iPad Explorations


The first iPad was released on April 3, 2010. The drawing experience significantly improved particularly with the introduction of the iPad Pro, first released in November 2015 and Second Generation 2017, together with the Apple Pencil and improved camera. A further significant advance was made in autumn 2017 with introduction of iOS11 when iPad software made a corresponding leap in terms of both image quality and range of styles that can be produced. The iPad is now widely used by artists and illustrators to produce high end art like that of David Hockney and/or as part of an image design and development workflow.  iPad portability and flexibility make it a very good tool for drafting and exploring alternative designs and ideas and travelling – potentially replacing both sketchbooks and pc digital work.

The iPad has been part of my own workflow since 2014  and has been a key feature of much of my work for this course. A key consideration in my workflow is a need to manage RSI and consequent constraints on how long I can spend at my pc with professional digital software like Photoshop, Illustrator and Corel Painter. This review  aimed to provide a focus for upgrading my iPad skills,  looking in detail at recent developments and widening my range of software and styles, placing what I had earlier achieved in Procreate in a wider context.

I aimed to draw some conclusions relevant for my own practice about:

  • What media can the iPad best produce, particularly since iOS11 upgrade? What are the range of different traditional media and effects that can be convincingly replicated? In which Aps?
  • What effects can be produced that are specific to the iPad, as an iPad illustrative style in its own right? In which Aps?
  • What are the inherent artistic limitations compared to other digital software on pc like Photoshop, Illustrator or Corel Painter?
  • What are the implications for my own practice? Both artistically and in terms of what I myself can do within the constraints of RSI? Which media and effects that I am aiming for are still best produced entirely in traditional media on different surfaces, or in pc digital software? Is there a role for iPad as a complement to these other media?

The review complements more technical discussion on specific software and projects in  iPad Aps compared, and hyperlinks and links in references below.

What media can the iPad produce?

It is clear that the iPad can produce a wide range of styles when used by experienced artists. There are many software Apps of varying sophistication and enabling different styles and media. Recent versions of the iPad Pro have progressively  increased processing speed to enable a bigger range of brushes and variation in stroke, reduced parallax (the distance between the drawing implement and the screen to increase drawing accuracy)  and increased resolution to enable large gallery-size paintings. The introduction of the Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro brought in a high degree of pressure sensitivity and tilt functions that are now incorporated into software like procreate. The camera has also significantly improved to enable easy inclusion of photography in digital images directly on the device.

Most early Aps focused on varying brush size and transparency to produce Acrylic, airbrush, gouache and oil-type styles. David Hockney produced many small early sketches using the Brushes Ap on his iPhone – delighting in the speed with which he could record the colours and shapes of his surroundings just using his finger. He also used further software to produce very large gallery pieces as part of the  ‘Bigger Picture’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012. These resemble very large colourful gouache and oil paintings. Large pieces can also be tiled like his oil paintings to produce much bigger works. There are now a number of artists using the iPad to produce very large resolution paintings (eg Andy Maitland who paints using a tripod in the landscape) and hyperrealistic portraits (eg Kyle Lambert). Aps like ArtRage and Inspire pro  use different types of canvas texture and 3D brushes to produce similar to work in Corel Painter.

Procreate is one of the more versatile Aps commonly used for professional work by digital painters like James Julier and illustrators like Stefan de Groot, Danny Glasgow and Austin Batchelor.  The most beautiful and distinctive work I have found so far is by Ilya Tyljakov is a Russian concept artist who uses Procreate to create beautiful atmospheric work. He creates and sells his own ‘Pro Brushes’ on the ProCreate Community to produce very distinctive marks with a degree of randomness that make them very distinctive as a style.

iPads are often used for simple sketching and digital inking. Some Aps produce distinctive ink work. Some Aps have inbuilt ink brushes that make a distinctive mark –  Paper 53 produces a Quentin Blake-type style, Tayasui Sketches, SketchClub , Zen Brush have a range of Zen and quirky ink brushes that are beautful and fun to use. In Aps like Procreate it is possible to fully control design of ones own brushes, importing ones own shapes and grain images to create brushes that can then be infinitely adjusted for things like spacing, taper, jitter, opacity as one works. Procreate 4 brushes are in many ways more flexible for artistic effects than Photoshop – having blend modes to brushes as well as layers. But it takes quite some time to customise these for quick sketching and there is still some time lag that creates RSI issues.

Watercolour remains a challenge because watercolour bleeds require high processing power. A range of styles are possible in different Aps – see Digital Watercolour. ‘JunoVHS’ produces some beautiful delicate Watercolour art in Procreate using custom-shaped brushes and transparency overlays. Aps like Auryn Ink and Adobe Sketch do a very convincing simulation with potential to create beautiful atmospheric work. SketchClub can produce an anime gradient watercolour-style using a vector shape brush. This work views well on screen, but needs quite a lot more detailed work to print high resolution images on digital watercolour paper as the ink tends to blend.

Some artists and illustrators produce textured collage work. See for example: Michelle Brown:  http://oldcellsstudio.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/iPad

But a lot of iPad painting found on sites like DeviantArt, Filckr, Tumblr and other social and illustration marketing networks  has a very similar style – smooth blend, soft focus landscape and fantasy style. From my own preliminary explorations it is clear that there is much more potential to be explored to take my own illustration and artistic expression further.

My own practice – key learnings

I myself have used the iPad as part of my workflow in many of the projects in this course. I have still only scratched the surface of possibilities. And have to go slowly because even the iPad causes RSI unless I am relaxed with good posture.

Sketching and painting on location

I tried sketching from life in Procreate and Paper 53, but found the  process too clumsy and lacking the dynamism of sketching on paper. It took a long time to set up brushes for an interesting style, and they were not so consistent when used quickly. The lag and inconsistency of mark aggravated my RSI when trying to sketch quickly from life. This situation is not noticeably better in any of the other Apps, though slightly improved with iOS11.

However, it is possible to create atmospheric townscape and landscape paintings from life using either just painting Aps like Procreate or ArtRage and/or taking photographs as reference from which to take colours and/or to use as background layer. I explored this in some of the Aldeburgh images in Assignment 4.

Some Aps like Sketchclub have distinctive brushes, and can also produce flat vector art. Most Aps can just drag and drop colours to fill in line art.

The iPad has a number of advantages for painting and sketching:

  • the ability to combine many different media on one image without needing to carry a lot of equipment.
  • can sketch in airports and people think you are just reading on your iPad.
  • possibility to work on very fine detail through zooming in and out of the image. fine control over transparency and ability to get very fine gradations of colour.
  • delicate edge effects can be produced with transparency lock.
  • ability to quickly explore many alternative styles, colours and compositions through manipulating layers.

Colouring, collaging, layering, blending and masking photos and images from natural media. Some textural effects of watercolour and gouache cannot be reproduced solely on the iPad itself. But using natural media and the iPad can produce very distinctive art that is impossible just using natural media. Procreate 4 has good selection, transformation and masking tools that, when combined with layer curves and colour adjustments, erasers and transparency lock, can produce very atmospheric effects. I explored these much further in the images based on found textures in Assignment 4 From the Edge:

Assignment 5 Oromia Reflected Journey and Project 4.2 Deliverance book based on gouache daubs

Using photographs enables very different perspectives, vantage points and weather conditions to be captured – providing the photographs themselves are well thought through with potential final images in mind. It is also possible to exploit the effects of light on printed images to create atmospheric effects.

Images can be endlessly worked on in natural media, photographed, printed and worked on again.

It is also possible to very quickly produce multiple variations to explore different colours and compositions.

An interesting feature I discovered was to use different layers of line art in different styles, and underpainting so very different effects can be produced depending on which layer is printed.

Some Apps produce effects that are impossible, or much more difficult, to produce in other media like kaleidoscopic and mirrored images (Pixelmator and SketchClub), pixellations (SketchClub and SketchBook Pro) and impasto techniques on textured canvases (ArtRage).

Although it is not possible to have very fine control over layout as in InDesign, and text tools are rudimentary, Medibang Paint can produce graphic novels and comics and Procreate makes it possible (with practice) to produce blended handdrawn effects more easily than eg Photoshop.

Some limitations of the iPad compared with digital art on pc

Although the iPad can do very many things:

    • Brushes still lack the fine tonal controls and blending possibilities on Photoshop.
    • There is still not enough processing power to create the watercolour effects that can be achieved in Core Painter.
    • Selection and masking tools are still quite rudimentary.
    • Vector programmes are particularly weak in terms of their range of styles and flexibility compared to Adobe Illustrator.
    • Text and layout tools are still rudimentary.

Conclusions for my illustration workflow

I still have a lot to learn and explore in using different iPad Aps for sketching and painting. Although it is possible to have greater control over line using natural media, for more exploratory and abstract work iPad brushes can introduce an element of randomness that can be very effective. It is also possible to learn a lot about drawing, colour and composition through using an iPad – and thus improve natural media drawing and painting. The ability to use and manipulate photographs as reference or as part of an image increases the range of drawing and painting possibilities.

However it is the combination of natural media and the iPad that I find most interesting in the very distinctive styles and effects that can be produced. And the ability to do this while travelling and from life. Together with the ability to then further fine tune tones, colours and masks on the pc through export to Photoshop and/or Illustrator or Corel Painter. This type of workflow, with its varied working positions and locations is one that is possible even with RSI. If I continue to learn how to use the iPad more efficiently, setting up brushes in advance and using different Aps as appropriate.


Wikipedia iPad gives a history of evolution of the specifications of the device. Specifically for the iPad Pro see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPad#iPad_Pro_series

Ipad Artroom: http://www.ipadartroom.com

Cathy Hunt: iPad Art: Lessons, Apps and Ideas for the iPad in Visual Art : ebook  on using iPad for classroom art education for Apple download

My own software experiments and reviews

I focus on professional Aps that are capable of producing high resolution images.

  • Procreate the Ap I have used the most because of its wide-ranging and customisable professional drawing and painting features.
  • SketchClub a high resolution sketching Ap that can produce a range of very distinctive styles.
  • SketchBook Pro an illustration Ap combining vector and pixel art, including text
  • ArtRage that uses a combination of brushes and canvas texture to produce painterly effects.
  • Pixelmator that combines photography editing with drawing, painting and text.

I look briefly at: