9 iPad Pro apps that make the most of Apple Pencil

There's no doubt the Apple Pencil is an impressive design tool, but to make the most of it you need the right iPad Pro apps; ones that truly take advantage of its power and flexibility.

Happily, as this list shows, there is already a strong roster of iPad Pro apps from companies big and small, which really let the Pencil shine. All you have to supply is talent! (And a Pencil. And an iPad Pro.)

01. Affinity Photo

  • Requirements: iOS 10.3 or later

Serif's Affinity Photo has quickly become the go-to Photoshop alternative on Mac and Windows thanks to its solid tool set, amazing performance and one-off price instead of a subscription fee, and its iPad version – used by Apple to demo the iPad Pro and Pencil – is no less impressive.

While it's compatible with earlier iPad models, it's when you pair it with an iPad Pro and Pencil that Affinity Photo really comes alive. Already engineered to make the most of the iPad's hardware and touch features, on the iPad Pro its also built to take full advantage of the Pencil's pressure and angle sensitivity, whether you're painting with its professional brush engine or applying realtime lighting effects.

It's built for a professional workflow, with support for RAW and PSD as well as full cross-platform performance and file compatibility in case you feel the need to add some final polish on your desktop, but the fact is that you probably won't need to.

02. Adobe Comp CC

Create production-ready layouts as smoothly and easily as drawing on paper
  • Requirements: iOS 9.0 or later

The Adobe Comp CC iPad pro app is a revelation, and makes the process of wireframing or mocking up designs a cinch. The idea is that rather than pulling out your notebook and drawing dumb rectangles for pictures or a few horizontal lines to indicate where text would go in a layout, with a few simple and intuitive sketched shapes you can actually start building those layouts for real – and then pass them into InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop. 

It's worth familiarising yourself with all the different gestures for aligning, grouping and so on so you can work quickly and efficiently. You could do all this with just your finger, but using the Pencil feels delightfully like drawing in a notebook with a magical pencil, where birds you draw come to life and fly off the page. 

Draw a rectangle, slash it with a diagonal cross and it becomes an image box that you can populate with assets from, say, your Creative Cloud Library. Draw a box and scrub a few horizontal lines in it, and boom, it's a text box, which you can style manually (there's also a handy, quick slider control for point size) or apply styles to from your CC Libraries. Rough squares snap to perfect geometric shapes.

It's fast, fluid and easy, and while sure, pro designers are likely to work from these wireframes like they would with one drawn in ink in a Moleskine – that is, merely referring to it but building from scratch, rather than importing it from Comp – but it can still be a boon to your productivity to be able to quickly mock up your designs using real live assets and styles.

03. Procreate

Procreate is the king of natural media apps on the iPad
  • Requirements: iOS 10.0 or later

This is the king of natural media apps on the iPad, and it is completely transformed with the addition of the Pencil. Sure, you can use your finger with it, a simple stylus, or even one of the increasingly complicated and expensive third-party styluses from the likes of Adonit, but none of these give you the fluidity and analogue-like experience that the Pencil does.

In part this is down to the Pencil's fine tip, in part the low latency and double-speed sampling rate, and in part because the palm rejection is nearly flawless. But all that technical stuff just fades away into the background when you're faced with the joy of sketching with a 6B pencil, turning it flat to block in big areas of shade, or mucking about with paints.

Yes, unquestionably Painter on a PC is capable of some more advanced natural media types – Procreate's watercolours, in particular, pale in comparison – but overall this is a wonderful app that really comes to life when you use it with a Pencil.

04. Adobe Photoshop Sketch

Sketch comes with some lovely natural media types built in
  • Requirements: iOS 9.0 or later

Procreate may be the king of natural media apps on the iPad, but if so Adobe is like a deposed ancien régime monarch, plotting, in its exile, to win back its crown. And Sketch is genuinely really good, with not only some lovely natural media types built-in (and the option of adding more brushes via Capture CC), but also some features that might quickly endear it to you.

For starters, it can push layered PSDs directly to Photoshop on your Mac or PC, and you can add either a flat grid or even a configurable 3D plane grid to the background, plus preset geometric shapes, to help keep you on the straight and narrow. When you want to go on the wide and sinuous, there are French curves that you can trace against.

But that would be for naught if the natural media tools themselves were rubbish, but in fact they're generally very nice. Pay attention specifically to the watercolour tool, which has colours bleed into one another in a most pleasing manner. What's even nicer is that you can tap an icon – which looks like fan blades – to 'dry' the paint so that new colours added on top don't bleed, giving you some terrific flexibility. The tools are Pencil-aware, so react wonderfully to pressure and tilt differences.

05. Pixelmator

iPad Pro app Pixelmator makes the most of the Apple Pencil's features
  • Requirements: iOS 9.1 or later

We could have recommended Adobe Photoshop Mix here in place of this stalwart iOS bitmap editor – and certainly, the former's (bafflingly ropey) cut-out tools, layers, and paintable filters are generally quite nice – but Pixelmator just feels like the more mature and useful app.

As well as offering some (frankly a little underwhelming) natural media drawing tools that work with the Pencil, it gives you the ability to tweak the colours either by applying Instagram-style filters, or with sliders for brightness, contrast, saturation, RGB and white balance – or indeed by tweaking the curves.

But the pairing of Pixelmator and the Pencil really shine if you want to do some touch-ups or object isolation. The touch-up controls – repair, dodge, burn, sharpen, saturate and more – are easy to apply with the Pencil especially given its precision. When painting out backgrounds this precision, plus the various different eraser types available, are hugely welcome.

If we've one criticism it's that we'd like the option of pressure-sensitivity to affect the size of an eraser rather than its opacity, but nevertheless this is the closest thing you're going to find to Photoshop on the iPad – and the Pencil just makes it better.

Next page: four more great iPad apps for Apple Pencil...