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iPad Pro & Apple Pencil artist review: A decent Wacom alternative for digital production


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While graphics tablets are standard tools for digital artists, the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro could be considered an all-in-one package that combines peripherals and a computer into one device that is easily portable. Here’s an artist’s opinion about Apple’s pen and tablet and how it might affect their workflow.

I work as a full-time draftsman, illustrator and cartographer in the board game industry. I’m happy to have a large fan base and a gallery of renegade clients who keep me busy working in my home office, and in the days before the pandemic I maintained a healthy travel schedule for conventions and performances.

Back then, in “before the time,” it was fun to pack up and hop on a plane for a long weekend – or longer for an event like GenCon. But for years I wrestled with terrible anxiety to leave my job behind.

Of course, bringing a laptop or tablet with you for email, calendars, and writing was easy enough. Bringing a mobile workstation for digital illustration was a little bigger task than holding a video call in the hotel lobby.

Add to the stress of potentially damaging expensive equipment when you’re on the go, and the prospect never made me relaxed.

Over the years, we have seen the arrival of hardware from various manufacturers trying to produce all-in-one options for digital illustrators on the go. Although some approached, their high prices and fragility did not make them the industry standard, so the search continued.

In a move that should come as no surprise, Apple eventually delivered an alternative that solved the problem, while going above and beyond: the Apple Pencil.

I know that the arrival of Apple Pencil is not breaking news, but the growing microcosm of tools and versatility that have developed around mobile digital illustrations are valuable news for digital illustrators everywhere. I recently embarked on a tour of what Apple Pencil, iPad and software can do.

Hardware and specifications

For the purposes of this practical work, I used an 11-inch iPad Pro from 2018 and a second-generation Apple Pencil. Photoshop for iPad was used as my primary testing software, since I already have a license for it.

Set

Setting up the iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and Photoshop took a few minutes.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it took literally minutes. Honestly, I expected the process to be more of a temptation and I was amazed at how quickly everything was set up and ready to go. If you get into this process with a brand new iPad, it would take a little extra time to set up your accounts, email, and settings, of course.

With the iPad set, I opened the Apple Pencil and prepared for my bronze medal at the Olympics in pairs needed by some peripherals, only to discover that all I had to do was put a magnetic pen in the slot along the side of the iPad and process pairing was automatic.

That was it. It took longer for the box to open. Hello, silver medal stand.

From there, I downloaded Photoshop from the App Store, signed in with my Adobe data, and was quickly greeted by a welcome screen. Again, those were just moments.

The only thing that could slow down this process is a forgotten or lost password for the App Store or Adobe accounts, or the need to set up a new Adobe account.

I mention this about speed because, the moment you decide to enter the process, you will be ready for the moments. Even if you’re sitting in that meeting when a client would like to see a “quick change” or wait for that delayed plane to board.

This is important, and the time you save is shrinking.

Apple Pencil

The Apple Pencil feels and behaves like most pen offerings associated with digital tablets.

The second-generation Apple Pencil loses its metal strap and cap compared to the first-generation model.

The second-generation Apple Pencil loses its metal strap and cap compared to the first-generation model.

The pen is light and durable, unless you are the type of person who goes wild when drawing, with a flat edge for easier holding and reacting to movements.

The battery life of the second generation Pencil, which worked while I used it in my environment, lasted for hours. With each break, I would return the Pencil to the iPad for recharging, just in case, but I didn’t have a problem with battery life that didn’t meet job expectations.

Honestly, my only arguments with the pen are a matter of personal preference.

The standard pen on the Apple Pencil is very, very smooth with no resistance on the surface of the iPad. With my Wacom pen, I use pens that mimic the friction of a pen against paper. I like that little bit of resistance, and I missed it here.

In my research during the review, I learned that such pens exist for Apple Pencil. There are also flaps on the screen to make the iPad look more like a sheet of paper. I’ll test them soon, and I’ll talk about them here.

My other problem is with the pencil motion response functions. As with the Wacom pen, I disable this feature because I tend to turn the pen in my hand while working and I am tired of unwanted actions.

Again, this is a personal preference and I am glad that Apple Pencil offers motion controls for those who enjoy using them.

Software

With Photoshop open and a blank document, I started with the intention of posting a sketch for a new folder I’m working on soon. My only purpose here was to learn the user interface and set up a clean sketch for later upgrade.

This app and hardware can do a lot more, but this environment is new to me, so I set a low goal with room for growth.

Illustration in progress on iPad Pro.

Illustration in progress on iPad Pro.

I use Photoshop more every day than anyone else and I hoped to have the most knowledge and comfort with moving to a new workspace. Yes, but the learning curve has emerged nonetheless, and while this is not a complete review of Photoshop for the iPad or other Adobe mobile products, I will offer a few thoughts on my experience with Photoshop on the iPad.

What to expect when switching from Photoshop to Mac to iPad

  • Expect to learn a new user interface. The user interface is clean and minimal to make the most of iPad real estate, but there is an adjustment period to learn how the menus behave.
  • Expect to adjust your muscle memory. If you enter pressure-sensitive brushes, expect to adjust their settings for the iPad / Apple Pencil space.
  • If you work on large digital surfaces, be prepared to adjust your movements on the iPad space. For example, I’m usually an illustrator of full shoulder movements, but with the iPad I had to adapt to micro wrist movements. I adjusted, but it took time.
  • Allow Photoshop on the iPad to save your work as you go.
  • The maximum file size for a document in Photoshop for iPad is 2 GB. If you’re working big, expect to level the layers or make accommodations.
  • Pair the keyboard with iPad to use the commands and shortcuts on the keys. In the beginning, I worked exclusively with the user interface and pencil commands, and after an hour, I had to pair the keyboard and use the muscle memory I have for speed and ease of use.

After an hour, I had a clean sketch and was pleased with the results and the overall experience. I made other pieces with this configuration and every time I sit with it, everything is a little smoother and more refined, with less pain in growing.

Photoshop is great for this (and other forms of design), but it’s not the only option. With a wide range of illustration software on the market for iPad and Apple Pencil, I recommend that you explore for yourself to find the perfect app that will meet your needs. Some of the industry standards include:

  • Procreate – A great (and favorite) well-rounded art creation app
  • Inspire Pro – A fast, intuitive application for displaying realistic images and art
  • Clip Studio Paint – Beautiful for creating comics, manga and digital images
  • Illustrator for iPad – a leader in the vector art and design industry
  • Photoshop for iPad – a clean, minimalist approach to the industry leader

Possibilities …

I enjoy the freedom that the iPad and Apple Pencil give me. They can sit on their terrace on nice days and sketch with no problem or go to a show on the way when travel and conventions return.

This was my goal anyway: to have a great way to attend meetings or attend conventions without a complete Pelican box of setup equipment. I have it now.

I won’t replace my Intel Mac Mini and Wacom Cintiq yet. I can tell you that I know other professional artists who have made the leap with larger iPads, Apple Pencils, and software of choice, and have never looked back.

With this configuration, it is possible to create incredible art of professional quality. This is currently happening in the industry, and based on what I have experienced here, it will only get better.

When the iPad Pro was shipped in 2018, it didn’t have some of Apple’s newer inventions. Following them, Apple announced the Sidecar for using the iPad for more space on the Mac screen and drawing with the Apple Pencil on the Mac, and Universal Control is coming at some point in the fall.

Even when I think of the much newer M1 iPad Pro, the software for me isn’t as flexible on the iPad as it is on the Mac. So, there remains room for desktop machines and tablets to handle larger files and complex documents.

If the trend towards stronger iPads in the Pro line continues, and we see that the iPadOS continues to change, we could see more progress in the years to come.

We’ll talk more about the specific tools I use to get the job done and how my workflow can adapt to the iPad in the coming weeks and months.

Where to buy

Apple’s current 11-inch iPad with M1 is currently discounted, with double-digit and even three-digit savings in effect in AppleInsider 11-inch iPad Pro Pricing Guide. The second-generation Apple Pencil is also damaged, and Amazon offers the lowest price at the time of printing.



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Naveen Kumar

Friendly communicator. Music maven. Explorer. Pop culture trailblazer. Social media practitioner.

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