The Pencil tool

Whenever I talk about the pencil tool, I have to specify that I mean the virtual one in Notes, not the $99 stylus. In your Notes app, the pencil is the third tool from the left. It looks very similar to the pen, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it has the flattened sides of a pencil, with the weight printed on it in tiny letters, no less. Somebody at Apple (probably a lot of somebodies) was obviously a studio arts major.

A screenshot of the iOS drawing tools with the pencil tool circled

The pencil is one of these little Apple flourishes that I really like. Both the pen and highlighter are just fine for marking up documents, but Apple went the extra mile and included a pencil. It’s a really good one, too: the pencil texture is very realistic. That quality likely goes unappreciated if you’re just circling text in a PDF, but it counts when you’re actually drawing with it.

Five red pencil lines, each one a different thickness

Longtime Mac users might recall that this isn’t the first time Apple’s incorporated art tools into its software. One of the things people liked about Mac OS 8 was the crayon box (and if you used the machine long enough, the crayons even wore down over time).

A screenshot of a dialog box with a picture of a box of crayons. Clicking a crayon selects the color it represents.

I don’t remember which drawing I first used the pencil tool on. It might have been the bulb balloon drawing, but I think I used it to its full potential in the drawing I did for Thanksgiving.


What’s nice about the pencil is that the lines are textured; they don’t have hard edges. This makes them useful for slight touches.

Tip: Notes doesn’t show you the specific opacity value when you’re adjusting it in the opacity slider for a tool. If you want to see it, set your opacity and then open the color picker; the current opacity is displayed there.

Also, the tool’s opacity is reset as soon as you choose a different color. If there’s a particular color opacity that you want to preserve, add it as one of your saved colors by hitting the + button in the color picker.

It’s worth noting that I almost never use the pencil at full opacity. That’s too heavy for things like highlighting and atmospherics, so I usually bring it down to something in the range of 3%–8% opacity. A good trick for creating smooth textures is to make it really light—say, 2–3%—and then build up the color by layering the strokes on top of each other. That gives you more control over the saturation, and it’s smoother, since the pencil texture in all those lines starts to blend together. (If you want the texture to be visible, though—and it’s a nice texture, so sometimes you do—it might be better to start with a darker line and just try different opacities on a single line until you find the one you want.)

Minimal highlights

First and foremost, I’ve found the pencil tool useful for adding very light, soft highlights in places where doing this with the pen tool would be overly sharp.

Some examples:

A chemical canister stands next to a wine glass filled with a glowing green substance
The light reflection on the bottle and glass, and the center of the green glow
A tiny angel stands on the round, red head of a pin. The pin is wearing a green suit coat with an ID badge
The light reflections on the sides of the pin (the “neck”)
A wicked general with a shaved head, a mustache, and a monocle that looks like the nuclear clock
This guy’s face

Small details

Beyond highlights, there are often subtle parts of a drawing where the pencil comes in handy.

A giant furnace-like espresso machine dominates a tiny room, a cup of coffee balanced on one of its edges
The fire, glowing bars, and red highlight on the cup (as well as the glow around the red buttons)
A flaming person pilots a glowing red lightbulb across a snowscape at night
The figure driving the bulb, as well as bulb highlights and ground reflections
An observatory on a snow-covered hill, with an unusually bright star gleaming in the sky (which is most likely a supernova and not a celestial omen if we're being coldly practical here)
Clouds, light reflections on snow, fog effects on the building and forest


I’ve found the pencil tool to be most useful for situations where I need a lot of light, soft lines that form a blurry area. This is something that neither the pen nor the highlighter can do particularly well, given the hard-edged strokes of both tools.

I’m still working on these techniques. My problem is that in a lot of cases, the individual pencil strokes are still visible, giving the final result a stripey, uneven appearance.

A vast ship emerges from the fog. A Native American stands on the shore watching it.
The fog around the emerging ship, as well as small fog effects around the trees
A troll emerges from a foggy wood.
The fog around the creature, as well as the cloudy sky (and the creature’s facial features)
An unearthly glow hovers over a city celebrating New Year's Eve. On one building, a small figure standing next to some baggage signals what may be a descending spacecraft.
The clouds and light, as well as the glow on the building farthest in the background

The bulk of a drawing

I loved crayons as a kid, and I had a lot of them. I inherited my mom’s collection, so a lot of my early childhood drawings were done with the same exact crayons she’d used when she was my age. Those were good crayons: large, solid, and rich-textured.

And sometimes, that specific texture is what I want. After all, Apple went to the trouble of including an art-quality pencil/crayon texture, so why don’t I use it more?

Because just like regular crayons—and other thick, textured implements like charcoal sticks—the pencil is harder for me to control. While the pencil offers a range of stroke thicknesses, the thinner lines are barely visible, so I’d usually be working with the thicker ones. Those don’t lend themselves as well to the fine details and precision I prefer.

This is the first drawing I did primarily via the pencil. I’m not particularly pleased with it. I found the strokes hard to control. Solid-color areas that would have been easy to cover with the pen tool required a lot of linework (and for some of them, I did wind up using the pen tool). The shading is also not as smooth as I’d wanted.

Image A: a creature with a craggy face, glassy purple eyes, and a long robelike beard stands with a frown.
Image B: a monster crudely rendered in crayon chases a person. Unlike the rest of it, the monster's head and eye are rendered in detail. The monster has a speech balloon with "ROAR" in it.

That’s the other issue with the pencil: unlike the simpler grid-esque textures I do with the pen tool, the complexity of the pencil texture makes smooth shading areas harder to pull off. Overlapping lines result in striping, which I have to fix with more lines, which leads to more striping. Besides requiring a lot of effort, this means the drawing gets large fast; and as I mentioned, once you start approaching 100 MB, bad things happen.

So I haven’t—at this point, at least—found a lot of reasons to use the pencil as the primary tool for a drawing. It’s a very neat little tool with a lot of potential, but unless the crayon aesthetic is a requirement for what I’m trying to do (like Image B), the pen is the most practical tool for the style I work in right now.