Graphics tablets are standard fare in a photographer’s arsenal of retouching tools, but could a pen display make retouching even easier?
I’ve used a Wacom Intuos for years with no complaints, but I’ve been eyeing pen displays for a while now. As someone who also draws and paints, the ability to put “pen to paper” while retouching, sounded like a way to up my retouching game, particularly in the beauty and composite department. So, when I got the opportunity to review the XP Pen Artist Display 16 Pro, I was excited to see how working directly on an image would affect and—hopefully--enhance my retouching.
The Artist 16 Pro by XP Pen is a 1080p, 15.6" display that has a 178° viewing angle, with a color gamut that is up to 92 percent Adobe RGB accurate. It comes with two rechargeable styluses—complete with eight additional pen nibs and holder—an adjustable display stand that was pre-mounted (less work for me,) a partial glove for your working hand to keep the monitor clean, a cleaning cloth and all the requisite cables including an adapter for Mac. The kit also includes a USB thumb drive with the software driver, but the quick start manual mentions also being able to download the latest drivers via the website, which is what I did. The color of the display wasn’t quite right out of the box, so I calibrated the screen for color and contrast after installing with my X-Rite ColorMunki, and went right to work.
The Artist 16 Pro works with both Windows and Mac, and is compatible with most popular software such as the Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Corel Painter, and Open Canvas.
After having and using the display for two weeks, here is what I can tell you. In essence, the Artist 16 Pro functions like a second monitor that you can program to mirror your main monitor, or act as a second desktop. The functionality while retouching is incredibly similar to using a graphics tablet like the Wacom Intuos, but there are a few differences, both good and bad, that we’ll cover.
The Good Stuff
- The screen is matte, which means I don’t have to deal with any reflections from windows or room lighting. I work in my basement, and the windows can throw some distracting reflections on my iMac screen at certain times of day. The XP Pen display handled my downstairs lighting and windows like a champ. The matte screen made a big difference.
- The screen has a texture like fine-grained paper, which feels natural beneath the pen nib and allows for that little bit of ‘grab’ that stops the stylus from sliding around on the screen.
- The eight customizable express keys make using the display apart from the keyboard much easier. The express keys make basic actions, like zooming in and out or changing brush size, much faster, but I still needed the keyboard close by for things like cloning.
- The adjustable stand gives me room to change up the angle I’m working at, which is handy for keeping me from becoming stagnant and allows me to change things up when I adjust my desk from standing to sitting.
- If I needed to look at my larger iMac screen or give my neck a break from the angle of looking down at the screen, I could treat the Artist Pro like a tablet and work from my monitor.
- No lag. The pen worked in Photoshop as smoothly as anything else I’ve ever used.
- Pen pressure made doing things like drawing in eyelashes or hair easy and quick. Unlike dodging and burning where I needed to see the skin beneath the nib, being able to place the pen nib exactly where I wanted to draw in a hair was helpful.
- The size of the display is a nice balance between being big enough to work on, but not so big that it stresses my arm from making too many large movements.
- The price point is pretty outstanding for what you get.
Here are two of the images edited with the XP Pen Artist 16 Pro.
The Not So Good Stuff
- I had to install, uninstall, and reinstall the driver several times to get everything working properly so I could program the unit and calibrate the display. This was frustrating because it required restarting the computer as well.
- Retouching with a pen directly on the image leads to a few problems. While zoomed out, the pen nib sometimes covered what I was working on, so I found myself leaning to the side or looking up at my iMac monitor to be sure I was in the right area. For dodging and burning, particularly while zoomed out, it’s crucial to see exactly where the mouse is at on the image. Since the second monitor was still there to use, it wasn’t a huge issue, but it did stop me from using the display exclusively while retouching the attached images.
- The stand that allows the display to move between upright and down positions also stops it from lying flat. This isn’t a huge problem, but it is an ergonomic issue that I think could improve the usability for photographers and retouchers.
- Sitting on top of a desk, the display isn’t always at the best angle for healthy body position. I have a desk converter that allows me to stand, as well as a riser to keep my monitor at an ideal level for healthy posture, and the XP Pen display falls right into that area where I’ll either find myself with a sore neck from looking down for too long, or tiring my arm muscles out if I sit because the display sits up above the desktop a bit, so the arm needs to be raised unless the stand is removed. I got around this issue by altering between using the display screen, and using my monitor, as well as repositioning myself and taking breaks often.
Having three cords running from the back of the unit (USB, HDMI, and power) does make moving the display feel clunky.
Because the XP Pen Artist 16 Pro works as a pen display and has the same functionality as a graphics tablet, it’s like having the best of both worlds. I can look up at my larger monitor when I need to, or work directly from the screen. When doing fine detail work (outside of dodging and burning) or drawing on an image, the Artist 16 Pro really shines. The unit feels well-made and is simply designed. Having two pens lets one charge while I use the other, and the ability to adjust pen pressure in the software menu seems like it will make it easy save nibs in the long term. While using a laptop, having the larger display to work from makes retouching much easier.
As someone who also loves to draw, being able to look down and see myself work lends a natural motion to my arm as I retouch, as does being able to adjust the angle of the screen. At almost half the price of some of it’s competitors, the Artist 16 Pro makes a great case for itself in value.I can see this being of great use to those photographers who also do graphic design or digital painting, but may be overkill for those of us who only do minimal retouching or aren’t interested in the feel of drawing while they’re working.
The value in price naturally comes with a few caveats, such as buttons that don’t feel high-end, and a stand that isn’t completely ideal for healthy posture. But given it’s $459 price tag—which makes this display cheaper even than the Wacom Intuos Pro tablet and more than one-thousand dollars less expensive than the comparable Wacom Cintiq Pro 16—those are things that can be adapted to for the savings.
If you’ve been looking to get your feet wet with a pen display, the Artist 16 Pro seems like a great place to start both in functionality and value. Mr. Sparklebum approves of the quality for the savings. Mr. Sparklebum always approves of savings.