The Return Of The Pen: iPad Art Supplies

As a kid, I was fairly enthusiastic with a pencil… but not all that good. There were a lot of Honorable Mentions for me, the occasional pat on the head, and an endless collection of college-ruled notebooks filled with doodles and sketches. I never really pursued it in an academic way, so I didn’t develop any real technique, and by my 20s, my interest had faded substantially.

There was a brief period in my mid-20s where I picked up a tiny Wacom drawing pad and tried it for a while, but it was never something I could seriously leverage. The disconnect between the drawing surface and the screen was just too much for me. I became slightly excited when Wacom eventually introduced their Cintiq line –which integrated a live monitor into the pad– but the $1,000+ price tag on a single-purpose device was impossible to justify.

When the iPad launched in 2010, I immediately bought one. It didn’t take long for me to see how this new slab of glass and aluminum could be used as a sort of mini-Cintiq, so I tried out a few painting/drawing apps. Nothing particularly impressed me, however, since drawing with a finger proved to be pretty clunky; as it turns out, my fingers are neither transparent nor thin, and they kind of need to be in order to see what I’m drawing on a touchscreen. When I factored in the iPad’s lack of pressure sensitivity, the whole process of finger-painting was too awkward to hold my interest. I promptly gave up.

A couple weeks ago, I was wandering the aisles of Best Buy, and noticed they were selling a few iPad styluses (styli?) at sub-$20 prices. On a whim, I grabbed the cheapest one, a $15 unit sold under Best Buy’s Rocketfish house brand. As a rule, I avoid Rocketfish like the plague, but I figured in this case, it might be okay. After all, an iPad stylus is just a pen-shaped, weighted piece of metal or plastic with a bubble of conductive foam at the tip. They couldn’t possibly screw that up.

And y’know what? They didn’t screw it up. The stylus is comfortable to hold, isn’t too light, and features a clip that provides a generally reliable means of affixing it to Apple’s original iPad cases. In use, its rounded nub skates smoothly across the touchscreen glass, and while it isn’t as small as the tip of an actual pen or pencil, it’s small enough to allow me to see what I’m doing. As an added bonus, it also allows me to spend hours working on a painting without adding to the greasy fingerprint build-up that is normally associated with extended touchscreen contact. I suppose if I had an iPad 2 with a Smart Cover, I might look for another option… a stylus with a magnet that attaches to the Smart Cover’s edge, perhaps? But for my current configuration, Best Buy has hit the sweet spot.

On the software side, drawing/painting apps on the iPad are abundant, but there are only a handful that can be used effectively for more than stick figure sketches and smiley faces. And of that handful, only a couple have really made me happy.

My workhorse has turned out to be –unsurprisingly– SketchBook Pro, the top dog of iOS art apps. Like many such go-to apps, it isn’t best-in-class at any one thing, but provides just enough of everything to serve as a default tool. Other apps offer more layers, levels of undo, or brush controls, for example, but SBP provides just enough to keep me from bumping against its ceiling on a regular basis.

With that said, SketchBook’s interface can be a bit flakey at times; it frequently confuses my three-finger-tap (to bring up the controls) with a three-finger-swipe (undo), so I have to pay close attention simply to ensure I’m not wiping out my last brush stroke while trying to access the color palette.

Even more irritating is the issue of brush sizing. While SBP will allow me customize brushes with varying stroke widths in the brush editor, it won’t allow me to quickly scale such brushes up and down using the size/opacity puck at the center of the interface. If I try, it immediately resets the brush to a uniform width and then scales it, making it impossible to tweak a brush without relying on presets or a trip through the brush editor’s cramped array of controls.

Which brings me to the second of my favorite apps, Inkpad. Still in its infancy, this vector illustration app already feels more intuitive and fundamentally useable than the similar tools in Photoshop or Illustrator. It certainly isn’t as powerful or flexible as either of those desktop applications, but I find working with curves and handles more natural with a stylus than a mouse. Unfortunately, it is missing a crucial feature that prevents me from using it as regularly as I otherwise would.

My ideal workflow would involve roughing up a drawing in SketchBook Pro, moving it to Inkpad via Dropbox, refining the line-work with vector precision, and then exporting it back to SBP for painting. I can’t currently do this because Inkpad doesn’t allow for variable widths on stroked paths. It’s certainly possible to sharpen up the lines in Inkpad and then manually add extra weight to them back in SBP, but at that point, it feels more natural to just stay in SBP the entire time. Until Inkpad receives an update to include variable stroke widths, it’s more of an inspiring toy than anything else.

There are, of course, limitations to the iPad painting experience that have nothing to do with opaque fingertips and app eccentricities. Unlike the iPad 2, the original has only 256MB of RAM, which forces developers to limit canvas sizes to 1024 x 1024 pixels or less. The iPad 1 isn’t as fast as the 2011 model, either, so there can be occasional moments of lag when your finger/stylus gets ahead of the on-screen brush. In short, it’s not a perfect experience.

But a lack of perfection hasn’t stopped me. I’m drawing things again, and enjoying it. A part of my world that more or less died over a decade ago has come roaring back to life. And unlike the old days, I don’t have to worry about anyone grabbing my notebook and scribbling phone numbers and shopping lists all over my work. I call this progress.

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