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Kestrel Michaud


Classically-trained Fine Artist and Fabric Illustrator


Digital Drawing 2

I've posted about drawing digitally before, but it's been a few years. There have been a number of questions posted on quilting forums I frequent asking for recommendations on what tablet and apps to use, and since I have a definite opinion on the subject, it seems time to revisit the topic on this blog as well.

I've broken this post into the following sections. Feel free to skip ahead if there's one area you're most interested in reading:

  • Why draw digitally?
  • What device is best?
  • What options do you need?

The specific apps I use I've put into a separate blog post, which can be found here.

Why draw digitally?

There were three big reasons for me to take my drawings to the digital age.

The first reason is I no longer have to purchase or store paper, pencils, charcoal, or any other drawing supplies. That lets me spend my entire budget on fabric, thread, and quilting supplies. Additionally, I’ve got more storage space for my fabric stash!

Kestrel's fabric stash

The second big reason is that I need all of my designs to be digital in order to cut them on my Cricut. If I were to start off my project with pencil and paper, later on I would just have to scan it in and trace it digitally anyhow. It saves time to just work digitally for the entire process.

Working digitally also gives me the ability to play with colors to see what will work best before I start working with fabric. (This is wonderfully helpful when it comes time to pick fabric, because I know exactly what colors I need and can restrain myself to only purchasing what's on my list. That's the theory, anyway, haha.)

The third and final reason I first decided to draw digitally was the "Undo" button, and the extra editing capability only available to digital drawings. It's so freaking nice to just tap Undo if I mess up. (Tangentially related, I also wanted an off-site backup of my work in the event of a catastrophe. My house is filled with my artwork. If, heaven forbid, my home was destroyed by fire, hurricane, or any other natural disaster, I might lose my art, but I would still have all the design files. It might take me years to remake my work, but I find it comforting to know the possibility exists.)

What device is the best?

I’m a classically-trained fine artist with years of practice and experience drawing on traditional media. I was sick of purchasing sketchpads, pencils, charcoal, and all the other media necessary to draw at my twice-weekly figure and portrait groups, so in 2016 I started looking for a digital replacement.

I tried a number of different tablets in my quest to find the one that felt most realistic and natural when drawing. I tried Google’s Nexus tablet (Android), Microsoft’s Surface computer (Windows), a Samsung tablet (Android), using a Wacom tablet with my own MacBook Pro, and an iPad Pro. There was no contest between them: the iPad Pro was far and away the most natural device of them all. Drawing on it was, simply put, a dream.

These were the factors I was looking for when testing all those devices and their styluses. (I'm going to capitalize Pencil when talking about the Apple Pencil.)

  1. Lag: There's no lag between the Pencil and the line it creates on-screen. Some of the styluses on other devices would drag across the screen and the line being drawn was trailing a few millimeters behind. The Pencil's line always kept up with the stylus, regardless of how quickly the stylus moved, just like drawing with a traditional tool.
  2. Screen thickness: Some devices have very thick glass, so it feels like the stylus hovers over the "paper" when drawing. The iPad Pro, on the other hand, does not have that issue. The Pencil feels like it's touching the line it's creating on-screen.
  3. Drawing precision: The iPad very accurately captured the quick, jerky movements of the Pencil, even to the point I was able to jot a few notes in my own handwriting on-screen.
  4. Pressure sensitivity: All of the tablets and styluses I tested had some measure of pressure sensitivity. Pressure sensitivity allows you to change the thickness or opacity of a line by changing the pressure of the stylus on the screen.
  5. Tilt: If the stylus is tilted, what happens? If you turn a regular pencil on its side, you can quickly fill in a larger area of paper because you're now drawing with the full width of graphite instead of just the point. The Pencil was the only stylus with the ability to immitate a real pencil (or chalk, or charcoal, etc) in this manner when turned horizontal to the screen.
  6. Palm detection: All of the tablets and styluses I tested had some measure of palm detection, meaning I was able to rest the palm of my drawing hand on-screen without the screen reacting. This made it comfortable to draw with all the styluses.

Which iPad is best?

Currently, Apple is selling 4 different models of iPad. When it comes to drawing, the iPad Pro is the best (in my opinion). Here's why:

The iPad Pro is the largest iPad and comes in two sizes: 11” and 12.9”. I use a 12.9". We artists are highly visual people. Having the larger display is so much nicer because you’ll be able to see more of your artwork as you’re drawing. I tested both sizes and felt a little cramped on the smaller screen, so I bought the larger and have not regretted it at all.

Additionally, the latest 2 models of iPad Pro is the only iPad compatible with the 2nd generation Apple Pencil. The 2nd-gen Apple Pencil has additional functionality that make it nicer to use than the 1st-gen (added gesture support, easier charging, multiple "modes", such as easily switching from pencil to eraser).

If you're in the market to upgrade or buy your first iPad, I recommend getting the latest tech. However, if you're worried about portability or cost, maybe one of the other iPad models makes more sense for you. That's okay. You'll still be able to use the 1st-gen Apple Pencil, which is what I currently use myself. Ultimately, you should go to a store and test multiple tablets to see what's going to work for you. Get the tablet and stylus that are most comfortable because you'll be more likely to use them!

Options and when to buy

iPad Pros only have two options that change the cost of the device: Storage and Connectivity. Let's start with storage.

Right now I'm using a 1st-gen iPad Pro 12.9" with 256gb storage. Drawing files do not take up very much space at all; after three years, I’m only using about 1/3 of my capacity. If you want to use your device for more than drawing, such as playing games, watching movies, playing audiobooks, etc, consider getting a larger hard drive.

The second option to consider is connectivity: WiFi only or WiFi + Data. I don’t feel the models with a cellular plan are necessary. If I need to download something, I just use WiFi or tether to my phone. Buying a WiFi-only iPad Pro will save a few hundred dollars, not to mention the additional monthly cost of adding it to your cellular data plan.

When is the best time to buy?

As of posting this blog post in March 2020, the short answer is (at least according to Apple's product cycle) "now". Apple just unveiled the 4th-gen iPad Pro, and it's available for sale. This means you have a few buying options:

  • You can purchase the new iPad Pro, benefit from the latest technology and 2nd-gen Apple Pencil, and future-proof yourself for years to come (ie. You won't need to upgrade for a very long time.)
  • You might be able to pick up a 3rd-gen iPad Pro (which is the 2018 model) from a retailer that has inventory left in stock. They'll most likely be marked down since that model just got replaced, and you'll still get to use the 2nd-gen Apple Pencil.
  • Get a 2nd- or 3rd-gen iPad Pro from Apple refurbished. Apple takes trade-in devices of good condition, refurbishes them, and resells them with a 1 year warranty for several hundred dollars less than the original retail price.

If you don't want an iPad Pro (maybe they're out of your budget or just not portable enough), now is also a good time to purchase an iPad (just a regular iPad, not an iPad Mini or iPad Air). iPads are about halfway through their product cycle, having been updated in September 2019, and because they're a smaller device than the iPad Pro, are priced accordingly less.

MacRumors' Buyer's Guideis an excellent reference for when products are likely to be updated and the best time to purchase.

Now what?

You've got your tablet and stylus, so what's next? My two favorite drawing apps are Procreate and Concepts. Take a look at this blog post to read about why these are my favorite drawing apps.