Tablet As Canvas: 13 Tablet Artistry Apps, Tested

Who Should Use Tablet Art Software?

Taking art digital doesn’t mean the computer does the work for you. Computer technology is like any other artistic medium; a tool that you’ll need to master to make the most of it. Even tracing over a photograph doesn’t mean you automatically get a work of art. The better digital painting packages do make it easier to get effects you might need expertise for with physical media, but they also reward artists who understand tools and technique.

The difference isn’t just that you don’t have brushes to clean or paints to tidy away (although that’s great for schools, art galleries and anyone who wants to paint where there isn’t good lighting and a convenient sink to wash up in afterwards – like on the train or in the dark). It’s how easy digital painting makes it to experiment. Not sure what color to use? Try one and if it doesn’t work, undo it or go back to an earlier version and try another.

Being able to experiment without ruining a picture you were happy with so far is incredibly liberating and encourages you to try new techniques and explore your creativity. “You have different possibilities,” says painter Barbara Lietzow, who is also ‘Minister for Arts’ for ArtRage;” you can be very playful without being afraid you’re messing something up by experimenting – it takes the fear out of it.”

But drawing and painting on tablets isn’t just for budding artists, or an increasing number of professional artists who welcome digital art as another technique and one that’s very portable – we spoke to artists working on everything from commissioned portraits to magazine covers, mostly on iPads but also on Macs and PCs with the ubiquitous Wacom tablets and Cintiq screens in their studios. Digital painting with ArtRage on the iPad is also being used as art therapy with trauma victims.  

Jorge Colombo started drawing New Yorker magazine covers with Brushes on his iPhone in 2009.

Tablets are ideal for fashion design. Last year HP supplied tablet PCs to Project Runway contestants for them to sketch out designs for outfits – and even to draw their own designs to be printed out onto fabric. One wedding dress designer in the UK has been using a tablet since they first came out because it lets her produce sketches of a custom wedding dress on the spot while she’s talking to the bride without worrying about dealing with paints and brushes – and she can email them a copy of the design to keep and still have her sketches to work with.

Tablet PCs on Project Runway

Some architects, home contractors and garden designers are already using tablets to draw plans. If you’re planning layouts for kitchen installations you can drag and drop the units and appliances around on screen (or let the home owner do it) far more quickly than you can draw the plans on paper. Do that in software with CAD functionality and you can render the kitchen in 3D and a range of materials, so the buyer knows what they’re getting.

Taking notes on a keyboard is always going to be faster than writing on screen, but there are times when it’s just not convenient to sit down and start typing; on a building site, walking around a trade show, out in the garden… And there are things you can do far more easily with a pen – like drawing a diagram or jotting down mathematical formulae or sketching a chart or marking a star next to something important in your notes. OneNote has a handy but little-known feature that records audio synchronized to your notes, so when you tap on the graph you drew you hear what was being said while you were drawing it – making it a great way to jot down your ideas rather than trying to write down the whole lecture because you can go back and listen to it.

Plus in six months’ time, instead of wondering which notebook or folder you might have put that particular day’s notes in, you can search for them like anything else on your computer. If you lend handwritten notes to a friend you might never get them back; if you take handwritten notes in a meeting you have to type them up to send them to colleagues – but if you do it on a tablet, you’ve got a copy ready to send straight away.

Really, anything that you once did best by putting pen to paper can be done on a tablet and there’s always an advantage over doing it on paper (the drawback is that you can’t yet get all the best features on the same tablet). Think outside the keyboard and get creative.

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  • Bob55
    Thanks so much for this rundown on tablet painting and for reminding us that tablets are supposed to replace paper. I think they will replace paper in more ways than they currently do, quite soon.

    I'm not an artist, but I am curious. How do iPads etc., compare with Wacom's Cintiq or pressure sensitive tablets? Can an iPad or Android tablet, with a 'brush stylus' totally replace them, if the tablet is used as a painting peripheral? If more is needed, what is it? If little separates the two types of tablet for PC/Mac painting, I suspect that the Cintiq's days are numbered.

    Who knows what the primary digital painting machine will be in the future - I doubt it will remain what it has been.
  • marybranscombe
    iPad or Android is a lot more portable than a Cintiq or Wacom tablet, but you're running tablet apps rather than the full PC/Mac programs - which are more powerful. You don't get true pressure sensitvity on an iPad but you can approximate it nicely by painting lightly with a Nomad Brush or rubbing repeatedly with your finger for smudging effects. What you don't have and won't get without some very expensive hardware is the full range of info that a Wacom tablet/Cintiq can get from the pen - not just pressure and positions but angle (tilt in both the x and y axis) and the ability to sense how that rotates, plus additional information like the setting of a dial on the side of an airbrush. That's ten variables of information that can be used to simulate a complex tool like an airbrush... Software can give you controls to rotate a flat brush sideways but you have to change a setting for each stroke, so the interface for that is hard. Plus full natural media simulation is hard work for even a Core i5 (some oil paint simulations were written to test high-performance computing platforms!)

    That said, you can achieve fantastic results on the iPad and other very portable devices. I suspect we'll keep a range of deskbound and portable devices but it's really exciting how things are developing!
  • Anonymous
    Tablet can't compete with Cintiq at this time. An iPad is a good sketch book on the go, but it's definitely not a professional hardware for drawing and painting.