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Vector illustrations are more than just fun on the iPad Pro

Autodesk Graphic (opens in new tab) is just that great. It's so good, it's arguably worth buying an iPad Pro for—as long as you pick up the Apple Pencil, too.

Since 1987, Adobe has had a virtual monopoly on vector-based illustration software. When you see something drawn with clean, mathematically precise lines, chances are it was made with Adobe Illustrator. This subset of design is called vector graphics, where every curve is not made up of pixels; instead, lines are comprised of mathematical formulas between points, which can then be infinitely scaled up or down. In the 90s, when I learned Adobe Illustrator, I spent $600 on my 4.0 license. Since then, I've faithfully paid to upgrade every other year. It's an expensive program, but there haven't been any serious options because of Adobe's virtual monopoly.

Until Autodesk Graphic, that is: The core of what you can do with Adobe Illustrator is all here, except it doesn't cost $239.88 a year—it's just a $9 one-time purchase.

The Graphic Basics

What do you get for your money? All the basics you need to make professional illustrations. Layers, path select tools, line smoothing algorithms, and—with the iPad Pro and Pencil—even more precise control over lines than Illustrator.

Using Apple's Pencil with Graphic to draw is one of the most joyous experiences I've ever had in making professional art. It makes drawing fun in a way I haven't experienced since I was a child. All too often, vector graphics can turn into a technical slog of adjusting lines, tweaking fills and altering bezier curves. Apple's Pencil makes you forget all of that. You just need to sketch—and the result happens to be mathematically perfect lines. I've spent thousands of hours hunched at a desk using Illustrator. Now, I get to curl up on the couch and sketch while watching a movie. It's not just incredibly precise and faster—it's a lot more enjoyable, too. Simply put, Graphic and the iPad Pro is the way vector art should be made.

The line tools are my favorite part of Autodesk Graphic: After drawing a line, you can then tweak it to your heart's content with an intuitive graph editor. It's not adjusted as a global set of brushes, but rather, each line. It's a faster, more intuitive way to create precise line work.

Work to be done

Despite all Autodesk Graphic's excellent fundamentals, there's still a lot of work to be done for the next version.

Path-joining tools are all but nonexistent in Graphic. This is, by far, the thing that keeps Graphic from being a true competitor to Illustrator, and makes coloring and shading nigh-impossible. Fortunately, the export tools are solid—as long as you are going to a pixel format. Graphic is sadly missing SVG and AI export, so your vector work can't be transferred to a desktop application.

The ability to use a gradient as a color is fundamental in illustration. And as of this writing, Graphic's gradient tools get an D-. You can technically build gradients, but only in one direction, and with terrible aliasing around it. Illustrator's gradient mesh tools are so sophisticated they can make photorealistic vector art; Graphic can't even bend a gradient along a line (though it can thankfully fade into an alpha channel).

Outside of major tools, there are quite a few bugs and strange omissions in Graphic. As of version 3.1, strange artifact glitches appear when you resize and pan around the iPad. Amazingly, shortcut keys also do not exist for Graphic, a curious omission that really slows down input, requiring manual selection of each tool.

A bright vector future

For the price of $9, there's little to complain about. The real question is whether Apple is willing to listen to developer feedback and change App Store policies to make pro apps like Graphic profitable. If Autodesk were to invest heavily and deliver features like gradient meshes and SVG export, there's currently no way for them to get paid for that work. The iPad Pro is capable of running professional creative tools, but it's up to Apple to make delivering them profitable.

For the moment, Graphic isn't a total replacement for Illustrator. But for me, I'm willing to work around the shortcomings because it makes drawing fun again. And isn't that the whole point of art?

Head of Development at Giant Spacekat. Host of Isometric and Rocket on Relay.FM. Godzilla of tech feminists.

22 Comments
  • You can export to SVG right now. You do this on the file icon screen. You could also easily add new features as an in app purchase. This would allow the developer to get paid for additional effort and would require no changes to Apple' policies.
  • Would you mind explaining what "SVG" is to a layman? Thank you!
  • SVG stands for "Scalable Vector Graphic", and is relatively widely supported by applications that have vector support. It's a standard (I think) meant to respond to Microsoft's and Adobe's proprietary file formats from the 90's. Google would tell you more about it though...
  • Thanks!
  • 'Export to SVG' ...through Sharing?
    Export to iTunes? Send via Email? Save to Dropbox?
  • Save to Dropbox and Send to App support SVG format for sharing.
  • Funny that there's no mention that was previously known as iDraw and that it is also available on the Mac. I've used this app on both my iPad and Mac for a long time and hope that now that it's been bought by Autodesk we'll see more advanced features. And as "jeffkempster" said, the main reason I bought it was because it does export to SVG.
  • Would also like to mention that Affinity is developing iPad Pro versions of their "Designer" and "Photo" apps - although no release date has been given. These are both supposedly professional caliber tools that many have replaced Adobe's offerings with. https://affinity.serif.com
  • I dropped my CC subscription back in the beginning of October and grabbed Affinity Designer and Photo, Mischief and Brackets to replace the Adobe apps I was using. I haven't looked back since for my freelance work. I still use Adobe products at work, where InDesign is a stable for the client work we have. But Affinity is working on a page layout program and once it comes I think the owner will be very interested in dropping Adobe.
  • I'm trying to hold off buying the first gen iPad Pro, but can't hardly wait to buy one reading stuff like this. I do believe too drawing vectors this easy makes a bright future.
  • There's really no reason to wait because the iPad Pro really isn't a "1st generation" product. It's just a bigger iPad with a special screen. I've had zero issues.
  • The problem is, I don't need it right now professionally :-) But I am eager to try it out because I do think this is one of the next big things.
    What I mean with the first generation quote is more the feel that it does something extraordinary (vector drawing in freehand mode, and a lot of other stuff of course), but on the other hand, clicking on the screen all the time, to get things done, is not something I am looking forward to. One would need a keyboard for sure, when using this professionally, but the mouse part still is not up to par with a regular desktop.
  • I think iPad pro is essentially a 6th generation iPad so there is no issue for me at all =) Sent from the iMore App
  • The hardware is very solid, so there's not much reason to hold out for that. I think in general, there aren't a lot of pro level apps on iOS, but there are a few apps like Graphic and Procreate that are surprisingly powerful. Procreate especially. I would do a little research to find out if the apps out there can meet your current needs, and buy based on that. For myself, Procreate + Graphics + Pixelmator does everything I need, so I couldn't be happier with my purchase, but if I wanted to use the iPad Pro for something like web design, coding, or video work, the apps available today are pretty limited.
  • I've been a huge fan of vector graphics ever since I first learned to use Aldus FreeHand 3.1 - I have always found Adobe Illustrator to be 'counterintuitive.'
    (correction: Adobe has had a monopoly on vector art only AFTER they bought FreeHand - on their second attempt - and killed it!!) Oh! I already have Graphic, but it says it's by Indeeo, Inc. Does have that little Autodesk logo in the upper left corner so this must be the place. I'll have to give it another look.
    Now I'm just waiting for Apple to bring the Pencil to MY iPad of choice, the iPad mini. I like this one because I can carry it around in my pocket.
  • Re: 'counterintuitive' -
    In FreeHand the points on a line were small and solid UNLESS they were selected. Then they would be large and hollow. This program follows Illustrator's convention of hollow points with SOLID points indicating which ones are selected. I do wish I could swap this behavior. Illustrator tried to offer FreeHand-like features, but they completely missed this point. Also never understood the need for two pointers. In FreeHand that's what the Command key was for.
  • This is nice! This app does just about everything I would expect from a vector graphics program of the early-to-mid 90s. 'Gradient mesh' was an advanced feature that didn't come along until later. There were some tricks we used in those days to simulate some of the effects you may be trying to achieve. Layers and masks can go an awfully long way to get a gradient to do what you want it to. An awful lot of lovely work was created in those early days with tools even more simple than this one. Thanks for bringing forward a tool I forgot I had and will now have to spend some time learning what all I can do with it. Oh, yes!! $9 is CHEAP for tools as nice as these!!
  • Graphic is awesome, but as of right now my favorite vector app on the iPad is Concepts. Even though it's a very new app with a small development team, it's massively capable already, has a beautiful UI, and is rapidly adding new features. It's free to download with basic features, and only $8 to add all the Pro tools. However, I have to admit... Once Affinity releases an iPad version of Designer, I may be tempted to switch.
  • Switch, regardless of what people say, the iPad Pro is not a stand alone computer, it's something you buy in addition to. Trying to use one as your main computer frankly sucks, I know becasue I tried to do it myself. IOS is missing just to many features and problems to be used as a laptop replacement.
  • I'm already using the iPad as my only laptop, so that's not a concern for me. For what I do every day it's a better solution for me than a full laptop. I still have a home desktop computer, but rarely ever turn it on anymore. What I was referring to is if/when Affinity releases a iPad version of Designer I may be inclined to switch from using Concepts to Affinity for the iPad. I love the Affinity desktop apps, but as I said, for my daily needs, the iPad is a better solution for me than the desktop or laptop. So Affinity is not an option for me until they have a tablet based app. But I fully realize I have a specific workflow that is very different from many people, and for others a full desktop OS is a necessity.
  • I think the author of this article clearly has not used this tool. Path-joining has been around since long before Autodesk purchased this app and rebranded it (taking all of the credit). SVG export is also an option. What I'm trying to figure out is what apps support importing and editing SVGs. I've yet to find something that'll do that. iConcepts is a nice design app but its interface is a bit confusing and too gimmicky for me. Right now it seems as though Autodesk is holding the best vector application for iOS. Let's hope they don't rest on their laurels like they tend to do with their many acquisitions. Maybe Adobe will come out with an lite version of Illustrator that will do a better job than Illustrator Draw. I really like what they're doing and I'm a CC subscriber. I love their new libraries feature because it enables me to use my graphics in all of my Adobe programs. That being said, their offerings for iOS need more focus. Sketch for Mac has lost its edge and I find myself using Illustrator CC almost every single day. Freehand was a great competitor to Illustrator in its day with a different methodology that had its fans (including myself), but I've come to terms with it long ago and just figured out how to use Illustrator. Adobe messed up with many of their acquisitions the same as Autodesk and stayed on the flash bandwagon for too long. It is good to see that they're finally rebranding flash and moving towards html5 and the future. They got a long way to go in that regard but I trust that they'll eventually make the right decisions. It is also good to see companies making great alternatives ala Affinity Designer. It forces the larger companies to not sit still. I was truly impressed by a lot of what Serif has done with photo and designer. Maybe they'll beat the big boys by releasing some iOS apps that truly will enable designers to finally cut the cord and go mobile. In the meantime, there's always Astropad that will turn my iPad pro into a Wacom Cintiq killer. Procreate is also got the clear lead as the raster drawing app and Pixelmator is an awesome companion to that for layout and photo editing. iOS is actually built on many of the same libraries and frameworks as OS X so it's only a matter of time before we get enough desktop-class apps that'll finally make the desktop no longer necessary.
  • I like is very good thx