Mastering Paper for iOS: back to the basics

11 min read

Reading through my earlier guides I came to the realization that I glossed over many basic drawing and painting techniques. Since I refer to the same techniques over and over again it would probably be helpful if I actually explained them. So here is my attempt at remedying that.

Pencil techniques

I once described Paper’s pencil tool as versatile and perfect in almost any situation. When used in conjunction with a Pogo Connect or FiftyThree’s Pencil stylus, those sentiments ring even truer. So what exactly can you do with the tool?

Painting with Pencil

Learning how to produce a continuous tone with the pencil tool is a worthwhile endeavor that I encourage you to practice. Once mastered you will have the skill needed to fade values into one another and model forms three dimensionally.

A couple of points to keep in mind for creating an even tone.

  1. Work in one direction moving parallel (example: up/down, left/right).
  2. Don’t be tempted to overwork and area — keep moving at a steady pace.
  3. If you are using a stylus with a sensitive tip (e.g. a Pogo Connect), don’t vary the amount of pressure you apply — keep it constant and light unless you’re trying to fade the tone.
Pencil shading samples
Examples of shading using the pencil tool

Once you’ve gotten the hang of producing a range of smooth values, it can be fun to introduce additional colors to the mix. Colors can be dry blended by overlapping pencil strokes directly on canvas, giving the impression that they’ve been mixed.

ProTip: dry mixing

Avoid overlapping one color with the other too much. Doing so will kill the translucency of the pencil strokes and any mixing that might have occurred.

Colored pencil mixes
Dry mixing colored pencils

Ink techniques

Out of the two ink tools that Paper comes with, the pen (or Write as FiftyThree calls it) is much easier to produce consistent results with. Stroke speed and pressure do little to modify the line quality which allows you to focus more on accuracy and placement. The fountain pen on the other hand can make drawing a line without weight fluctuations incredibly challenging — as shown below.

Comparing straight lines made with the ink tools
Comparing ink tools and the lines they make

By all means use whatever tool you’re most comfortable with. If you’re new to drawing on an iPad and just want to practice the following techniques, do yourself a solid and stick with the ink pen.

There are many techniques for suggesting light and shadow when drawing with ink but they all follow the same general principle. Draw marks where there are shadows, and leave the canvas blank where there are highlights.

Parallel hatching

As the name implies, the lines you will be making should run parallel to each other. These lines can be vertical, horizontal, or at an angle — pick one and stick with it throughout the drawing. By drawing lines closer together they will appear to blend and create the illusion of being darker.

Parallel hatching examples
Examples of parallel hatching

Another way to modify the overall tone created by these lines is to vary their thickness. This can be achieved by using the fountain pen and drawing thicker lines by pressing harder (if you use a Pogo Connect stylus) or making quick swipes (if you’re using a normal stylus or your finger).

Parallel hatching thicker line example
Varying the line width using the fountain pen

Contour hatching

If you’re feeling confident and have honed your powers of observation by drawing blind contours, you should be all set for contour hatching. Instead of making straight marks like we did with parallel hatching, you will draw lines that follow the curved contours of your subject.

Contour hatching examples
Examples of contour hatching

Personally I don’t often have the patience required to create an accurate drawing using this technique. When done well contour hatching will enhance the form of your subject and make it appear more three dimensional.

Cross hatching

Cross hatching is exactly what you’d expect, hatch marks that cross one another. It’s an effective way to quickly darken or shade a subject. I like to use the parallel hatching technique and build on that by crossing the lines at a slight angle. Contour lines can also be crossed for more life like results.

Cross hatching examples
Examples of cross hatching


Instead of using lines to create tone and texture, you can use small marks. Much like the hatching techniques described above you vary the tone by increasing the density of these marks — the higher the concentration the darker it will appear.

Stippling examples
Examples of stippling techniques

The placement of these marks can be as expressive or mathematically as you want. I prefer to be free and loose, but don’t let that limit what feels right to you. Stippling marks can be anything you want — short ticks, dots, crosses, circles. And they can even be combined with hatching to add detail and enhance the effect.

ProTip: hatching — not just for inking

Most of the ink techniques above can be adapted to the pencil tool and used to shade and create gradations of tone — specifically parallel, contour, and cross hatching.

Ink blobs and drips

Using both ink pens and the pencil you can simulate ink splatter, blobs, and dribs. The idea here is to recreate those happy accidents in a natural and random way. To start create a grouping of small circles and dots using the fountain pen.

To make these shapes more irregular, zoom in and distort their shape by adding bumps and points along the edges. You don’t have to overdo this step — small variations here and there will do the trick.

Adding detail to ink blobs
Adding detail to ink blobs

Applying a few shadows and highlights with the pencil tool can make these shapes pop off the canvas. Draw a few dark strokes on one side of the blob, and then using a light color draw a highlight on the opposite side. Depending on how thick of a blob you are going for you may need to add a cast shadow using the pencil or watercolor brush filled with a light gray.

Adding shadows and highlights to blobs
Ink splatter variations

Watercolor brush techniques

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve already read my Paper by 53 Introduction and Tool Guide, where I explain how the brush works and some of its nuances. With this understanding the following four techniques should make more sense.

Painting smooth

The question that hits my inbox the most is “how do you paint so smoothly?” Well here’s my secret. Paint a continuous stroke, without lifting your finger or stylus. If you lift and dab an area multiple times it will darken and turn bumpy — don’t do that!

Choppy and smoothly painted shapes
A choppy painted shape vs. one painted smoothly

The other important variable to consider is moving your finger (or stylus) across the screen at a slow pace. If you rub in a circle motion on an area that is light it will eventually darken to its maximum point. As long as you don’t lift as you circle over these lighter spots, everything will even out.

Here’s how I paint a shape smoothly.

Feathering edges

Reliably producing a painted edge that is soft and blurry becomes important when blending shapes into each other. To achieve this effect you need to gradually increase the speed of your stroke as you approach the edge you want to feather.

Feathering an edge with the watercolor brush

A wet-on-wet effect can be simulated by feathering brush strokes into each other. Getting the perfect fade can be tricky, so don’t be afraid to rewind and trying again. I almost never get it right the first time.

Blended shapes
Shapes blended into each other by feathering the edges

Lightening with white

The watercolor brush has the unique ability of lightening previously painted or drawn areas when filled with white. This can be an effective way of pulling highlights out of your subject or to erase mistakes.

Range of white tints
Various tints made by mixing colors with white

ProTip: paint with tints

Lightening with colors tinted[^tint] with white often yield better results and are easier to control than a solid white.

Lightening an area with white
Lightening an area with white

White paint behaves slightly different from the other colors available in the mixer and default palettes. Much like painting with pure black it fills in quickly. Which means if you use it to paint, you have to move fast or risk completely covering up anything you paint over with white.

ProTip: dab fast

Quick, short strokes in a dabbing motion work great for lightening an area gradually.


When painting with the brush you are essentially spreading layers of transparent paint (or a glaze1) on top of each other. These glazes don’t actually mix with one another, but because they are translucent, colors can appear to combine when layered. Glazes also have the benefit of increasing the depth and brightness (luminosity) of a color with each successive layer.

Glazes created with the watercolor brush
Layering glazes makes for a richer and more deep color

I like to think of glazes as my color harmonizers that tint everything with a similar hue. A great way to tie a piece together if your colors aren’t quite working together.

Glaze harmonizing before imageGlaze harmonizing after image
Applying a glaze to harmonize a color palette


If glazes are applied on top of a painting or drawing, underpaintings are the layers applied below. They are most often used to pre-tone the canvas by removing white from it. The color(s) you choose can have a profound effect on digital pigments and strokes applied on top of them.

Red underpainting with green tree comparison
Naked canvas on the left, pre-toned on the right to increase vibrancy.

For example, contrasting colors can create some vibrancy in the scene. A lush landscape filled with a cool sky and green trees, pre-toned with a reddish glaze will cause the space around the leaves to shine through. Much more than if the canvas was left white.

Or you can tone the canvas with the composition’s dominant color. When doing detail work you won’t have to worrying about covering up the bits of white canvas that show through. The background will roughly match what you are painting as your main subject, saving you precious time.

Blocking out shapes with watercolor
Working out the shapes and values of a composition before adding detail

An underpainting layer can also be used to establish the correct values and confirm the composition of your subject. Think of it as sketching with the brush, but instead of making contour lines you are blocking out rough shapes of value to capture your subject.

Color theory basics

Primary colors

Thinking back to elementary school you probably heard the term primary color thrown around. The idea of a primary color is that it should be possible to mix every other color out of these three. Traditionally these three primary colors have been red, yellow, and blue.

Now I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting you mix primary colors on canvas2 to produce secondary and tertiary colors, but it’s worth understanding how they’re made.

Traditional color wheel
Traditional color wheel

Complementary colors and grays

On the traditional color wheel complementary colors are across from each other (red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet). When complements are mixed together, they should result in a neutral gray.

Mixing complementary colors together
As you can see, in Paper complementary colors that are mixed on canvas don’t exactly turn to a neutral gray.

Since mixing complements visually on canvas doesn’t result in a neutral gray in Paper, we can mix them another way. The results aren’t quite the same as if you were mixing oil paints on a real palette, but they get the job done. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Select the two complementary colors you wish to mix and put one in the Color Mixer by dragging it over, and the other in one of your open palette slots.
  2. To neutralize them, do one full rotation of the Color Mixer with both complementary colors selected.
  3. Finally tap the color in the Mixer and slide the saturation (middle bar) down somewhere between 10–20% to dull it.

I’ve found that instead of mixing grays from white and black, it is more pleasing to mix them from pairs of complementary colors. This gives you a limitless amount of “grays” to pull from for your palettes.

Range of grays from mixing complements
Range of grays made by mixing complementary colors and desaturating them

Mixing complements also helps to unify your composition’s palette. Using these “neutral grays” as glazes and layering them on top of each other is a useful way for making shadows.

Atmospheric perspective

Atmospheric perspective is the phenomenon where intense foreground colors gradually change until they match the sky. As you travel back objects generally lose saturation in color, becoming grayer. For example warm colors like red and orange will dull and cool off.

The amount of contrast in the subject also changes. The illuminated and shadowed sides of an object lower in contrast and flatten as you move further into the background. These objects also begin to loss clarity and will blur and become fuzzy — a perfect subject for the Blend tool.

Atmospheric perspective example
An example of atmospheric perspective in this mountain background

ProTip: color temperature

If you learn one thing about working with color make it this: Warm colors advance, and cool colors recede. The reverse is also true but much more rare in nature.

Well there you have it. With this crash course in pencil shading, ink techniques, watercolor glazes, and the basics of color theory my other guides should hopefully make more sense now. And if they don’t just hit up the comments below with questions and feedback.

Oh, and I just finished writing a first draft of the next Mastering Paper by FiftyThree installment all about painting skin and faces. Should be ready just as soon as I finish illustrating it in the coming week…

  1. Glazing is a watercolor technique that uses a thin, transparent pigment applied over dry existing washes. Its purpose is to adjust the color and tone of the underlying wash. 

  2. Visually mixing colors directly on canvas can be fun, but the results aren’t always the best. I suggest using the Color Mixer instead since you’ll achieve more vibrant hues. 

Enjoyed this content?

Help keep it free by sending a donation or purchasing something from my Amazon Wish List. You can also subscribe to various site feeds to get notified of new posts or follow me on social media.


This? This is freakin’ awesome! Thanks so much for sharing your mad skills and expertise with us!

Nicely done! Looking forward to more how-to articles!

Great tutorial! :) Keep going.

You are amazing, thank you so much for making these articles!

Ben Hoffer on

You good sir are the man…thanks for sharing your brilliance :)

Very nice written articles, looking forward to the new ones!

AbbyObi on

Awesome! Thanks for the great tutorial :)

idol chan on

the level of awesomeness is too damn high

Fantastic help for getting started with 53. Thanks so much. Your work is amazing

Need the most basic instruction of all!!! How do I start a new drawing, by bringing up a blank page, which allows me to swipe up to bring in the tool bar

Pinch the page and it will zoom out to a view that allows you to swipe through, add, or delete pages. Pinch again and you’ll see all of your journals. For more help check FiftyThree’s support page, it has videos and animations showing how to do all the basics.

Thank you for this guide!! There is still one thing I do not understand: I have watched your video on the watercolor tool and tried to colour slowly and evenly in one go but the final outcome still looks blotchy. I’m using my finger for this, could that be it?

I’ve noticed that painting with the Pencil stylus allows you paint faster and does seem to produce a smoother tone easier, but the same effect is possible using just your finger.

Try moving in a small circular pattern as you paint, it will help even things. And of course do not lift your finger off the screen or else you’ll start to darken areas and won’t get that smooth tone.

Other than that keep practicing.

Graham Krewinghaus on

Hi Michael,

I was scrolling down your page, looking for inspiration (which I do whenever I have drawer’s block), and I saw your ink splatter example and wondered if you could put that in some more detail. Would you mind maybe explaining your process more extensively?

There’s not much more to the process than what I included above.

  1. Use the pen tools to create the general shape and fill it in.
  2. Add some dots of various sizes around it to simulate the splatter.
  3. To make some blobs look more 3D add highlights using white or another light color with the pencil tool.
  4. To finish it off add a drop shadow with a light gray and the watercolor brush, zoom in, and paint quickly along the edge where you want to cast a shadow.

I just found your site and articles about Paper and want to thank you!

They are beautiful, very well written and have inspired me to get more out of my Pencil and Paper.

You’re welcome Laura! Glad you’ve found them useful.

My pleasure, Michael. I posted a couple of links to your articles on a blog I wrote a couple of months back so my readers can find them.

Lynn Mason on

Hi Michael I’ve never found anything that makes the transition from pencil and paper to digital that is so effortless. More so because of your great tutorials. I have a question on neutralizing colors by mixing with complement. I dragged the small circle around the color mixer with the compliment also selected but I didn’t see a difference. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the instruction: “To neutralize them, do one full rotation of the Color Mixer with both complementary colors selected.”

My Pencil by 53 is on the way, but I’m learning while using my finger and another stylus.

Did you rotate the little circle clockwise? If you have say red in the big circle, then select a green from the palettes on the right, when you rotate the big circle clockwise you should see it change colors as green is mixed into it.

Looks something like this:

neutralizing a color

Do you have any advice about different papers for ball pens. Ball ROller Gel and Felt I doodle. But some papers are way better than others and I’m having difficulty figuring out . I have come across newsprint (like the wight of a daily paper. But no idea where to get more. Or even what words I us to search for it. any help will be appreciated

Not really. I work mostly digital these days so I’m probably the wrong person to ask for advice on traditional materials.

Leave a comment