How to draw with an iPad – Tutorial

Here it is finally!  My iPad drawing tutorial!  Everyone has their own method and style when finger painting but this is a collection of the techniques I’ve come up with so far.  I’m pretty happy with the results so I hope this helps any of you who either haven’t got an iPad yet or have sadly lost interest in your impulse purchase!

Choosing your device

At present, there is only 1 kind of Apple iPad in terms of speed and it’s the 1st generation model.  There’s rumours of an iPad 2 but for now you can choose between 16/32/64gb versions of the Wifi or Wifi-3G models.  I went for the 32gb Wifi-3G model but for drawing purposes you’d be just as easily serviced by the 16gb Wifi-only version for £429.

I recommend getting yourself an iPad case.  I have the official case which is the best one imho because of its balance between weight and ease-of-grip but I’m sure that some connoisseurs will prefer some sort of leather variant or case with multiple tilt angles and built-in keyboard.

Choosing your software

There’s actually a number of very competent pieces of software out there.  Lucky for iPad users, it’s almost all under the £6 mark which is a heck of a lot cheaper than the cost of competent software on a Mac or PC.  On the PC I’m actually a big fan of Paint Shop Pro but I use Adobe Photoshop CS5 on a Mac now.  On the iPad the 2 biggest contenders are ‘Brushes’ and ‘Sketchbook Pro’.  For this tutorial we’ll be sticking with Sketchbook pro but all the techniques should be similar for Brushes users.  At £5.99 for Sketchbook Pro it’s a real steal and it’ll inspire you to draw so much you’ll want to donate money to Autodesk to show them your appreciation!

YouTube Preview Image

Preparing to draw

Whooooa slow down! Before you start drawing there’s a few things that will make your life a heck of a lot easier.  Almost all of these tips will sound so ridiculous you’ll want to smack your forehead on your iPad screen, but stay with me!  Rubbing your forehead on your iPad may well be exactly what you need!

1.) Cut your nails – It seems silly, but now that your drawing device destroys the need for a stylus, you’ll find that having super long nails is a little bit of a bother.  Do yourself a favour and keep them at a reasonable length.

2.) Wash your hands – You’ll need clean hands to glide over the screen nicely.  It also helps to have a clean hand if you plan on actually seeing what you’ve drawn without gazing through a tonne of dirt.

3.) Clean the iPad screen – You’ll need a good microfibre cloth from a spectacles shop like Boots or Specsavers to keep your lovely device viewable and speedy for drawing.

4.) Rub your face all over it – Ok, this is actually the most important tip of all.  Unless you have some kind of super dry face your drawing hand will be CONSIDERABLY less painful if you rub your face all over your iPad.  Why is this?  Because the oils from your face will turn your iPad into GREASED LIGHTNING.  Try and draw for a few hours without lubing up first and let me know if your fingertips are still attached to your fingernails.

Rub your face on your iPad - picture

rub rub rub


Once you’re all slick and ready to draw, you’ll want to boot up Sketchbook Pro (or whatever your chosen app) and make sure you’re drawing on a new canvas.  Sketchbook Pro defaults to opening the last edited image so you might find yourself drawing over a precious original piece of art.  Avoid this by going to the main gallery and clicking the ‘+’ icon.

For the start you’ll only need one layer.  Choose the pencil tool, make it black and sketch away in as messy a fashion as you like.  Start with big general shapes at first just to get the abstract idea down as fast as possible.  This is why the iPad is almost as good as pencil and paper, you can get general shapes onto it super fast without waiting for your PC to boot up, plugging in your wacom tablet and loading software etc etc.

General shapes work well - imageBefore long you’ll have a rough outline of your character/landscape/whatever it is you’re drawing.  If you need to resize anything, simply duplicate the current layer and delete everything except the bit that needs resizing (an overly large hand or a galactic head) then resize the entire layer.  Sketchbook Pro doesn’t yet offer a way to resize only a selected area…maybe a feature to put in the next version (*hint hint* Autodesk!).

First Sketches - imageThe layers tool makes it look like the layer has a white background but this isn’t actually so.  Your image is always backed by a simple white layer, the drawing layer you see above is actually transparent with black lines on top.  This is important because you’ll almost always want the line art on top of all your other layers (unless you want a lineless vector style).  Be ready to draw a line and erase it over and over again.  The 3 finger swipe-left will undo the previous action in Sketchbook Pro, but don’t worry too much at this stage.  Just be sure that you make your final outline the boldest of all your sketch lines.


Before it was possible to do your entire drawing digitally, ‘Inking’ was a separate process where you scanned in your blue-pencil sketches and went over it with beautiful black pens.  I actually never did it myself, I’m a child of a digital generation, but I understand it was a terrifying process.  On your iPad you’ll be doing this by merely cleaning up your sketchwork.  Anything that isn’t nice and black, you’ll want to go over multiple times to reinforce the line

Make the final outline bold

anything that’s too thin or ‘sketchy’ you’ll want to sculpt away.  Sculpting is actually the best analogy I can think of for the way I do line art on the iPad.  The sketch lines are more of a guideline to shapes for me and I usually use the eraser quite judiciously to scrape away the real contours I like.  Remember to set the eraser to 100% opacity for this part.

Sculpt away the messy bits!Before long your drawing should be nice and clean like this.

Final line artEyes

If you’re drawing a character then the eyes will are super important to get right.  Why?  Personally I think that no matter how cartoony or odd your character is, a good set of eyes will make them look real or at least ‘believable’.  I’m no expert on eyes, I’d recommend mr. Mark Crilley on youtube for a tutorial on how to draw 100 anime eyes.  Generally I find that eyes need bold pupils, colour to match the character’s personality, correct shading and highlights to give them a spherical and ‘wet’ quality like real eyes.

Get the eyes rightColouring in the flats

Once you’ve got the eyes done (and hopefully on a separate layer, Sketchbook Pro gives you up to 6 to play with), you’ll want to colour in the base colours of the rest of the character.  Radiant does a really great speed painting video which demonstrates skillful colouring in photoshop.  I tend to do it in this order

1.) Base colour for the skin

2.) Shading for the skin

Colouring the flats

3.) Base colour for clothing and hair on a new layer

4.) shading for clothing and hair

colouring the flats for clothing

5.) Merge skins layers into one if running out of layers

6.) Merge clothing + Hair layers if running out of layers.

Shading usually makes a mess and is impossible to do inside the lines.  Because of this, you’ll want to make sure any adjacent clothing is on separate layers with the shading done again on separate layers.

Put shading on a separate layer

Put shading on a separate layer

Use the sculpting technique to get rid of the excess colour after you’ve merged your base colours and shading layers.

before sculpting

Before clean-up

After clean-up

After clean-up


You guessed it!  Do your background line art on a separate layer again.  Follow the same steps as before, sketch rough and then sculpt away until you have clean lines.

Background layerAt this point I’d also suggest using the straight line tool to sort out any perspective lines or objects that have less human curves to them.

straight line toolBe careful not to become addicted to the straight line tool.  Sometimes a shape that is vaguely straight has more character and emotion to it than a perfectly straight line.

Background Colouring

Almost there!  Make sure you colour in your background.  This layer should be right at the bottom of the layers pile.  Consider turning off your other colouring layers to make sure you fill out the background properly.

More Background Colouring

Background colouringFinishing Touches

It’s not a requirement, but I tend to like signing off on my drawings.  Go on and leave your mark on it :)

Put the whole lot together and export your image! If you feel like adding shading more or adding some lovely gradient do it on top with a new layer!

I can’t stress enough the importance of saving frequently.  There’s nothing worse than running out of battery or being halfway through a complex colouring operation when the whole app crashes.  Sketchbook Pro has been really great so far but there are memory leaks here and there that cause it to crash just like any other app on the app store.  Do yourself a favour and save a new file using ‘Save a copy’ or from the gallery menu tap the ‘++’ icon to duplicate a file and continue editing.  You will thank me when you have your first crash!

Drawing on the iPad is super fun and immediate.  Nothing beats good ol’ pencil and paper for speed of idea to sketch, but the iPad is a great alternative and certainly makes colouring on the go a real possibility now!  Be prepared to be stared at on the train though, office workers tend put on a face of incredulity followed by newspaper shaking and chunky book flicking to prove that they don’t need an iPad.

And neither do you.  But if you have one why not draw with it? :) Now get out there and draw!


  • Jonny Clean

    Great article, I’ve been using a similar technique. I spent a lot of time researching styluses, trying to find one that’s more accurate… I think my time would be better spent learning to use my finger and getting around the limitations that fingers have compared accurate styluses. Your article has inspired me to do just that. If developers can give us some type of simulated pressure sensitivity, by tracking the size of the finger or stylus in contact with the screen the iPad will will be that much better but it’s already a capable tool.

  • MajorC

    Excellent news! Glad you feel inspired! For the iPad in particular, going with the flow and using it for what it was designed for is a much more productive endeavour than trying to force incompatible work flows on it. The Wacom is still the home of the stylus I guess.

    I don’t know about the simulated pressure sensitivity solutions I’ve seen so far, but for now it might be worth trying the ‘offset’ option in Sketchbook Pro which apparently moves the crosshair off to the side so your fingers don’t get in the way.

  • Zoong

    Thanks Christopher, very detailed tutorial, great work, it helps me a lot. Cheers

  • Steve

    I have been using the autodesk sketch book pro. It still seems to be missing a good clipboard and pasting functions like I have in my psp.

    I also use the ifaraday styluses. They are really awesome.

    Btw…great tutorial above

  • Christopher Chong

    Thanks Steve! Since the iPad’s initial release many good styluses have indeed become available!

  • Terje

    Thanks for sharing your insight and experience. iPad and software like SBP offers great promises to many talented people, but it takes a few patient ‘how too”s, outline of workflow, good practices to get them going. Your contribution is a good help!

  • AndrewD

    It looks like you’re using Sketchbook Pro but now Sketchbook Pro for iPad only allows up to four layers. I can’t imagine why they would reduce the number of layers. Once I’m up to four layers, even if I merge two layers into one, I can’t add a layer.

  • Etta Birkett

    I’ve just done a face on iPadPastel and love it. very creative. I want to make copies of my Drawing image but don’t know how ….any idea? Maxi