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Why You Own an iPad and Still Can't Draw

Last tended on August 22, 2020
🌱 Budding

I know plenty of intelligent and highly motivated folks who are dying to learn to draw.

Some are so intent on their desire, they've gone out and bought themselves iPads. The other half are actively thinking about buying an iPad right now.

They message me a lot.

Which iPad should I buy? What app do you use? What brush is that? What size should my canvas be?

These questions aren't wrong. In fact they're perfectly reasonable.

I'm vocal about the fact many of my illustrations are made on an iPad in an app called Procreate. I have a full post about my drawing equipment and workflows over at What App Is That?

How are you supposed to draw if you don't also have these fancy tools?

This is the tricky bit.

If you go out and buy yourself these same things, you'll have all the right materials to draw. But that's only the dressing on the drawing dish.

What you have is Material without the Medium or the Meat

What on earth do I mean by material, medium, and meat?


Materials are the physical tools you draw with. Suffice to say, you need some way to make visible marks on a surface. Having precise control over how you make those marks is essential. Being able to erase is helpful. Having access to all the colours of the rainbow is a indulgent bonus.

An iPad and Procreate is one overtly expensive option. Prismacolour Premier pencils on Canson Newsprint is a far more financially reasonable choice. Col-Erase pencils with Koh-i-Noor Progressos in Stillman & Birn Epsilon series sketchbooks are another. Staedler Fineliner pens in a Moleskine notebook work great. Or Copic Markers in Cottonwood Arts sketchbooks. Or any 4B pencil in any bog-standard sketchbook. These are all good options. If it's not obvious yet, this is a list of all my favourite drawing gear, which you can and should take as a shining endorsement of all those options.

Everyone obsesses over the materials when they want to begin drawing. Which exact pen? What brand of paper? These questions matter. A little. Your materials affect what you can and can't do. But they don't matter nearly as much as everyone thinks they do.

Pick any of the above suggestions I've linked to and move onto the next step as soon as possible. This is not a lifelong commitment. You can change materials later if you ask nicely. Hot tip: it's easier to swap materials if you don't pay an arm, a leg, and a kidney for them up front


When you set out to draw, you're working in the Medium of visual language. Just like writing a non-fiction essay, giving a speech, or programming in Python, visual language is a form of communication. It has it's own syntax, style, and structure.

Composition. Value. Contrast. Light. Shadow. Colour. Form. Shape language. Linear perspective. 3D construction. Line weight. Emphasis. Pattern. Balance. Rhythm. These are the equivalent of characters, verbs, sentences, introductory paragraphs, and satirical post-modern novels. They're a means to an end – a way to get a message across the gap between your mind and someone else's.

Mastering the medium of visual language is the true struggle of drawing. Not picking which iPad app to draw in. The material is a convenient distraction when understanding the medium is an incomprehensible and daunting task.

You are right to be afraid of the medium. I'm still afraid of it. Learning all it's dimensions, elements, and variations is a lifelong challenge. It's an infinite game. There is no end goal. You just get to keep playing.


The Meat is the whole point of your illustration. What is your drawing about? What are you saying? Why does it matter?

As one of my favourite writing professors used to say, -39 points for not having a point.

If we're going to put in the effort to craft an entire illustration, it better be for something worthwhile. You need an idea, a concept, or a piece of information you want to move from your mind into the minds of other people. Without meat, you're not serving any brain food to your audience. Which is why paintings of carefully arranges vases, daffodils, and clementines are disastrously dull. IMHO. You might be really into Baroque vase paintings. It's great craftsmanship, but they don't say much beyond "Look, a vase! Also, I've figured out how to pedantically paint realistic subjects!"
Which has now been said enough times, and you probably don't need to add to the chorus.

Worrying about the materials should take up - at most - 10% of your attention and concern.

Focus 70% of your attention on learning the medium while you're just starting out.

You can keep 20% of your focus on the Meat. But I wouldn't worry too much about communicating original, profound ideas at first. Doing so in addition to learning a whole new language is going to be overwhelming.

In the same way it's a bad idea to learn Spanish while simultaneously trying to write a philosophy dissertation in it.

Once you get more comfortable "speaking" in visual language, you'll be able to shift a much higher percentage of your attention onto the Meat. You'll get to focus on The Thing You Want to Say, and know enough visual language to say it well.

That's the ideal I'm currently striving for. To reach a point where the Material is irrelevant, the Medium is a baked into my subconscious, and I'm all about the Meat.

2% Material, 18% Medium, 80% Meat.

That's the goal. Don't let the shiny iPad reflection blind you.
Get past picking the Material. Focus on the Medium. Aim for the Meat.

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Maggie Appleton © 2020