I’ve always preferred working with Wacom tablets on the desktop over drawing on tablets like the iPad Pro, as I could never get used to drawing directly on a screen. But a week with the beta version of Fresco, Adobe’s latest drawing and painting app for the iPad Pro, has rekindled a lot of the muscle memory I’ve forgotten from art classes since I started working digitally. This can be attributed to what Fresco excels at, which is mixing oil paint colors and letting watercolors bloom naturally on the canvas. To sum it up, the app is just plain fun.
Formerly called Project Gemini, Adobe Fresco’s main selling point is its Live brushes, which use Adobe Sensei’s AI platform to produce those realistic watercolor and oil paint strokes. Geared toward illustrators, the app also lets artists work with both vector and raster brushes, something Adobe’s earlier Sketch and Draw apps did separately. For more customization options, the app lets users download or import their own brushes. When it launches at the end of this year, the app will allow for files to be saved as Cloud PSDs, a new format that’ll sync all changes across the Creative Cloud, and let users switch between mobile and desktop devices seamlessly.
The UI is pretty similar to the upcoming Photoshop for iPad beta we looked at earlier this year — there are tools like brushes, paint bucket, move / transform, and lasso on the left, and the layers panels with blend modes like multiply, color burn, and screen on the right. The app is surprising in terms of which sub-tools it chose to keep, and which ones were left out. For example, there’s a selection tool, but it doesn’t follow the defined edges in the image. There’s a lasso tool, but no magic wand; paint bucket, but no gradients; layer masks, but no clipping masks, to name a few. There’s also no text tool, something that competitor Procreate recently added to its app, much to the delight of graphic designers and cartoonists.
I asked Verge illustrator Alex Castro for his thoughts on Fresco, and he noted that while the brushes feel better than the ones in Adobe’s previous apps, he still prefers Procreate’s brush engine, particularly for smudging and mixing. One issue both Alex and I ran into with the app is that it seems to drain battery life pretty quickly, most likely because of the live brush engines. I had to take intermittent breaks to let the iPad recharge before I could go back to painting.
Still, I appreciate the way the app has translated the desktop Photoshop experience into one optimized for an iPad Pro illustration app. Fresco has some thoughtful features like a Touch shortcut, a button that shows up on-screen when different tools are in use and temporarily changes the action for that tool when holding down the button. For example, pressing the button while you’re using the brush tool will activate the eraser, so you don’t need to switch back and forth between tools. There are also gesture controls, like double tapping a layer to toggle visibility, and the standard two-finger and three-finger undo and redo features. Alex also added, “I really like that you can undock the brush settings and move it around the screen. I wish we could do that with more of the panels.”
As someone who hasn’t touched oil paints since one summer art camp in the early 2000s, I love that Fresco lets me “paint” better on my iPad than I probably ever could on paper. It also makes it possible to create art in ways you wouldn’t necessarily recreate in real life — Handsome Squidward up there is painted in oil paints, while the background was done with watercolors. Fresco opens up room for experimentation and encourages getting messy.
Adobe Fresco will launch by the end of this year as a free app on the App Store, and will work with iPad Pros, the 2019 iPad mini, and the iPad Air. Creative Cloud All Apps subscribers will have access to a set of premium features, which haven’t yet been announced.