How it works: the basics

I’ve gotten a few questions on social media about what I use to make these things, so I figured I’d cover the process here. I’d like to discuss artistic techniques at some point, and maybe even do a video or two; I already posted a video a short while ago to show another artist how I build up dimensionality by layering. I’ll cover that in another post; though—this is primarily about Notes as an art tool.

This is going to be pretty nuts-and-boltsy, but if you’re doing art in Notes, or interested in doing it, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

The tech

I use an iPhone XS, running iOS 15.4. That’s an old phone, and I’ve since upgraded to an iPhone 14. I’ve stuck with the XS for Notes art, though, because:

  • The smaller size fits in my hand better
  • The Notes app in iOS 16 makes it tricky to move the canvas when zoomed in. Attempting to do a two-finger drag usually (not always but often) results in drawing a line instead of dragging the canvas. Switching to a different tool fixes this temporarily—you can drag at that point—but it’s annoying enough that I’ve been sticking with my old phone for art.

Update: Apple fixed this bug in iOS 16.3, so I’m now using my iPhone 14. Thank you, Apple!

A few people have asked me if I use a stylus. I don’t; iPhones don’t support the Apple Pencil yet, and while there are third-party styluses out there, I haven’t found them to be very good. So yeah, I draw these with my finger.

I do have an iPad Pro that I use for other artwork, and that combined with the Apple Pencil is the best tablet I’ve ever used. As far as the Notes art, though, I doubt I’d move to the Pencil even when phones start supporting it, since I feel like I have more control with my finger.

Starting a drawing

What I used to do

When I first started sketching in Notes, I’d select the Pen tool and draw directly on the note itself. To put down a colored background, I’d either use the largest-size pen width, or the highlighter tool; both are good for drawing a colored background with minimal effort. (I often used the highlighter, but I’d recommend the pen tool; the highlighter is translucent, so overlapping brushstrokes result in stripes and an uneven background. Unless you specifically want that effect, the pen is best for a uniform color background.)

The problems:

  • Even if you can draw it quickly, you still have to draw it.
  • It’s important that the canvas doesn’t extend past the size of the screen. If it’s too long, it’ll get cropped when I take a screenshot of it (and screenshots are pretty crucial in this process, for reasons I’ll get to). Given that the drawing tools take up some of the available space, measuring the exact canvas size you need can be tricky. Not hugely difficult, but I like to eliminate microfrictions like this wherever I can.
  • You can’t zoom. Notes only allows you to zoom into attachments; if you’re drawing directly on a note, you can’t magnify that drawing. When you’re using your finger to draw on a screen the size of an index card, zooming is kind of important.

A lot of my original drawings were un-zoomed, which gives them a rough, woodcut look. I actually like that aesthetic, but I prefer to work more precisely now.

What I do now

The first thing I do is create the canvas: a colored rectangular image the size of the phone screen. I then paste the canvas into the Notes app and draw on that. This saves me from having to measure the area and manually fill it with color, and since it’s an attachment, I can zoom as needed.

I have a Shortcuts workflow for this. It’s a simple little workflow that displays a color picker, generates the canvas image, copies it to the clipboard, and then creates a new note for me. (I have to paste it myself, but hard work is part of being an artist.)

Shortcuts is an automation tool that comes with iOS (and now, macOS). It’s great—I use it all the time for repetitive tasks.

The drawing process

There are a few things about the drawing process that I keep in mind.

Take screenshots often.

I take screenshots very frequently when drawing. Notes is a great little app, but since I’m using it for something it wasn’t designed to do, it occasionally glitches, resulting in unsaved or corrupted work.

A few times, Notes will abruptly invert the edges of a part of the drawing, which results in the lines having a very dark or light border.

If you’re sketching on an attachment, it’s possible to copy the attachment and paste it into a new note. I recommend screenshots because I think they’re more stable. I’m not familiar with Notes’s internal workings, but it looks like every line you put down is its own object, like something you’d draw in Illustrator or a vector drawing program; it’s not just a flat collection of pixels. This is nice for quickly erasing many lines, or doing a whole series of undos if you’re not happy with a particular direction, but it also makes the attachment very large and (my own suspicion) makes the sketch more prone to glitches.

iOS indicates that the attachment you’re working on is a bitmap (mine are PNGs, probably because that’s the format generated by the canvas creation shortcut), but copying an attachment seems to include all those objects/undo states, so you might find your backup gets corrupted as well. I strongly recommend screenshotting as often as possible.

Quality: There isn’t an obvious difference between the quality of an original sketch and a screenshot of it. I notice some slight blurriness when I do a close, zoomed-in comparison between the two, but it’s not something you’d notice when the drawing is at its normal size, or printed.

Keep an eye on the file size.

How to do this: Exit drawing mode, open the image (tap it so it fills the screen), and then tap the “Share” icon (lower left). At the top of the share sheet, next to the image’s name, you’ll see its file format and file size.

Complex, line-heavy drawings can get very large. The 100MB range is the redline area; Notes often stops saving changes past that size. When I’m working on a drawing, and I get up to around 80–90MB, I start over: take a screenshot, and paste it into a new note.

Super-thin-line hack

Notes offers you five different line weights, ranging from very thin to very thick. There is, however, a trick to get an even thinner line.

  1. Close and then re-open the drawing in Notes
  2. Before drawing anything, zoom in
  3. After zooming in, select the thinnest line weight. Then draw.

You’ll notice that the stroke is significantly thinner than it would be if you selected the thin weight at the drawing’s normal size. What seems to be happening is that if you zoom before drawing anything, Notes doesn’t increase the stroke size to match the zoomed-in scale; it simply renders the stroke at its normal size, which—when applied to a canvas that’s around 200–300% magnified—becomes very fine when the drawing is returned to its normal scale.

This is probably not normal behavior—i.e. that trick might not work in future versions of Notes—but it works as of iOS 16.1. I don’t use the super-thin line much anyway. There were a few drawings where it came in handy, particularly for eyes, but nowadays, if I need a very smooth texture, I’d use the Pencil tool.

Hope this was useful! I’ll probably get into the Pencil tool next, since I’ve been using that a lot these days.