App

Whether you’re armed with a stylus or just your finger, these are the top apps for scribbling and doodling on your device

You’ve heard the stories often enough: in 2009, Jorge Colombo drew a New Yorker cover on his iPhone; and around the same time, David Hockney started painting on his Apple smartphone. But you don’t need to be an artist to get the urge to scribble on your own iPhone.

Sure, for some people, the means to draw anywhere and at any time is critically important – designers, artists and other creative types must get an idea down before it vanishes for ever. But for others, being able to doodle can be purely for relaxation, passing time, or adding a bit of extra context to some text.

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These days, most people tend to associate the iPad Pro with art-oriented endeavors, primarily due to Apple Pencil, but the iPhone is the device you always have on you. And with that in mind, we’ve scoured the App Store to find the best sketching and drawing apps around.

Our selection includes apps best suited to specific kinds of user, but the thing they all have in common is being brilliant, and also in being very approachable – even if they happen to be packed full of tools and features.

Procreate Pocket

$2.99/£2.99 • v1.6.3 • 74.9 MB • By Savage Interactive Pty Ltd

The thinking behind Procreate Pocket is to be a drawing and painting app that gets out of your way. Create a new canvas, and you get a small strip of tools across the top of your iPhone’s display, along with tiny drag handles at the left- and right-hand screen edges. Select a brush type, choose a colour from the color wheel, and you can start scribbling away. Need to change the brush’s maximum size or its opacity? Use the aforementioned drag handles.

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Smudge and eraser tools – each utilising the same optional brushes as the brush tool – provide further means to refine your work, and Procreate Pocket also has a simple layers system, so you can doodle a background and then add things on top of it, without worrying about messing up what you’ve worked on to that point.

Buried away behind a lightning strike icon are advanced tools. These include flipping the canvas, adding a photo, adjustment filters (such as blur and curves), and the means to create and transform a selection. So Procreate Pocket has a fairly sophisticated toolset for working up complex artwork. However, in not cluttering the screen with options and palettes, it manages to feel welcoming and accessible to newcomers.

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The only minor niggle is that Procreate Pocket is – as its name suggests – a ‘pocket’ version of Procreate, and it therefore lacks some of the iPad version’s features. Notably, the excellent brush creation tool is entirely absent, as are some smart selection features. Even so, it’s hard to be too critical of this app. As a stripped-back take, it forces a sense of focus that works very well on iPhone; and its design and feature set is such that it should appeal to pros and relative newcomers to drawing alike.

Download Procreate Pocket

Adobe Photoshop Sketch

Free • v4.0.2 • 123 MB • By Adobe

If you’ve tried Photoshop on a Mac or PC, you’re likely aware of the power at your fingertips – even when not using many of the app’s features. And although it originally began life as a tool for retouching imagery, Photoshop is today used by everyone from professional photographers through to comic-book artists.

Adobe Photoshop Sketch, however, is a more focussed effort. You get pencils, pens and markers, and in each case can adjust the tool’s size, flow and color. Delve further into a tool and you can fiddle with its dynamics, a live preview showing the effect of your settings.

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Regarding the drawing bit, results are impressive, notably when working with paints. Watercolors pleasingly ‘splat’ when you tap, and subtly bleed into the paper after a stroke is applied. Disappointingly, there’s no interaction between media types – you can’t, for example, drag a pen through gloopy acrylic paint – but watercolors at least blend until you dry them by pressing a button.

It’s feasible to use the app for fairly rapidly working up authentic ink or pen sketches with watercolor textures. But Adobe Photoshop Sketch also assists with precision. You get multiple layers, and each can have a bespoke opacity setting and blend mode. There are flat and perspective grids. Best of all, shapes (including polygons and French curves) can be temporarily placed on the canvas to draw around.

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The interface has the odd niggle, though: the design of the brushes panel – each one changing its color to show the current output setting – looks great, but takes up a lot of room, and it gets old toggling full-screen mode to get it out of the way. Also, export is limited to flat images unless you shell out for a Creative Cloud subscription, whereupon you can export layered work to PSD.

Still, it’s churlish to complain. After all, this app is more than enough for most iPhone artists, and offers an awful lot despite being free.

Download Adobe Photoshop Sketch

Paper by FiftyThree

Free • v3.6.6 • 134 MB • By FiftyThree, Inc.

The original version of Paper was designed around the idea of bringing sketches to the masses. The iPad-only app provided expressive tools to draw, sketch and color work, which was stored inside Moleskine-like notebooks you could flip through.

A major revamp proved divisive, but brought Paper to iPhone, and rethought the nature of the app. Notebooks were replaced by groups of notes that with a tap explode into an editable grid. Pages can be rearranged. Projects can be exported to PDF or a presentation. Veteran users hit the roof – they wanted their notebooks back.

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The thing is, if you want to use Paper solely to doodle and sketch, you still can. Create a new note, tap the sketch tool, and you get a blank page on which to scribble, and a small selection of tools at the foot of the screen. The ink pen still feels particularly pleasing, responding instantly to finger movements, and thickening the line when you add pressure.

Beyond this, you get a scratchy pencil, a couple of pens, and a watercolor brush. Flick the drawing tools to the right and you can also experiment with precision shapes (draw a square, say, and Paper tidies it up, but without removing the character from your stroke), a roller tool that fills within whatever shape you draw, and scissors for copying and pasting sections of your drawing.

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Bar multiple-step undo (two-finger tap), there’s little in the way of extras. You can’t add new layers or mess around with grids. Even text isn’t added directly to your drawings, and instead exists beneath them – although you can optionally add a photo to draw over or use as part of a collage. But then Paper was always about accessibility and immediacy – and even in its current incarnation, it excels for anyone who wants to get on with sketching on their iPhone with a minimum of fuss.

Download Paper by FiftyThree

Graphic

$2.99/£2.99 • v1.0.3 • 29.6 MB • By Indeeo, Inc.

On iPad, Graphic closely resembles Adobe Illustrator, a hugely popular piece of desktop software for working up vector-based imagery. On iPhone, you still get the same feature-set squeezed into a much smaller display, which is mightily impressive.

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Although often used for things like logos and interface design, plenty of artists also use vector-based tools for sketching. They tend to be cleaner in terms of output than bitmap-based apps – which isn’t always a great thing for the feel of a sketch. But they have the advantage of every stroke remaining editable at any point. Also, vector files can be zoomed in to any level, without a loss of detail.

Graphic starts off with a set-up seemingly encouraging its use as a sketching tool. You can use a pencil to make freehand strokes, first choosing a brush width and the amount of smoothing the app should apply to your line. It’s a bit odd to see your scribbles snap into place once you’re done with them, but the end result usually looks good.

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But as noted, the real advantages of Graphic as a sketching tool are clear when you start editing. Tap the select tool and then any component you’ve drawn and you can drag to transform it, alter its color, or use the info button to adjust its appearance. Want to change the stroke width, brush type, or add some effects? That’s all possible with a few taps – and the rest of your work remains unaffected.

Graphic of course also offers a fuller feature set for those already well-versed in vector software: a pen tool with Bézier curves, a shape library, text, layers, and paths. For all those things, it’s great. But for a few bucks, Graphic’s also worth buying if you only ever use the pencil tool and a few colors, in order to experience a more controllable type of sketching that’s unmatched by the other apps in this round-up.

Download Graphic

Also consider…

Adobe Illustrator Draw

Free • v4.0.2 • 93.2 MB • By Adobe

The vector-oriented cousin to Photoshop Sketch. Great tools, templates and feel. Miserly export options unless you’re a Creative Cloud member.

Download Adobe Illustrator Draw

Brushes Redux

Free • v3.2 • 15.9 MB • By Christoffer Hoel

Still mightily impressive, this simple painting app is smooth and responsive, and offers a wide range of brush types.

Download Brushes Redux

Carbo

$7.99/£7.99 • v1.4.2 • 45.1 MB • Creaceed SPRL

A halfway house between paper and screen, Carbo enables you to scan paper-based scribbles, which are converted to vectors for subsequent edits and additions.

Download Carbo

Concepts

From free • v4.4.1 • 102 MB • By TopHatch, Inc.

This pro-oriented designer tool is packed full of features, such as SVG output, precision grids, and advanced transforms. The complex UI takes some getting used to, mind.

Download Concepts

Notability

$9.99/£9.99 • v6.4.4 • 110 MB • By Ginger Labs

Not really a sketching app, but a note-taker with a sketching tool, Notability’s great for mixing up text, annotations, scribbles, and even recorded audio.

Download Notability

Pixure

$2.99/£2.99 • v2.1 • 33.6 MB • By Silver Fox

If you want to sketch on a computer like it’s 1985, Pixure provides tools for working on dinky pixel art masterpieces. The results might be small but you still get layers, shape tools, and flood fill.

Download Pixure

Tayasui Sketches Pro

$4.99/£4.99 • v14.3.3 • 156 MB • By Tayasui.com

This impressive app combines a range of drawing tools with multiple layer support inside of a refined, streamlined interface. Not sure it’s for you? Try the free version first.

Download Tayasui Sketches Pro