Drawing digitally always seemed like an unattainable skill to me, but when I was looking for ways to pass the time during the coronavirus lockdown, I gave Apple's Procreate app a chance. While I love using physical media, it was intimidating to try to paint or use a different medium besides pencil and paper. The thought of hauling out all the supplies, setting up a workspace, and then not being able to create what I had hoped and having to put everything away again was daunting. But trying out digital art on my iPad let me experiment with different artistic forms and figures, no real-life mess involved.
I still consider myself a beginner with digital media, but it's been a fun journey so far. I use a third-gen iPad Air and a first-gen Apple Pencil. Ultimately art is about expressing yourself and being creative — whether you can draw a symmetrical face or have more of a Jackson Pollock flair for splatters.
Read more: Best iPad for 2020
Apple's Procreate app costs $10 to download, but its suite of art tools and creative features make it well worth the money. The digital illustration app is accessible whether you're a design professional, a seasoned digital artist or a beginner to the world of digital illustration. I've been using Procreate for a few months and there are still features I'm finding out about that improve my artwork (check out all of the best Procreate tips I've found so far).
Procreate lets you customize gesture controls so the app is ultimately personalized to you. No matter what level of artist you are, Procreate's features like Quickshape, blend mode, layering, alpha locks and clipping masks can add a new level of professionalism to your art.
There's a lot going on in this app, so I wouldn't download it if you're just looking for a place to doodle. For quick reference in the app, check out the official Procreate Handbook.
See at App Store
Best free option
The Autodesk Sketchbook app is free, but is surprisingly packed with art tools that aren't blocked by paywalls. You can use the free version for seven days and then you'll be asked to make an Autodesk ID, which is also free. It's a little less intimidating than Procreate when you're starting off your digital art journey. When you download the app, it'll give you a quick tutorial of where all the basic tools are.
Autodesk has an extensive, well-organized brush library, and it's easy to adjust brush settings like size, opacity and pressure. Even with a typical learning curve of a new drawing app, the toolbar is pretty easy to figure out. I also liked that, even when extensively zoomed in, the app didn't lose its "drawing" feel by letting you see the pixels in your stroke.
One of my favorite parts of Sketchbook is the focus on making the transition from paper to screen easy. You might've done a cool sketch in a notebook, and with Autodesk, you don't have to redraw it in the app. Your camera doubles as a scanner so you can import your art. The image imports with a transparent background so you can immediately get to work in the app.
See at App Store
Art Set 4
Best for beginners
Art Set 4 is one of the more basic, realistic drawing apps. It's free to download, but most of its tools are unlocked through the Premium Pro features, which cost $10. This app would be best if you're brand new to digital illustration — it feels similar to having physical tools and paper in front of you. If you're overwhelmed by the idea of going into a more complex app like Procreate or Autodesk, Art Set 4 is a good one to get started with. It's also fun if you just want to doodle.
Something I really like about Art Set 4 is the ease with which even the free tools work together in a piece. It's also nice that you can swap between multicolored paper styles like canvas and the rough surface of heavyweight, cold press sheets for watercolor. You can choose burlap styles, cardboard and grids without messing up a drawing you've already done.
When you explore the app, any items that require Premium Pro will be locked. If you tap on a locked item, Art Set will ask if you want to upgrade and unlock everything. Premium gives you full access to over 150 brushes, 3D paint, fluid watercolor, the ability to layer and use masks, enable a "wet canvas," drawing guides like symmetry, shapes, filling and dozens of other ways to customize your workspace.
See at App Store
Best for coloring book fans
Not everything you create in an art app has to be a massive endeavor that ends with a masterpiece. Having fun is the most important part. Simply coloring can make for a creative and relaxing afternoon. Lake is a free ASMR art app packed with coloring book sheets — in all different styles — from artists all over the world.
The app's audio element is particularly cool. For example, if you color with the paintbrush, you'll hear quiet brush sounds. If you choose the spray paint tool, you'll hear a ball bearing rattling like it would if you shook a paint can. You can turn the ASMR off in settings.
Another thing I liked was the option to stay in the lines and add more color for shading and effects. It gives you more room to be creative instead of just tapping and filling (though you can do that if you want). Also, the artist for each coloring page puts together an optional palette for you to use if you're not sure about colors.
You can stay on the app's dashboard and pick from free daily images or explore All Art in the toolbar. Lake sorts the coloring pages into artist collections, kids, abstract, animal, cities, feminist, portraits, mandalas for relaxation and satisfying symmetrical images.
On Lake's free tier, you get nine free coloring pages per day. If you subscribe to premium — $10 a month, or $20 for a year — you'll get access to all the coloring pages, more color variations in the wheel and the option to use a blank canvas.
See at App Store
More art apps to check out
- ShadowDraw: Learn How to Draw
ShadowDraw is a helpful free app if you're struggling with proportions or drawing specific things like faces, bodies or animals.
- Drawing Desk
The Drawing Desk app is a good choice for those in the market for a casual doodling app. It has a free version with ads (which can be a little annoying if you're in the middle of a piece), or you can upgrade to remove the ads for $5.
For more on drawing, check out these five online drawing classes you can take right now.
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