Tooling Around is an occasional series of posts talking about art/craft tools – physical and virtual. This time we’re firmly in the realm of the virtual.
I recently bought a Nexus 7 tablet, and the first thing I wonder on getting a new gadget is “can this help me make art?”. The N7 runs the Android operating system, so there were plenty of drawing apps available: too many, in fact. So I began to trawl review sites, built a shortlist of possible apps and proceeded to test them via the medium of bad drawings of aliens (you can click through to see just how bad!).
By the way, I didn’t try Adobe’s Photoshop Touch, despite it getting good reviews, because it’s not available on the N7, presumably because Adobe doesn’t like money or something.
Markers has received quite a lot of coverage on Android blogs for pretty much one reason; the pressure sensitive brush. Pressure sensitivity is very important to digital artists; it’s the reason people spend thousands of pounds on Cintiqs, for instance.
With most drawing apps, you’re either touching the screen and drawing a fixed width of line, or not touching the screen and not drawing a line at all. With pressure sensitivity, one can press lightly and get a narrow line, or press harder and get a heavier one – in the same way that you could with a real life pencil or brush.
Markers does this very well, even though it’s essentially ‘fake’ pressure sensitivity – based on the amount of finger surface area in contact with the screen. It’s easy (and satisfying ) to produce nice flowing calligraphic lines. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a one trick pony; it’s a simple app with few options. There are, for instance, no layers or zoom capability. The app’s project page describes it as a “Sample app demonstrating use of Android touch APIs for pressure-sensitive drawing” and as a feature demo it works brilliantly, but essentially it’s a cool toy rather than a cool tool. It is free, though.
Pros: • Excellent pressure-sensitivity • Completely free • Draw two lines at once via multitouch
Cons: • No zoom • No layers • Limited palette • Few tools
Picasso is another simple drawing app that’s had a fair amount of positive press. In many ways it falls into a similar niche as Markers – a simple app for quick doodles. Like Markers, it has no zoom, no layers, and not many features. However, and also like Markers, it does have one feature which I wish other apps would adopt; for Markers this was the pressure sensitivity, for Picasso it’s the ‘Live Brush Preview’ that shows you exactly how the brush you’ve chosen will look on screen.
Preview feature aside, Picasso is another app that’s more toy than tool, I’m afraid. But if you’re looking for a free doodler, it’s worth checking out.
Pros: • Great live brush preview feature • Completely free
Cons: • No zoom • No layers • Few brushes or tools
Now this app is a bit different; it’s a ‘procedural’ sketcher – that is to say the ‘brushes’ are actually algorithms rather than bitmaps. It’s not easy to explain, but fortunately there’s a PC version of the same (open source) algorithms here, so you can see what it’s like.
It actually gives the image a bit of a ‘natural media’ look, at least from a distance. The downside is that there’s no control over brush size; you’re pretty much stuck with a single ‘Sketcher-esque’ look.
So this certainly isn’t an end-to-end art app, but it’s not impossible that it could form part of someone’s workflow.
Pros: • Cool, quirky effects
Cons: • Only quirky effects • No layers • Few tools • Free version lacks many features
After the oddity that is Sketcher, Fresco is a much more normal drawing app – and quite a good one at that. There’s a nice range of brushes and effects (at least in the Pro version), plus the layers functionality that is absolutely vital in a serious art tool. Fresco’s unique selling point is that you can export your images in .psd format – which means you can open it in Photoshop with layers intact. For artists who use Photoshop as part of their workflow this could be invaluable.
Pros: • Lots of brushes • Layers • Export to Photoshop • Plenty of tools and filters
Cons: • Interface can be somewhat unintuitive
Magic Doodle is another drawing app that’s had quite a lot of positive press. This is understandable – it’s really not a bad app. Very nice selection of brushes, and the must have features like layers and zoom are present and correct. Particularly welcome are the smudge effects, which make getting nice blends of colour easy; great for natural media effects.
As we’ve seen, many of these apps have a stand-out feature that distinguishes them from the others; in Magic Doodle’s case it’s that every stroke is recorded, meaning that you can play back your painting as you would a video. It’s pretty cool, but I’m not sure that it’s a super useful feature for most of us.
I had a problem with this app – but one that may be unique to me – in that every time I tried to re-open a saved picture, the app crashed. Please try the free version first, just in case.
Pros: • Lots of brushes • Layers • Blending Tools • Play-back
Cons: • Another unintuitive interface • Unstable?
Autodesk Sketchbook is very much the ‘big fish’ of the Android drawing app world; the most frequently recommended and well reviewed, plus the only one created by a ‘proper’ company, rather than the one or two person teams behind the other apps.
The result is a very professional product, with all the features you’d expect (zoom, plenty of brushes, layers) and more (guides and rulers, text, etc).
It really is a great app, but there are one or two little niggles. Firstly, the orientation is fixed to landscape – this wouldn’t normally be a problem; after all, there’s nothing to stop you rotating the tablet. However, some of the options have tiny text and sliders that it’s hard to use when holding the tablet horizontally, and some of the tools, notably the symmetry tool, are fixed to the axis — that is they assume you’ll only hold the tablet horizontally. This makes portrait drawing unnecessarily fiddly. (Incidentally, the other apps in this round up assume a vertical/portrait tablet, but don’t throw up any particular difficulties to use in landscape orientation).
The other niggle, and this is definitely very subjective, is that the entire app feels a little soulless – it’s very professional, but you don’t get the ‘labour of love’ feeling you do with the other apps.
Pros: • Lots of brushes • Layers • Plenty of tools
Cons: • Fixed orientation • Fiddly interface
Infinite Painter is another full featured art app, with layer support, a great set of brushes, and a wide array of tools. But as you’ve seen, there are quite a few apps with similar capabilities, so what’s Infinite Painter’s unique selling point?
I’d say the main thing is the interface, which is extremely good. Thumb controls in the bottom corners of the screen allow access to brush and colour options, and it’s a matter of a single touch to swap between painting and blending, or between pressure-sensitivity and fixed brush size. Plus, by dragging out from these buttons, brush size and colour can be adjusted. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but once mastered it’s a lot smoother than digging through the menus in other apps.
For the other tools there is a more standard menu, but even there a lot of thought has been put in; a long press will bring up help text, for example, and in the most recent version there are little labels to help.
All in all, it’s a very well thought out app that’s still improving.
Pros: • Lots of brushes • Layers • Plenty of tools • Great interface
Cons: • Bit of a learning curve
As you’ve probably guessed, in my opinion, Infinite Painter is the best drawing app currently available for tablets. Now, that may just be ‘best for me’, so if the interface doesn’t win you over, Sketchbook is also worth a look. And if £3‑ish is too much, you could save a pound by going for Magic Doodle or Fresco, both of which are fine apps.
But as far as my workflow goes, I’ve already started using Infinite Painter to rough out pictures while on a train into work.
Agree? Disagree? Another app to recommend? Let me know in the comments, below.
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