Using an iPad as a Sketchbook

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For just over three decades my time has been split between creating art on, and off, the computer. And for most of those years, as I move through the world I’ve carried along a miniature sketchbook and a handful of pencils.

 

Ann Lam with violin

I've long said that I believe that Undo was one of the great inventions of the 20th century; the undo safety net makes us more daring—and therefore better—artists. And so in the same period in which I've filled more than 100 sketchbooks, my digital tools have evolved from visible pixels, into highly responsive, sophisticated high-resolution drawing and painting with Photoshop and Illustrator. Our input controls have also evolved in leaps and bounds. After initially having to draw into the computer with Etch-a-Sketch-like joysticks of the Apple II, the cursor-keys of the IBM-PC, and the early Mac mouse (which was likened to “drawing with a bar of soap”), I was hired by Summagraphics in 1985 to draw portraits at trade shows using their MacTablet. Over the next few years I drew portraits at trade shows with numerous tablets and ever-evoloving software including SuperPaint, Pixel Paint, Image Studio, Oasis, and ColorStudio.

 

 

 

Fast forward to the present where Wacom has established their line of pressure-sensitive tablets as the artists’ tools of choice. Now that tilt and swivel supported as well, I can paint and draw directly into Photoshop and Illustrator with astounding control and nuance.

 

Illustrator Calligraphic Brush

 

Illustrator Bristle Brush (for Untapped Cities)

 

 

Illustrator Blob Brush

 

So the question is, now that digital tools allow me to paint and draw in high res (or, as in the case with Illustrator, in infinite res), are we are finally at the point where the iPad can provide me with the best of both worlds—does the iPad provide a direct sketching experience, with the on-the-go limitless power of digital tools? Could the experience of drawing on the iPad be sufficiently advanced to retire (or at least augment) my travel sketchbook?

Digital art tools are just tools, and of course artists can make good art with any tools. But so far, most iPad art I’ve seen echos the look of early low-res digital art. At a time when digital art has evolved to such a level that it can be impossible to tell whether portions of artwork have or have not been created with digital tools, I personally find it unsatisfactory to return to a low-resolution world of pixelated digital art. It might be fun for some who didn’t live through this all before, but for me? Been there, done that. 

There are, however, a handful of impressive non-pixelated iPad artwork samples created using the infinite-resolution, vector-based Adobe Ideas. With the recent addition of pressure-sensitive iPad pens by Wacom, Pogo Connect, and others, I was anxious to find out perhaps if this combination of iPad/Ideas/Pressure-sensitive Pens provide that elusive, ideal portable digital sketching medium.

Adobe Ideas is free for iPhone and iPad, and images created in Adobe Ideas can be directly opened and reworked in Illustrator. If you're familiar with the Blob Brush tool in Illustrator, Adobe Ideas is similar—by default every mark you make becomes a separate vector object. The Eraser removes the vectors and cuts holes in your objects. Using my iPhone and index finger I had already created a few gestural sketches into Adobe Ideas. Fun, the experience feels a bit more like finger-painting than anything akin to subtle drawing.

 

 

My first glimpse of sophisticated art being created with Ideas was the work by Brian Yap. Although I had already featured a lovely Adobe Ideas piece by Brian Yap in The Adobe Illustrator CS6 WOW! Book, it was at a recent Bay Area Illustrator User Group meetup that I saw Brian's live demo. Watching him work and asking him questions was truly illuminating and inspirational. Working on an iPad with pressure-sensitive pens and brushes, he reduces the opacity of his color, which allows him to build up marks that look quite natural and organic. He builds up the images in layers, tracing reference images on layers below. Depending on the color he’s using, these marks can mimic pencil lines, paint, or markers. He traces over photos or scanned sketches on layers below, freely zooms in and out, adds layers and builds up fabulous artwork, finishing it up in Illustrator.

I decided to test this out on a miniature artwork assignment for a client; the final artwork would be part of a logo and most often displayed at smaller than 1". Launching Adobe Ideas on an iPad, and with Wacom pressure-sensitive pen in hand, I reduced my opacity and enlarged my composited sketch of a sequoia leaf so it filled the full size of the iPad—many times enlarged from the 1" final size.

Unfortunately, working even at this enlarged scale wasn’t at all a satisfactory experience. The tip of this generation of pressure-sensitive pens for iPad (both the Wacom and the Pogo Connect) feels overly wide and rubbery. The mark-making was sluggish and not nearly up to the immediacy of the experience of drawing or painting into Illustrator or Photoshop using my Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus and tablet.

In order to achieve something close to the necessary level of detail, I had to zoom in—way, way in. I found that in order to get the control I wanted, and for the responsiveness to take hold, the size of the marks must be larger than the size of the pen tip. This works fine if you are tracing and working on small details, a piece at a time. At this exaggerated zoom level I did indeed greatly benefit from the pressure-sensitive pen—the results are MUCH more subtle and responsive than working zoomed out, or with a standard stylus or the mere tip of your finger.

 

Your Ideas files can be opened and worked on with Illustrator. So if you develop something that you want to continue to work on, then you can email the piece as a PDF, or you can sync the work via your Creative Cloud (CC) account. Files saved and synced via CC and opened in Illustrator will have an intact layer structure (opening the PDF in Illustrator works, but not as smoothly, you'll find more about working with these PDF in upcoming The Adobe Illustrator WOW! Book for CS6 and CC; you can pre-order the book here, use the discount code ILLWOW to get 35% off).

But the question is: as a sketching medium, can these tools integrate into, or even replace, digital or analog tools in your current workflow?

If you enjoy working at a highly zoomed in level of detail, and if you are comfortable working on a portion of your image at a time, then you may indeed benefit by being able to work digitally on planes, trains, and automobiles. With patience and fortitude this workflow can provide you with a new way to create sophisticated images, and might indeed be a good new addition to your artistic arsenal.

However, to me, sketching is something done quickly and all at once. I don’t want to have to zoom in or out, and I definitely don’t want to render one detail at a time. Drawing on the iPad at 100% magnification with a rubbery pen tip just doesn't provide nearly specificity or control of either a pencil or a Wacom pen and tablet at my computer. So unfortunately, as of right now, I would have to say that the iPad is not yet up to the task of replacing either my analog pad and pencils, or my fine point stylus with sophisticated tools in Illustrator or Photoshop. I have yet to try out the new Adobe Ink and Slide. But even if that isn’t the solution I seek, I'm quite convinced that the perfect travel digital drawing and painting solution is just around the next corner.

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To get 35% off The Adobe Illustrator WOW! Book for CS6 and CC (in print or PDF), enter the discount code ILLWOW during checkout from Peachpit.com.
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