Tablet As Canvas: 13 Tablet Artistry Apps, Tested

Software for Windows Tablets: Painter 12

Painter is the classic natural media painting tool; it’s been around for years and the recent version 12 adds yet more brushes and paint types. Painter models not just the type of paint – oil, watercolor, pastel, charcoal, airbrush, pencil, acrylics, chalk, gouache, gel, impasto, felt markers, Japanese ink and just about any other medium you can think of – it also models the texture of the paper or canvas and the details of the brush, sponge, nib or palette knife you’re applying it with (in the case of watercolor and oils, down to the individual bristles). You can customize the brushes and the way paint is applied, down to how much paint is at the edge of a stroke and how dark that paint is or how hard the brush squeezes against the surface as you paint.

There are also tools to give you painterly effects; the Smart Blur takes a lot of the effort out of blending together colors you’ve already painted and you can have the strokes your draw automatically repeated to draw the other half of an object – or multiple angles of a kaleidoscope. Instead of gridlines you can display the ‘divine proportion’ (also known as Hogarth’s serpentine line of grace, a technique for getting pleasing proportions in a drawing). Plus you get standard computer art tools from drawing shapes to inserting text.

As you might expect, mastering the range of tools in Painter takes time. The interface is also designed to be used on a large screen with a Wacom pen rather than directly on a tablet; it’s crammed with menus, toolbars, dropdowns and palettes. You can use the Tab key to quickly hide and show the interface – or the command on the Window menu - but that’s not as convenient as having an icon or gesture on a tablet with no physical keyboard and common commands like undo and changing the brush size are fiddly menu items and sliders.

With this much power it might seem petty to criticize the interface – you can create any painting effect you can think of in Painter and the tools are unmatched - but working effectively on a tablet is easier with a simpler layout. It also needs a very powerful system; the most realistic painting effects were slow even on a Core i5 tablet and the software crashed more than once when we rotated the screen orientation. However, the system requirements for most Painter 12 features include any version of Windows running on a tablet (of course, the software also works on PCs and Macs--but not iPad, or Android tablets).

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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!
  • 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.