I came across XP-Pen while researching a gift for a friend. It had been 4 years since I had my graphics tablet by my side, moving across to Italy and leaving it behind, and I wanted to buy her (an illustrator) a small 4×6 tablet for Christmas.

What I found was the XP-PEN Star 01 Graphics Tablet. To be honest, it looks like a really good start for someone who wants to get into using a graphics pen but it’s quite sure how to put it into their workflow. It only costs US$70 on Amazon.

But while researching the Tablets that XP-Pen makes, I came across something I wanted for my very own and hadn’t even considered before, a Pen Display. That is, a graphics tablet which allows you to see what you’re working on underneath the pen (instead of using the pen to control the mouse on another screen). Those made by Xp-Pen carry the name “Artist” and it’s easy to see why.

Now, this is a really difficult name for a product (not only for XP-Pen) because before we had only Graphics Tablets, then we had Tablet Computers and the two remained separate. A Pen Display is a graphics tablet with a screen underneath it, but does not operate as a standalone device. It’s been one of the difficulties in recommending and discussing the device with artist friends. ‘External screen with pen input’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue, and it’s hard to convince people they should buy something that looks like a Tablet, but doesn’t work like one.

What you need to know is that this isn’t a screen with a pen input, it’s a screen with a graphics tablet interface. That means that you get 2048 levels of sensitivity, accuracy to +-0.01inches, and a pen which feels like a pen with a pen tip (not a stylus).

I got in touch with XP-Pen and discussed my work, and they were happy to send me an Artist 22E (the second version of their 22″ HD Pen Display). However, when it came time to release the Artist 22E, they proved so popular that they didn’t have one left to send me, and offered to let me review an Artist 10S instead. The review of the Artist 22E will be coming soon, and I’ll link it here when it’s uploaded.

Artist 10S (XP-Pen)


Dimensions:
30.1 x 20.9 x 0.5cm
Thickness: 6.2mm
Active Area: 21.7×13.6cm
Resolution: 1280x800px
Viewing Angle: 178 degrees
Pressure Sensitivity: 2048 Levels
Buttons + Extra Functions: 6 Express Keys
Compatibility: Windows/Mac
Full product description: XP-Pen.com

In the box:

  • Passive Pen (No battery required)
  • Pen Nibs + Remover
  • Installation CD
  • Protective Bag
  • USB combination cable (HDMI + two USB 2.0 to Mini HDMI + USB-C)
  • Cleaning Cloth + Anti-Fouling drawing glove
  • User Manual

For more information and details of what comes in the package, here’s my full unboxing video:

Technique / Technology:

I particularly wanted to look at the Artist 10S, and post a review online because I saw it being marketed and tested by illustrators and not by photographers. But photographers have long been users of graphics tablets in their retouching work. To me, it made a lot of sense that retouching should move to the pen display.

Seeing your adjustments under your fingertips makes a lot of sense. If you want to know why you should look into a Pen Display unit like the Artist 10S, I can tell you a billion reasons you’ll find elsewhere regarding pressure sensitivity and airbrushing and all of that is true – serious airbrushing requires a pressure sensitive tablet to be natural.

But what you won’t read as much is the ease of use which something like this makes to your workflow. Simply put, a graphics pen is better than a mouse for many applications. Instead of running your hand across your mouse pad ten times to cross the screen, you just point where you need to go. So, before you even get to the airbrushing part, your general workflow is faster. If you don’t have to type with two hands (putting down the pen is not as simple as taking your hand off a mouse), your workflow will be improved.

The use of a Pen Display, over a graphics tablet, is that when you’re working on graphics work, you can see your changes on the device you’re using to make them. It just feels so natural to paint in retouching and the process is made quicker by seeing everything you do in real time under your pen tip.

My post-production workflow, in timelapse, using the Artist 10S.

Value

At time of writing, the Artist 10S is available for US$299 on Amazon. It’s competitor, and industry standard for many years, is the Wacom Cintiq 13, which costs $799.95 on Amazon. The Wacom is slightly bigger, and comes with a stand (something I wish that Xp-Pen had included, particularly since the 22HD and 22E both have a stand integrated) but I had zero issues in my use of the Artist 10S and I can’t imagine anything that would make the Wacom worth US$500 to me.

Obviously, I’m speaking as a photographer, photo retoucher and designer. Graphics artists who want to use different pen nibs and specific tilt functions may find some value in that $500 price jump, but for most graphics work, it’s an unnecessary price to pay.

Although $299US might seem like a high price for a standard graphics tablet, the use of the HD screen underneath the pressure-sensitive surface more than justifies that price. A good quality external HD screen costs about that much on its own (remember that when you’re not using the Artist 10S as a pen display, there’s nothing stopping you using it as a 720p external monitor for your computer.)

For the nuance and expression it adds to your creative workflow, it seems a small price to pay to have something else to offer your work, or your clients.

Ease of Use

Although the older model of the Artist 10 and the Artist 22HD had some people scratching their heads, I had no such issues with the Artist 10S. I downloaded the drivers directly from the website and they installed without a problem. You install it, add it as a second monitor (either copying your primary monitor or extending your desktop like I prefer it), calibrate it and you’re ready to go. You have to calibrate the tablet and that’s where I had a small issue. This isn’t a fault in the device itself, but some helpful tips for getting the most out of it.

Calibrate using the pen as a pen.
If you calibrate the screen by pointing the pen at the 4 (or 9) points of reference and clicking, your calibration will be inaccurate. The minute you use a natural pen angle (different for every body) you will find that the pointer isn’t accurate. Unfortunately, this is going to happen if you change pen grip while you work. For me this is a limitation on the device’s portability because using the Artist 10S on my lap, or in bed, results in a different pen angle to using it on a flat surface like a desk or table. You can recalibrate every time you sit down, but it’s not going to be perfect. Although the device is perfectly portable (not too heavy, not too bulky), I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re thinking you’ll sit in nature with a laptop. It’s going to suck power and your pen angle will be inconsistent.

Cable Length
This thing requires a mass of cables. Two USB ports (one for data and one for power) and an HDMI port.
To try to make things easy, XP-Pen includes a hybrid cable which is perfect if you’re going to leave the Artist 10S on your desk connected to your computer. But for general portable use it’s a nightmare mostly because it’s too long. I would guess it’s about a metre and a half long and thick. So working on the go with it means you have a messy cable. Personally I think a 60cm cable, or even a metre, would be a much nicer inclusion.

Ease of Use is not everything with a new addition to your workflow
This can be a really cool way to increase your productivity and your artistic nuance – a pressure sensitive pen has to be experienced to understand what you’ve been missing if you’re drawing or retouching with a mouse. The Xp-Pen Artist 10S is also very intuitive in its use (including the six buttons down the side which I barely use – more on that later) but what you should be considering is how it might challenge you.
Immediately after I started using the Artist 10S, I was inspired to create new works I never would have considered without it. One commissioned design now includes a drawn element, and entire projects have come out of having it in my technical arsenal. Having a device like this might be worth it just for your own versatility as an artist in the digital workspace.

Final Word

In the end, I would recommend the Artist 10S for someone looking into getting into pen work. If you have the budget available, skip straight to a pen display. If you’re not so sure, maybe look at the Star models, or a graphics tablet which has a pressure sensitive pen input without a screen, before making the leap.

I will say that although I had a lot of fun and was very productive using the Artist 10S, I found the screen real estate a bit cramped for some photographic work, with all the tools opened, and since I like working zoomed in for details, I had to move around where I was working on quite a bit. For that reason, I’m very excited to try out the Artist 22E which is on its way.

The long three pronged cable still bugs me, even on a desktop system it just seems unfathomably long (unless your PC is underneath your desk somewhere), so I wouldn’t mind a shorter option, but that may just be about personal opinion.

The pen was comfortable to use for long periods of time, and feels weighted as it should be, not too heavy so as to be too cumbersome and not too light which would have made it harder for intricate and precise motions.
The screen quality is great and I wouldn’t want a higher resolution at this dimension. It’s also under a solid piece of glass which, like the entire device itself, feels pretty bullet proof.

Not only is the Artist 10S a great entry into the market of pen display units for any artist (don’t be put off by the fact it’s marketed towards designers, a graphics tablet is standard fare for anyone who retouches photos these days) but what’s more, over the past month it’s become an integral part into my professional workflow that is unlikely to be replaced by anything but the Artist 10S’ bigger brother, the 22 inch Artist 22E – that said, it will still fill a void the 22 inch model cannot, which is the ability to take it to clients and retouch or process photos on the spot, precisely and naturally.

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