I’m proud to announce I’m currently exhibiting at Gallery Afem. Afem is a digital gallery run by Gustaf Jansson, a Gothenburg-based photographer who I met on Glass. The exhibit is a selection of fifteen works, available for order. It’ll be up for the month of April.

Afem prints art on A5-sized paper (Fem is “five” in Swedish). I’m in good company; they’ve had some pretty amazing artists in the past. I’m not the only one who repurposed mobile technology for artistic uses.

(And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke.)

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.

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.