Drawing on the iPad

iOS Apps for Sketching Ideas — the top five apps shown are the ones I'll discuss below.
iOS Apps for Sketching Ideas — the top five apps shown are the ones I’ll discuss below. I may review the other three another day. (The desktop picture is a Paul Klee, in case you’re wondering.)

I’m willing to give almost any halfway-decent looking iPad graphics application a shot, and I thought I’d discuss some of my favorites. What I’d really like is for a single app to take the best ideas from each of them and combine them into a single super app (that was nonetheless lightweight and simple, right?)

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ★★★★★

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has some nice pencil tools, and the pinnable palettes are also good, but — once the leader in this category — it lags behind the other apps in almost all respects.
Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has some nice pencil tools, and the pinnable palettes are also good, but — once the leader in this category — it lags behind the other apps in almost all respects.

This was my favorite of the lot until I started working on this review and compared it to its rivals. It used to have the edge on ArtRage in terms of responsiveness, a decent UI (I still like its three-fingered swipe for undo), and a not-quite-so-digital feel to its brushes compared with ArtStudio, but as I compared the latest versions of these apps, I rethought what I assumed would be my take on these apps. It’s probably worth noting that my love of Sketchbook Pro dates to my using it on my first generation iPad, while I revisited all these apps for this review on my fourth generation iPad. So if you’re using an older iPad you may find Sketchbook Pro significantly more usable than, say, ArtRage.

There’s basically nothing about Sketchbook Pro that stands out from this crowd, and — especially compared with ArtRage — I really don’t see any real reason to use it at all right now. Too many of Sketchbook Pro’s brushes are, essentially, booby-traps.

  • Really nice pencil tools
  • Being able to pin various palettes in place is nice, and I like the three-fingered swipe to undo
  • The “lens” thing for changing brush size and opacity still perplexes me despite using this app for years
  • Very fast and responsive
  • Annoying: support for multiple resolutions makes the document navigation UI even more cumbersome
  • Mixed: they’re trying to improve color management (which kind of sucked) but app is currently a bit buggy as a result
  • Syncs to iCloud (good) but torpid syncing owing to large file sizes (bad).
  • Bad: many of the brushes are pretty awful (including most of the defaults) and produce mechanical results (compared to ArtRage)

ArtRage ★★★★

ArtRage is a touch-optimized version of the desktop program of the same name (which I used before the iPad came out). It’s essentially a simplified version of the ridiculously complicated and cluttered Fractal / Metacreations / Corel Painter. I’m not a hardcore Painter user so for my purposes it’s the program I really wanted Painter to be (at the price I wanted to pay), but there are some seriously awesome artists using Painter, who probably use it all day every day, and I doubt ArtRage meets their needs.

All that aside, ArtRage on the iPad was great but sometimes sluggish on the original iPad. On my new iPad 4 it’s just great.

ArtRage has, flat out, the best brushes and produces the best looking images with the least effort if you're simply after an "organic" look.
ArtRage has, flat out, the best brushes and produces the best looking images with the least effort if you’re simply after an “organic” look.
  • The best brushes and simulated natural media by far (ArtRage started out on the desktop as an indie clone of Painter)
  • Produces the best output for the least effort
  • Generally good color picker although it can be hard to get the color you want
  • Bad: can be quite sluggish on older hardware
  • Bad: configuring brushes is fiddly — indeed, so is just creating a new, blank document

Paper by Fifty Three ★★★★★

Paper by Fifty-Three has the best interface for organizing your documents and creating new documents. Unfortunately, it is by far the worst actual program to work and the most expensive of those discussed.
Paper by Fifty-Three has the best interface for organizing your documents and creating new documents. Unfortunately, it is by far the worst actual program to work and the most expensive of those discussed.

I have more to say about Paper than any of the other programs because it’s so infuriating, but has so much potential. Basically, I want its best features ripped off and added to Adobe Ideas.

Paper makes a very good first impression — so good I paid for the tool package. The problem is that Paper is by turns enchanting (document management) and infuriating (half-baked UX ideas). It uses pinch to zoom to switch between the book, page-flip, and drawing views as a result of which you can’t pinch to zoom or pan in the actual drawing view. At first you’ll love the “two-fingered rewind” to quickly go back and forth through lots of changes. Soon you’ll curse having to use it every time a failed page turn or palette retrieval leaves a random spot on a drawing.

In the drawing view you can flip between pages of your book by swiping from the screen edge (and this also creates new documents if you turn past the last page) — it’s delightful when it works, and creates marks on your pages when it doesn’t. Even so, the entire metaphor of organizing your work into notebooks with customizable covers is great and I wish the other programs did something half as nice. But once you get past the surface, it’s not very deep. E.g. no cloud or dropbox sync.

Two of the tools — the basic pen (free) and the watercolor brush ($1.99 by itself) — are lovely, but you can’t configure them at all and the other tools (I can’t speak for the color mixer, which came out recently and costs another $2 to activate) are pretty much useless to me. (And you can’t configure them either.)

  • Lovely interface for flipping through images (drag from off-screen to switch pages)
  • Great feel on some of the tools (especially the pen and watercolor)
  • Looks good, easily customized “book” covers
  • Mixed: lots of interesting interaction ideas, unfortunately most are half-baked
  • Meh: the tool palette autodisappears — getting it back often leads to mistouches
  • Meh: novel “two finger wind” for undo/redo — might be better if it weren’t so often needed to handle mis-touches caused by other novel UI features (e.g. the page turn frequently leads to stray splotches in pages.
  • Bad: can’t undo after turning a page (and turning a page often causes accidental marks on a drawing)
  • Sort of bad: No actual text tool, forcing you to write text with your finger (which I wouldn’t mention if this were a better drawing program — e.g. let me zoom in — but it really detracts from the whole “virtual moleskine” thing)
  • Bad: Cannot zoom and pan
  • Good: default pen and watercolor brush are lovely. Bad: Other tools are kind of useless Worse: They charge you (quite a bit) for every little feature.
  • Good: nicely designed five-color themes. Bad: only five colors. Ugly: you need to pay $1.99 to be able to create new colors. Uglier: missing tools (e.g. the two dollar color mixer) appear as silhouettes in the tool panel, and when touched you get advertised at.

ArtStudio ★★★★

ArtStudio takes a pragmatic approach to simply being a very good color image manipulation tool.
ArtStudio takes a pragmatic approach to simply being a very good color image manipulation tool.

Originally, Art Studio seems to have been targeted at kids, and included things like (quite good) drawing lessons. It had a very similar interface to Sketchbook Pro, and essentially behaved like a very solid “color Mac paint with layers”. I pretty much ignored Art Studio over the last year or so, and when I returned I was initially shocked and soon delighted to discover it had chosen to carve its own path. It now seems to be trying to be the swiss army knife image editor for the iPad. The only thing it really lacks is ArtRage’s simulated brushes and media.

  • Probably the closest thing to the desktop version of Photoshop for the iPad
  • Pragmatic decision to go for — essentially — desktop interface mostly pays off
  • Easiest app to learn for desktop users
  • Fast and light
  • Editable text layers
  • Latest version has very configurable brushes and good preview of settings

Adobe Ideas ★★★★★

Adobe Ideas was designed specifically for sketching out ideas (hence the name) and I have to say it's a fabulous program for exploratory sketching.
Adobe Ideas was designed specifically for sketching out ideas (hence the name) and I have to say it’s a fabulous program for exploratory sketching.

Adobe Ideas is a really interesting program. It was Adobe’s first iOS app as far as I know, and seems to have been produced by some kind of skunkworks team along the lines of Lightroom, so it shows no sign of bloat or deliberate handicapping. It’s vector based, but works like a drawing/painting program and produces quite organic-looking results. It has excellent layer support (I think this is a freemium feature, but I paid $5 or whatever it was within minutes of downloading the app when it first came out).

  • Vector-based, resolution-independent, zoom in and draw details in nooks and crannies, etc.
  • Small file sizes (which also makes syncing quicker relative to, for example, Sketchbook Pro)
  • Rather good feel to the brushes (similar in feel to Paper in many respects, but with the advantages of being vector-based, having zoom and pan, and so on)
  • Individual tools remember their color settings making it very easy to switch between (say) a nearly black pen tool and a translucent grey or colored high-lighter.
  • Bad: color management is pretty bad (why are themes restricted to five colors?).
  • Bad: an actual text tool would be nice.

The Perfect Art Program

  • Paper’s interface for organizing documents into “notebooks” and flipping through sketches by dragging from off-screen etc. But pan and zoom should be for working on images, not navigating the file system.
  • Artrage’s pens, brushes, and media.
  • ArtStudio’s basic functionality — filters, editable text layers, configurable brushes with live preview.

Improving Adobe Ideas

Obviously, I think Adobe Ideas is pretty great as it is (and you know how much I have grown to despise Adobe in general), but it could still be better. Adobe Ideas is in a category by itself, and it would still be useful beside the perfect drawing program described above. Fundamentally, Adobe Ideas with Paper’s notebook metaphor for managing your stuff (suitably modified to match its minimalist aesthetic) would be wonderful.

  • Adobe Ideas drawing engine
  • Create brush/color presets and add them to the palette.
  • More colors in a set, easier to redefine colors and perhaps shortcut to pick shades of a color easily (it’s not that hard as it is).
  • Paper’s document creation/navigation interface