The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil 2 are my favorite art tools, hands down. (Learn all about iPads here.) They’ve replaced all of my traditional art supplies. I curl up on the couch with my iPad to chill and watch Netflix almost every day. I use it more than I use my phone by far, and that’s because of the Apple Pencil.
There’s just something uniquely intuitive about the pairing of the Pencil and Pro that makes me want to draw, sketch, paint, and take handwritten notes. And I’m not alone. The app ecosystem that sprung up around the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro is growing fast as more and more professional graphic artists ditch Wacom and Windows for Apple and iPadOS. If you’re an aspiring digital artist, or a seasoned pro looking to make the leap, here are the apps you should try.
Savage Interactive Procreate
When you’re getting started as a digital artist on iPadOS, you’ll hear the name Procreate over and over. There’s a good reason for that. Procreate is a fully-featured art creation app that’s chock-full of professional-grade features. You can import brushes or create your own, and edit everything from texture to flow dynamics and pressure curves. The UI is designed for the Apple Pencil and it shows. It’s an intuitive, purpose-built mobile art studio for professionals, not a desktop app shoehorned into iPadOS.
My favorite part of Procreate is the simple interface. It gets out of your way and lets you draw. Even if I’m going to finish an illustration in another application, I always start the sketch off in Procreate. There’s something meditative about the interface that gives me the feeling it wants me to draw. It’s a great app, and the one I use more often than any other on this list.
Celsys Clip Studio Paint
Clip Studio Paint is an old standby—a favorite of illustrators and manga artists. No other app is quite as powerful and customizable. It’s great for line work, inking, coloring, or anything else you could possibly need in a digital illustration studio. Because it was built for desktops, the learning curve is steeper than average. The interface is cluttered with lots of tiny buttons and popup menus that don’t work as well on a tablet as they do on a desktop.
These would be fatal flaws if Clip Studio Paint weren’t so incredible as an art-creation tool. The brush dynamics are outstanding, producing some of the cleanest, smoothest, and most consistent lines I’ve ever seen. It’s customizable for just about any kind of work or workflow, including vector art, and new users get a 6-month free trial. The only reason it’s not in our top slot here is because of its user-interface oddities. Clip Studio Paint is $9 a month after the 6-month free trial.
Ginger Labs Notability
Note-taking is an art form too! For reals. Even if you’re not doodling in the margins (you should be), sometimes you need an app custom-built for handwriting and drawing notes. I’ve tried every note-taking app there is, and Notability is the best. It organizes your notes by category, making it easy to manage complex notes (like journaling, brainstorming, or project planning), and the writing dynamics are smooth and fluid.
Writing on a sheet of glass can take some getting used to, as the Apple Pencil doesn’t quite feel like a pen scratching across paper. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll want to do it all the time. Notability turns your iPad Pro into a never-ending pad of paper. We also have a roundup of more smartpens and note-taking tools here.
For Graphic Designers
Graphic design is a little different than illustrating and painting. It’s not all about flowy lines or brush dynamics. Often, you need to work with vectors, which are scalable lines that can get as high-res or low-res as you want without losing detail. Vector art isn’t always great for detailed illustrations, but it’s the standard for graphic design, especially logo design. Picta Graphic has a powerful vector engine with all the tools you need to make scalable artworks.
A Fresh Take
Adobe has been synonymous with professional graphic design and illustration for decades. Fresco is the latest software suite from Adobe, and it was built from the ground up with the iPad Pro in mind. If you’ve ever used Photoshop, the interface will be clear and familiar, but it’s also a touch-first user interface, not one that was designed for a mouse and then adapted to the iPad. That design sensibility has made for a surprisingly robust and flexible application.
It came out in 2019, so it has several updates under its belt and it’s only getting better. The “live brushes”, which approximate the physics of real-world watercolor and oil painting, have become much more than a gimmick. You can control the spread and fluidity of watercolors, and even use the oil brushes to mix your own colors just like you would on a traditional palette. Adobe has also added new raster brush sets, for everything from sketching to inking and full-fledged illustration.
Fresco is the most expensive app on this list, though. It’s $10 a month, but if you already use other Adobe products, it’s included in several bundles. Check! You might already have access to it.
For a Little Extra Texture
Paperlike Screen Cover
One of the most common complaints you’ll hear from digital artists working with the iPad Pro is how difficult it is to get used to drawing on a sheet of glass. It feels more like ice-skating with your fingers than it does drawing on a sheet of paper. That’s why Paperlike has caught on like wildfire among digital artists. It’s a textured plastic screen cover designed to give you the feeling of drawing on, er, paper.
I was skeptical when I first tried it, but now it’s hard to go back. The film is a little harder to apply than a typical screen protector since it’s very thin plastic and not a sheet of glass. You need to clean your iPad’s screen thoroughly and apply the cover in as dust-free an environment as you can get, but once it’s on there, it’s [chef kiss emoji]. The plastic nib on the Apple Pencil still glides smoothly over the Paperlike cover, but there’s just enough resistance that it feels like sketching on nice cotton paper.