Mischief and the Yiynova Tablet

Paintover made with Mischief.
Paintover created using Mischief’s translucent window mode to create a rough outline (of a 3d model).

Update: Mischief has just been updated to version 1.0.6 and its price reduced by about 50% to $65. At this price it’s essentially a no-brainer for anyone who draws on their desktop computer with a tablet. Also, Helen Zhang has posted an in-depth review of Mischief (and she’s a much better draftsperson than I). Her set of gripes with the program is interesting too (and I agree with them and have some more I’d add were I to amend this review). Well worth reading.

Last weekend I came across a new desktop graphics program that — in essence — promises to be for desktop artists what Adobe’s more-or-less excellent Ideas app offers iOS users — a powerful, simple, GPU-accelerated, resolution-independent drawing program.

Mischief is a new app for Mac and Windows computers. It’s truly resolution independent, lean, responsive, and very easy to use. At $129 (note that I’m using a free trial) it would be a bargain if it delivers on its promise. My reaction to seeing the video demo was to (once again) muse about buying a Wacom Cintiq. Unfortunately, the only Cintiqs I’m really interested in cost north of $2000 (indeed, the 24″ Cintiq, which is especially drool-worthy, retails for $2600 and weighs 70lb (because it’s designed to cantilever off a desk and into the artist’s lap).

First, Get a Tablet

The Yiynova 19" Drawing Tablet
The Yiynova 19″ Drawing Tablet

It occurred to me that perhaps by now there might be a credible third-party alternative to the Cintiq, and I came across a blog review of the Yiynova 19″ Drawing Tablet, which is sold by Panda City Store by way of Amazon.com for around $600 (shipping is additional). Further research reinforced the very positive review: not perfect, but really quite good and insanely cheap compared to the Wacom option.

Now, you can buy a very good 27″ display at Costco for about $200 and the Yiynova’s display is 1440×900 pixels and not fabulous. Compared to the Cintiq’s I’ve used the distance between the tablet and the image is greater, meaning there’s more of a parallax issue when drawing, but this is pretty minor.

Clearly it’s the tablet component that’s the hard part of this product. In general, the tablet component of the Yiynova is very good (as good as a Wacom, I think) but the pen does not feel as good in my hand as any of the Wacom pens and is clearly made of cheaper plastic. The button, in particular, is poorly placed and easy to accidentally trigger. Worst of all, the pen requires an AAA battery — I’ve yet to use up the battery, and it would need to use up a whole lot of AAA batteries to bring the cost anywhere near a Cintiq, but it is annoying. Oh, and the storage socket for the pen (made of the same crappy plastic) connects to the back of the tablet on the right. No biggy, but it’s inconvenient and inobvious, moreso for a left-hander like myself.

Takeaway Points

  • Works well out of the box — but not in native-resolution.
  • 1440×900 resolution is both not very good and — as far as I can tell — requires non-free third-party software (I used switchResX — recommended on Apple’s support forums) to use with my Mac Pro. I haven’t tried this with my Macbook Pro, which I would assume would deal better with the resolution (isn’t the normal 15″ screen 1440×900? I have the optional higher-resolution pre-Retina display).
  • Stylus is has a cheap feel, button that’s too easy to press accidentally, and requires a AAA battery.
  • $600 vs. $1000 for the 12″ Cintiq and $2000 for the 22″ Cintiq.
  • Well-designed stand — angle adjustment between conventional monitor and “drawing table” is quick and easy.

Mischief in Action

Mischief supports a translucent window mode which is potentially useful for paint overs
Mischief supports a translucent window mode which is potentially useful for paint overs. Here you can see my latest space weasel design in Cheetah 3d behind a translucent Mischief window.

Overall, my impression of Mischief is that it’s a very nice tech demo, but it’s more than a few key features short of being really useful software. (It’s possible that some of these missing features appear if you register the product, but I think it’s unlikely.)

Mischief has a simple, clean user interface. Perhaps a bit too simple. You can only store six favorite colors for example, and they’re stored in the application not the document (Correction: they are stored in the document and, it appears, the last set of colors you used becomes the default, which makes perfect sense). It’s also missing some fairly key features such as a fill tool or a filled modes for its shape tools, meaning one frequently has to laboriously “color in” areas.

It’s very quick and responsive. I never had to wait for anything. I experienced no crashes. This is clearly a great platform for a product, but it needs a bunch of work.

There’s a translucent window mode which could be very useful for “painting over” photographs or 3d models, but there’s no way to “capture” the underlying image so that you can, for example, zoom in without losing the underlying image.

Mischief is resolution independent, but the brushstrokes aren't interesting
Mischief is resolution independent, but the brushstrokes aren’t interesting

Although everything is resolution-independent, the brushes aren’t interesting, so when you zoom in all you see is very boring splotches with perfectly sharp edges. There are “pencil” or “crayon” like brushes which simply seem to be fields of speckles, but nothing like watercolor or hairy brushes. The website raves about all the patents the developers have, but technically speaking there doesn’t seem to be any functionality here that Adobe Ideas doesn’t match.

Most of my biggest gripes could, I think, be easily addressed with a software update.

  • When I pick a brush the program should switch to “pencil” mode.
  • I need some ways of filling in large areas quickly, whether it’s a filled polygon tool or a freeform select doesn’t matter.
  • Masking tools would be great.
  • It’s very annoying not to be able to have brushes scale with zoom. Sometimes I want to zoom in for precision but keep the same brush size and I simply can’t.
  • I need to be able to store more than six favorite colors, and these colors should be saved with the document.
  • More and customizable keyboard shortcuts. Remember, this is a graphics program and the user won’t be typing, so leave the chording for obscure shortcuts — the way Photoshop does and (better yet) Studio/32 did.

Takeaway Points

  • Fast, responsive
  • Clean UI. Fix the obvious problems and it will be great.
  • Doesn’t remember that I’ve switched the UI to the left side. In general, UI is lacking in polish.
  • Most keyboard shortcuts require command-key. (Some don’t though, so why aren’t almost all shortcuts just a single key?)
  • If the window is too small to display the UI then the UI scrolls, but it does not support mousewheel scrolling.
  • Needs fill tool and filled shape tools
  • Selecting a brush doesn’t put you back in drawing mode, which is frequently annoying
  • No way to export vector artwork to another program such as Illustrator
  • Can only export bitmaps as JPEG (Clarification: a comment, presumably from a Mischief user or developer, corrects this comment saying you can export as layered PSDs, but I could not find any option to export anything other than a JPEG, so perhaps it’s a feature you get by registering.)
  • Can only import bitmaps
  • Cannot capture the background in translucent window mode
  • No way to scale brushes with zoom (so when zoomed way in you have a tiny brush)
  • No complex brushes (e.g. hairy or watercolor)
  • Poor system integration — e.g. no recent documents, command-W for translucent window mode violates UI conventions, no multiple document support (what is it with “real media” graphics programs and not supporting multiple documents?), no quicklook support (docs just look like featureless icons)
  • $129 is a bit much for a tech demo, but I’d gladly pay the price for a more polished program built on this technology.

Other Software

I haven’t bothered reinstalling my CS license so I can’t comment on compatibility with Photoshop et al — according to the review I read, it works but only if you have Wacom Software Drivers installed — which I do. (Aside: my CS5 license appears to have been disabled when I switched Mac Pros, and I haven’t bothered reinstalling.)

Sketchbook Express
Sketchbook — excellent for a free product, but it doesn’t make me happy any more.

Sketchbook Express is the freeware version of Autodesk’s Sketchbook for Mac OS X. (I’m something of a fan of Sketchbook on iOS; I’m less happy with the Android versions.) It’s responsive and — for a free product — very capable, but its brushes are almost as boring as Mischief’s and it’s not resolution-independent. Sketchbook Pro 6 is $60, but I’m kind of tired of the iOS version and not hugely impressed by Sketchbook Express, so I might wait for a new version.

Pixelmator works just fine.

Pixelmator has perfectly decent pressure support and does a good job of smoothing freehand lines. It doesn’t do anything special, but it works just fine. If you want a functional, attractive, and competent bitmap editor, you really can’t go wrong with Pixelmator, tablet or no tablet.

Acorn — note the jiggly lines.

Acorn is very proud of its brush designer, but there seems to be a bug in Acorn and while the brushes seem great in the brush designer, the smoothing algorithm appears to be broken when I draw in the document. I’ve reported the bug (it’s pretty clear that there is code in the program to interpolate tablet data correctly, it’s just not being used).

Photoline (I’m still using version 15.5) is perfectly competent with tablet input.

Photoline, which I’ve mostly lost interest in, works perfectly well with the tablet.

Art Rage
Art Rage is the most convincing program I’ve tried with the tablet.
Art Rage
Art Rage does a great job of simulating real media, but it’s not resolution independent.

Art Rage was, as expected, excellent. So excellent that I finally bit the bullet and upgraded to Art Rage 4.0 (for the princely sum of $25) which is, also as expected, even better. Unlike Mischief, Art Rage is not resolution independent, and it sometimes “falls behind” your pen as you draw (but it does catch up). Like Painter before it (and Brushes on iOS), it allows you to record your strokes and then play them back at greater resolution — which is a form of resolution independence. Unfortunately, if you don’t think to record your session before you start then you are out of luck.

I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to get The GIMP to recognize my tablet’s pressure input (or figuring out if I could get it to smooth freehand drawing input properly).

I’ve been meaning to post a review of The GIMP, which is much improved from the past, no longer requires X11, and provides a generally decent user experience these days. In any event, The GIMP appears to support tablets but I couldn’t get it to respond to pressure input (I didn’t spend much time on it). It does a so-so job of smoothing freehand drawing input, so I don’t think I’d use it over Pixelmator, for example.

Cheetah 3d supports pressure input and does a good job at smoothing lines, but falls flat when transforming drawing input from the 3d viewport to the material (it works much better when editing materials directly in the UV Editor window).

Blender seems to work perfectly with a tablet, but I haven’t explored much yet. Sculpting is merely a matter of applying some subdivision to a mesh and switching to sculpting mode. I plan to take it for a spin with some texture painting but I need to look up some tutorials. (Of course!)

Artboard does a good job of smoothing input, but doesn’t do anything with pressure data.

iDraw has some pretty nice pens for use with its freehand drawing tools (of which it has two) but it doesn’t seem to make any use of pressure data.

Aperture provides excellent tablet support, and I imagine iPhoto does too (but I don’t use iPhoto at the moment).

Sketch (the indie UI drawing program) somewhat ironically has no freehand drawing tool.


I haven’t reached any final conclusions. As I said above, Art Rage is terrific, and I think the single most impressive program I’ve tried with the tablet (although it can lag behind my pen and it sometimes produces a — shudder — progress dialog; I should note that I’m using a 2012 Mac Pro with 32GB of RAM). I’m disappointed by Sketchbook Express, and it doesn’t inspire me to pony up $60 to try the Pro version.

The Yiynova tablet is a mixed bag. The built-in display is merely OK (and getting it to display the correct resolution was slightly annoying) and the pen needs a redesign. That said, it works as advertised and it’s — say — 40% the price of an equivalent Cintiq, if such a thing existed (let’s guesstimate that a 19″ Cintiq would cost $1500). I’ve only ever played with a Cintiq for a few minutes at a time in a store or (originally) at Siggraph — it seemed pretty much perfect at the time, but perhaps it has shortcomings I don’t know about. I’ve always had good experiences with Wacom’s tablets though (I have a Bamboo sitting on my desk — its pen doesn’t feel great, but it’s still nicer than the Yiynova’s).

Finally there’s Mischief. Mischief is very promising — it’s more responsive than any of the other programs I tried, and it’s certainly capable of producing good results in the right hands (not mine!), but it’s missing a lot of functionality and system integration. That said, a lot of graphics programs sport actively horrible user interfaces whereas Mischief is merely lacking a few refinements. The question is, do I spend $129 on it or wait and see?