Procreate review: A digital artist's treasure trove for just $10

During the coronavirus pandemic, setting aside time to pursue creative projects has become one of my favorite ways to spend free time and manage stress. I typically enjoy working with physical media — watercolor, oils, acrylics or simple sketching with pen or pencil — and the idea of going digital was intimidating. But while looking for new ways to draw on my iPad, Apple’s Procreate app caught my eye. 

Like

  • Wide range of tools
  • Useful for everyone from beginners to professionals
  • Easy to learn new styles like animation

Don’t Like

  • $10 price tag
  • Two different apps for iPhone and iPad use
  • Large number of tools can be overwhelming for beginners

The digital illustration app costs $10 (£10, AU$15) to download (with no in-app purchases), and its suite of art tools and creative features make it well worth the money. Procreate offers an accessible experience whether you’re a design professional, a seasoned digital artist or a beginner to the world of digital drawing. One downside: The app is only available on iPadOS and iOS

Read moreBest iPad for 2020

I’ve been using Procreate for a few months, and there are still features I’m learning to use that improve my artwork. The app’s tools, such as quick shape, blend mode, layering, alpha locks and clipping masks, add a new level of professionalism to your art. This is why we’ve awarded Procreate a CNET Editors’ Choice award for 2020.

Toto, I don’t think we’re using Microsoft Paint anymore

Procreate is packed with so many tools and features that I’ll barely scratch the surface in this review. 

There are countless ways to customize your iPad’s ($239 at Back Market) gesture controls to make the app work best for you. For example, you can set it so that you tap four fingers to immediately populate the copy and paste options. You can also use three fingers to scrub the screen and clear a layer. 

A sketch I did on Procreate and a look at a subset of brushes. 

Shelby Brown/CNET

One of the biggest perks of Procreate is its massive library of 150 brushes. The range of brushes available in the app fit just about any creation you could possibly have in mind. You can stick with basic sketching, inking, drawing and painting, or you can explore airbrushing, calligraphy, charcoals and spray paints. Under each category of brushes, you’ll find a half a dozen or more choices. For example, if you choose Sketching, you can select from seven different pencils and three different pastel textures. Take it a step further by tapping the brush again and further customizing the properties of the tool. 

Read more: 10 Procreate app tips for budding iPad artists

I also love using the app’s layering feature while I’m drawing. It makes editing in the future much easier. You’ll just have to remember to put your work in piece by piece. You can find extra light and color editing features for each layer as well. Just tap the little “N” next to the checkmark that selects the layer. 

Here’s what grouping layers looks like with some basic doodles.

Shelby Brown/CNET

To stay organized, or if you want an added level of security to a section of art, you can combine layers into groups. Simply tap a layer and you can select either Merge Down or Combine Down. Merge Down makes two layers into one, for example, if you had Alpha Lock on to protect line boundaries in a layer, it will turn off. Combine Down forms a new group, but still keeps each individual layer’s specifications active. 

Procreate also makes it easy to learn new skills by making the technical aspect of digital art less intimidating. When I first opened the Procreate app, I saw that it had animation features, but almost immediately wrote them off as too complicated for a novice like me. But with a few taps in the app, I was able to create a rudimentary animation of a ball bouncing across the screen. It was barely two and a half seconds, but I was really proud of it! Now, I’m really excited to see what else I can make. 

A face sketch I started on Procreate. 

Shelby Brown/CNET

To ease the digital illustration learning curve, Procreate has a helpful handbookforums and YouTube videos to help you along the way.

iPad is the new canvas

Procreate is an iPad-only app. There is a version for your iPhone, called Procreate Pocket ($5, £5, AU$8). But the apps are separate, so you can’t swap back and forth between your phone and your tablet. 

I use Procreate on a third-gen iPad Air, but you can find the full list of compatible devices on its website. 

The Apple Pencil isn’t required hardware for using Procreate. But if you’re planning to pursue digital illustration, your fingers will thank you for picking one up. I can only speak for myself, but without a stylus, I couldn’t get the same level of detail. I use a first-gen Apple Pencil. If your device isn’t compatible with the Apple Pencil, the app supports some third-party stylus models. You can find the complete list on its website. 

Read more: The best Apple iPad apps of all time

Should you try Procreate?

There’s a lot going on in Procreate and it can seem overwhelming, but the more you use the app, the easier it gets. Having fun is the most important part.

If you’re even mildly interested in digital art and have $10 to spare, I’d recommend trying Procreate out. Explore the app, doodle, write your name with different brushes. You can also upload blank coloring sheets to a canvas and experiment with the tools that way, so you’re not creating a brand new work on your own. 

If you’re more in the market for a digital coloring book, however, you might check out the Lake app (free, with in-app purchases), instead of shelling out $10 for Procreate. And if you want to get an idea of how much you might use Procreate before investing, Autodesk Sketchbook is a free app that has an impressive set of tools, too — not as many as Procreate, but enough to give you a taste. 

There are dozens of ways to customize Procreate to help you discover or improve your art style. 

For more on drawing, check out five online drawing classes you can take right now and all the best apps for drawing on your iPad.