Mastering Pencil by FiftyThree

Learn how to create impressive effects with 53’s Pencil stylus and Paper app, using exclusive features like Blend and Surface Pressure.

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Not convinced you need FiftyThree’s Pencil stylus in your life? Or maybe you just want to level-up your digital drawing skills?

With the following tutorials, I reveal all of my techniques for using Surface Pressure and Blend in the iPad app, Paper. Turning you into a Pencil stylus master in no time!

What makes Pencil so unique and special?

Pencil by FiftyThree is not like other styli designed to work with Apple’s iPad tablet. Pencil’s unique shape and meticulously crafted finishes (Walnut, Graphite, and Gold) are the obvious differentiators, but it’s the experiential qualities that truly sets it apart from the rest.

Two Pencil by FiftyThree styli laying on a table with spare tip and packaging.

For the uninitiated, Pencil allows you to switch between tools in an intuitive and natural way when working with Paper (and apps that support FiftyThree’s SDK). Bounce between drawing, erasing, and blending without ever having to “switch tools” — the tip draws, the eraser erases, and your finger smudges.

Hand holding a black metal Pencil stylus drawing an eye in black pencil on a white background.

Switching between modes of working is a breeze with Pencil.

Hand holding a wooden Pencil stylus and using the eraser end to remove a mistake.

Finger smudging a pencil drawing of a woman in Paper for iPadOS.

Paper’s tools have a level of expressiveness that I’ve yet to see matched by other iPad apps. Pencil augments each of them with improved accuracy, finer controls, and a sort of intelligence that reduces unwanted marks — allowing you to rest your wrists on the screen as you work.

Pencil, a year later…

Apart from the addition of Surface Pressure, little has changed since first pairing Pencil with Paper over a year ago. It still feels great to use, still has an insanely long battery life, still enables blending, and still lets you rest your wrists on the screen without messing up your drawing.

Looking for more? Read my full Pencil by FiftyThree Review.

A different kind of tip

Pencil’s wedge shaped tip is covered in a rubbery material like many other iPad styli, but unlike these “dumb” capacitive siblings, Pencil’s is much smarter. Using a combination of hardware + software wizardry, strokes become more expressive depending on their speed, direction, and alignment to the iPad’s screen.

Hand holding a Pencil tip disassembled with spare parts blurred in the background.

Thin lines are made with Pencil’s fine point while wider ones are made with angled edge of the tip. No other stylus I know of has this ability, making Pencil feel less like a digital tool and more like a real piece of charcoal or graphite (without the mess of course). Oh, and in case you were wondering, the tip is user replaceable too.

A built-in eraser

What would a pencil be without an eraser? Well FiftyThree’s Pencil has one of those too. When you want to erase something you just flip Pencil on its head and glide the rubbery edge over the mistake to remove it.

Black metal Pencil propped up on a box of spare erasers with 5 used erasers scattered on the table.

Size can be controlled by making contact with the eraser’s corner (for small mistakes) or the entire surface to remove a larger area. Just like the tip the eraser is replaceable, though I haven’t needed to replace mine yet.

Erasing and undoing

If you’re looking for other erasing techniques that don’t rely on Pencil’s hardware eraser you’re in luck. I wrote an entire guide dedicated to correcting and covering-up mistakes in Paper by FiftyThree.

Palm rejection

I’m going to come right out and say it.

Drawing, painting, and writing digitally on the iPad’s glass surface feels really weird.

Thankfully FiftyThree put the engineering effort into Paper and Pencil to alleviate these issues — specifically related to palm rejection.

When Pencil is connected to Paper (or supporting apps), Palm Rejection completely transforms the drawing experience making it more accessible.

Registering touches consistently is almost impossible for my two little girls at this age because:

  1. The iPad is easily confused by touches made by resting wrists and palms on the screen.
  2. Their small fingers are often ignored by the iPad’s sensors.

Pencil makes coloring on the iPad a reality for my easily frustrated daughters without fanfare or setup — Palm Rejection just works.

Setting up Pencil

There’s not much you need to do before using Pencil. Upon opening the box and removing the plastic wrap you’ll want to slide out the tip to charge the battery via USB. In about 90 minutes you’ll be good to connect it with Paper (or any Pencil ready app) by pressing the tip to the pairing spot.

Wooden Pencil stylus touching the sync button in Paper's tool tray on iPad.

To view more details about your Pencil (battery level, firmware, serial number) tap the FiftyThree logo (or your profile icon when signed into Mix) located in the upper right corner.

Screenshot of Pencil's settings in Paper for iPadOS showing it's connection status, serial number, firmware version, battery level, and finger mode.

Finger settings: Blend, Draw, Nothing

You also have the option to toggle whether your finger Blends, Draws, or does Nothing when Pencil is connected to Paper. If you find Paper mistakenly smudging as you draw, switching to Nothing is a great way to prevent that.

For even more information on how to setup Pencil, change tips, and performing maintenance like updating the firmware — check out FiftyThree’s Support pages. It’s where I first learned about this little fix:

If you have Multitasking Gestures or Accessibility Zoom enabled, this will prevent Pencil from operating effectively. Turn off Multitasking Gestures in your iPad Settings, under General. Turn off Accessibility Zoom under General / Accessibility.

support.fiftythree.com

Surface Pressure, what’s that?

When Pencil is connected to Paper it gains enhanced control and expressiveness over the tools with a feature FiftyThree calls Surface Pressure. Stroke sizes become directly related to how much or how little Pencil’s tips touch the screen.

Curious on the range you can achieve with Surface Pressure enhanced tools?

Grid of six stroke types showing the thickness of each of Paper's tools when applying pressure using the Pencil stylus.

Marks made with each tool: using the tip's point, angled edge, point while zoomed in, and angled edge while zoomed in.

If you ask me, Surface Pressure is Pencil’s killer feature. It has completely transformed how I interact with Paper by allowing me to be more loose with drawing. What does that mean exactly? Well let me show you…

By design Pencil’s invites you to hold it differently

To get the most out of Surface Pressure you’ll want to practice holding it with different grips.

I like to hold Pencil as if it’s a piece of charcoal and utilize the angled tip when sketching. Not only does this change the characteristics of pencil strokes (I’ll get to that in a minute), but it also encourages you to use your entire arm instead of the wrist.

Sketching in this way is more fun serves and serves practical reasons as well. By moving your entire arm you’ll find that:

  1. Drawing straight lines and ovals becomes much easier.
  2. You can create sensitive lines1 at will.
  3. Your drawings will have more movement and energy to them.
  4. It becomes quicker to fill in large areas of space.

A new tool for shading

You may have noticed in the cheat sheet above (or in your own experiments), that the sketch tool takes on new qualities with Surface Pressure. With this tool selected, the angled edge of Pencil’s tip turn into wide textured strokes that resembles those made with charcoal or graphite.

Gesture drawing of a nude woman's bust drawn with a black metal Pencil stylus on a white canvas emulating charcoal on newsprint.

Black charcoal drawing on gray newsprint of a topless woman wearing a robe.

Wide strokes made with the pencil tool overlap differently than the ink, marker, and brush tools. These “shade” strokes have a more defined edge and can cause color banding2 in tones if not smoothed out. To better illustrate this concept here’s what I consider a tone with “blocky” strokes.

Animation showing overlapping wide pencil strokes.
ProTip: shade in circles

Reduce color banding by holding Pencil on its side and moving in a circular motion to evenly fill things in.

If you look closely at the wide strokes of the pencil (sketch) tool, you’ll notice it fades from dark to light.

Closeup wide stroke made with Paper's pencil tool that looks like it was drawn with a stick of charcoal.

In my tests, it seems as if the placement of the darker edge is determined by the angle of the stroke. Dark points up and light points down. I’ve yet to find a way to reverse that, so it’s worth keeping that in the back of your mind when shading horizontally.

Angled rectangular blocks of gray showing examples of Surface Pressure.

Dark points up, light points down.

What’s Surface Pressure good for?

Now that you know what Surface Pressure is and how it works. I thought it would be useful to show off what you can do with it in Paper by FifyThree.

Gesture drawing and other warm-ups

A great way to warm-up before doing any sort of serious drawing is with quick gesture sketches. In art school we’d start each class capturing a model’s movement in a series of 2 minute poses with charcoal and conté crayons.

When drawing with Pencil and the sketch tool you can get a look that resembles charcoal rubbed onto paper. Even better, by working digitally you avoid any of the mess from handling a stick of charcoal.

Examples of gesture drawings created with Pencil and Surface Pressure:

Pencil drawings of two nude females on a gray canvas drawn digitally in Paper.

To get the most out of this technique you’re going to want to hold Pencil differently than you’re accustomed to. Instead of a tripod grip you’ll want to wrap your fingers around Pencil and rest your thumb just below (or on) the tip.

Hand holding Pencil stylus with a traditional writing grip. Hand holding Pencil stylus with a palm grip.

Tripod grip on the left (good for writing), palm grip on the right (good for gesture drawing).

As you sketch and draw with this palm grip you’ll need to get comfortable with both pushing and pulling your strokes. Your entire arm and wrist should be moving — wrist only movements will lack fluidity. To better illustrate what I mean here’s a video of me drawing with the palm grip.

Another great way to loosen up your arm and hand is to draw ovals over and over again. Focus on moving your entire arm in a circular motion directly above the iPad’s screen.

If you take a close look above you’ll notice I make practice strokes in the air above the iPad’s screen before making contact with the Pencil’s tip. This helps achieve accurate and crisp lines without constantly rewinding mistakes.

Shading and tone building

The same layering principles used when glazing can be applied to the pencil tool with Surface Pressure.

Painting with watercolor

If you’re new to Paper and the color tool, learn all about glazing with my Mastering Paper: Back to Basics guide.

Surface Pressure enabled shading does most of the hard work by automatically making marks that fade into the canvas. If you’ve had trouble painting smoothly with the watercolor brush before, give the sketch tool a try — it’s way more forgiving.

Red to blue pencil shading on a dark gray canvas.

Create smooth transitions by overlapping colors using Surface Pressure.

Remember, each pass with Pencil’s angled tip leaves a noticeable edge when overlapped — use this to your advantage! By being deliberate in the direction of your strokes you will help define and reinforce the form of an object. Sort of like how hatching works, but with fatter strokes.

By curving my strokes around the contour of the tomato I let Pencil and Surface Pressure do all the work.

Pencil drawings of tomatoes shaded in grays and color on a warm gray background.

ProTip: zoom In

For even more granularity over how fast a shade darkens, zoom in! You get more levels of variation to add nuance to the gradations.

Blend, the smudge tool

As you might have guessed from the above heading, Blend lets you smudge stuff. This feature is only available to Paper when Pencil is connected, so you’ll want to pick one up to partake in blending fun. Trust me it’s totally worth it!

Closeup of a finger blending a painting in Paper for iPadOS.

How does blending work in Paper?

It’s not a tool you select like the others, triggering it is way more intuitive than that. You use your finger to smudge whatever it is you want to blend or blur. And like most of Paper’s tools it reacts to the speed of your movement allowing dynamic control on the fly.

ProTip: blending with a non-Pencil Stylus

If you’re looking for more control and accuracy over your blends, try a capacitive stylus instead of your finger. As long as the tip of the stylus is big enough and Pencil is connected this should work. I’ve had success using a Pogo Connect and some cheap styli I picked up from Amazon.

Hand holding a with capacitive stylus to blur a yellow circle on a gray background in Paper for iPadOS.

Using a cheap capacitive stylus to Blend instead of a finger.

How does blending work in other apps?

Apps that support FiftyThree’s SDK (like Procreate) get some special abilities when connecting Pencil to them. In Procreate for example, your finger will activate the Smudge tool so you can freely switch between it and the Paint tool.

ProTip: Pencil’s eraser in Procreate

And just like with Paper, Pencil’s physical eraser will trigger the eraser tool in Procreate. The current Erase tool settings will be used whenever you flip Pencil on it’s top to correct mistakes.

Paper and Blend settings

In case you skimmed through the first half of this article where I covered Pencil’s settings panel in Paper, here’s the important part to gleam.

Screenshot of Pencil's Finger settings in Paper app for iPadOS.

Paper is good about distinguishing between the tip of Pencil and your finger to avoid unwanted blends. But if you have a lighter touch when drawing you might find that you trigger it more than you’d like. In this case I suggest flipping between Blend and Nothing to toggle it on/off when needed.

What’s Blend good for?

When used in moderation smudging and blurring your drawings can take them to the next level. If you thought Surface Pressure was cool wait till you see what’s possible with Blend.

Depth of field and “bokeh” effects

The first thing I did when experimenting with Pencil was to smudge up the background of a portrait I drew of my wife. Before Blend I was using the watercolor brush to dab blotches of white to simulate a bokeh3 effect.

By rubbing my finger across the background in a circular motion I was able to drop it out-of-focus, creating a more realistic bokeh.

Finger blending green trees behind a faceless woman to simulate a bokeh effect on iPad.

Experiment with the speed at which you move your finger. The slower the more intense the blur…

As you blend the background pay careful attention not to cut too far into the foreground. It’s this contrast between sharp and blurry that will ultimately help sell the effect by creating depth in the piece.

ProTip: sketch over a Blend

After blurring a background with the Blend tool go back over the edges of foreground objects. When drawing portraits I like to sketch wispy hair over a blurred background to add depth to the drawing.

More blurred backgrounds

Here’s a few Paper portraits I used Pencil and Blend to draw. In the second drawing I purposely smudged the figure’s hand instead of the background to mix things up. Have fun and experiment with focal points!

Drawing of Thomas D.

Drawing of Twitter user @hjalle

Drawing of Rene D.

This technique of blurring the background doesn’t have to be used with just portraiture. In the following example it can be used to simulate macro photography, focusing on one object and throwing the rest out of focus.

The process is the same:

  1. Start by blocking out the background with the watercolor brush.
  2. Refine shapes and drop in color using the fountain pen.
  3. Evenly blend the objects you want to appear out-of-focus (in this case the entire background).
  4. Draw the “in-focus” object leaving sharp edges and adding highlights and other details to make the illusion more convincing.

plant blend step 1

plant blend step 2

plant blend step 3

plant blend step 4

Reflections

Ah reflections… they’re so magical and easy to achieve with Blend. With a few minutes of quick drawing and a couple of swipes of your finger you can create photo realistic scenes like these:

Mountain range and trees reflected in water, painted on Paper for iPadOS.

Mountains, green trees, and clouds illustrated in Paper for iPadOS.

To start you’ll want to use the pencil tool to mark the horizon, and sketch out your scene — I like to use a light gray color for that. Then start to paint in the sky and shape the mountains using the brush and fountain pen tools.

Light blue clouds painted on a white canvas.

Light blue clouds and water painted on a white canvas.

White and gray mountain ranges blocked out on top of a light blue sky.

Adding snowy details to the mountains is next, followed by inking in a row of trees. If you’re looking for help with drawing foliage and other greens be sure to check out my Mastering Paper: Drawing Trees and Grass tutorial.

Medium blue shapes added to a mountain range painting.

Dark green trees drawn in front of a mountain range at the horizon line.

Spend most of your effort perfecting the top half of the scene. Once you’re happy with it we’re going to create its mirror image. Select the fountain pen tool and roughly draw everything again — in the bottom half and flipped upside down.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just want to match the colors and general shape of each object — the most important ones being the trees.

Dark green ink strokes drawn below the trees to act as their reflection.

Now the fun part. Make sure Pencil is connected, Blend is turned on, and begin smudging everything from the horizon line down. At first, move fast to create a soft blur. Then gradually begin pulling trees into the water by dragging your finger slower.

To finish things off, select the pencil tool to sketch in waves, foam, and other details. Feel free to redraw any trees and shoreline you may have mistakenly blended when creating the water reflections.

detail shot of water waves

Need more pointers for drawing and painting water? I have you covered with my Mastering Paper: Drawing Water and Waves tutorial.

Underwater and dreamy scenes

The same process for creating reflections can be used to paint beautiful underwater scenes as well.

scuba diver painted with Pencil

underwater dream painted with Pencil

scuba diver painted with Pencil

Similar to the reflection effect, you’ll want to determine what will be in and out of focus. In this case everything behind the scuba diver will be blurry so that’s what we will paint first.

Using the watercolor brush you’ll want to lay down a base color and then start layering objects on top of that. Feel free to use the pencil, ink pens, or marker tools to draw the rest of the background.

Don’t worry about adding too many details at this point, we’re going to smudge most of the scene away in a minute…”

Light blue watercolor glazes inside of a square shape outlined in black.

Underwater shapes painted in blue.

Underwater scene painted in blue.

With our background in good shape make sure Pencil and start smudging away. Using a circular motion softly move your finger tip over the background to blur it evenly.

When done correctly the water should look almost dreamlike with a uniform blur across the entire plane. To finish, add details like bubbles, more fish, or plant life to the scene. If you don’t blend them they will automatically look as if they’re floating above the water adding a nice sense of depth to the scene.

Light gray sketch of a scuba diver drawn over an underwater scene.

Scuba diver with his arms open underwater.

By leaving the edges around the scuba diver sharp, the figure will pop-off the page as it contrasts against the soft background.

Clouds, smoke, and fog

Building on the techniques found in my Mastering Paper: Drawing Clouds tutorial, a few well placed cloud smudges can greatly improve their realism. You can also modify the type of cloud on display by varying the speed of your blends.

Sunset scene of pink and purple clouds blended with Pencil.

Use quick blends for fluffy clouds and slow dragging smudges for for streaky ones.

Storm scene of dark gray clouds blurred together.

These techniques can be used for much more than enhancing clouds. They also work great for softening pencil strokes, turning them into the beautiful aurora borealis (the Northern Lights).

Purple shapes in various tones with white pencil marks to transition them.

Finger smudging the iPad's screen to blur purple tones together.

Give light trails a sense of motion by pulling your blend strokes slowly. Practice smudging the aurora borealis on Mix.

Simulate atmospheric perspective

One way of adding depth to a landscape is by adhering to the properties of atmospheric perspective. Simply put — far away objects appear more faded than those in the foreground.

Now you could be meticulous with your color choices and purposely mix gray and blue as you paint to get a similar effect. But if you’re anything like me you wouldn’t mind a shortcut to speed things up.

In this digital drawing of trees, the layers near the top are the most heavily blended. While the dark green trees at the bottom remain sharp and untouched.

Composition of trees shapes drawn in different values of green.

Blend the plane (or object) furthest from the foreground the most and gradually decrease that amount as you move forwards.

Lightest trees near the top of the composition are blurred.

Very similar to the reflection example from earlier, you can create a dense layer of fog by blending everything — not just the reflected trees. By smudging over the drawing it effectively lowers the contrast making it appear hazy.

Gray canvas with a dark gray lne 3/4th's of the way down the page.

Start by drawing the horizon line so you know where to place the trees and those that will be reflected below in the water. Then cover the canvas in circular blend strokes to blur everything.

Small trees sketched in gray along the horizon line.

Small trees drawn upside down and reflected from the ones above them.

The fog effect is achieved by covering the canvas in circular blend strokes to blur everything. Once blurred subtle details can be added to define the tree tops and small waves in the water.

Two sets of trees drawn in gray, blurred.

Closeup of white pencil strokes added to gray shapes to emulate water ripples in a lake.

Lighting effects

Before Pencil and Blend were a thing you had to get creative with white paint to make lens flares and other glowing orbs of light. With a few quick swipes of your finger you can easily transform plain shapes and lines into lightsabers, auras, lightning, and more.

Lightsaber and lightning animations, before and after applying blends.

Outer space scenes

Galaxies far far away, stars, planets, black holes, and countless other celestial bodies can also benefit from blends and smudges. For in-depth instructions and videos be sure to check out my Mastering Paper: Drawing Outer Space guide.

Solar eclipse scene in space, drawn digitally on Paper for iPadOS.

Space scene of a purple aurora, drawn digitally on Paper for iPadOS.

The two sets of tutorials show how to smear color around a black canvas to create planets and glowing stars. And for those of you who don’t own Pencil yet I walk you through how to create a similar scene with your fingers.

Simulate fire and flames

By alternating between quick blends and slow smudges you can create realistic looking flames and fire. It takes some practice to get the speed right, but once mastered I think the end results speak for themselves.

Orange and blue flame drawn on Paper for iPadOS.

Flames aren’t the only thing you can smudge into existence. Pencil strokes can be transformed into smoke trails just as easily with slow blends.

Drawing of a burning match stick with smoke and flame against a black background, drawn digitally on Paper for iPadOS.

How to improve blends

The temptation is high to abuse the Blend feature in Paper — especially after learning about all these awesome effects. It’s easy to turn a drawing into a smeared mess resembling something you’d find on Photoshop Disasters if don’t know when to quit, a fact I learned the first time I tried to blend a face.

Fear not, here are pointers to help keep your blends, blurs, and smudges in check.

Paint over a blend

A nice way to recover from over worked blends is by applying layers of watercolor on top. This helps restore balance by upping the texture and downplaying the airbrushed look. Thoughtfully placed pencil strokes can also have the same effect when combined with the right color.

Bring life back to aggressive blurs by adding texture with sketch or watercolor strokes.

Pencil strokes of white, gray, and green on a black background.

Feather touches

Getting the intensity of a blur right isn’t always easy. To make a subtle blend you have to graze the iPad’s screen as you quickly swipe against it. This works OK when you’re covering a large area, but for small area blends it can be a real challenge.

The trick is to be fast. By barely touching the iPad’s screen while you swipe it fast, you can create blends that aren’t as harsh.

Stronger blending with zoom

When opening the magnifying loupe to zoom-in the blurring effects intensifies which has its pros and cons. For subtle blurs I suggest smudging when in the zoom circle.

Phew — this was a long one! I covered a ton of material so if anything is unclear or needs further explanation, please let me know.

And if you create something cool with Blend feel free to share in comments below, or ping me on Twitter. I’m always interested to see what the Paper community is doing with FiftyThree’s set of tools.

Buy Pencil by FiftyThree


  1. The shifting quality of weight, value, and texture of a line as related to a light source, spatial position, and mass of an object.

  2. Abrupt changes between shades of the same color.

  3. In photography, bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”.

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About the author

Hi I’m Michael Rose. Just another boring, bearded, tattooed, time traveling designer from Buffalo New York. I maintain several open source projects and occassionally blog.

Glitched photo of Michael Rose with a long beard.

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3 comments

  1. Keeven Eeven wrote on

    Wow. You’ve taken this tool as far as it can go nice work. I love sketching with my pencil. I hope they continue to develop it…

  2. Mike Moon wrote on

    I wanted to learn a little something about the 53 Pencil before the anticipated Saint Nick delivery of one.

    Wow. You’ve covered a ton of techniques.Thank you ever so much.

  3. Suzé Gilbert wrote on

    Michael, this and all of your Paper tutorials are fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your techniques and tips. Question, can you provide all of these in an ePub or PDF format so one can download them and read it in iBooks? I would very gladly pay for something like this. Just a thought.

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