Really, anything will work. Just like any old piece of schoolroom chalk does the trick on dark pavement if you’re really in the mood. But I’ve always felt that using high quality tools for art or design is like going to the gym with headphones and a great playlist. Sure, you can go without and get the job done. But it’s not as much fun. Just as good music can give you a stamina boost, the right tools can give you a small but significant creativity boost. And there are so many of them for the iPad.
In fact there are so many apps that I’m listing the ones that deserve a place on your homescreen, the great ones and the decent ones and the meh ones and the horrendous.
- Procreate. Hands down. Without question. In a league of its own. The margin between this app and every other app you can sketch and paint in, including industry staples like Adobe Photoshop, is so wide it’s not even funny. This is the app for people who like to draw and paint and illustrate freehand, and are looking for the perfect digital sketchbook. The gestures are so natural and the UI so damn good that I find myself tapping with two fingers to undo and pinch to zoom even when I’m drawing on physical paper.
Pros: Automatic time lapse video of all canvases (up to 4k quality), exceptionally intuitive UI, a vast library of customizable brushes tuned optimally for the Apple Pencil. A strong online community where you can exchange and share resources, including excellent brush packs and palettes from other artists, and helpful and friendly customer service (although it’s such a stable app that you’d rarely need help). The icing on the cake? After a very reasonable upfront payment of about £10, the app and its incredible updates are yours for life.
Cons: None, really. A more realistic watercolour brush would be appreciated, but no gripes as such.
2. Clip Studio Paint Pro/ EX. Clip has a well deserved reputation for being the standard when it comes to comics and illustration on the desktop. The main difference between the Pro and the EX versions is that the EX gives you a broader range of publishing and book format options, which doesn’t matter at all for single page illustrations. Unfortunately both versions are available via expensive subscription models.
Pros: Unique brush engine for cleaner strokes, great for practicing linework and hatching. Good basic sketching tools and great functionality as an image editor, comic book creation, and publishing options. Top notch pens for inking.
Cons: Cannot import custom brushes (you can in the desktop version). Absolutely pathetic ‘watercolour’ brushes (basically a flat colour with little to no texture or realistic properties). Will always yield a sterile and digital feel, which may not be a deal breaker for some. Clunky but useable UI. Very expensive for a mobile app, and subscription based on top of that, making it hard to recommend for people who don’t love it.
3. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro
Pros: Completely free, both desktop and mobile version. Available for all major platforms- iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. Clean and simple UI, a truly excellent set of sketching pencils, and very nice inkers. Exceptionally stable and reliable.
Cons: Painting brushes could be better (they don’t look that natural and have a digital sort of inorganic texture). Some touch gestures are a little irritating in practice, even if they sound good in theory (three finger swipe to undo). Can’t import custom brushes- a step down from the desktop version.
Note: While I don’t use Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer because they’re too heavy duty for my needs, I should mention that they look awesome. Very viable replacements for a lot of people who are currently chained to the Adobe ecosystem and subscription model. The iOS versions don’t skimp on functionality either, and for freelancers who don’t need to use Adobe apps for work, they’re definitely worth checking out.
- Infinite Painter. Something of a curiosity. It has some very weird and ugly brushes, but then also some exceptionally well tuned ones that don’t have a counterpart in any other app, such as the Waxy Pencil and the Course Inker. Their ultra realistic Pilot Pen brush is a ton of fun, and great for annotating sketches. This is one app to keep an eye out for. I remember using the first, laggy, unstable version for Android Jelly Bean all the way back in 2013, on my Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. It’s definitely come a long way since then.
Pros: Some lovely and naturalistic brushes, and some really fun quirky ones. Decent UI, with familiar touch gestures (double tap to undo). Good all round functionality. Like Procreate, it automatically creates a time lapse video of canvases. Honestly, a mostly solid app all around. Also like Procreate, you can set Blender and Eraser brushes to the normal brushes, which means a great variety of textures and personalization to be had. A modest upfront cost (no subscription), which is fair.
Cons: Some brushes render very badly and unrealistically. Layer management is unintuitive and cumbersome, as is file management from the Gallery page.
2. Adobe Sketch
Pros: Nice, basic set of tools that all work well. Some of Kyle Webster’s custom brushes have been added to vanilla presets set too, which is great. Nice pencil, nice pens, very nice watercolour and marker brushes. Tastefully selected colour palettes (and you can create your own). Integration with Adobe Creative Cloud and Behance, and unlike Adobe’s somewhat outrageously priced professional suite- this is completely free. More than anything, just simple and pleasant to use.
Cons: Background has an off white hue to it which becomes very apparent when posting on a white background (as above). Need an Adobe Creative Cloud account to use. Since it’s free and not marketing itself as a full suite for artists, I won’t knock it for having only a few brushes and very limited functionality. What’s there works well.
- Paintstorm Studio. A lot of potential, but seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, unable to decide whether it wants to be a serious painting app or something to play around in. Highly irritating UI, and perhaps most off putting- childish stamp brushes of stars, rainbows, etc. The full version needs to be bought but it needs to get a better UI and better tools to be taken seriously.
- ArtRage. It’s been around for years, if not decades, so you’d think it’d be more polished and developed than it is. Unfortunately it’s still stuck using the same, basic tools and features which were very exciting for 13 year old me with my first Wacom Bamboo tablet and Acer laptop, but utterly fail to stand out amidst the current competition.
- Paper by WeTransfer (formerly Paper by 53). More of a cross between a sketching and note taking app, trying very hard to mimic the experience of a physical sketchbook/ journal. The problem is, apps that try too hard to be reminiscent of traditional tools often skimp on the clear advantages of working digital. This is neither the best note taking app (that’s Notability, Good Notes, or Microsoft OneNote) nor the best sketching app (not even basic layer functionality).
- Tayasui Sketches. Not a pro sketching app, and not even fun to use like Adobe Sketch is. It’s very much the app you’d open up if you want to distract your niece/ nephew (or kids if you have them, bless you) when they’re getting cranky at an airport.
- Inspire Pro. Useable but forgettable.
- Linea Sketch. Basically a paid version of Apple notes without the note taking functions, which they market as ‘simplicity’. What’s there is utterly underwhelming, and there’s not much there.