Monday, May 14, 2018

Budding digital artist? A break from our normal book reviews to take a look at the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Graphics Tablet - A ReadItDaddy Gadget Special (Updated 14th May 2018)

The XP-Pen Artist 15.6 in all its glory
We love gadgets here at ReadItDaddy, particularly anything to do with art and creativity...
That wasn't a big hint to SEND US SOME (yes it was) but if you've got an iPad Pro and Pencil you wouldn't mind donating, we're all ears!

I've been dabbling in Digital Art for a number of years, and during that time I've worked my way through three Wacom graphics tablets, usually hooked up to a Mac with a bunch of creative software to play with.

For ages I've been eyeing up Wacom's Cintiq 13HD as a replacement for my awesome Intuos Pro Medium. I loved the idea of being able to draw directly onto a screen representation of my art rather than trusting my hand to eye coordination (which isn't always great - any non-screen tablet owner will tell you that it takes a bit of getting used to trusting your hands to do one thing while your eyes are concentrating on something else).

There was a snag though - the astronomical cost of the Wacom Cintiq put me off.

 £649.99 (the current cheapest price I could source one for) is a wallopingly large chunk of cash for a gadget that - essentially - still needs to be connected up to your home computer in order to work.

Not my hairy arms by the way...!
I've been doing a LOT of research on alternatives. There are quite a few companies out there aiming for the 'budget' end of the market, including XP-Pen.

They have steadily been gaining a good reputation for producing really close competitors to most of Wacom's ranges, putting out a mix of traditional non-screen tablets in various sizes - and a whopping range of IPS screen-based tablets too.

I really wanted something that could reproduce that combination of Wacom-like responsiveness, felt robust and well built, had a battery / charge-free stylus and a decent set of pressure sensitivity levels - as well as hotkeys, and compatibility with the art packages I own (Painter 2018, Photoshop CS6 and the mighty Clip Studio Paint - my go-to package for digital art).

All roads led to the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Graphics Tablet as being "The one". With the cost dropping to nearly half that of the Cintiq (Mine cost £349 - still not an amount to be sniffed at!) I finally took the plunge and ordered one.

The company operates a decent store through Amazon, and delivery was extremely quick for the UK (Ordered on the Monday, delivered by the Wednesday) so that was certainly impressive.

A battery free stylus and customisable hotkeys - VERY useful!
Unboxing the kit and connecting it all up was extremely simple (you'll need a power socket, a HDMI port on your chosen PC or Mac (though a display port to HDMI adapter is thoughtfully supplied - one thing you can say about XP-Pen is that they try to give you everything you need right there in the box) and a spare USB socket (USB2 or better).

As soon as you hook this up, it is recognised by your PC or Mac as a second screen but you will still need to install the drivers in order to access those lovely, lovely 8192 levels of pressure sensitivity in your software. There is a disk provided, but you're better off diving out to the XP-Pen Website to download the latest drivers for your tablet as there are significant changes between old and new drivers (see here).

One note of caution - if you have any existing Wacom drivers on your Mac or PC, best uninstall those first as they will interfere with the correct operation of your XP-Pen Tablet (I wish I'd known this first, as I spent a frustrating hour wondering why tracking was off and calibration didn't seem to work properly - but once you uninstall Wacom drivers, XP-Pen drivers and then re-install the XP-Pen drivers and restart, you're up and running).

The display is nice and sharp with good colour definition, and the matt screen cuts down on glare substantially. It may take a bit of fiddling to get a 'like for like' match between your main display and the tablet itself, but usually using one of the default colour profiles (Adobe RGB for me) does the trick, then you can individually tweak brightness settings on the tablet to suit.

The stylus doesn't quite feel as luxurious as the Wacom equivalent, but it's not completely hateful, just feels like the cheapest component in the kit really. One thing I did notice was that the first stylus tip I used in the thing felt 'creaky' but quickly swapping to another tip sorted that out straight away.

So then the fun juicy bit - getting it calibrated then testing it with a bunch of art packages!

Calibration through the XP-Pen control panel is quick and easy, you basically touch 5 points on the screen with the pointer of your stylus and you're ready to go. It's worth mentioning that you may feel the need to recalibrate from time to time, but it's a quick painless thing to do so that's good to see.

In the control panel you can also adjust the "click pressure" of the tablet for a light / heavy touch. I put the slider right down to the lightest setting because that's the preference I have (and I didn't want to damage my nice new shiny toy) so again your mileage may vary depending on how you use your current tablet or setup.

So into the real business - testing with software. I've separated the various bits of software I tried this with below:

Corel Painter 2018

I have always struggled to get Painter 2018 to give me decent digital art results, it still feels like a package that gives you tons of options without any finesse, but basically has probably the broadest range of different brush types and behaviours of any digital art package.

The first thing I did was adjust the pen pressure settings in Corel's settings menu. This is absolutely essential to ensure that the tablet and package work as closely together as possible - and it's great to see that this worked really responsively and improved the package's tolerance of the tablet's large level of pressure sensitivity. One thing to note though, if you're a fan of Painter's tilt detection, there's none of that with the XP-Pen as it does not support pen tilt at all.

Starting with the pencils, I noticed straight away that the pressure sensitivity was working fine, and the XP-Pen produced really satisfying sketch-like strokes using the standard 2B pencil in Painter.

The first thing I noticed when using the tablet in anger was how I had to 'retrain' my digital art brain from looking at a separate monitor and trusting my hand to eye coordination, to treating the tablet more like I'd treat a traditional sketch pad. A jarring moment of "What the heck am I doing here?" before the message got through.

Tried painter with some of the oils and watercolour brushes and was thoroughly impressed with how the XP-Pen kept up with brush tracking (again it should be a near-identical stroke for stroke experience to any other tablet, perhaps with some adjustment required for the parallax gap between the end of your stylus and the pointer on screen that you get with screen-based graphics tablets).

Pros: Huge range of brushes, some natural-media stuff that works really well.

Cons: Interface is still as clunky as heck though and never seems to get any better with every yearly update from Corel, sadly. Needs a beefy machine with plenty of RAM / Processing power to get the best out of the package as it can be sluggish / slouchy with certain brush types.

Overall: Better than I was expecting, might actually make Painter usable (finally!)

The first thing I drew with the new tablet, straight into Clip Studio using the 'Light Pencil' brush, no tracing, just using a reference image. Colour me impressed with how fine you can go with the detail with this thing!
Photoshop CS6

I have used Photoshop CS6 from time to time when I need a really simple set of brushes, or to manipulate existing art done in other packages but never really for 'straight to screen' drawing.

Photoshop has got a lot better for artists, and some of the pressure brush / custom brush combinations make it well worth a try A) if you can afford the license and B) if you are prepared to tweak settings a LOT.

The first thing I noticed was the variation in results depending on which brush I chose. Hard brushes worked pretty much with no pressure sensitivity at all until I clicked both the 'opacity' and 'brush size' pressure buttons in the brush toolbar. Then things started to behave more like traditional media. In fact it's a rule of thumb that in each of the extended brush settings menus (for stuff like jitter etc) you will need to switch these on in order to get the best out of your XP-Pen.

It didn't take long to again get a nice sketchy pencil-like brush working properly with the tablet. Not a bad result considering I've never seen what other artists see in Photoshop for direct to screen digital art.

Pros: The industry standard. Vast amount of free and paid-for brushes available for Photoshop. Fantastic image manipulation tools, but now getting a lot better as a standalone digital paint package too.

Cons: Settings need a LOT of tweaking. No brush tracking settings at all, so you have to individually tweak brushes to suit.

Overall: Would probably use Photoshop with the XP-Pen for less sketchy / more painterly work, but need to devote a chunk of time to getting things set up just right as it's definitely something that needs tweaking to get the best out of it. .

Clip Studio (Manga Studio 5) 

This has been my "go-to" art package for a very long time now. When I first used Manga Studio 4 I completely fell in love with how responsive it is for drawing and painting, switching effortlessly between responsive sketchy pencils, really precise dark inks and even watercolours / oils with ease. It's caught the industry's attention too, and a lot of artists love the combination of functionality - and definitely love the far cheaper price than Photoshop or other competitors.

Setting up the XP-Pen in Clip Studio was extremely easy. First tweaking the pen pressure / tracking settings using multiple strokes, with a little manual adjustment of the responsiveness graph, I got things right back to where I'd left off with my Intuos very speedily.

I could then get straight on with using the light pencil for sketching, darker pencil for shading and paints for under-layer colouring.

It's such an impressive package for the price, and I can see this and the XP-Pen being my default set up for direct-to-computer digital art. Brush tracking is fine enough for some really detailed and intricate work, and with the larger tablet size of the 15.6 I can work on a whole piece at one time rather than needing to work 'zoomed in' (though again for some finer work you'll still need to do this).

Pros: Hugely responsive, fantastic brush tracking, decent quality pressure level detection and adjustment, really natural feeling pencils and pens - very close to what you would get with traditional media. Don't be put off by the 'manga' labels, this is a great package for all types of art.

Cons: I seem to get a bit of 'over-dab' in this from time to time, which I can only liken to trying to draw with a leaky bic biro. I only notice this with pencils so it's likely to be because the XP-Pen's click pressure needs turning up a bit so it doesn't start drawing the minute I touch the screen (if that makes sense - kind of like switching from a B pencil to a 2H)

Overall: Lots of potential here for this to be my default digital art setup. Very impressive and Clip Studio is easily the cheapest package out there, and well worth checking out.

A bit of character art - again painted straight into Clip Studio using a variety of brushes this time to test blending, painting etc. If you look at the trees you can see how the pressure sensitivity works (pressing hard / soft to make lines broader / thinner).

Tablet highlights and summary. 

Pros: XP Pen are definitely making huge strides towards breaking Wacom's stranglehold on the digital art market with good quality / reasonably priced products. The XP-Pen Artist 15.6 is like a BMW to the Cintiq's Bentley, to be fair but it's extremely impressive considering the price, and though it's fairly simple and rudimentary in a few aspects where Wacom still do things better (particularly with drivers, support and stylus quality) but it's definitely worth considering if you're a beginner starting out who wants something more than a non-screen tablet.

Nib prices are cheap (100 nibs for your stylus for under a tenner, compared to Wacom's ridiculously overpriced hairbrush-bristles). There are tons of accessories in the box to get you up and running as quickly as possible (including spare nibs, a screen protecting 'glove' and all the leads you'll need).

Hotkeys on the tablet are great, but would be nice to have these customisable per software like with the Wacom offerings so you could set profiles up for each package and get per-package functionality for those buttons. (I must admit I never use tablet hotkeys at all).

Cons: Stylus quality is a bit rubbish. I really miss the Wacom-like ability to flip the stylus round and use the end as an eraser (and the transition using the buttons on the stylus between pen and eraser could be so much better, but that's a fairly minor point really). You need to press fairly firmly at times, though again this comes down to how much you adjust your environment / software to compensate for light / hard strokes (Since I got this, a new updated driver has been released for Mac that gives you more of a response graph type adjustment to the pen pressure and this has helped LOADS allowing me to make really tiny hair-width strokes very lightly in Clip Studio which has impressed the socks off me).

Some might be put off by the matt screen though as mentioned above, this does cut down on glare. Only thing I wish they'd included in the package is a screen protector - you have to source this separately.

Pen stand is a bit pants, the pen doesn't sit vertically in it very well but it does open up to keep spare nibs inside and has a nib extractor built into the base (something Wacom didn't think of!)

From time to time I feel the need to re-calibrate. Not saying that the device 'wanders' but you may find the same.

Overall: Far cheaper than a Cintiq, a decent upgrade if you're using a standard non-screen tablet - far more impressive than I was expecting and though it'll take you some time to get used to the various tweaks and settings, it's nice to see a company finally giving Wacom some competition.

Update: after 3 weeks of use

I thought I'd add an update to the review just to cover a few more things I've discovered since owning this thing. Overall I'd still agree with my closing statement above but it's also worth noting the following before you drop the cash on one of these things.

1) If you don't buy a screen protector for this - you'll regret it within a couple of weeks. 
Why? Because it takes about that long for small scratches to start showing up on the screen. If you (like me) tend to concentrate on one particular area of a tablet when drawing (most folk will default to a 'comfort zone' on any tablet, regardless of the size of work they're working on), you're going to notice hairline scratches developing. Part of this is because of the poor quality plastic used in the matte screen covering of the tablet itself. Part of it is due to the slightly higher than normal pressure you'll need to use to get the best out of the tablet (even with the most sensitive pressure settings you can set the tablet to). Unfortunately I only discovered this after use so couldn't return the unit, but was kicking myself for not investing in a screen protector. These can be purchased from Amazon specifically for the XP-Pen 15.6 so just do a search and you'll come up with a list of alternatives. Failing that, use the tablet with the protective plastic still on it :) Or use a plastic slip cover to 'cover' the screen while you draw (I used to do this on my old non-screen Intuous, covering the tablet surface with a piece of ordinary paper to protect the surface from scratches and offer a better surface for my stylus to roam over.

2) Drivers and Calibration. Good days and bad days.

Weirdly, calibration on this thing doesn't seem to 'lock in' though I've noticed pen pressure settings set from the XP-Pen control panel DO now stay put (for a long time the driver was pretty duff, seemingly losing my pressure settings after each use). Now though it's calibration that seems to wander, and on a daily basis sometimes I'll find I don't need to adjust it at all, while on other days I seem to have to readjust calibration several times before I get the cursor / stylus nib 'parallax' (the distance between cursor and nib) just right for drawing. I've heard Windows users get a better experience with both of these things (which is frustrating as a Mac user) but hopefully XP-Pen will keep issuing driver updates - they do seem to send these out fairly regularly.

3) Tablet gets a little warm in warm weather.

This is something I've only really begun to notice recently during the warm spells of weather we've been having in the UK (I know, unheard of, right?) - The bottom edge of the tablet gets a little bit on the warm side and if (like me) you use the tablet resting on your lap, you're going to end up getting a warm fuzzy feeling in your nether regions during use (thank goodness for that anti-fouling glove, right?)

4) I miss the immediacy and precision of my Intuos Pro. 

There, I've said it. Though I've got used to the slightly 'wandersome' settings of the XP-Pen, and can do some fairly decent work on it, it's failed for me as an experiment in switching between a non-screen Wacom to a 'cheap' Cintiq alternative. I will continue to use it (quirks and all) because - hah well I spent £350 of my own hard earned cash on it and will damned well get it working for me by hook or by crook. But yes, I do miss the absolute precision, responsiveness, speed and - well just the lack of messing around I have to do nearly every time I use the XP-Pen. Reading more reviews and video guides in hindsight, and with some of the issues I've raised in this update I think if I had to spend my money all over again I'd have just stuck with the Intuos and gone for the cheapest possible portable digital art solution I could afford instead (currently the iPad 9.7 with Pencil support - which is TINY but a lot more responsive / satisfying to draw on than the XP-Pen for around £100 more).

Again - overall I wish I'd had the chance to try a whole brace of these things out before laying down the money (and of course, there's just no way to do that unless you're lucky enough to have a ton of illustrator pals who have a wide range of kit and are willing to let you ham-fistedly scribble on their pride and joy). BUT at least if you've made it to the bottom of this review you'll have a decent idea of whether this particular solution is worth your money - and let's be honest, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 really is one of the higher-rating Cintiq alternatives, so unless you're ready to part with twice the amount of money, you might just find that living with its foibles and quirks is worth it in the end.

You can pick up an XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Graphics Tablet from Amazon.

For the sake of Arnold, pick up a screen protector with it too!

Note: Unit was NOT provided for review and I have received no payment / sponsorship from XP-Pen for this review.