Thursday, August 9, 2018

Digital Art Mavens rejoice - Could the 2018 iPad 9.7" and Apple Pencil with ProCreate be the ideal portable digital art setup? A ReadItDaddy Gadget Review

It's been quite an "Arty" summer and my quest to get better at art, and the pursuit of the perfect digital set-up continues...

This time I wanted to answer a question I'd had since the new 2018 iPad range launched. These 'cheaper' iPads have a slightly lower spec than the iPad Pro, but are perfectly capable of running the latest version of iOS.

That's not the important bit though. At last, Apple has seen sense in supporting the fantastic (but ludicrously expensive) Apple Pencil on the lower-end models as well as the iPad Pro. Digital artists rejoice, now you've got a serious contender for a portable digital art workstation that won't completely break the bank compared to the likes of the Surface range, or the (crazily priced) Wacom tablets.

So here we are then, the 2018 Apple iPad 9.7" model (with a 10.5 and 12.5" model also available) could see you kitted out for well under £500 (a lot less if you're lucky enough to cash in on some educational discount, so students and University affiliates take note, you can get substantial discounts through Apple's educational discount programme or through UniDays).

The kit itself is small enough for me to substitute my existing paper-based sketchpad for. It's worth noting that the Apple smart-cover is a complete waste of time if you're after more than just screen protection but hunt around on Amazon or Ebay and you can find a huge array of protective cases (with the same 'wake on open' smarts that the official rubbish Apple covers have). I bought this one and it's great - and a quarter of the price of the official Apple covers:

The Apple Pencil. A game-changer for lower-end iPad support and your new best digital friend when it comes to drawing and sketching
Then there's the Apple Pencil. Apple produce some of the most amazing designs on the planet (whether you love their kit or hate it, you've got to admit it really does look and feel great to use) but the Apple Pencil comes with a couple of really idiotic design decisions

1) The pen cap (that hides the Lightning Plug for Charging) is magnetically attached to the pen, and can easily fall off and get lost (it's tiny!)

2) Likewise, the lightning adapter for charging the Pencil is tiny and easily lost

3) The Pencil's default tips are quite hard. Don't go too over-enthusiastic with pressure on your screen, as tough as the 9.7's screen is, it can still be scratched by random grit picked up on the tip of your pencil (which again isn't capped!)

So again it's back to Amazon to source a few more bits. A pencil cap retention widget, a lightning adapter retention widget? Or just stop mucking around and get yourself a case to house your Pencil, cap and adapter and perhaps some spare tips too:

The last piece of the puzzle for me was to grab a Brotect Screen Protector to avoid scratching my new bit of kit early on. I'd bought one of these for my XP-Pen and it works so well and is so easy to apply I did the same here:

Brotect Apple iPad Pro 9.7" Screen Protector Protection Film [2 Pack] HD-Clear

So still under the £500 budget by a good margin, our hardware requirements are sorted. What about art packages?

There can be only one, and it's the mighty ProCreate. For a shade under a tenner you get one of the most comprehensive and easy to use art packages available for the iPad. Though there is also a version of Clip Studio for iPads (and, sadly, it's far superior to ProCreate IMHO) it's ridiculously tied into a monthly subscription price rather than an all-out flat fee like Procreate, instantly removing it from the equation for me (Don't do what I did and depress yourself by trying out the Clip Studio demo, it really is fantastic and you'll only become as annoyed as I am that Clip Studio isn't available for a flat fee too - like the desktop counterpart is).

Though Procreate plays second fiddle to Clip Studio it's by no means worthless, in fact the results you can achieve with this package are nothing short of jaw-dropping - as you'll see when you load up the app for the first time, see the art that's been created with it on your Dashboard - and replay the process  videos that accompany all Procreate works of art (yep, even your own!)

So now you're ready to go on the road with your new iPad and Procreate. How does it compare to other desktop-based art setups? I'm going to compare it directly to my current desktop setup of a Mac Mini running Clip Studio and a screen tablet (the XP-Pen 15.6).


This was the main purpose I bought this new digital set up for. Lugging around a traditional sketchpad and a brace of pens and pencils is part of my everyday bag, but having something that you can build finished digital work on is just the icing on the cake. All those bad little habits you've got into with digital artwork, like having multiple layers or even something as simple as an 'undo' button really do spoil you. But any digital set up has to be pinpoint accurate and capable of giving you a variation in stroke, darkness and perhaps even the ability to shade with a tilted pencil.

The iPad and Pencil does that, and in Procreate you've got a ridiculously cool brush engine that's every bit as customisable and tweakable as Clip Studio or Photoshop on a desktop set up.

The Apple Pencil has an unspecified pressure sensitivity level (compared to most tablets / stylus setups that range from 4096 levels of pressure and up). The important bit is latency, that 'lag' you get on your stylus when you go for quick sharp strokes or big sweeping marks.

On the Apple Pencil this latency is less that 20ms, combined with the display's 120mhz refresh rate meaning you get an extremely quick response (put it this way, for the way I draw there's little to no detectable lag at all).

Pressure wise, in Procreate you can tweak the levels to suit you, simulating soft or hard pencils with a quick tweak of the app's pressure settings. I set things soft, again mainly because I don't want to damage my screen by having to press harder with the tip.

With tilt support, you can actually tilt the tip of the pencil for broader strokes with most of Procreate's tools (or build your own brushes that support tilt too). This makes a HUGE difference to your art, suddenly just like a stick of graphite you can draw the edge of your pencil's tip across the screen and get a nice broad fuzzy stroke. It's incredible to see it in action (in fact one of the places I demoed the Ipad and Pencil at before I bought it didn't know about that feature, and were completely blown away by it! Hah!)

Calibration - what calibration? I think this is the chief difference between my two setups. On the desktop with the XP-Pen I'm constantly fighting a losing battle between getting the tablet to understand exactly where the tip of the stylus is in conjunction with the on-screen brush / cursor.

It's pinpoint accurate on the iPad and Pencil, behaving exactly like traditional sketching tools and that's all you really need to know. It's nice to be back in the ballpark of having exact replication of strokes right where you expect them to be.

Procreate's in-built pencil brushes are fantastic, ranging from HB, 2B and 6B right up to some pretty fancy variations. Same goes for pens and there's no mess no fuss in getting straight into some tight artwork on this thing even if your skills are like mine, mediocre at best.

"Werewolf Chihuahua" - A Procreate drawing showing off some of the inbuilt brush types

Digital Painting

Speed painting and digital painting are two things I royally suck at, but again Procreate has just about all the features you'd see in more expensive dedicated desktop digital art packages.

Layers are one of Procreate's strengths and I use them a lot. Being able to shuffle layers around, and even 'pinch' them together to merge them really makes dealing with layers in Procreate a pleasure.

Layers can be individually adjusted between different modes like colour overlay, multiply, lighten and darken - so you're bound to find a setup that works for you.

There are some truly fantastic tutorials out there on using Procreate for digital painting, but this is easily one of the best I've found so far:

I still haven't quite got to where I want to be with Procreate, ie not quite at the point where I've got a pin-sharp and accurate digital portable paint studio but a lot of that is because I still haven't quite mastered Procreate's bog-standard round brush set. Once I've managed to replicate Clip Studio's awesome watercolour brushes though, I think I'll be there.

Neat stuff

One of the best features of Procreate is the ability to instantly share something you've drawn or painted with your social media feeds. This makes the workflow of joining in with daily art challenges such as #Portraitchallenge, #Shapechallenge and #AnimalAlphabets on Twitter an absolute breeze.

Social media integration in Procreate is fantastic, even allowing you to painlessly share the other really great feature all Procreate art has. Every time you draw or paint in Procreate, the package surreptitiously records the session, so you get cool process videos.

Here's mine for the little Chihuahua fella above:

These videos are great for showing off, but they're also really good for seeing how your piece of art changes from moment to moment, so you get to see all your mistakes as well as the steps you take to undo them. Quite fascinating to have something like this to refer back to and a killer feature for the app for sure.

Procreate is capable of handling image imports too, so even if you've sketched something up traditionally, and you have scanned it (or just taken a decent picture of it with the iPad's camera) you can import that file into Procreate and start tuning it up with the standard paint and sketch tools.

Last but by no means least is Procreate's brush engine. It's massively powerful, and all the brushes in the package itself were created with it - with a multitude of options to choose from you can turn a squiggle or an image into a usable brush just like you can in Photoshop or Clip Studio, and it's far more easy than the latter.

Advantages and Disadvantages. 

Of course it's not all wine and roses when it comes to using an iPad for your primary digital workstation and I still find that there are things I can do on a desktop setup that I just can't replicate on the iPad and Procreate. I've already mentioned Clip Studio still being my number one go-to for digital art, and that still holds true.

That said, bear in mind that any desktop setup you put your money towards will cost you a substantial amount more than my basic setup here and you will really struggle to approach even a fairly usable Laptop-based solution that is as fuss-free and portable as this.

So here's a few pluses and minuses for both my setups.

iPad 9.7" and Procreate with Apple Pencil

Startup time: 

Seconds. I'm not kidding around. If the iPad is in sleep mode I can open the cover, unlock the iPad and be in Procreate drawing and sketching in under 20 seconds.


Pin-sharp accurate and ridiculously responsive to the point of showing up every little tic and quirk as I draw (hey, I'm getting old, my hands aren't as steady as they used to be what can I say!). Thankfully Procreate also does some cool line compensation stuff so you can get nice smooth sweeping ink or pencil strokes with the right brush settings. A definite bonus!

I've never had to calibrate the Apple Pencil once, and aside from some pressure setting tweaks when I first got it, I've never had to go into Procreate's settings menu to change anything else.

Colour reproduction: 

The standard iPad might not have the glorious retina displays of the higher end iPad Pro, but it's by no means a dull fish. Colours are rich and vibrant and Procreate's dropper tool makes getting just the right palette setup for your work an absolute breeze. You may need to do a fair amount of tweaking in external desk-based packages to perhaps prepare your work for print, but you'd be doing that with any other set-up anyway.

UI ease of use: 

The iPad has to be the most idiot-proof piece of kit on the planet. Press the home button, press the icon for the app you want and you're in. Likewise, Procreate's designers over at Savage Industries have really gone to great lengths to strip out a lot of the chaff from a traditional art package setup, relying instead on a fairly stripped out UI but a LOT of tweakable options and menus under the hood. There are tons of shortcut options for you to set up if you want to do things like quickly switch between draw and erase (gad, do I ever miss the day of using Wacom stuff and just turning the stylus around to rub things out) or selecting an eyedropper tool. There are some quirky things about Procreate I don't like (the fairly inaccurate way you fill large areas with colour drives me mad, as do the selection tools which always seem to fight with me for doing the sort of masking / selections I can do with ease in Clip Studio and its ilk) but I can't fault the standard tool sets or settings at all, and building / arranging your artwork is a doddle too.


Breaking the cost down of the particular setup I went for, without shopping around (Note that I only went for this in the first place because of substantial educational discounts only made possible because of where I work) here's what you can expect to pay (minus costs for screen protectors, cases etc):

iPad 9.7: £319
Apple Pencil: £89
Procreate: £9.99
Total: £417.99 (Inc VAT)

I sourced mine directly from Apple (with the educational discount) but various places sell the same kit, and Procreate is obtained directly from the app store.


In no particular order, these are the things that drive me slightly batty about Apple's entry-level portable digital art setup

  • The Apple Pencil and its tiny, easily lost caps and converters. Stupid design decisions really, style over functionality
  • The cost of Apple Pencil tips. Sure, they don't wear out quite as quickly as Wacom nibs but they're flipping expensive when you do need to replace them. 
  • Battery life / recharge time. You don't have to recharge a sketch pad and pencil, you will need to recharge your new whizzy digital buddy quite often (I'm using mine a lot, and find the need to recharge the iPad twice a week which isn't too bad. You get around 24 hours of use out of it with constant use, maybe 10 hours if you're doing daft stuff with it like playing 3D games. 
  • Pencil battery meter - There isn't one, but once you've paired it with your iPad and hunt around a bit, you can at least show a widget to show both the iPad's remaining battery and the Pencil's. Again though because there are no digital readouts or heck, even a status light on the pencil you have no visual clue on how much charge is left until you find that hidden menu. Also you've no idea how long it takes to fully charge (around an hour I found, from a standard USB3 charging source).
  • Screen protection. The iPad 9.7 (and in fact all iPads and iPhones) use the same scratch resistant tempered glass screen. That said, I learned the hard way about not buying screen protection for my screen tablet (the XP-Pen) from day one so I'd advise you to think about this if you're going for the iPad. No glass is entirely scratch proof (think about how tough the windscreen on your car is, but how easily scratched it is by sand or grit if you're careless while cleaning it) and apply the same logic to your iPad. Pay particular attention to those Pencil tips too. Underneath the pencil tip is a copper conductor so if you wear the thing down to that and draw THAT across your screen, it'll be toast. 
  • Security. Always, always with any expensive piece of kit consider some horrible little bumbag stealing it out of your bag. It may be worth considering single item insurance for it or at least getting it covered under your house insurance if that's possible too. Securing the device is pretty tough but lockable cases are available plus the device has pin, fingerprint and face recognition measures if you want to stop people getting into it once they've made off with it. 


After just over a week of putting this thing to the test, I'm already really impressed with it. Being able to work digitally just about anywhere with a device that feels so slick and easy to use is a real boon, and the improvements to workflow and ease of getting work completed really has made a huge difference to the way I like to draw and paint on the go.

There are still times when I prefer to work with traditional sketch stuff (pencils, pens and paper) but I'm really surprised how far things have come since I first started dabbling with digital art almost two decades ago.

I can see the advantage in something like this for students who want to have a low cost digital solution for work at University or College, using a package that has a massive worldwide user base and a hell of a lot of love and support from the professional art community as well as talented amateurs who are now swearing by Procreate.

As immensely satisfying and fun as this is to use, it comes at a cost that puts it firmly in the "fine if you've got the money" bracket (I had to save for this over the course of quite a few months btw, I just don't have that sort of money to chuck around but it was very much worth it).

I think the last piece of advice I'd give you is to nag, nag and nag again in stores until you can get a go on an iPad and Procreate. John Lewis stores over in the UK thoughtfully provide the demo version of Procreate on their iPads (but some stores need you to nag a salesperson before they'll let you have a go on the Pencil itself, far too easy to walk off with I guess!) If, like me, it just clicks with you straight away then all the better because you will get a heck of a lot of satisfaction out of using this setup, it's been nothing sort of revelatory for me.