Tablet As Canvas: 13 Tablet Artistry Apps, Tested

Software for iPad: Inspire Pro

Open Inspire Pro up and it looks like a beautifully presented artist’s sketchpad; the user interface isn’t at all obvious though- you have to select the canvas to start painting and go back to the sketchbook view to save a copy of your work as you go along. The other options here are for changing settings, importing images and saving paintings (including saving to Flickr, which is a great way to share art) but having to leave the painting to save a version before you experiment with a technique is a little more cumbersome.

Getting to the tools is also confusing at first; they’re assigned to eight ‘hotspots’ in the corners and sides of the screen that let you pick colors, switch brushes, undo and redo strokes or quickly zoom back to seeing the whole canvas on screen. The ninth hotspot opens a toolbar with an eyedropper to pick up colors, a fill that tends to wipe out the whole painting – use it for backgrounds – and the link back to the sketchbook view; save time by turning on the fast eyedropper so you can press and hold to pick up a color.

Once you know where the hotspots are you can hide the icons and paint right over those areas, but that could easily put a dab of paint in the wrong place until you get the hang of it. In portrait mode the zoom occasionally jumped while we were painting, just often enough to be intrusive.

Don’t look for the range of natural media that ArtRage has in Inspire Pro; there are just five brushes, one of them a palette knife, and while it simulates paint it’s just oil paint. The option to blend colours with a dry brush gives you a very wide range of effects, especially when you zoom in and blend strokes finely. This is really much more like painting with a traditional paint setup and while you have lots of options, you don’t get the preset combinations.

As well as the size of the brush you can set the angle – which gives you very different strokes with the fan brush – just like turning round a real brush. For the eraser and palette knife you can choose the pressure – how much is erased or scraped away each time. You can turn on an offset so you can see strokes without them being hidden by your pen or stylus but even without that strokes often appeared above where we expected to see them and especially for blending using a finger and pressing firmly works better than trying to get fine strokes with a stylus. The Nomad Brush didn’t work at all well with Inspire Pro, sadly.

You can turn on unlimited, unnatural ‘computer’ paint (useful or background washes where you don’t want to fill the whole canvas) but by default your brush runs out of paint the way it would with real oil paint. You can choose how much paint is on the brush for each stroke or even force yourself to reload the brush manually with each stroke (which also makes it easier to pick a slightly different color – and the more colors you have, the better the painting is likely to look).

The color picker uses the traditional color wheel combined with saturation transparency sliders for a lot of flexibility. Recent colors are saved automatically and you can drag the ones you want into a permanent palette, although this is more fiddly than it should be and we often replaced an existing color instead of saving the new color next to it. One minor but very welcome feature; when you press and hold to pick a color from your canvas this automatically switches you back from a dry to a loaded brush, saving you an extra tap and making the process feel natural and fluid.

You can import an image onto your canvas but then you can’t remove it from the painting later, so this isn’t for reference photos (although it would work for sketches you want to completely overpaint), it’s useful for opening images you’ve created in another app and want to carry on working with; many digital artists use three, four or five apps in sequence to get the range of effects they want on the iPad. Or you can get an interesting collage effect by painting over a photo and erasing all or part of the background – you just can’t get the kind of helping hand that ArtRage offers.

If you already know how to paint, you can get some superb results with Inspire Pro (check out the Inspire Pro Flickr gallery for examples), and it’s a good way to learn classical painting techniques that would transfer back to real paints but it’s not as encouraging or as forgiving at ArtRage and the interface oddities may put you off.

Once you master them and learn to zoom in and out and change brush and color tones frequently, Inspire Pro is powerful and flexible and lets you produce very effective paintings but it’s not simple and can be frustrating for beginners. There aren’t any shortcuts here and any effects you want to use, you have to be able to paint in, making Inspire Pro an ideal app for purists.