In January 2020 I ordered an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil in what can only be retroactively described as the most virtuously-timed purchase of my life. I'd soon be without much else to do! I'd tempted to try digital art on a tablet for a while, but for years I expected the device would end up sitting around on my desk like an expensive paperweight.
If you're looking for a punchy summary, here it is: I've spent thousands of hours drawing and painting on my iPad. It's a great way to do things!
Here's the longer answer, in case you're curious.
Doing visual art on an iPad is awesome. I've done serious amounts of artwork a bunch of different ways: pencil, ballpoint, charcoal, watercolor, woodburning, acrylic, fountain pen, pixel art, Photoshop painting with a tablet, mouse-click vector art, and (of course) crayon-on-restaurant-placemat. What most of those lack is the ability to undo mistakes without messing up good parts of the picture.
Every digital medium I've tried before sucked at input. Like, whether it's a pen on a Wacom or a touchpad or a mouse, I was never able to look at one thing while drawing on a separate device and get good results. And even when I've played around with earlier tablets, the pens sucked and it felt like you were drawing on a page under the glass, not on the glass.
There's a lot to like about working digital. You don't have to worry about handling a canvas before it's dry, or get cat hair in the paint while it's drying, or get paint on your clothes, or knock the paint water over, or really any of the ten million Bad Things which can happen as a result of casually interacting with permanent pigments. You can also undo anything, anytime you want, and you can change you mind about color and value decisions after the fact. You can "work wet" for as long as you want, then "work dry" on a new layer, and then go back to work wet on the earlier part. A painting's composition becomes less logistical and more tactical. You can tweak a layer or selection by stretching or skewing it, correcting perspective problems or rotating objects. You can reorder objects you've painted, putting a tree you just painted behind a fence you painted at the beginning.
Of course, this is all a bit of a two-edged sword. The freedom to transpose elements makes it harder to paint without that freedom. The ability to blend layers in a dozen different ways means sometimes I paint something without a clear plan for how to make it mesh with the rest of the scene, and that bet doesn't always pay off.
Creating prints from a digital-first image is challenging, but so is scanning a full-size artwork for prints. The challenges are different, though - a little more on this later on.
But the absolute best part (other than undo and layers) is that I can pick up my iPad and start painting in under ten seconds, anywhere I am. That alone has been worth the cost of entry, and it's let me turn a lot of procrastination and late-night moments of unexpected wakefulness into making art, instead of just doomscrolling on my phone. Even if all else was equal, the setup and cleanup cost for creating art with an iPad is about the same as pencil and paper, with a level of expressive power exceeding canvas, paint, and brushes.
My fear of the iPad being a dust-collecting waste of money was seriously misplaced, and for the past three years I've enjoyed drawing and painting with it a lot. But I've also argued with myself about the value of the purchase, a question that seemed less important the more I used it, right up until my iPad started showing signs of age. (More on this in a minute.)
But how do we determine that lifetime value? I ended up settling on figuring out a per-piece cost for every serious piece of artwork I've done on it. A new twelve-inch iPad Pro cost $1000 and an Apple Pencil cost $100 at the time I purchased them. To date, I've done 34 paintings I'd consider serious – as in, I planned for them to be good and would have bought a full-size canvas to do them in a traditional medium. On top of that, I have another ten or twenty silly paintings, some of which came out pretty good too.
So, math. Just dividing $1,100 in gadgets by 34 paintings gets us to about $32 per piece, which is in the ballpark for a 30-inch craft store canvas with some decent paints. Assuming I would waste no canvases, paint equally good stuff on canvas that I would on glass, and work at the same speed, canvas would be a little cheaper.
But at least in my case, none of those assumptions are true. I screw up a lot, and would doubtless have abandoned many canvases in the process of creating my 34. I'm also not as quick or as skilled with traditional paints, both because I've practiced with them less and the natural multiplication of talent that comes from having an Undo button. And finally, even if I was working at the same speed, a lot of my ability to get paintings done comes from the set-up and clean-up times being instantaneous.
And I don't even really thing this is a fair comparison. I would also have needed dozens of sketchbooks for my studies and more experimental paintings, and mixed media paper is expensive. If you factor in my sketches, which outnumber the "real" work by a decent amount, the price per-piece drops below ten bucks.
Maybe the simplest way to look at it is: for someone who is serious about art, $1100 for three years worth of art supplies is a pretty good deal.
Prints are the least magical part of working digital.
With any digital workflow, you are by necessity working in RGB – which is the system light-emitting displays use to render color – rather than CMYK, the system used in printing. I don't want to go into details, because that needs to be its own article, but the bottom line is that even though Procreate is pretty good about displaying what you'll get from a printer if you work from the right sRGB color space, there will be differences.
With my art, I frequently find that colors are muddy. Yellows and greens always look off, with the greens looking yellow and the yellows looking green. Contrast between paint and lineart is often limited. Solving this has meant doing many proof prints in order to find the right adjustments needed for white point, contrast, color temperature, and saturation. This also tends to work best if I create a "print version" of a canvas with darker lineart.
Needless to say, this is a total drag. I don't enjoy it, but building a print-ready file can be done in about an hour and only needs to be done once per painting.
Longevity of the device
iPads are built pretty well, and aside from a couple face scratches my iPad Pro is as good as new. I expect I could go another three years with this one, hardware wise, but unfortunately the hardware isn't the only concern.
The real question is software. I paint using Procreate, a raster-based paint application geared towards professionals. It costs $10 and it's a buy-it-once kind of thing, not a subscription, and that's astronomical value compared to Photoshop (which costs $10 a month and doesn't even come in a buy-it-once flavor anymore.)
Procreate even gets fairly frequent updates with new features, which you get free of charge. On paper this sounds like a great thing, and some cool stuff has shown up since I started using the application, like improved layer counts and brush configuration, which I am happy to have. But there's a dark side: sometimes Procreate updates break things. Two months ago, an update showed up on my iPad overnight that made it so that about one in ten brushstrokes would "stick" and draw a dot instead of what I wanted. Procreate support told me it was an old, known issue that doesn't affect many users and marked the ticket as resolved.
Even after finding a workaround, recent updates to Procreate have also led to a certain amount of input lag when working with some brushes and sometimes multiple undo steps get smooshed into one. Also, when the iPad is working hard enough, it gets hot and the screen dims. This is evidently a known issue and not a hardware problem per se, but it still sketches me out. But none of this is bad enough to be worth buying a new iPad, especially since getting the iPad Pro with maximum memory would be really expensive.
I've heard from more than one person who didn't view digital painting as being "real" as traditional art. Secretly, that's my predisposition too, but I'm trying to be better. Unambiguously, I find digital art a lot easier, and that makes it feel like taking the easy way out. But this is still a goofy take: the Renaissance masters were using better paint than their forebears, and nobody dunks on Michaelangelo for using the best paint he could get his hands on.
Much of the art I've been most influenced by has been digital. Art is about the journey and what it makes you feel.
I love my iPad for making art and would recommend it to anybody interested in doing creative work. There's loads I didn't even have space to get into, like on-device editing or iCloud backups. I also didn't get around to talking about Android, but that's a short conversation (I've never found comparable software or hardware in Googletown, but it probably exists.)
If any of this seems good to you, be aware that you don't need an iPad Pro most of the time: my work involves huge canvases with a lot of layers, and you can get away with a standard iPad or an iPad Mini from the 2022 generation and do the same stuff, even if a smaller screen is less convenient.
- If we include digital canvases that I've scrapped for not turning out well enough in the first few hours of painting, I've probably used closer to 70 canvas-equivalents.
- So far. See the next section.
- I eventually found that with pencil input smoothing turned on, the problem happens far less frequently. I found a setting that's low enough that I can't perceive the smoothing, and that's been a good enough workaround for me to resume work. But, you know, I shouldn't have to turn updates off to protect myself against a software publisher!
- Super obnoxious to work for 20 seconds, make a minor mistake, and tap to undo that last brushstroke only to have the whole 20 seconds of work un-done. It's never been picture-ruining, but it's still not great.
- You have a lot of choices about how to do this. You can do hue/saturation/brightness and curves adjustments on a per-layer or selection area basis, as well as paint on a higher layer set to a blend mode like Hard Light, Lightness, Saturation, and so on.
- This is because you naturally end up using colors that don't reproduce well with inks. This is a pretty big topic which needs to wait for its own post.