We're officially into the second year of the pandemic. Time went by so quickly. In case you didn't notice, over 15% of 2021 already passed. February 12th marked the start of the Lunar New Year of the Ox. I used to make some art to celebrate it but this year I did very little. Not because I'm lazy, but because I'm occupied with adding exciting new features to Expresii.
The following is a technology preview that I can show you now. Watch it in 4k to appreciate the vector-like zooming capability. Yes, Expresii would have pastel. When most think there isn't much we can still improve the state of the art, we came up with an efficient method that renders the artwork in extremely high resolution. Research & Development takes time, but it's worth the wait.
With more and more people get vaccinated, hopefully we'll be able to live a normal life again soon. Stay safe and creative!
Wireless Cintiq for less than US$340!
Been trying out some apps that turn your tablet/phone into a pen display for your PC. Thanks to a user, I now come across SuperDisplay. To use Expresii with SuperDsiplay, please use Expresii 2020.12.29 or later. Otherwise, you need to first disable Wintab driver in the current SuperDisplay before you launch Expresii. I've been in contact with the author of SuperDisplay and and he confirms that future version of SuperDisplay would have this fixed.
Among the similar apps that I've tried, SuperDisplay is the first one that feels a charm to use! It is very fast even on 2.4GHz wifi. There're many options like having our Android device in extended display mode, customizable on-screen icons (can have different assignment for long press) for undo, redo and more. Connect wired or wireless.
The following is a comparison between using my phone as extended display vs mirrored display at 4k. My computer (AMD 2400G APU with 16GB of RAM) is stressed when it needs to handle two 4k displays causing lag in the strokes, but if you use mirrored mode, it's quite fast:
If you only use FHD, it should run even smoother.
Here's a video showing how to setup custom on-screen icons in SuerDisplay and a demo of using them:
The on-screen icons may be taking too much of your real estate. However, the above videos are done on the Samsung Note 8 phone. Want to see how it looks if you use a tablet? Someone actually has already posted a demo video of using Expresii with SuperDisplay before me:
He is using a Samsung Tab S4 , a 10.5" Android tablet (2018, Super AMOLED, 1600 x 2560 pixels, 16:10 ratio). As suggested by Google Play reviews, another good tablet you can use is the newer Samsung Tab S6 Lite (2020, 10.4" TFT, 1200 x 2000 pixels, 5:3 ratio), which is sold for US$325 at Amazon. If you're in Hong Kong, dcfever has several listings at HK$2000 only (=USD258) right now. So, yeah, you can pretty much have something like a wireless Cintiq for 200 or 300 something.
SuperDisplay is current sold at USD10. Well worth the money if you ask me. ^_^
Q: Do we need a powerful Android device?
I tried my Xiaomi Mi A1 (Snapdragon 625, 4+64GB), a budget phone released in 2017. The performance is a bit slower than my Samsung Note 8 (Snapdragon 835, 6+128GB), a flagship phone also from 2017. With more testing, I found that when doing multi-touch gesture (that requires when fullscreen refresh) would be more laggy if I have more tabs opened in Chrome on my PC. Apparently, the most demanding task SuperDisplay does is the compression of your screen on our PC end and thus the bottomneck.
From Google Play reviews, it looks like the 2019 Samsung Tab A with S Pen works well, and it's quite a budget device at US$245.
2021.01.09 update: The author of SuperDisplay told me that for most cases the bottleneck is in the decoder on the Android device. And on your PC, GPU is used for the encoding, so having a fast GPU helps in getting faster response.
Q: Does it work with external graphics tablet?
I've also tried using a Huion Q620M graphics tablet on my Android phone to see if the pressure and tilt work. The answer is yes, I get both pressure and tilt readings in Expresii via SuperDisplay, but the catch is that only a portion of the Q620M maps to the phone, and then when used with SuperDisplay, the Q620M can only reach the left side of my Windows 10 (landscape) desktop.
2020 went too quickly. No travel. In fact, our activities were mostly confined in our neighborhood. Nevertheless, the development of Expresii never stopped. Just check our Update Log for a (truncated) list of what have been done.
Animation / Automation
Have been collaborating with a small team of animators this year on a short film Find Find , whose production started in March. It serves as an experiment for how Expresii can be used for animation. We are developing a system that can automatically control the brush (and other attributes like color loading) in Expresii to produce a sequence of animation frames. This lays a ground for modern ink-painting animation (水墨動畫). Click the octopus below to watch an illustrative video.
The animation is set to premiere in mid-2021.
Running on Mac / ARM-based machines
In mid-2020, it's been proven that Expresii can run on an Intel-based Mac via Parallels Desktop 15 or later, complete with Apple Pencil support (with pressure and tilt) via Sidecar, but the save / export function of Expresii was not working due to limitation of Parallels' OpenGL implementation. Since version 2020.11.01, we updated Expresii to overcome this limitation so that it can now run fully via Parallels. So, yeah, apart from running Expresii via Bootcamp, you can now run it directly from within MacOS via Parallels.
However, it seems Apple is ditching Intel processors for future Mac's in flavor of their own ARM-based processors. For Expresii to run on ARM, a crucial part from Microsoft is the support of OpenGL 3.3+ for Windows on ARM. They have good progress on this, citing in November an Insider version of the compatibility package that one can test with. Since one can already run Windows on ARM on Apple's new M1-based machines, it's quite possible we can run Expresii on ARM-based Apple hardware.
Those of you having an ARM-based machine can try Windows on ARM (if on Apple M1, here's an installation guide) and get the Insider preview of the OpenGL 3.3 package to try Expresii there already. For those of you hoping to run it via Parallels, Parallels just released a tech preview in which you can run Windows on ARM as virtual machine on an M1 Apple machines. So for those of you having a Parallels 16 license, you can already try it. If you do try them, let me know how it goes!
new hardware for color input / control
In March 2020, we got a call from Taiwanese company Ufro. Their CEO would like us to support their new color-picking mechanism, in preparation for the then-upcoming Lenovo E-Color Pen. We're happy to help. In July this E-Color Pen started to hit the market, and we did some demos for it. Expresii became the only app that can show off this E-Color Pen with gorgeous color blending effects.
In May, we added support for on-the-fly adjustment of loading color hue, lightness & saturation via hotkeys in Expresii. More pen tablet makers are adding dials to their hardware and we also showed you can use those dials for real-time color adjustment by assigning the dial to our hotkeys.
We have been in contact with other hardware makers too. Would reveal more when collaborations come to fruition.
Since February, the file size of an Expresii artwork file and in-memory storage size are significantly reduced. In October, the artwork export rendering implementation is replaced with one that is more amenable to having more layers. In December, artwork rendering is also optimized to up to 50% faster (or 80% for a bit lower quality). These path the way to allowing more layers or future enhancements.
2021 Ahead: Improvements & New Features
Sorry for the lack of a roadmap thus far. Since the internal of Expresii is much more complex than ordinary paint programs, it takes more effort to design and implement stuffs. Quite some users still don't have a good GPU and without a good GPU, we have to be economical when using GPU resources. Now that hardware has improved and capable GPUs are more common in new machines, we'd like to update Expresii to allow better experience given more available GPU compute and memory resources.
Suminagashi is a form of marbling. In October, we gave a preview of our implementation in Expresii and we passed it to our trusted user Shuen Leung, and she produced the following artwork:
There is still some more work to be done before we can release it to the public. Let us know how you like it so far.
I know many of you find it hard to paint when the paint never really dries and needing to use a new layer for sharp overlapping shapes. That would change soon.
With those optimizations mentioned above, we're ready to add support for more layers.
We'll start adding Western watercolor specific features like drips, backruns or granulation.
Some of you were asking for image import. With that above-mentioned dry-up change, import would be possible.
Our Nelson Chu has been thinking about how to do even better than what he did for oil paint simulation in Fresh Paint (Project Gustav) . Hopefully, we can come up with a good solution in the coming year following Western watercolor.
RYB color model
We already have an initial implementation of the RYB color model. This makes the colors look more natural, but it actually narrows the range of possible colors you can get. The greys become kind of sepia.
Your support is Essential
Existing customers will get these enhancements for free. So, you don't need to wait if you want to purchase Expresii now. (^人^)
If you like what we're doing, please support this endeavor by buying the app (or giving a tip by paying for a trial key) and tell your friends who might be interested. Everything counts! Thanks you! m(_ _)m
Apart from Duet Display Pro, there's also Easy Canvas Pro from DEVGURU Co. in Korea that allows you to use your iOS or Android device as pen display to your desktop apps. Yes, it's like connecting a Cintiq to your desktop, but you have the option to go either wired or wireless. You can use a tablet like the iPad or the Samsung Tab S3 or even your Samsung Note 10 phone. It'd be a great solution if you already own one of those devices.
We just tested their newly released EasyCanvas Pro for Android . I own a Samsung Note 8 with S Pen, which supports both pressure and tilt, so I used it in this test. Normally, you should use a tablet instead since a phone's screen is very small for painting.
I found the wired connection gives satisfactory performance. When using 2.4GHz wifi, the delay is rather noticeable. Unfortunately, I don't have a 5GHz router here so I can't test 5GHz performance. The Samsung device shows the 2.4GHz wifi giving 144Mbps, while my test desktop is connected to the wireless router via cable. My desktop screen is at 4k and my phone is set at FHD+, so Easy Canvas has to resample the 4k screen capture and that's another source of latency.
We hope DEVGURU can support G-Sensor data and hover in the future. G-Sensor can be used for surface tilt to direct the paint flow, and hover is good for users to see the pen posture before hitting the paper. This is important for Eastern calligraphy, if not for painting in general.
It has been one year since the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 was released. We got ourselves an i7 model to test with. We've had it for about a month now and it has been very responsive.
The following is a quick test on its performance. As you can see, it allows fluid digital watercolor in Expresii. In case you can't afford the i7 model, you can still get by with the i5 model, but you may want to use the Fast Mode for more responsiveness.
Did some calligraphy test too:
Don't have the original Surface Pen with us right now, so we picked up a Surface Pen alternative in these tests.
Finally we'd like to show you some sneak peek at some latest development in ink-painting-style animation (水墨動畫) that we are working on. Follow our animator collaborator's Instagram to learn more. Their work is so cool & cute at the same time!
And yes, Surface Pro is used in producing this animation, in case you wonder. (・ωｰ)～☆
Since April it is verified that Expresii can run on Mac via Parallels 15. You can even control brush tilt via sidecar with the Apple Pencil on iPad:
The only remaining obstacle was the GPU shader samplers limitation (limited to 16; Expresii needs 18) on the Parallels implementation. This kept Expresii from saving artwork.
We have now updated Expresii with a new export renderer that doesn't require 18 texture units. That means since version 2020.11.01, Expresii should now run fine on Parallels Desktop 15 or later, including artwork saving / export.
Let us know how you like Expresii running on Mac via Parallels Desktop. ヽ(・∀・)ﾉ
This is an adaptation of the fluid simulation in Expresii to do Suminagashi ('墨流し' in Japanese), a form of paper marbling. Suminagashi is said to have originated from China and today it's called 水拓畫 in Chinese. What we show here is a WIP (work-in-progress) and has not yet been released in the public version of Expresii.
We show that it's possible to load an image acting as obstacle for the flow, thus creating flow patterns that relate to whatever you put in that image. One useful application is making animated title sequence.
Changing the palette used results in interesting organic patterns. And what about applying the sprayer with suminagashi?
Let us know how you like it.
The Lenovo Yoga Duet 7i was announced earlier in May this year as a 2-in-1 tablet / laptop computer. The design is very similar to that of the Surface Pro, so we regard the Duet 7i as a Surface Pro competitor.
Digital Pen captures Colors From Real World
Perhaps the highlight of the Lenovo Yoga Duet 7i is its support for the brand new Lenovo E-Color Pen. Among all the pressure-sensitive styli for iPads, Windows or Android devices, the Lenovo E-Color Pen is the first that can capture colors from the real world. Recently, the Apple Pencil was rumored to add such a feature given they filed a related patent application. However, It's not likely Apple would be granted such a patent, as suggested by Jeremy Shu, CEO of Ufro Inc, the company that provides the color capture technology in the E-Color Pen .
The Lenovo E-Color Pen is a rechargeable Wacom AES pen. Its USB-C charging port is hidden behind the color capture module, which unplugs from the top of the pen. The pen is pressure sensitive and drives the cursor when hovering. It doesn't support tilt sensing, but you can use one of the two side buttons to adjust brush tilt in Expresii.
The pen is not magnetic like the Surface Pen, so you can't just stick it to the side of the tablet. Previously Lenovo supplies holder for their active pens that plugs into USB-A ports of the tablets, but now they switched to USB-C for the Yoga Duet 7i so you will need to find another solution if you want to keep it attached e.g. this pen sleeve on Amazon, or the same thing on TMall of China for half the price.
Software Takes the colors & Magic happens
Currently our app Expresii is one of the select apps that natively support the E-Color Pen color capture function. Its watercolor simulation is a good reason for anyone to use it for showing the capture capability beautifully. When you pick a yellow and a cyan from the real world, the virtual paint mixes together to give a nice green and Expresii's watercolor flow further mingles the paint with gorgeous flow patterns in very high resolution. Expresii supports Ufro's Mozbii pen since 2018 and we thank Wacom for linking us up leading to hardware and software innovations working well together.
The following is a video showing general color picking and the use of the pen for Eastern calligraphy on the Yoga Duet 7i. The machine used in the i5 model, but it's already fast enough for using Expresii. There's the i7 option that gives even better performance for you to choose from.
Pen & Keyboard included
I came from the Surface Pro family, and I really prefer the keyboard of the Duet 7i being able to operate via bluetooth when detached. It's good that Lenovo is including both the keyboard and the E-Color pen, at least in the markets of Hong Kong and the Philippines, instead of needing customers to fork out another USD 90 to 160 for a keyboard cover and USD 99 for the official Surface Pen. There're cheaper aftermarket alternatives for both items (like these pen alternatives), but consumers need to shop around separately. The Yoga Duet 7i is called Yoga Duet 2020 in the Chinese market, and a normal Active pen instead of the E-Color Pen is included.
Expresii receives colors from Color King, the proxy software that sends the captured colors to supported apps. Our Expresii not only can directly receive colors from Color King, but it also offers you the option to auto-load single or multiple-colors into the virtual brush. This is a unique feature made possible by the native support for multi-color loading in Expresii. As demonstrated in the above video, you could pick a few colors in sequence to make a gradient in the brush. You then can make strokes with such a gradient for even more interesting marks!
A Coloring Demo
We further demo coloring a piece of ink work using the E-Color Pen. In this demo, we celebrate brush stroke economy. We appreciate watercolor having a life of its own. From the thumbnail, you may not be able to appreciate the simulation quality so we urge you to watch the video:
The following video shows the performance of color capture and making strokes on the i5 version of the Yoga Duet 7i. The color transfer can be immediate. In the above videos, most of the clips are played back at 2x speed up for editing purpose. The following video shows you the performance in real time.
Our app uses GPU for rendering and flow simulation, so it's often the GPU being the bottleneck. If you find it too slow on your machine, we can still enable Quick Stroke Mode (Fast Mode), and Expresii would be more responsive as you stroke. If you're on Win10, it's easy to download this Store Demo version of Expresii for you to test out the performance.
How accurate is the color capture? I'd say pretty accurate, as you can see from our demo videos. I tried picking the neon orange from my sport shirt and the color captured was obviously off. But other than difficult situations like that, it's pretty accurate for the most part.
We appreciate the startup Ufro Inc bringing low-cost color capture tech to the masses. Color sampling devices used to be rather expansive, and only specialized people would buy them. FYI, you can also order Ufro's standalone color picker InstaPick for as low as USD 60. We also appreciate Wacom and Lenovo for adopting the innovation.
We hope that the Lenovo E-Color Pen would be supported on future pen-enabled machines from Lenovo. They just announced the Yoga 9i, which uses Intel’s new and much improved Intel Xe integrated graphics of the 11th Gen CPU. We also wish Lenovo would opt for tilt sensing for their coming pen models. The future looks bright for creative professionals!
In recent years, Huion and XP-Pen have notably risen up to be some real rivals for Wacom. Although Wacom still has the most sensitive and stable stylus sensing technology, both Huion and XP-Pen provide alternatives with some very high cost-to-performance ratios. Today, let's take a look at a few of XP-Pen's offerings, namely the pen display Artist 12 Pro and pen tablet Deco Pro S.
Artist 12 Pro
The Artist 12 Pro is a pen display of very high cost-to-performance ratio at US$300. The only bad thing about it is its inability to sense tilt within one inch from the screen edges.
The most distinct feature of the Artist Pro series is their Red Dials. We demo the use of the Red dial for changing loading colors, lie Hue, Saturation, Lightness in real-time as we stroke:
It's mesmerizing and soothing just to play with such a nice watercolor simulation in our Expresii app, when you can even change the paint or brush attributes as you stroke! We did a Siamese Cat demo with it, and here's a complete process of it:
It's amazing when you see such an organic watercolor simulation and you can stroke on the 11.6" Full-HD screen directly! We of course wished the display is of even higher resolution so that the watercolor would appears even more crisp and impressive. The tilt sensing is less stable than Wacom's and we still feel that Wacom's is still better at sensing the smallest pressure.
The pen display doesn't support multi-touch input, but there's a work around using a smartphone as the multi-touch device via the app DroidMote:
As of today, the only pen displays that also support multi-touch are those expensive 24"+ Cintiq models from Wacom. Or, you can of course use tablet PC's like the Surface Pro, or other 2-in-1 offerings from e.g. Lenovo, ASUS, Samsung, etc.
Deco Pro S
The Deco Pro S was provided by our local XP-Pen distributor (Thanks!). The device feels quite premium. We specially like the matte finish on the drawing surface. The USB type-C connector lets you plug in easily.
Unfortunately, this device still doesn't sense the pen tilt when the pen is within 1" from the four edges of the sensing area. People setting of to buy XP-Pen devices need to take note of this issue. Other than that, the sensing is not bad and is certainly good enough for many users.
XP-Pen advertises this Deco Pro series as Red-Dot Award winning for their designs. However, we are disappointed when we found that both the physical and virtual wheels can not be used to adjust values as you stroke. We thought it'd be great when we finally have more wheel controls for real-time adjustment, but no, they can only be used when you're not stroking. Note that the Artist 12 Pro does allow real-time adjustment via the Red Dial. If it's just a software issue, I hope XP-PEN can change their driver to allow that happen on their dual wheel models too.
Pen Issues and how we fixed them
It's inevitable that sooner or later users would accidentally drop their pens. We found that XP-Pen's stylii seem to be quite prone to issues after dropping. At least for those pen models that come with the Artist Pro and Dec Pro series. One can find frequent complains from users looking for help with their pens exhibiting various issues e.g. at Reddit. The good news is, we found a way to fix those issues by adjusting a knob inside the pen, and here's how:
If you would like to try it yourself too, please note that you're on your own risk and we're not responsible for any damage that it may cause. ;-)
Given the much lower prices then Wacom's, these XP-PEN devices are surely worth considering. However, don't forget the offers from Huion. The Huion Kamvas 13 is only US$240, even 60 dollars cheaper than the smaller Artist 12 Pro. We have yet to try the Kamvas 13 ourselves to tell you exactly if the sensing is better than XP-Pen's.
Microsoft has released the $145 Slim Surface Pen, which is rechargeable. This new pen lets you forget about finding AAAA battery for your stylus but is quite expensive. BTW, you can actually buy rechargeable AAAA batteries to be more environmentally-friendly and be able to just swap drained battery out for continual pen use.
Last year, we reviewed a few Surface Pen alternatives that are tilt-sensitive but still use AAAA batteries. Today we review two alternatives that are rechargeable and tilt-sensitive, namely the IQS INK Pro (bought it at RMB171 or $24 when there's discount from Taobao) and the Heiyo Gioia ($46 at Amazon). We believe the INK Pro is the same as this Renaisser Raphael 520 ($36), Ciscle ($40-44) or Uogic ($40) that are available on Amazon. This is later confirmed by Renaisser, who contacted us soon after our first draft of this review is posted online. There's also a sibling of the Heiyo Gioia branded as LACORAMO ($46) at Amazon. We asked Heiyo about this, and they replied they were 'involved in the design' of this LACORAMO, and agree that it is not much different as long as drawing performance goes so we would skip this LACORAMO pen in this review.
See our unboxing video for the Raphael 520 / Ink Pro and the Heiyo Gioia:
And our main review video that shows you line and curve tests and more:
INK Pro / Raphael 520
The INK Pro (Raphael 520) is really light at only 14g. Manual says "charge for 40 minutes and use for about 12 hours". In practice, we found the battery lasts long enough that we don't really need to charge it often.
We are really happy that this pen can attach to Surface devices magnetic ally just like the original Surface pen. In general, this pen senses pressure and tilt very well, although in our experiment, the previous IQS pen we reviewed is still the best in light pressure sensing being able to give tapered stroke endings. Another small thing that keeps the Raphael being perfect is that tilt is not sensed when the eraser button is pressed. We've informed the maker and hopefully they can fix this in their next model. But anyway, this is not a big deal since we can always use keyboard shortcut 'E' to toggle eraser mode, which may even be a preferred way to do it since it's more stressful to hold a barrel button as you stroke.
All the 3 nibs included in the package are of the same plastic material, as opposed to the rubbery tip that the origin Surface Pen has. It claims 150 hours continuous use and max. 230 days standby. charge time is 4 hour at 5v 1A. The User Manual says its stylus tips are POM (polyoxymethylene) and are "anti-friction". In practice, we find the nibs to be quite slippery. Included are two tall and two short nibs in total. We found the tall and short nibs to behave basically the same.
The Heiyo also senses pressure and tilt quite well. However, it feels a bit clunky to use in comparison with the Raphael. This is partly due to the bigger size and partly the center of mass is well above the middle point of the pen body. Shifting the point of holding toward to pen top would help, but then thew barrel buttons may be a bit far from reach of your thumb.
One point to note is that both Raphael and Heiyo go to sleep and you need to press their button to wake them up. We found it a bit annoying at first, since we are used to the original Surface Pen that is 'always on'. But we get used to always pressing a button before stroking with these new pens now.
Turning them Magnetically charged?
We saw one Surface Pen alternative from Taobao that resemble a pencil and has this interesting magnetic charging port of the pen so that you can just snap it away when you need to charge your pen. Unfortunately, it doesn't support tilt so we pass on that option.
However, we still fancy a magnetically charged Surface Pen, so we try to pair our pens with Magnetic USB Charging Cable. The particular cables we bought are data cables, as opposed to power only. There're also round and flat types of such cables. We chose a round type, thinking it should match the pen bodies well. However, the flat side of the Raphael has the magnetic head extrudes a little bit, which would hit the Surface device when you snap it to the device. Our solution is to wrap flat rubber bands to the two ends of the pen as cushion. Even without the magnetic head, I think it's still good to have rubber bands since the top part of the Raphael is metal and over time, that may also scratch your Surface device.
They work well, as long as charging goes. However, the magnetic bud, which is only 0.5g, adds weight to the very top of the Raphael 520 pen, shifting the balance towards the top. With the bud attached, I have to hold the pen further up to maintain balance.
It's okay to leave both the Raphael and the Heiyo connected, since both of them are protected from over-charge (we asked the manufacturers and they assured us this).
Both the Raphael 520 and the Heiyo are great alternatives to the original Surface Pen, for their much lower prices and giving very good stroking performance. They are also rechargeable so you don't need to hunt hard-to-find AAAA batteries. This is arguably better or worse, since you can also buy rechargeable AAAA batteries that you can replace instead of needing to put the pen to rest during recharge. Built-in rechargeable battery has a life-span too, and when they die, you can't simply replace them easily like you can with rechargeable AAAA batteries .
We highly recommend the Raphael 520, for its price, build quality, magnetic attachment and performance. It's almost perfect. The only downsides are 1. tilt is not sensed when erase button is pressed. 2. not the best in getting thin lines to tapper at stroke ends. One minor negative point is that it's metal-hitting-metal when you snap it to the device. We hope Renaisser can consider making the plastic cover at the top longer, so that it can act as a cushion (along with the plastic side buttons), just like the original Surface Pen. We also like the fact they include both soft and hard nibs, so that users can try and see which they like better.
We do not recommend the Heiyo as much, since it's pricier and does not support magnetic attachment. Its body is mainly metal, so we also do not want to just put it on our Surface Book 2. Surface devices do get scratches so we want to avoid metal-to-metal clinking. We also wish they include spare nibs that give more tangible difference.
BTW, note that these pens sense tilt only when they touch the surface. This is a real downside for us Expresii users since we need to see the virtual brush posture before hitting the paper so that we know how the stroke starts. In this regard, these battery powered 'active' pens compare unfavorably against those EMR pens offered by e.g Wacom, Huion and XP-Pen.
FYI, we did not get any sponsorship or commission in this review and our opinions are entirely ours.