SketchBook Mobile: Become an iPhone Artist

There’s certainly no shortage of drawing applications available on the app store. However, most of the apps available are pretty basic and focus more on being silly and fun than fully-featured and customizable enough for professionals.

SketchBook Mobile from AutoDesk seeks to fill this void by providing an impressively rich drawing experience packed with enough features to push the boundaries of the iPhone OS.

Tools and Drawing Interface

SketchBook Mobile features a flyout circular tool menu that makes it easy to change tools quickly without eating up precious screen real estate. Just tap the ever present circle on the bottom middle of the screen and the tool menu pops up. Tap again and the menu disappears.

SketchBook Interface

SketchBook Interface

As you can see, SketchBook gives you plenty of tools to work with, including a whopping 25 fully customizable brushes. The default pencil tool is one you’ll be using a lot. It’s thin enough to make impressively smooth and precise lines considering your only input device is an unwieldy finger. By combining the brush presets with the brush edit feature, you can create just about any kind of brush you need for typical sketching and painting (big, small, soft, hard, scattered, blotchy, it does it all).

The big circle in the center of the tool menu allows you to quickly adjust your brush size and opacity. Simply tap and drag vertically to adjust the opacity, and horizontally to adjust the size. There’s also a paint bucket for quick fills and an eraser to fix any mistakes.

Each of the four corners holds an additional feature as well. The top left button turns on symmetry and is a blast to play with. The top right button allows you to transform a layer via pinching, spreading and spinning with two fingers. If you don’t have the transform tool selected, these gestures allow you to pan and zoom in, which is extremely helpful for hashing out fine details. The bottom left and right corners contain simple undo and redo buttons that support up to 10 steps total.


The part of SketchBook mobile that really starts to bring it out of silly drawing app territory and into something more impressive is the ability to create and manage multiple layers. My first generation iPod only supports up to three layers at a time but newer Apple devices support up to six independently editable layers.

Working With Layers

Working With Layers

As you can see in the shot above, it’s really easy to adjust the opacity of a layer and rearrange its order in the hierarchy. The five buttons along the bottom of the layers menu allow you create a new layer, duplicate the current layer, pull in a layer from your photo library (great for tracing), toggle the visibility of the layer, and merge the layer with the one below it.


Sketchbook Mobile gives you not one, but four ways to choose a color: via swatch, color wheel, RGB sliders or eyedropper.

Picking Colors

Picking Colors

The screen on the left shows you the 30 default swatches built into the app. These provide a lot of variation with minimal effort. Simply tap a swatch and you’re ready to go. The screen on the right shows the interactive color wheel and RGB sliders. The ring of color allows you to target a certain area of the color wheel and the diamond provides you with a way to fine tune your selection within that range. The RGB sliders automatically update as you move around the color wheel but can be manipulated independently as well.

The eyedropper is a little harder to find, so much so that several iTunes commenters complained about the absence of the feature. As you are sketching or painting, if you tap and hold your finger down, a little crosshair icon will show up, allowing you to sample from any color on the screen. This really helps speed up the process of painting multiple colors on a single layer.

How Well Does it Work?

Now that you’ve seen the features, you’re probably wondering about the quality of the art the application is capable of producing. The answer is that the application itself can produce amazingly complex and beautiful artwork. The question then becomes, are you capable of producing such artwork with the application?

Sample Results

Sample Results

The picture above shows a piece of artwork from the official iTunes application page and something that I made. I’ll let you guess which is which. SketchBook is no doubt an impressive drawing app, but don’t expect it to make you look like a better artist than you actually are. The portrait of the girl above was made by an incredibly talented individual with much more time and patience than I currently possess. Even my crudely drawn unfinished guitar took much more time to make than I care to admit.

As far as the functionality of the application goes, some features work better than others. The default brushes are great to work with and really make the application enjoyable to use. However, I did have tons of trouble with the tap and drag feature to change the brush size. Hitting that little circle in just the right place to bring up the brush size option is no easy task and can lead to a lot of accidental brush strokes when you miss.

Furthermore, drawing precise details on a small screen with a big finger can feel a bit like threading a needle while wearing boxing gloves. Your finger just feels huge at times and can block significant portions of the screen. Keep in mind though that this isn’t so much a software shortcoming as it is a limitation of drawing on an iPhone.

My biggest complaint is the lack of an Adobe Illustrator Pen Tool equivalent. There is no easy way (that I found) to draw perfectly straight lines or smooth curves outside of a steady hand and some intense zooming, which can get very tedious very fast. A tool that allows for even rudimentary bezier curves would’ve taken this already great app to near perfect status.


Ultimately, SketchBook Mobile is a solid drawing and painting application that deserves to be among the most popular of its kind. The thorough feature set and intuitive interface allows for a level of artistic expression limited only by your own skill and imagination. I was hooked as soon as I opened the app for the first time and it has quickly become the first thing I launch to kill a few minutes while waiting in line or taking a quick break at work.

For $2.99, the SketchBook mobile is a steal, but if you’re a cheapskate like me and prefer to surf the free downloads page check out SketchBook Mobile X. It’s a scaled down version of SketchBook Mobile that limits all devices to three layers and only a few brushes but still possesses enough features to make it among the best free drawing apps around.

Download either the free or paid version and let us know what you think. Be sure to mention your favorite features as well anything you feel is lacking and how it stacks up to other drawing apps you’ve tried.


A painting and drawing application for the iPhone and iPod touch, that does far more than you'd think possible on such a small device. The only limitation is your time, and expertise as an artist!