The age of the digital sketchbook has arrived.
Updated February 2017: Added Linea, my new favorite sketching app.
I’ve been wanting a true digital sketchbook ever since I first discovered you could (poorly) draw circles on the Newton. Almost two decades later, I got my wish: The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil are just about the nicest tools for digital sketching I’ve ever tried. (And I’ve tried a lot of styluses, computers, and Wacom tablets.)
Even if you’ve never had an art background, the iPad Pro and Pencil make it pretty easy to start sketching — and better, continue sketching. One of my first friends in comics told me that the only way you gained drawing skill was by doing it over and over and over and over again; the iPad Pro is a pretty great tool with which to do that. (And you don’t have to spend continuous money on ink, pens, and sketchbooks!)
But first! Let’s talk about the drawing apps you should check out. If you want to use your iPad Pro to make some digital artwork, these are the best of the best.
Apple’s default Notes app is limited in both tools, canvas textures, and color picking, but it’s a nice starter app for anyone looking to have a little fun with their Pencil without picking out a paid application. It also offers the least lag time from Pencil to line of any app on the market, thanks to Apple’s implementation. (Surprising no one, it helps to have your app, device, and accessory all designed to work together from the start by Apple.)
If you want a variety of tools for doodling or taking notes, Paper is an excellent (and free) starting point beyond Notes. It offers an assortment of options for starting a pencil, ink, or watercolor sketch, and works beautifully when paired with the Apple Pencil. Better still, Paper can sort all these doodles in separate digital sketchbooks, and you can even share certain drawings to the public Paper feed, or to Adobe’s Creative Cloud or OneNote.
The downsides to Paper aren’t many, but they’re worth noting: The Pencil’s lag time isn’t great when compared to some other apps on the market, and Paper lacks a good way to fill edge-to-edge on the screen without accidentally closing the application. It also doesn’t provide options for layered or transparent export.
Paper – Download now
While I love Paper’s tools, the Iconfactory’s Linea app has supplanted it to become my favorite all-purpose sketching application. Linea offers similarly well-crafted pencil, ink, and marker options to Paper’s fare, but it builds on that by giving users a starting set of layers, easily customizable export options, a beautiful color palette, and my favorite eraser implementation of any drawing app out there.
Linea is truly best if you’re looking for a digital sketchbook replacement rather than a full-featured Photoshop clone. And because Linea can export to PNG, JPG, or layered PSD, it’s also the perfect app to start a project in before bringing it to one of the iPad’s heavier hitting graphics programs — or your Mac.
Linea – Download now
While Notes, Paper, and Linea can help you flush out ideas and organize them, Procreate is the true master and commander of making those ideas reality. It’s the closest app to Photoshop on the Mac in many ways, offering a truly ridiculous number of layers, customizable brushes, and templates.
For specific projects, you can even create your own tools, as my pal Jessie Char is doing for her makeup blog:
None of the brushes on Procreate looked enough like lipstick, so I made my own pic.twitter.com/0VFPZzjnVg
— Jessie Char (@jessiechar) January 27, 2016
Procreate can export truly large images as PSD, JPG, PNG, or in the Procreate file format, where you can then send or share them with your friends, clients, or web pals. It also offers a live-streaming option, and print-ready export formats.
Procreate – Download now
I’ll be honest: Until Autodesk’s Graphic showed up on the scene, I hadn’t worked with vector illustration since the death of Macromedia FreeHand in the early 2000s. Illustrator makes me want to throw things at my computer, and since my art hobby was just that — a hobby — I left it well enough alone.
But Graphic makes vector art fun for me again, and it does so in a completely approachable way. You can draw vector lines directly with the Apple Pencil or place nodes by hand, or combine both. You can change fills, colors, and group vector pieces. All of the fun of drawing with vectors, none of the Illustrator stress. Graphic isn’t perfect for professional work, but it’s a pretty darn good start.
Graphic – Download now
Animation Desk Cloud
Disclaimer: I am a terrible, terrible animator. But the animation folks I trust put Kdan’s Animation Desk at the top of their list, and it’s not hard to see why. Most of the other animation apps available on the App Store are too limited for budding artists — unless you want to make clip-art dance — and the few that do offer traditional animation tools have user interfaces that predate iOS 7, or aren’t optimized for the iPad.
Kdan’s Animation Desk Cloud is the company’s iPad Pro successor to Animation Desk, and it strips the clunky skeuomorphic interface while keeping a bevy of tools for animating pros. Like Graphic, there’s a huge opportunity for Kdan — or another company — to improve upon the app’s foundation and add key tools, but if you want to animate something by hand on your iPad, this is the app to do it with.
Animation Desk Cloud – Download now
Like animation, 3D modeling is not, shall we say, my forté. But if you want to build some 3D models on the iPad Pro, uMake has very quickly made a name for itself as one of the best programs on the App Store. It offers extensive tutorials on building custom 3D shapes or importing 2D images and making them into 3D models; while I haven’t had time to study more than a few of them, they’re incredibly detailed and helpful. If 3D modeling is a skill you’d like to learn, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better app for it on the iPad.
uMake – Download now
For coloring books: Pigment
When I was in high school, I had a pretty standard “keep myself from falling asleep in class” routine: I’d doodle vast webs of intercrossed dark lines, then slowly color them in. It was usually good for an hour of entertainment — and provided my brain with just enough stimulation to remain awake while listening to lectures.
Pigment takes my high-school doodling to an extreme, offering thousands of pages of intricately-drawn shapes for you to color in — whether you’re listening to a lecture, or just want something to do with your hands while watching TV. The app is free to download and view, but you’ll need a monthly in-app subscription to actually sketch on the patterns.
Pigment – Download now
Astropad and Astropad Studio
If you drew digitally before the age of iPads, you probably used a Wacom tablet at least once in your life: The tablet and pen combination allowed users to draw naturally within apps like Photoshop, either by using a plastic tablet or drawing directly on the screen via the company’s more expensive Cintiq line.
Astropad essentially lets you turn your iPad Pro and Pencil into a Wacom Cintiq — with or without wires. A wired connection to your Mac results in almost no lag, and a supremely comfortable sketching experience, but going wireless is also fantastic: I have a couch set up across from my iMac and standing desk, and with Astropad, I can sketch in Photoshop on my retina iMac from 4 feet away. If you want to use your iPad on-the-go but also integrate it into your desktop drawing workflow, Astropad is an incredible resource to have in your app library. For true pros, there’s also a subscription-based version of the app available, Astropad Studio, which offers better Apple Pencil input, Magic Gestures, faster latency, and more.
Astropad Standard – Download now
What drawing apps do you think are fabulous? What aren’t worth your time? Let me know in the comments.
- Apple Pencil 2 FAQ
- Apple Pencil: The Ultimate Guide
- Apple Pencil Hand-Drawn Review
- How to draw and write with Apple Pencil
- Best drawing apps
- Best handwriting apps
- Best Apple Pencil accessories
- Surface Pro 4 vs iPad Pro and Pencil