seperate layer from the background and color which would let me easily do something else with it. When I drew the hood scoop, it was a little off-center. I didn’t need to start over. I just had to use the lasso tool to move it.
When we started out with digital art, my kid had decided on a Wacom Intous Draw tablet. This tablet is like a mouse pad that you write / draw on with a stylus. They are in-expensive (depending on size); I picked up ours at Best-Buy for $79.00 on sale. In terms of art, it works well but there is a disconnect between the tablet and what you’re working on, because your drawing or photo is on the screen but your stylus is touching the pad on a different plane. It works reasonably well after acclimation.
While we’re on the subject, it takes around 40 hours to become accustomed to any input device. Whether we’re talking about a drawing pad, a game controller, a keyboard, or a stylus you won’t have it mastered until you’ve spent about 40 hours working with it. So many of the people I know pick up a tool and judge it a failure if they can’t fully use it in 10 minutes. That’s just not how learning a new motor skill and building muscle memory works. In my opinion, it’s the biggest downfall of stylus input on computers. When the digital tool doesn’t work exactly like a pencil or pen on paper, people get turned off. It’s not supposed to be like paper. The experinece is supposed to be better than paper and if you dedicate the time to gain the skills, I think you’ll be surprised.
The trouble with drawing pads occurs when you lift your pen to connect two lines. For example; when drawing a large square you might lift your pen at the end of each side. Knowing where to put your pen down to start the next line can be a little challenging. The screen will show you where your stylus is hovering but there’s still a disconnect between your hand and your eyes that you just can’t quite overcome at first. There is also some translation happening between the size of your monitor (40″ in my case) and the size of the drawing space (5.7″) that you just can’t quite predict every time. Don’t get me wrong, if you spend the afore-mentioned 40 hours working with the device you’ll get the hang of it, but when working on complex shapes with minute details, it can be slower and become bothersome if you’re working on a long project.
The next step in digital art tools is a drawing monitor. Of course the primary difference between a drawing pad and a drawing monitor (aka pen display) is that the drawing surface is also a screen. The Cadillac of drawing monitors is the Wacom Cintiq line. Wacom popularized the technology first and owns several patents around the technology. Their screen based products are quite expensive, especially if you’re not using them for professional reasons. My son and I are not able to spend thousands of dollars on a digital art device so we needed to find an alternative. Lucky for us, several key patents for pen tech have expired or are about to expire. As a result, there are lots of competitors on the market that understand if they want “everyday” people to consider purchasing this type of device; the price point needs to be much lower.
I never purchase a new gizmo or gadget over $50.00 without doing a ton of research first. In this case, I’ve worked with pen displays through-out my career and know several professional digital artists. My experience and their recommendations were combined with hours of research online (lots of YouTube reviews) by myself and my son to produce our short list.
In the end, we chose the XP-Pen because the Huinon was so large that it would always require a stand and sometimes we like to draw on our lap. The Parblo Coast had a lot of complaints on various blogs for driver issues with Photoshop. Although, from their descriptions, I think it was probably a failure to adjust the refresh rates in their video driver.
The XP-Pen was easy to set up; just go to their web-site and download the newest drivers, hook up the included cable(s) and hit the power button. If your system is relatively new you should be able to plug the USB power cable in to one port and the controller cable into another. It comes with a power adaptor and plug fittings for both the US and Europe. It also ships with a mini display-port to HDMI adapter cable. They have drivers for both Windows and MAC so no matter your computer preference, it should work well.
There’s a reported issue with many of these tablet devices blinking or flickering while you’re using them. If this happens to you, try adjusting the refresh rate of your video card to match the 60Hz refresh rate of the screen. For some reason it gets auto-deteced at 59Hz and this causes the flicker. In Windows just search for Display Settings, then click Display Adapter Properties and use the drop down to select 60Hz.
This thing is fantastic. It’s the best overall drawing experience I’ve had to date. Part of the reason behind this is that the graphics are being driven by my Radeon GPU instead of a the Intel chipset my Surface Pro has. Even if that wasn’t the case, the drawing experience itself is better. The screen is not smooth like glass, there is a texture applied to it that offers a little tactile feedback to your strokes. The pen tracks well and suffers very little, if any parallax (pen tip and cursor don’t align). There’s a rocker switch on the side that adjusts the brightness and the colors look good.
The drivers work great. If you’re using it with Windows 10 and want the pressure sensitivity to work you’ll need to enable Windows Ink; search for it to find the settings. I tested it with the Adobe products, Paint.Net, Microsoft’s built-in apps, MediaBang, and Auto-Desk. It worked well on all of them.
My son and I both wish the tablet had more shortcut keys but that isn’t a deal breaker by any means. Also, we already had a tablet stand that we knew would work with this thing. If you don’t, you’ll need to consider buying theirs. There’s a bundle that includes the stand on Amazon or you can order it as an accessory from the XP-Pen website. There are also quite a few inexpensive tablet stands out there that would work well for it and I suspect that you could use a painting easel.
Overall we’re very happy with our purchase and would recommend it to anybody looking to use a digitizer for computer input. At $359.00 with free shipping from Amazon, it’s a bargain. If you’re wondering how that sketch of the truck came out, here it is with the color layer turned on. Thanks for reading.