I got an iPad Pro & Apple Pencil and decided to try them out with the mobile Photoshop app during a long flight. This is a timelapse to demonstrate the layering technique I learned from Wayne Jiang. If you check out some of my older painting posts, I show step-by-step photos that follow the same technique.

Created in the Photoshop app for the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil

This direct digital work is really crucial for illustrators and concept artists of all kinds to efficiently create volumes of art intended for screens. I’ve met many traditional (studio) artists that seamlessly translated their skills to digital with the help of stylus-based direct input like this.

There are two key aspects to digital painting that I found myself struggling with and would take pains to avoid if I worked in this medium more:

How it feels: an ever-shifting scale

It’s very easy to scale – perhaps too easy.

Being able to shift the canvas is necessary when working on a tablet display (unless you’re working with a very large Cintiq). And being able to rotate the canvas without thought is one of the joys of working on a tablet. It’s one of the few experiences that is a truly direct counterpart to working with traditional media.

It’s the ability to scale that becomes tricky. Being able to zoom in for fine details is an impressive advantage that ends up being necessary for any precise work. Zooming in helps bridge the visual distance between the stylus and cursor, and to see whether the mark looks right (an easy thing to mess up depending on the pressure sensitivity). But then seeing the whole thing becomes an arduous zoom-out-and-zoom-back-in sequence.

In traditional media, I feel like I am making my art at full size (100%). I find, on a tablet-based app at least, that as the resolution gets better, my ability to make the marks I intend to at that 100% resolution gets worse. The expectations I have for the level of detail that I’m seeing aren’t matched by the feel of the hardware as I use it.

When I say “100%”, I’m thinking about the size of tip of my mark-marking tool. I expect it to be small. Working zoomed in is more precise, but it feels weird to me that my tool is so giant…like using a size 12 brush to make a size 00 mark.

What it looks like: digital-looking mark-making

In every variant of a painting/illustrating tool I’ve used, I take a while to try out every tool and its variants (like brush tips). Some look right at their defaults, but most don’t. I usually end up picking 2-3 that feel right and never using the others again.

There are two reasons why. One, I don’t want to be faced with the digital equivalent of a shelf of supplies every time I use the app: just the handful I always use. I know I can get to the others if I want to find them later on. And two: multiple styles of marks can be as cacophonous as using too many fonts.

Some styles of marks take their look from a hidden factor: the canvas itself. It looks unnatural when that “canvas” changes mark to mark, from toothy to bumpy to smooth.

It’s also tempting to fall back on the most basic of digital marks – a variable-opacity round mark – to fix things that aren’t working. This combination of a perfect circle (even if it has a soft edge) and variable opacity gives a lifeless indistinctness to whatever it touches.

Even if these unnatural cues are avoided, digital art can still feel cold without thoughtful natural mimicry. The best ways to introduce natural cues are variance to the stroke width or texture, and textured fills. When used thoughtfully, they can emulate:

  • a skillful inker’s linework
  • marks clearly identifiable as a single medium (pencil, marker, chalk, charcoal, or paint)
  • collaged materials

Why I support it (and am also skeptical of it)

While my art is largely a traditional/studio practice, I have a soft spot for both pixel and vector work. I worked at Adobe on both the Photoshop and Illustrator teams, leading the product design for multiple releases (PS CS2-CS4, AI CS & early CS4). These days I primarily use Photoshop for visualizing my own work and photo restoration, and Illustrator for character design and occasional graphic design favors.

I keep an eye on the mobile/tablet apps and the latest Photoshop app (plus the fidelity of an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil) is pretty impressive. Automatically generating timelapses is a massive benefit too. While it removes the human part of it (you can’t see the person making the marks or what they saw while doing it) you can see how the total image progressed mark by mark. That’s quite helpful and very easy to make after the fact.

I’m skeptical of it due to the two issues I describe above (scale & mark-making). They lead to works that inadvertently expose their digital origins in a way that breaks the coherence of the art. This isn’t to say digital works aren’t their own medium with its own emergent charms, such as visual glitches from data degradation…but that’s not what’s happening here.

Unfortunately these issues are not only a side effect of the digital tools – they are a prominent behavior that takes ongoing attention to avoid. For now, I will probably only use them while traveling (or anywhere else where I don’t have access to traditional media).