Creating art with an iPad

For my birthday earlier this year I purchased an iPad mini. The pricing and specifications had hit about the right place and the platform, to my mind, had matured nicely. After the initial scepticism about tablet computers being suitable only for consumption, it’s become a ripe market for all kinds of creativity, from music making, writing (I am composing this in the WordPress app, as I slump on my sofa) and photography. It’s now possible to draw on this iPad thing, and I was keen to try it out.

At first, I tried using my fingers. This is fine, but limited in finesse, even with my relatively slimline digits. I’m much more used to a pencil or brush, so the obvious next step was some kind of stylus. Happily, this market, too, has matured. There is quite a selection of styluses available for most of the tablet platforms.

After research, chiefly asking what everyone else might be using, I made my choice. Early styluses either had large rounded tips, to replicate the finger tip, or used clear discs. I really wanted a small tip, as close to a proper pen or “traditional” graphics stylus as possible. The choice came down to two designs, from the same company.

Wacom are no strangers to the graphics tablet and stylus market. I have owned a variety of tablets from them, the current one being an A4 sized behemoth attached to my desktop Mac. The Intuos Creative Stylus 2 by Wacom was duly ordered.

Wacom Package

The Creative Stylus 2 is not cheap, retailing between £60 and £80 depending on where you look. You do, however, get a fair amount for the money.

Neat Package

The stylus comes in a hard plastic carrying case, which has a hinged lid and non-slip underside.

Spare Nib and Tool

Inside you find the stylus neatly held in a shaped slot, with a spare tip and built-in changing tool, and the USB charging cable. This uses a standard micro-USB socket.

Business End

The stylus is well weighted, and feels very comfortable in the hand. Shaped very much like the traditional graphics tablet styluses from Wacom, the main barrel is aluminium with a soft touch grip area at the sharp end. A double rocker switch, which is customisable in software if it’s supported, falls neatly under the finger or thumb.

Recharge Socket

At the top end, a rubberised captive cap hides the charging socket. Battery and connection status is shown by a small LED.

After an initial charging cycle of about two hours, the stylus is read to use. Battery life is claimed to be 26 hours, but with typical intermittent use a charge may well last a week or more. The stylus connects to the iPad via Bluetooth. Connection is simple: open the creative app of choice and press the centre of the rocker switch. The stylus’ LED flashes a few times, and away you go. Interestingly, you can use the stylus as a pointer or finger substitute elsewhere within the iOS environment, but it really comes into its own in a supported drawing app.

I have Pixelmator for iPad, and have also downloaded some apps to test things out to find which I find most comfortable. The roster now includes Sketchbook Express, Inspire Pro and Bamboo Paper. All three fit neatly in my card-carrying skinflint category by being free, with “in app” purchases, and are listed by Wacom as supporting the Creative Stylus. Bamboo Paper is from Wacom, and designed to support many of their range of styluses.

While this post is supposed to be a review of the Creative Stylus, inevitably I find I have to review the software I tried as well. Let’s begin with the manufacturer’s own software.

Bamboo Paper from Wacom

Bamboo UI

Bamboo Paper is a fairly simple app. It uses the metaphor of notebooks, with up to four different kinds called “Thinker”, “Maker”, “Artist” and “Writer”. “Maker” and “Writer” are so-called in-app purchases, but the other two are provided free. I can’t actually tell what the differences are between them, aside from the default cover pattern! You can customise the cover colour, and what kind of “paper” the notebook uses, as well as give it a title.

The interface is clean and simple. Depending on the orientation of your iPad, a selection of tools appears along one edge. You can also hide all interface elements if you find them distracting.

From my screen grab, you can see the stylus configuration panel. It allows you to connect the stylus to the iPad and the software quickly. Once connected, you get stylus battery life data, you can tell the software whether you’re right or left handed, and you can choose functions for the two buttons.

The tools, from the top down, are bookmark, eraser, ink/paint colour, drawing tool, stylus link, hide all tools toggle, redo, undo, share, import or take a photo, home (to the top level of the app).

Perhaps my technique needs refining, but even with the fine tip of the stylus I find it hard to hit the active areas of each tool. I usually resort to a finger tip!

The drawing tools are fairly limited. Fine pen, smudge brush, pencil, manga brush, charcoal and crayon, each with three sizes. The colour palette doesn’t—as far as I can work out—let you add any new colours beyond those provided. The eraser tool does offer an option to clear the page if you’ve really made a hash of things!

Bamboo Paper

The app seems to like swift pen strokes. This abstract thing was drawn up using the pencil tool. It’s the kind of thing I doodle in quiet moments. I could have drawn out a wireframe in a lighter colour to get the lines better, firming things up later using the zoom and pan abilities of the software. There are no layers available in Bamboo Paper. It’s designed for quick notes and sketches, rather than complex works of art. When you’re done, you can export to Photos, the cloud or to a wifi printer.

So far, this is the only app I’ve tried that truly supports palm rejection.

Inspire Pro by KiwiPixel

Inspire Pro

This is an altogether different animal. I am still having trouble finding my way round the odd interface presented by Inspire Pro. It takes a while to find, but you can dig into tools quite deeply. I haven’t really warmed to it yet. One thing this app does the others reviewed here do not is to let you scale and rotate the digital paper on your iPad screen. Anyone who might have used Corel Painter will understand why this is an excellent feature. It overcomes one of the problems I find with drawing on the iPad, which I’ll explain at the end.

That is why this review is quite short! Inspire Pro lets you share your work with other users,  if you like, as well as the usual export and print options. The painting tools try to replicate natural media, but as I said, I am finding it a little hard to get to grips with right now.

Autodesk Sketchbook Express

Sketchbook X UI

Sketchbook Express is the polar opposite to Inspire Pro. Where the latter has a toylike interface and a “pro” name, Sketchbook has a “cheap” name but professional level tools. To get any better, you need to upgrade (or unlock) to the Sketchbook Pro version, which I think can actually be done through the installed app. It’s all explained on their web site, whichever way it works.

Three layers are supported—one of the limitations of this free app—so you can import an image, and trace over it on a new layer. You can merge layers, as well as hide them and change their opacity. You quickly learn layer management if you want to create more complex art.

From the screen grab you can see the fairly comprehensive tool and colour picker palette. A small selection of drawing, painting and erasing tools is provided, each of which can be adjusted for radius and opacity. You can also set the tools to draw a freehand line (as above), or restrict it to straight lines or shapes. From the left, the icons are home, add new artwork/import, info, undo, redo, drawing/painting tool, line style, reflect/mirror tool, [text and transform tools which would show on a larger screen device] and the layer tool.

A small circular button can be seen at the bottom centre of the screen grab. This allows you to control brush properties and various other things. The interface has been pretty much optimised for finger painting, with many built-in gestures, some of which work with the stylus, some of which don’t. You can also set an area to be designated as a “palm rest”, which lets you rest your hand anywhere the area is placed on the artwork while you draw with the stylus or your finger. I could grow to like that. While Wacom say this software supports the Creative Stylus, there is no feedback on battery life or ability to customise the buttons.

If you are into DeviantArt, you can share your creations with the site and other users. Otherwise, the software manages your artwork on the iPad, with export to Photos and so on. If you have the desktop version of the software, artwork can be shared back and forth, too (Pro version only).

Sketchbook X

Sketchbook Express has a lot of depth and power. This image was created from a photo, by sketching over it on a new layer. Once I’d finished the drawing, I deleted the photo layer, and added another for the shading effects.

Sketchbook X 2

This sketch was created in the same fashion, using layers for the fill effects under a line drawing. Carefully managing your three layers in Sketchbook Express, you can create to your heart’s content.

Pixelmator for iPad

Pixelmator 1

Pixelmator for iPad is the relative newcomer to this field. The Mac OS version of Pixelmator has been available for a few years now, and has come on in leaps and bounds. I have adopted it as my default image editing application for retouching, allowing me to drop the dreaded Photoshop at last. I don’t need CMYK support, so I can get away with this drastic choice! Alone among this review of apps, Pixelmator costs money to buy—a bank-breaking £3 or so. It’s one of the few iOS apps I’ve felt compelled to actually shell out real money for!

When Apple decided to kill the iOS version of iPhoto, and replace it with the pared down Photos instead, I really missed the painting and editing tools, basic though they were. Pixelmator has filled that hole, with plenty to spare. Pixelmator for iPad is not simply a cut-down version of the desktop program. It has many of the same features as its bigger sibling, and allows some serious pixel shifting to be done.

I was hoping I could use Pixelmator for pure art generation, as well as simple editing of photos snapped on my iPad. The tools available include a fine variety of pens, pencils, brushes, airbrushes and so on. It also supports the Creative Stylus properly.

I came upon some issues, though. Pixelmator insists on popping open the colour picker when I want to draw something. The upshot of this is I have to keep resetting the colour I was using, because the picker works under the stylus tip and changes as soon as you touch the screen! I reported this back to Pixelmator, and they admit the colour picker is a bit sensitive, and they plan to look at how they can improve this issue.

Etchasketch

Not quite as annoying as the snappy colour picker is the issue of wobbly diagonals. In this screen grab, you can see definite waves in the diagonal lines. The first one, top left, was a quick sketchy line, but the subsequent ones were drawn more slowly, as might be the case if you were tracing something. The set of three at the bottom were created using a proper real world ruler to guide the stylus, because I wanted to prove it wasn’t just my hand movement influencing the line. I think this is an issue with the way the pixels are mapped. Horizontal and vertical lines are clean and crisp at any speed, but the diagonals are a problem at slow speed. I need to report this to Pixelmator’s developers.

Another mapping issue, most noticeable with Pixelmator, is if you rotate the iPad the point at which you are drawing becomes markedly offset from where the tip of the stylus is touching the screen. I tried various things, including locking the rotation of the iPad, which helped a little, but it never really goes away. I find I end up holding the iPad at odd angles to let me draw a line where I want it to go.

The issue of palm rejection is something which I also mentioned to the software developers. There is nothing in the app about it, and the usual fixes, like switching off multitasking gestures in the iPad Settings, had no effect. According to the reply I got from my feedback: “We chose not to support it, because it doesn’t work very well.” Well, that’s fair enough, I suppose.

Some of these issues are software related, some are operator problems. Like drawing on a graphics tablet while you look at the screen ahead of you, there are certain things you can’t do easily. As a right-handed person, I find I want to turn the work so I can draw things where my hand would otherwise be. This is not something that comes naturally to an iPad!

Where Pixelmator really scores, though, is things like layers, styles, text, editing tools and just the general feeling of power and control over the image you’re working on. It really is a sensational tool!

Pixelmator UI

Here’s the usual interface, with the layers panel showing. In this bit of playfulness, I’ve imported an image I took quickly yesterday, and painted a glow on a layer above it. I duplicated the original layer, arranged it on top, then carefully cut out the car from the background. The red line is a style effect applied to the topmost layer.

I really like Pixelmator for iPad. Apart from palm rejection and the wobbly diagonal lines, the software supports the Creative Stylus with battery life feedback and customisable buttons. I currently have it set so one button switches to the eraser, and the other toggles back to the current brush tool. For a first version, this app is amazing, and can only really get better with each new version!

Intuous Creative Stylus 2

This review was supposed to be about the Intuos Creative Stylus 2. From a big name in the world of graphics hardware, the Creative Stylus is not lacking in quality. It’s well designed, feels good in the hand, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The tip is a lot smaller than some of the other styluses available, which makes it feel more natural in use.

Pressure 01

Where I have issues, they centre mainly around the whole drawing on a glass screen thing. It’s not a paper sketchpad, and I always want to rotate it to draw at a comfortable angle for my hand. Unless I lock the orientation, the iPad spins the interface to suit the direction it thinks I am now working in! Equally, if I managed to turn the iPad to a reasonable angle, the stylus doesn’t draw where the tip touches, but shifted off up and to the right, by quite some distance in some instances. This is quite disconcerting if you are attempting to follow a line by tracing something else. If I try the old graphics tablet trick of curling my hand round—rather like we used to when trying to hide our work at school!—so I can see where the tip is supposed to go, the iPad and stylus have quite a falling out because the palm rejection throws a tantrum as well as the tip orientation being skewed.

Pressure 03

There’s also a tiny amount of lag between making the mark and it appearing on the screen. In these photos, I’ve not lifted the stylus from the iPad. What you’re seeing is the split second before the line catches up to where the tip is. Another tiny issue is because the stylus is linked to the iPad wirelessly, you can sometimes make a mark without the tip actually touching the surface. That can make handwriting interesting, as you try to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Wacom recommends some things to overcome issues that might be encountered. For example, turn off multitasking gestures on the iPad. Another is if the tip location is not matching the drawn line, hold the stylus more vertically. This certainly helps, but it’s not perfect. In the end, I think it’s down to practice, practice, practice. The more I use the stylus and iPad together, the more I will become used to the foibles and learn to get the best from them.

The Creative Stylus package is a well-made unit with a nice tough case that won’t mind being thrown around in the bottom of a bag. The battery life has proved to be excellent, with over 80% left from the first charge, with my intermittent usage over the past few days since the box arrived. The spare tip, with the removal tool built into the case, is an excellent extra, too.

Would I recommend the Creative Stylus if you’re looking for a graphics tablet style input for your iPad? Yes, if you want to be able to draw and sketch on your iPad, and if you’re happy to work within the limitations I’ve explained, I can recommend it.

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