BiG: The Day My Pad Went Mad.

… was the inspired John Cooper-Clarke-referencing title chosen by star Scribbler Pete Greenwood for Wednesday’s Brighton Illustrators’ Group meeting at the King and Queen pub. The subject under discussion was art on the iPad with myself and Illustrator/Art Teacher Kate Osborne granted the dubious honour of being cast as the evening’s iPad Gurus.

Kate kicked proceedings off with a look at all-conquering painting app Brushes; work by various artists followed by a demo showing the app in action.

I then tried to complete the picture in the time available (actually overran by some margin but no-one seemed unduly upset) by taking a quick look at the evolution of touch-screen drawing apps, where we are now and where the technology might be headed, a few examples of work produced in apps by other artists, followed by an overview of the various types of drawing and painting apps available at present, their strengths, weaknesses, unique features and inherent differences.

It was a lot to try to cram into one short session and, for the uninitiated, it was no doubt a lot to take in too, so I figured it might be a good idea to write up a few of the salient points and include links where appropriate. Here goes.


The hardware:

The first iPad was released just four years ago, since when there has been a proliferation of similar tablet devices released by rival manufacturers. Incredibly, over a third of UK households already own a tablet computer, predicted to rise to almost 50% by the end of 2014. The vast majority of these devices will be used for the usual types of consumer computing – web-browsing, email, social media, streaming music or video, gaming etc. There’s also been a steady stream of great creative apps that have appeared in the meantime but it’s worth bearing in mind that the iPad was not principally designed as an art tool and as such it does have limitations.


The screen, while certainly being significantly bigger than the iPod Touch or iPhone that many of us cut our drawing app teeth on, is still a bit smaller than most of us would consider ideal for general sketching purposes and the hard, glassy screen provides none of the ‘feel’ of a traditional drawing surface. Also, it’s designed to be operated by touch – with the fingers. Not the most intuitive drawing style for anyone over about two years old.

However, as discussed, there is now a dazzling array of fancy styluses available to provide a much more natural drawing experience. With the exception of the brush-style styluses (which I confess I’ve never tried out but have never quite seen the point of), the rest, for all their design flourishes, are basically sticks with rubber tips that will split after a period of use and become useless.

Speaking as someone who has tried out a few different types, at £10-20 a pop, my advice would be to go for the super-cheap styluses that have recently become available online. They’re pretty basic but the tip, which is the only part that really matters, will last just as long as a more expensive brand and you can get a set of ten or more for just a few quid. Here are a couple of links you might try, or just have a rummage on Amazon:

Eimo Electronics Stylus 10-pack

Power of Chi styluses

The iPad also lacks any of the pressure-sensitivity of a professional drawing tablet such as a Wacom Intuos or Cintiq. A few developers have attempted to address this issue by designing battery-powered styluses that connect to the iPad via Bluetooth and add a pressure-sensitive effect when used with certain compatible apps. I’ve not had a chance to check any of these out unfortunately, as they can only be paired with iPads from version 3 upwards and I’m still using my v.2 but the reviews I’ve read have been mixed to say the least. The best of the bunch would appear to be the Wacom (of course) Intuos Creative Stylus. Not at all cheap at around £90 and, although it sounds like a decent product, apparently no match for the responsiveness of a dedicated drawing tablet.

While we were on the subject of the actual hardware, I also thought it worthwhile to mention another recent product from Wacom; the Cintiq Companion. This is probably a better indicator of the direction this technology is headed in from a professional illustration/design point of view as it’s been designed with that precise use in mind. Essentially a lightweight Cintiq-quality tablet with an integrated computer, running pro/Creative Suite software rather than apps, it looks (for now) like the ultimate portable digital art studio. At a grand or more to buy, it can’t really be considered as a rival to the iPad but it’s an interesting development nonetheless.

You can easily look up countless examples of iPad art online but I did say I’d post a link to the video of Kyle Lambert’s extraordinary photo-realistic portrait of Morgan Freeman being rendered in Procreate, so here it is:

Not a massive fan of this type of work myself but it’s a great demonstration of what the technology is capable of.


Now onto the apps themselves… 

These basically fall into one of two categories: bitmap or vector. Broadly speaking, bitmap files lend themselves to more painterly effects, while vector files are more closely associated with line drawing and flat colour. Most illustrators and designers already working digitally will be familiar with the differences between the two file-types and their relative strengths and limitations. I attempted a quick, on-the-hoof explanation of these on Wednesday for anyone who was unsure but there are numerous online resources that provide the same information in a much more easily-digested form. For example, this example from a BBC Education website explains it all very clearly.

It’s worth saying that the apps, on the whole, are incredibly cheap – and often free – to download from the App Store so the best way to discover their capabilities and which one/s might suit you is to load them up and play around with them. If you try an app that doesn’t suit, you’re never going to be massively out of pocket.

But which ones to try? New apps are appearing all the time so a comprehensive list is impossible. There are however a few titles that have, by general consent, risen to deserved prominence and these are as good a place to start as any. Here’s a short list, with brief descriptions and links to the developer websites, where more info can be found:

Bitmap (or painting) apps: 

Brushes.  The first touch-screen art app that really caught the public imagination and still one of the most intuitive and elegant painting tools out there. Its strength is its simplicity, the ease with which it can be picked up by even a first-time user and of course the ability to replay the creation of your masterpieces once they’re finished (although to be honest, the novelty of this is starting to wear a bit thin…)  It has changed very little since its first incarnation and is all the better for it. An essential app.

Procreate.  Excellent painting and sketching app with powerful, customisable toolset that includes some startlingly realistic-looking media such as pencils, chalk, pastel, ink pens, brushes etc. Can work with large, layered files and has a well-designed, minimal interface that feels very unobtrusive. Probably my personal favourite although, as I pointed out, a newer iPad is recommended to support the processor-hungry latest version.

Sketchbook Pro.  I use the desktop version of this software on my studio Cintiq and really rate it. The iPad version lacks some of the features of its big brother but the tools that are included work extremely smoothly and there’s a sense some actual artists were behind the design of the interface and controls. Well worth a look.

Art Studio. I confess I haven’t used this much myself but I included it as it’s the nearest thing I’ve seen to a fully-featured Photoshop-style monster that can be used on the iPad. A very tidily-designed interface considering the sheer number of tools and controls that are available but for me this is almost too complex for casual sketchbook use. If it’s power and versatility you’re after though, you need to check it out.

ArtRage.  I can’t believe I forgot to mention ArtRage on Wednesday. By doing so I missed out on a rare opportunity to use the word ‘skeuomorphic’ in public; a great shame. You’ll see what I mean as soon as you launch this app – it has a pop-up toolbox featuring natural-looking items such as pencils, brushes, paint-rollers and, most notably, an actual paint tube from which you can squirt realistic-looking oil paint onto your canvas which can then be worked into with brushes, pallet-knife or whatever. Some wonderful effects are achievable and the app has a lot of fans. Great fun.


Vector drawing apps. There are several but I’ll stick to these key two:

Adobe Ideas.  This has become my default, go-to drawing app; I love it. Like Brushes, the strength of Ideas is its simplicity. It has a limited tool set of pencil, pen, ‘marker’, brush, eraser and, most recently, a bucket, or ‘fill’ tool plus layers and opacity controls. That’s about it. It allows you to draw freehand and the line is very subtly smoothed and vectorised as you go. This sounds like it could be a compromise but in practice the experience is very instinctive and the minimal interface allows you to concentrate on your drawing without getting bogged down in endless software variables. See the slideshow video below for some examples of recent life-drawings I’ve done with the app.

Inkpad.  I’m not sure there’s another app out there that’s anything like this. It’s an incredibly powerful, feature-rich vector-drawing app in the style of Adobe Illustrator, with full bezier-curve controls, pathfinder options, stroke and fill adjustments, alignment, type, etc etc… Anyone familiar with Illustrator will immediately feel right at home with this app but by the same token it’s likely to prove daunting and confusing to anyone new to this way of working. It lacks some of the precision controls such as rulers and comprehensive type options found on professional software but it’s still an incredible bit of kit. If you use Illustrator and are comfortable with this way of working, it’s a no-brainer.

Finally, I meant to end on Wednesday by showing  a few life-drawings that I’ve drawn on the iPad over the last couple of years but we were beaten by the clock. In case you’re interested, I’ve compiled them into a slideshow, below. The images were all created with the Adobe Ideas app.

I hope some of this has been useful. If you do have any further queries, let me know and I’ll see if I can help. Cheers!


6 thoughts on “BiG: The Day My Pad Went Mad.

  1. Very thorough and informative Geo however, I have a question- WHAT THE BOJANGLES IS HAPPENING WITH BILL?!?

    My yacht won’t pay for itself, y’know!


    Sent from my iPhone


    1. They are wonderful devices. Not cheap but once you’ve shelled out for the hardware, the apps, as I said, are very cheap and often completely free. Their usefulness as a creative tool is not always appreciated – glad the post was of interest!


  2. An interesting read. Thankyou. Love your drawings and paintings. Of late, I do quite a lot of my art on my iPad; mainly using a great app, called “Art Set Pro”. It has wonderful natural looking media. Looking forward to seeing your future posts. Cheerio. 🙂


    1. Thanks very much, Janette. Thanks also for the heads-up on Art Set Pro – that’s an app I’ve not heard of before so I’ll definitely give it a try, it looks interesting. Like you, I’m a big fan of the iPad as an art tool and have taken it along to life-drawing sessions on many occasions. There’s visual evidence in some of my earlier posts!

      Keep up the good work!

      Liked by 1 person

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