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11 Apps for Aspiring Artists

Forget canvases and easels. Your tablet or phone can unleash your inner Renoir.

By Mark Harris | July 2, 2013

Smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras make it easy for rank amateurs to take a technically accomplished photo. Just hit the button and the gadget does the rest, from choosing the focus to adjusting the exposure to adding colorful effects. But why limit your artistic urges to photography?
 
Tablets and phones can now help you draw and paint, thanks to exciting new apps that apply the latest imaging technologies to your creativity.
 
There are apps to help you sketch portraits, draw complex scenes and turn your imagination into stunning digital works of art. You can then share them online or create a virtual gallery for all to admire. Almost any brush, oil paint and style can be replicated on a touchscreen — without spending a small fortune on classes or materials.
 
While some apps work on smartphones, tablets are preferable because they give you more room to create. If you’re thinking of printing out your masterpieces, check the maximum size of the “canvas” an app can create: the bigger (2,000+ pixels), the better.
 
(MORE: Are You Ready to Get a Tablet?)
 
I’ve selected 11 of the best painting and drawing apps. Some offer basic lessons to get you started, others have advanced tutorials from well-known artists. There are even apps with a virtual palette containing every color, shade and tint under the sun. Beware of “upselling”: Most programs' basic version is inexpensive, but they also offer additional (i.e., pricier) lessons, more advanced techniques and sophisticated features.
 
One essential accessory for all budding digital artists is a touchscreen stylus (prices start at $3). These gadgets look like pencils but have a rubber tip. They are much more precise than using a finger and won’t leave a smeary fingerprint on your tablet’s screen.
 
(MORE: Photo Apps That Give Your Images Professional Quality)
 
What Would Picasso Choose?
 
1. Learn to Draw Digital Sketchbook
Platform: Apple iPad and iPhone (free)
This beautiful app relies on the work of renowned illustrator Walter Foster. Simply choose an image to copy, then follow step-by-step voice or text instructions to duplicate it on your iPad. The drawing tools are adjustable in size and pressure (so you get thicker lines if you press harder), and you can save anything you like. The app comes with four free lessons. A series of 10 themed tutorials, covering everything from people to puppies, costs around $7.
 
2. How to Draw With Artist Matt Busch
Platform: Apple iPad and iPhone ($1.99)
Prefer a pen and paper to a computer screen? So does Star Wars illustrator Matt Busch. With this tutorial app, you watch how Busch draws faces then copy his techniques on your own pen and paper sketchpad. Tricky bits of the picture have clickable “hints,” and you can zoom right into the artwork to inspect the finest details. The only drawback is that its limited set of four head-and-shoulder portraits might leave you wanting more. Perhaps he’ll release an update with more pictures soon.
 
(MORE: 'Star Wars' Force Will Be With Us Forever)
 
3. ArtStudio
Platform: Apple iPad and iPhone ($4.99)
This comprehensive digital drawing, painting and editing app might look a bit forbidding at first, but not to worry. There’s a “quick start” function to get you creating in a flash, as well as tips to explain technical features — plus you can download a free user manual from the company’s website. The program automatically smooths lines drawn freehand, and there are also some helpful built-in drawing lessons. In-app purchases include extra sets of watercolors and oil paints and even smoke effects (all 99 cents each).
 
4. Paper
Platform: Apple iPad (free)
“Gorgeous” doesn’t begin to describe this multifunctional app, which lets you create dozens of virtual sketchpads that you can flip through just like physical ones. The controls are simple enough to get you up and creating in seconds. While the “draw” tool comes free with the app, coloring, sketching and text cost a couple of dollars each. An obligatory “Made With Paper” section in every sketchbook showcases a random selection of other users’ best efforts, which you might find encouraging — or frustrating.
 
5. Sketchbook Express
Platform: Android, Apple iPad, Windows (free)
The Pro edition of this app ($4.99), with its dozens of controls and features, has long been considered the gold standard for digital sketching. This stripped-down version comes with lots of different brushes and painting tools and is better for beginners. It’s a great introduction to the concept of layers — those individual elements that you place on top of one another to build up an image. Layers make it easy to construct complex pictures without risking a catastrophic mistake. And if you do reach the creative limits of the Express version, it’s easy to upgrade to Pro.
 
6. Procreate
Platform: Apple iPad ($4.99)
This is another wonderfully designed painting app packed with features that are sure to impress the most serious artists. While it does a good job of showing you exactly what each brush or feature will do before you use it, there’s still a lot to get your head around. Perfectionists can customize each brush to their heart’s content (new sets cost 99 cents), adjusting textures, drips and spatters.
 
7. Infinite Painter
Platform: Android (free/$4.99)
The sky’s the limit with this app. You can make canvases that are infinitely large, zooming around them using the tablet’s screen as a “window” on your digital creations. You can also add an infinite number of layers and — handy with such a wide range of options — undo your images infinitely all the way back to a blank screen. Android tablets still lag behind the iPad for drawing apps, but this one won’t leave you feeling neglected. The paid version lets you save your images in high resolution.
 
8. Adobe Ideas
Platform: Apple and Android phones and tablets (free)
Even if you don’t want to create full-size images digitally, this smart little app lets you capture inspiration whenever it strikes. It lets you draw “vector” illustrations, which are images that are built up from lines, points, curves and shapes rather than traditional paintbrushes. You drop the elements into your image, then change their shape and size until you’re happy. The result is clean, crisp pictures you can share on Facebook or Twitter, like the rest of the apps here, or upload to Adobe’s cloud storage for $1.99 a month.
 
9. Artrage
Platform: Apple iPad and iPhone ($4.99)
Think of this as a paint simulator. It aims to be the most realistic art app available: It even keeps track of how “wet” each brushstroke is so you can blend colors as you go. It lets you lay down thick lines of pigment, watch watercolors soak into the paper and see how the grain of a canvas affects the look of your picture. There are dozens of useful features, but a longtime favorite is the ability to view a speeded-up recording of each painting as it comes to life.
 
10. Artist’s Touch
Platform: Apple iPad and iPhone (free)
Your friends’ faces will drop in amazement when they see the art you’ve created with this app. It produces oils, watercolors and pencil drawings that look good enough to hang in a gallery. (Your call whether you ’fess up that it uses your photographs as a starting point, then lets you add artistic effects to enhance them.) While it’s not technically freehand painting, Artist’s Touch is ideal for anyone who’s still getting comfortable with the concepts of virtual painting.
 
11. Morpholio
Platform: Apple iPad and iPhone (free)
Once you’re happy with your digital masterpieces, it’s time to unveil them to the world and this app is a great place to start. It lets you assemble your pictures into a professional-looking portfolio and share them with other Morpholio users, who can critique them and offer suggestions for improvement. Even if you’re nervous about exposing your work publicly, this is a lovely way to share a slideshow with friends and family.
 
Next Avenue contributor Mark E. Harris is an award-winning British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.