Tablet As Canvas: 13 Tablet Artistry Apps, Tested

Software for Android: Audodesk SketchBook Express, PaintBox For Tablets

With the flood of Android tablets coming onto the market, we were expecting to find more Android sketching and painting apps; so far most of them are simple doodling and finger-painting apps designed for phone-size screens and most of the ones we tried were slightly disappointing.

With the free PaintBox for Tablets for example, there are 17 brushes including a blending brush but the only controls are brush size and opacity and there’s no real natural media effects, so oils look almost the same as charcoals. You can save an image and open it again and you get multiple levels of undo but you have to reach up to tap the menu button every time you want to change color or brush type, which is far too disruptive for you to be able to paint fluidly. Like the simpler iPad paint tools, if you’re a good artist already you can create good artwork without having to carry a box of art materials around but you don’t get the help and creativity of the more powerful packages.

The best option so far is Autodesk SketchBook Express, which is also available for iPad and Windows. This is the same version available for Android phones but the interface scales up well to tablet size (in fact a smartphone screen is too small for the app). You can double-tap in the corners for undo, redo, clear and resizing the canvas to fit the screen – unlike many Android painting apps even the free Sketchbook Mobile version lets you zoom and pan your painting, which is invaluable to applying detail and blending colours precisely. We’d like to see more than six levels of undo and redo; you have to save different versions of your image if you want to go further back.

Tap the tiny control at the bottom of the canvas to choose between the various marker, pen, pencil, eraser, smudge, airbrush, paint and fill brushes; you can set the brush size and opacity by swiping up and down or sideways on a central control. The pay-for Express version adds more brushes and controls, but while you don’t get true natural media controls you can paint well even with the free version; using a stylus rather than your finger gives you more control and we were able to draw strokes of paint that were more fluid and precise on a screen other tools had made us feel was only capable of short, scratchy lines.

The Color picker is in a toolbar at the top; a little out of the way but it gives you the choice of picking from blocks of color or a hue/saturation/brightness circular picker and red/green/blue sliders. You can also press and hold on screen to pick up a color you’ve painted before.

The toolbar also lets you create, arrange and merge layers – which can include photos to trace over that you can later delete – and save images (as PNGs in the free tool, or JPEG and PSD formats as well in the Express version). You can also turn on the Symmetry tool; if you’re drawing one half of a complex object, this mirrors your brush strokes on the other side so you only have to draw half (in practice having both sides of something look exactly the same often makes it look artificial, but it’s a useful tool to use while sketching and you can erase or overdraw lines for better effect).

Sketchbook doesn’t have the rich set of tools you get on the iPad with ArtRage but it’s still an excellent app for drawing and sketching – and it shows what’s possible on Android tablets, so we expect to see more powerful apps in future.

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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.