Will my iPad destroy my artistic practice?

A young blonde girl with rosy cheeks and a blue and red background wash by Wayne Smith of SmithandFritzy.
The randomness and blending of watercolors can’t be reproduced on a computer—but does it really matter?

I just bought an iPad Pro and I’m suddenly having an internal artist conflict.

I restarted my artistic practice last year, picking up watercolors and ink and making art again for the first time in nearly two decades. There is something about working tactically with a physical medium—a somewhat unforgiving medium that has a lot of randomness to it. The fluid nature of watercolors is unique and something I don’t think a computer program will be able to reproduce any time soon.

But as this year has progressed, there’s times in my daily work where making illustrations digitally would be handy. My day job of designing and art directing magazines is done 100% on the computer and when I need quick little illustrations or designs, having an iPad Pro with a pen sounded like an awesome solution.

That said, an iPad Pro is not cheap and I am extremely frugal so figuring out if it was really worth the investment is difficult. I have been kicking around the idea of making a picturebook the past few months and I thought the iPad Pro might be the best tool to use for it because of the versatility and endless toolbox.

So I bit the bullet. I bought an iPad Pro and the Apple Pen.

My wife using the iPad Pro 12.9" WiFi 2nd Gen model
My wife posing with the iPad Pro and Apple Pen for me. The 12.9″ is a great size for working but holding it can be a little awkward .

At first play with the device, it makes all of the parts of my brain fire off the same way as when I started my watercolors practice. There’s a lot to learn and possibilities. Maybe too many possibilities.

Using the reputable Procreate program, I first tried doing a portrait, similarly to what I do almost every day with my watercolors and paper. In a way, the tools are fairly intuitive (I have used Photoshop for work for over 20 years, though, so take that into account if you’re new to digital tools). The pencil works like a pencil. The pen works almost like a pen. The brush works sort of like a brush. There’s learning curves to every tool so I won’t get into this as it’s only been one day using the program.

As I kept using it, I had all of these questions circling my head. The following are a few thoughts that came to me over the last day:

  • Time. I only have so much time in a day to dedicate to my art practice. Splitting the time between two mediums is not easy. One could say both ways is continuing the practice, but I can’t help but think that spending time making art on the iPad will not hold up the same way my watercolors may.
  • Self-Identity. I’ve built an internal story around my journey into watercolors. It’s part of my identity at the moment and switching to a digital medium feels almost like cheating on watercolors. If I start presenting work using this other medium, will that completely change what I’ve built for myself over the past year of practice?
  • Too many tools! I didn’t think this was going to be something I thought negatively about as it’s one of the reasons I wanted the iPad Pro in the first place. Having this huge toolbox at my disposal of all the brushes and pens I could think of sounded great, but it quickly felt overwhelming. Working with my watercolors and inks, the limitations help me push forward in my technical skills without a lot of distraction. Too many tools can be very distracting.
  • Devaluing my craft? I haven’t really hung out with a lot of artists a I don’t care much about the fine art world and the conversations of if digital art is real art, etc., but there was something that felt… I don’t know… cheaper about the medium? The odd thing is I don’t think that way about anyone else when I see their digital art; it’s an internal conversation with myself.
  • Imperfection. I love the imperfections that come with working on a physical medium. I love that I don’t know what watercolors will necessarily do when the water dries (even though the more you practice the medium, the more you control even the imperfections). It’s something that gives character and authenticity to a piece. I don’t strive for perfection (which is why I love sketchbookers more than the fine arts).
  • Documentation. Am I losing the physical document of my creation and how much is that really worth? Is there a value in it? It’s really making me ask a lot of questions about why I’m creating other than to scratch that itch to make something interesting (and pretty) with complete autonomy.

The reason I’m writing about this in such detail is because I didn’t expect it! I am from the generation raised with home computers and the Internet (and have fully embraced them my whole life) but I’m still having these thoughts.

For others who have gone both digital and analog, what has your experience been like? Have you had similar thoughts or has it been a completely different experience for you? I’d love to hear from you all as I’m personally delving into these topics.

4 Comments

  • I’ve had my iPad Pro for a couple of years now and it hasn’t destroyed my artistic practice, it’s expanded it hugely. Yes, there are lots of tools and there’s a lot to learn, but I’ve found the learning enormous fun. Yes, you need to explore the tools a little and find the ones that work for you. In my experience the watercolour brushes are the least effective of all the Procreate brushes and my advice would be to buy better ones on the market (they don’t cost a lot and are so much better – but I’m not really a watercolourist so get advice on the community forum on which are the best ones to buy). I had to do that with the Copics. My favourite of the tools that come with Procreate are the charcoals and pastels which are awesome. iPad drawing has expanded my learning and I switch between analogue and digital without thinking these days, I often use both too. I just see digital art as another form of art, neither more or less than any other. If other artists want to deprive themselves of the sheer joy I experience when I get my iPad Pro out, that’s their choice! If it’s good enough for Hockney, its certainly good enough for me.

    • Thanks for chiming in Helen! You know, I hadn’t heard much about additional brushes for Procreate (I did buy some of Kyle’s Brushes for Photoshop a while back and they were lovely, just nothing I could use with my mouse.) I’ll have to look more into that. I’ve heard people say they make their own brushes but that’s a little beyond what I want to do at this point. I don’t expect to really get much of a watercolor look but I would love some more ink and pencil options.

      I’ve had some time to think about it some more and I think maybe this is a good opportunity for me to try something new and have fun—not get so “in my own head” about it. I’m going to give myself some limitations and a project, that way I have something to work towards without overwhelming myself with too many options.

      I won’t lie, I do wonder if people value hand-made art more than digital art. I guess it depends on how the final piece is going to be used but if someone is going to value that final piece more because of it’s medium, I want to take that into account. Hopefully that makes sense.

      Thank you again for such a thoughtful response. I was typing fast and furiously making this post. Normally I spend too much time thinking of what I’ll say but I just wanted to go for it today and give an honest first impression.

  • I have not bought this device yet, but I appreciate learning about it from you and Helen. I hope you’ll keep reporting about your progress and experiences with it. I lack any experience in digital art making, do not have photoshop experience so feel a bit overwhelmed by starting from zero knowledge and wondering if I’d be throwing my money away? But at the same time I’m curious. I wish I could rent one to try out!

    • Oh Lynn, I can totally relate! I wish there was a rental service that I could have tested it out for a week. I was able to finally test one out at a local electronics store, though, and it helped confirm my decision to buy it. I will say, buying it will make you really use it and not just set it aside since you spent so much on it—at least for me. I’ve just heard so many people rave about it from amateur to professional that I had to give it a go.

      I’m going to keep posting about it and I’ll include information where I can that might help you using these programs if you’re not familiar with these computer art programs. It’s not nearly as scary as Photoshop can be when you first see it.

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