My favorite painting and drawing apps for the iPad

My favorite painting and drawing apps for the iPad

Besides easily annotating PDFs on the go, my favorite use for the iPad is the painting apps. It’s one of the few things I’ll buy through the iStore, figuring that a good app costs less than physical art supplies, and I’m more likely to sketch on a tablet than to carry art supplies around town!

Below is my take on the options I’ve tried. A skilled artist could do more, but I’m looking for something that makes amateur art look nice, even if you’re just learning:

My Top Favourites:

Zen Brush ($3) was my first purchase. It’s a good starter because the lack of color, smooth Asian ink-brush feel, and five tones (dark, medium, light, erase, and partial-erase) focuses your attention away from drawing colored lines, and towards artistic techniques like on thickness, shading and contrast. Example: The Clown.


ArtRage ($5) is my top choice for anything resembling a painting. It promises many drawing options (pastels, watercolor, pencil, crayons) but I get consistent good results with the oil brush, which gives smooth textured lines and a nice blend. I can work quickly and still get a reasonable outcome. Examples: Nazgul.

nazgul, may 2013

Paper 53 ($0-$8) is a flexible tool for quick colored-line sketches; buying the sponge, other brushes, or color mixer costs a few dollars each. They’ve recently added a color wheel for blending, but I got better results with the original 7-pack of colors. The simple palette forced me to focus on more than just color! Still a good choice for a quick sketch with a light feel.  Examples: Grandmother.


Procreate ($5). It took me a while to find an app that could imitate the light-and-dark layering of charcoals decently. I finally paid $0.99 for the charcoals in Procreate, and have been fairly satisfied with the results:  Examples: The Courtyard; Portrait of Assel.



Sketji ($2) is great for a rough-brush look in stark and thick black and white. Again it forces you to focus on contrast rather than detail or color. Example: Hannah. 


Animation Desk ($0-$5). I tried iAnimate and Animation Creator HD as well, but found I persisted most with Animation Desk. Below is my first try at animation:

And below is a far more developed video by my colleague, Heidi Dowding. Her careful work just won her a young librarian’s fellowship!

Inspire Pro (Free & $3). I don’t yet find this one intuitive, but others have produced amazing results. All I get so far is a psychotic pink squirrel (?!)… but I like the blending and will work with it some more.


Not as versatile, but still fun:

Sumo Paint ($0) lets you draw intricate circles of color and texture. Limited but fun:


Wondershape ($0) lets kids color and then unfold a paper snowflake:

Gold Star

Spray Can ($0) is for the graffiti-inclined:


Helloflower ($0) is produces beautiful and unlikely 3-D flowers. See the website for images.

Meritum Paint ($0 + add-ons) produces interesting spill-results: I’ve only used the free version but an in-app purchase gives you more control over selecting colors and backgrounds.

Meritum garden

Pen & Ink ($0 + add-ons) is a watercolor app with base set of gray pencil, black ink, blue wash, green brush, and slim pink brush. I enjoy the feel, but have never liked the results enough to want to upgrade to more brushes and features.

LINE Brush ($0) I find many art apps provide many brushes but only one is striking. In this case, it’s Bamboo 1, an interesting sketching pen that’s thick when slowly drawn, faded when fast, and darker at the ends. However, I don’t like how the large digital eraser in the app doesn’t blend edges well with narrow-line sketches.


Avoid These / Poorer Results

Note: I wouldn’t say these are all bad, but simply that an amateur may not get results that look nice, or that I was disappointed compared to what was advertised.

Brushes ($5-8) This was terrible, with textured shapes that can be dragged, but a poor result. I suppose a lot of tiny brushwork could produce better results, but that doesn’t match how I usually paint. Below is a test sketch; others produce better work here.


Brushes 3 ($0) – I tried out the newer free version of Brushes, but still not impressed. The color picker is good, and there’s undo/redo. But I still see few brushes and the effect isn’t good with broad strokes. I prefer to blend bright colors in a sweeping style, so this isn’t for me:


My Brushes ($3). I’m neutral on this as well – fun textures, but more depends on your drawing ability in blending than in the apps above. Example:

Das Licht

ArtStudio ($5) – I feel like I’ve enjoyed this in the past, but with no gallery off-line I can’t view what I’ve made with it.

ASKetch ($3)I purchased because it claimed to be like charcoal, but it connects lines in an automated way through ‘procedural drawing’. Not charcoal-like at all — don’t be fooled! LiveSketch and OmniSketch are similarly of limited use.

PaperSmudge ($0) – I thought this could produce a credible smudging effect but found it difficult to tell what the pens did and couldn’t integrate the thin primary-color lines with the black and white smudging. Careful work produced limited results, and I deleted the app.

Wasabi Paint ($3) Others claim it’s just like oil paint, but I haven’t gotten it to produce much besides thick, textured lines.

Kanpe Lite ($0) – stark black and red square-tipped white-board markers seem intended for writing in Korean. They produce some interesting effects, but it’s a bulky app with limited features.

Auryn Ink ($5) – Claims to be watercolor-like but images are terrible: large and pixelated. If I wanted watercolor I’d try Pen and Ink or ArtRage before this.

iPastels, Draw Cast, ColorBox HD, xSketch, Sketchtime, and Draw Free – All terrible, laggy, full of ads, jerky, or have pens that were taken directly from MS Paint ten years ago. Most child drawing apps are of similar quality.

CHALK_BOARD ($0) – Doesn’t look like real chalk, or else it would be a nice app. One redeeming feature (?): a jagged button produces that familiar fingernails on a chalkboard sound!

Final Summary

ArtRage, Paper 53, and Animation Desk are good places to start if you’re new. Apps like Procreate, Sketchbook Pro (not reviewed), and Inspire Pro give you a lot more range if you’re already an exceptional artist. Touch styluses like the Jaga may give you better control than a fingertip, although I haven’t tried them. They seem to range $20-100 for a good pressure-sensitive art stylus, and the iPad is made for finger-touch only.

New apps come out every year, and the best of these apps are regularly updated. I expect the options to only get better and better… now I need to work on my design skills, so that I can make full use of them!


  1. WWells

    Hello! Thank you so much for this post! I found it very helpful. I think we are on the same page when it come to art apps! I have many of these apps you’ve mentioned, but I wish I had been able to read this info sooner as it would have saved me some money. I’m definitely going to take a look at the Sketji, though! I love the texture of that one for sure. One app you might be over looking, however, is Tayasui Sketches. I’m really liking it. I find it simple to use, with a clean user interface… similar to Paper but with a couple different tools that I like much better (like a pointed brush pen and an air brush), and the ability to easily control opacity and tool size. I’ve also recently read that they will be adding layers and backgrounds sometime in a near future update!! I do like Pen & Ink, too. I like the results but don’t find it satisfying to use for some reason. I find Sketchbook Pro easier to use than ProCreate and Inspire Pro. Other fun sketching and note apps I like to use are InkFlow, SketchTime, and Adobe Ideas, but lately in find myself returning again and again to Tayasui Sketches. It’s just very satisfying to use.

  2. Cee

    Thanks for your comment! I enjoy Sketji quite a bit for simple playing around, and I agree that something about the ‘user experience’ of Pen & Ink is off, even though it’s an otherwise good tool. I’d loooove to try Tayasui sketches, but unfortunately I’m still on the iPad 1, and Apple didn’t make iOS 6 backwardly compatible with the still-strong iPad 1 — they want us all buying new machines every year to two 🙂

    I’ll check out the ones you mentioned — and try Tayasui as soon as I get my hands on a newer iPad!

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