Using an iPad as a Sketchbook

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.


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
To get 35% off The Adobe Illustrator CS6 WOW! Book enter the code WOWCC1.

Also, educators, reviewers, and user group hosts can request FREE copies via the contact info listed below. Be sure to include your name, organization or institution, address, and if applicable, the name of the course for which you’re requesting the book.

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Posted on: August 1, 2014

Sharon Steuer

Sharon Steuer has been creating, writing about, and teaching workshops on digital art since the early 1980s. The current edition of her Illustrator WOW! book, The Adobe Illustrator WOW! Book for CS6 and CC, is the fourteenth book in the series, and her "Artistic Painting in Illustrator" online video courses are available from Sharon is also the author of Creative Thinking in Photoshop: A New Approach to Digital Art, and is a regular contributor to Her digital paintings and illustrations have appeared in numerous books and magazines and have been exhibited nationally. Find Sharon via,, and @SharonSteuer (Twitter).

6 Comments on Using an iPad as a Sketchbook

  1. Lovely stuff! I’m trying to reawaken old drawing skills, and I’ve tried a bunch of styluses (styli?) on the iPad. Just getting started with Ink & Slide, and really like the stylus. But this is interesting, too:

    Adonit makes the Ink stylus, and it looks like it will provide much of the functionality of Ink (although it doesn’t include the Slide ruler, of course). I’ve actually found Slide to be handy in both Sketch and Line. Looking forward to increased support for Ink/Slide in other apps, such as Procreate, Bamboo Paper and 53 Paper.

    I look forward to seeing your take on Ink & Slide!

  2. Hi Claudia!

    Thank you for your added feedback—I do want to keep trying the new things, and I know that we’re close to finding our dream sketching tools… keep me up to date in what you find please!



  3. Margee Gaeddert

    August 5, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    Great article Sharon, can’t wait to buy your new book!  I enjoy sketching on my ipad and love the tips in the article. Happy art, happy camper!

  4. Thanks, Sharon! I guess technically I’ve bought your book twice, since I got it for my class digitally, and then afterwards I bought the latest addition in paper so that I would always have it for reference. It helped me so much in my voyage to learn illustrator.

    This is an old post, and I don’t know if you’ll even see this, but I was really hoping for some help finding an app for drawing. I understand that there really isn’t a quality way to draw vectors on my iPad right now, but did you try a variety of apps and which ones did you prefer? I need one that works like the blob brush tool.

    I’d love to hear from you, if not, thank you so much for this article anyway.

    • HI Brenda!
      Thanks for the lovely comments on the book. I’m actually testing a new technology that allows you to draw with a pen and paper and have it come into the computer as vectors– I should post it soon (waiting to find out if they’re still alive– they’re not answering my communications). And I’ve not yet worked on the ipad pro with pen– it looks much better– but of course not vector. And it would be great if at least Adobe’s app worked like the blob brush if it’s separate objects.
      So no solution yet…
      but let me know if you find something you do like.
      all my best,

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