iPhone Life magazine

Visual Design On the iPad

Professional-level apps for the serious artist and designer

The work of iPad screen artists is absolutely stunning; it's hard to believe that such imagery was created with a finger, an iPad, and a few apps.

We all have some experience using our fingers as a drawing tool. Our first introduction may have been fing er paints, poster boards or even drawing on wet sand. As we hone and refine our talent, we extend our skills with pencils, makers and brushes. Reverting back to finger drawing can be uncomfortable at first, but our early instincts quickly resurface, and even the most stubborn of us end up embracing the iPad's touch interphase.

iPad art apps usually fall into two categories: amateur and professional. Let's take a look at the best professional-level, visual design apps on the iPad.


$6.99, app2.me/3292

ArtRageEditor's ChoiceBased on the desktop version of the same name, ArtRage for iPad is a high-end drawing program that simulates all essential drawing surfaces and mediums. These include traditional painting tools like oil and watercolor brushes, and paint rollers and airbrushes that you can apply to simulated canvases with varying textures and drawing properties. You can also select sketching and inking tools like pencil, chalk, crayon, ink and felt pen types. Each tool simulates effects in the visual style and properties you would expect from real-world counterparts. Colors are available via a standard color range palette or via a more organic paint tube and palette mixer. You can use your finger on the screen to smear in just the right amount of paint blob for each color. ArtRage also features unique tracing tools that let you import photos and match the paints and inks to the photo's color palette. Multi-Touch gestures give you the ability to effortlessly scale and rotate images, making it easy to work on highly detailed areas. Speaking of Multi-Touch, ArtRage makes extensive use of touch within its user interface. Like other serious art programs, all ArtRage tool palettes are off-screen to give more space to the drawing surface. It takes a little effort to get oriented to the collapsible ‘pods' that can pop on and off the screen. Fortunately, palettes can be tacked to the screen for permanent access. This can be especially useful if you're frequently selecting colors and drawing tools, and it can help you get better acquainted with the location and function of various palette items.

ArtRage simulates traditional painting tools and color mixing options

ArtRage files can be sized up to 1400 by 1400 pixels. They are compatible with the desktop version of the program and can be transferred via iTunes, Photo Library export or sent via email attachment directly from within the application. After overcoming the orientation jitters, I found ArtRage to be one of the most polished and professionally optimized iPad drawing programs designed for serious artists looking for a best-of-breed tool.


$14.99, app2.me/3896


Editor's ChoiceFor those who design user interfaces (UI) for a living, specifically UI's for the iPhone and iPad, Groosoft has created this wonderfully collaborative tool. It helps you quickly assemble not only iOS screen mockups, but also the workflow map that shows how the screens relate to one another in an application. Blueprint was made for iOS designers working together with their clients to quickly simulate the look and feel of an iOS UI design. The controls palette gives you pre-drawn UI elements mapped to Apple Xcode Interface Builder equivalents, making it easy to export designs for incorporation directly into iOS app construction projects. Plus, it's a lot of fun, especially for non-developers, to easily construct a sophisticated-looking application screen that matches their expectations. All standard iOS user interface components are represented, from buttons, navigation bars and labels, to tab bars, table views and text fields.

Blueprint helps User Interface designers create sophisticated-looking app screens.

Groosoft offers a series of videos on their home page (groosoft.com) that demonstrate how easy it is to use Blueprint. The videos show how quickly you can construct a number of compelling application screen UI's using the tool. Blueprint is a must-have application for any serious iOS designer and developer, especially those who are very interactive and hands-on with their clients.


$6.99, app2.me/3897


If you don't need the iOS design depth of Blueprint, Endloop's iMockups is an economically attractive alternative. Costing half the price, iMockup also offers UI designers the ability to quickly construct an iOS series of… well… mock-ups. The imagery used for the iOS UI is more generic, giving a sketch/paste-up board feel to the presentation. In addition to using the UI elements and iPhone/iPad templates, you can use iMockups to construct mock-up web page designs. The web page graphics use the same relaxed, elemental approach as the iOS widgets, which could be beneficial for those creating a consistent web and mobile design strategy.

iMockups has softer graphics that also let you mock up web sites in addition to apps.

While using iMockups, I couldn't help but think it was the iPad version of a popular desktop web mock-up tool known as Balsamiq Mockups (balsamiq.com), right down to the loose ("low fidelity") graphical interpretation of UI elements. In fact, iMockups can save design files in Balsamiq's BMML format, allowing you to finish iPad-generated mock-ups on a desktop. And given the fact that iMockups strives for a more relaxed look with its representations, the renditions are softer and more welcoming to interpretation. While I suspect iOS developers will be more interested in Blueprint due to its true-to-life renderings, marketing reps and graphic designers will likely prefer iMockups due to its softer imagery and ability to do mobile and web mockups.

Inspire Pro

$7.99, app2.me/3509

Inspire Pro

Coming in at one dollar more than ArtRage, Inspire Pro offers many similar features such as the essential set of brushes, color pickers, paint blends, menus, palettes that pop up off the screen and more. While the maximum palette size is limited to 1024 by 1024 pixels, paintings can be exported to resolutions as high as 4608 by 6144, satisfying higher-end reproduction needs. Inspire Pro also offers helpful features such as the ability to export images to the iPad Photos app, email uncompressed file attachments from within the program, post images directly to Flickr, and use 1,000 levels of undo/redo. The latter helps differentiate Inspire Pro from the competition.

InspirePro gives you up to 1,000 levels of Undo/Redo

There are several videos of the program in action at Kiwi pixel.com. They provide good demonstrations of how to navigate the interface and, more importantly, the level of quality imagery that you can create with this paint tool. While I still prefer the features and layout approach that ArtRage has to offer (and it is a dollar cheaper no less), Inspire Pro will no doubt attract a segment of painters and graphic designers who prefer its 8 "hot spot" palette accessibility, its high resolution support and the natural, intuitive gestures it encourages. It's not perfect, but it's above average in almost every design respect, and I look forward to seeing how Inspire Pro continues to evolve and "inspire" others to create amazing imagery.

MiniDraw HD

$7.99, app2.me/3898

MiniDraw HD

MiniDraw HD is one of the few vector-based drawing programs available for the iPad. Unlike other paint programs using raster imagery that does not scale smoothly as images are enlarged (i.e., think of photos that get blocky and pixelated as you zoom in on details), vectors use geometries that can expand and contract without any loss in reproduction fidelity. This makes vector-based images ideal for line-based drawings that need to be as small as a pinhead or as large as the side of a building. MiniDraw's approach is to simplify the creation process by offering a palette of basic line/curve tools that you can easily manipulate using a finger on the screen. The application supports a basic set of features including mirror, clone, scale, rotate, linear and radial gradients, along with the ability to export images to the iPad's photo application or send them as email attachments as Portable Network Graphics (PNG) or Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) formats. And because it exports to SVG, miniDraw HD images can be further edited on the desktop using more feature-rich applications like Adobe Illustrator or the popular open source illustration program, Inkscape.

MiniDraw HD uses vector-based graphics, which makes images appear smooth regardless of their size.

In actual use, I found miniDraw HD to be quite functional but limited in its variety of tools. I expected more from an eight-dollar program especially when compared to others that offer more and cost less. Still, it is the only vector-based freeform design tool I have seen on the iPad that delivers enough of the basics to make it a useful and fun drawing program. If it were a few dollars less than the current price, I would enthusiastically endorse it. For now, I recommend it only to those who are willing to spend the extra money for the privilege to use it. Before buying it, I advise that you check out the YouTube video on the minidraw.net home page to see if it has the features you need.

TouchUp for iPad

$9.99, app2.me/3899

TouchUP iPad

TouchUp is not a drawing program. Rather, it is an image manipulation tool specifically designed for photographers looking to spruce up their photos with various special effects. TouchUp offers transformations typically done in Adobe Photoshop or the open source GIMP program. When photographers prefer the smaller, lighter footprint of an iPad compared to a bulky laptop, TouchUp offers enough of the more interesting filters and effects to satisfy their basic creative needs. You can apply over a dozen effects with the touch of the screen. The effects range from effecting color, hue, brightness, temperature, contrast, and sepia tones, to dodge and burn and a few others. Once photos have been modified, they can be saved to the iPad's Photos library, posted on Facebook, Flickr or Twitter as well as sent as an email attachment.

TouchUp has several filters and editing capabilities commonly found in programs like Adobe Photoshop and Gimp.

In my opinion, TouchUp is a bit too expensive for the somewhat limited capabilities it offers. While I have to admit that I spent much more on third-party Adobe Photoshop filters that did half as much as what TouchUp delivers, TouchUp's effects simply seemed like a subset of a larger image editing program. As such, I found myself asking, "Is that all there is?" after using it for less than an hour. If the application were priced for half of what it sells for, I would give it a stronger recommendation. However, given the fact that the iPad requires a special adapter to access photo-only data on SD storage cards, coupled with a less than stellar rear camera on the iPad 2, just getting real-time high-resolution imagery into the program to edit is a chore. While this is not the fault of TouchUp, it does have to live in the ecosystem constraints that Apple has created. Still, for those who enjoy applying quick and easy transformations to their photos and don't need much more beyond the standard set of filters found in most desktop photo editing applications, TouchUp has enough capabilities to satisfy these needs.

Autodesk SketchBook Pro

$4.99, app2.me/3289

Autodesk SketchBook ProEditor's ChoiceOne of the first high-end paint programs to hit the iPad, Autodesk Studio Pro still maintains its lead over a number of other entries in this cate gory. It also sells for much less compared to the application's original price. While other paint programs are beginning to surpass the feature set found in Autodesk's program, Studio Pro still holds considerable market share and preference among iPad digital artists.

Sketchbook Pro for iPad was one of the first high-end paint and drawing apps on the App Store.

ArtStudio for iPad

$4.99, app2.me/3464

ArtStudio for iPad

If you are looking for a well-rounded and inexpensive drawing program, then Lucky Clan's ArtStudio for iPad is worth closer inspection. It may not have as polished of a user interface compared to its more expensive counterparts, but it offers nearly as much (and in some cases, more) functionality than the competition. With 25 brushes, three drawing modes, five layers with various transformations, the expected set of filters (blue, edge detect, sepia, etc.) and the ability to export to Photos sent via email attachment, ArtStudio offers plenty of capabilities at a reasonable price.
Visual design on the iPad has moved beyond simple graphics design. Much of what was previously only available on desktop computers has moved to the more portable iPad.

ArtStudio for iPad offers well-rounded capabilities at a reasonable price.