Tablet As Canvas: 13 Tablet Artistry Apps, Tested

The author posing for a tablet portraitThe author posing for a tablet portraitWhen the first tablet computers were introduced years ago, the goal was to replace pen and paper. The Go Pad was going to be used by insurance agents to fill in policy applications and claim reports and Windows Tablet PCs came with handwriting recognition and a journal app (not a painting app). Yet, professional artists have been using pressure-sensitive Wacom pens and digitizing pads beside their computers for years to sketch and paint with tools like Painter. Only recently have the tools become available to turn a tablet touch screen into a true medium for artistic expression.

Fast forward to the explosion of affordable, lightweight tablets we see now and you can sketch, paint and take notes on a digital screen. You can do a lot more than finger-painting with the right software; natural media painting packages simulate real brushes and different types of paints and papers – so pastels blend together, watercolors bleed into each other and dry on the page, oil paints mix and have texture. What’s the difference from doing that on paper? Turns out that being able to undo mistakes and keep a copy can inspire almost anyone  to be more creative.

You can use natural media painting packages on a Mac, but your only option is to use a (pricey) Wacom Cintiq screen or a tablet that sits next to your Mac (or get the unofficial Axiotron Modbook tablet conversion). For Windows you can use ArtRage or Painter on a tablet PC with either a Wacom active pen or a capacitive stylus depending on the screen type, which makes it more portable as well as more like painting or sketching (although an iPad or Android tablet is more portable still – and there are tablet art tools that will wow you).

Tablet art on displayTablet art on display

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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.