Paper by 53



There is quite a selection of drawing apps for iPad if you take a look. Paper by 53 is my favorite. I’ve tried other apps and Paper is just better.

Their approach to digital drawing is keeping it simple. That means no brush sizes, no layers, no photo import, and no paper sizes. It sounds weird, but it’s actually great. It gives you a chance to really explore each tool and how it interacts with other tools, just like how you do in real life. There’s not much thinking involved. The tools just work. In my opinion, the app Procreate has too many features, which distracts from the creative process. How can you get your ideas down if you’re always fiddling with opacity?

Using Paper

Your drawings are organized in notebooks, which you can name and change the covers of. You can easily add, duplicate, and delete pages, as well as move them around.

Once you open up a page, a shelf of tools will pop up on the bottom, Originally, Paper was free to download, but it only came with the fountain pen tool, the eraser, and limited colors. The four other tools and the color mixer were all in-app purchases. Recently, however, 53 made all of the tools free so that everyone could use them. In March, a second set of tools was added to Paper, called “Think Kit.” That’s free, too.

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There is a zoom feature as well as an undo/redo thing called Rewind. The zoom loupe will show up by pinching (just like how you zoom normally). Rewind works by rotating two fingers counter clockwise to undo, and rotating two fingers clockwise to redo.


The reason 53 could afford to keep their app free is because they came out with their own stylus, called Pencil. It is modeled after a carpenter pencil, and it comes in 3 models. Pencil is very lightweight, portable, and easy to use. You connect it by pressing the tip to a button on the screen. Once connected, Pencil unlocks new features, including blend, palm rejection, and surface pressure. It also slightly changes the way the tools work. Pencil has an eraser that you can use without switching tools. I have the walnut model, and I love it. It’s my favorite stylus. However, there is one thing that really bothers me about it, and that is the durability of the tips. The tips are made from thin rubber, and they wear out quickly. There is one extra tip in the Pencil package, but once you go through that one, you’ll have to buy more. Even though the holes form quickly, I try to use the tip as long as I can before switching.

The Tools

The Originals

1. Draw  The yellow fountain pen, called the “draw” tool by 53, is a tool that created solid black lines of varying width. If you draw fast, the thickness of your lines will be uneven. However, if you zoom in and write slow, you have good control over how thick or thin you want your line to be. This tool is great for writing, hand lettering, and drawing.

2. Sketch  The orange pencil, also known as the “sketch” tool, mimics what a real graphite pencil looks like. The lines are initially thin and light, but you can really darken them by going over it a few times. When the Pencil stylus is connected, you can create really fat strokes by turning onto the thicker side of the tip. This tool is best suited for initial sketches and drawing. It’s terrible for writing.

3. Outline The blue marker, or the “outline” tool, is my favorite. It works really good with Pencil connected. It creates nice thick, even strokes. With Pencil, it creates fat strokes out of zoom, and thin strokes in zoom. It’s a great tool for writing and coloring, and I even use it for drawing.

4. Write The brown pen, called “write”, creates blotchy, thin lines. If used right, it can make your handwriting look good. It can also be used for drawing, and the tool doesn’t change much with Pencil connected or in zoom.

5. Color The purple paintbrush, a.k.a. the “color” tool, mimics watercolor. It’s the tool I use the least, and after using Paper for a long time and still can’t say I have much experience with it. You can create lots of different looks and even sort of blend colors together. It’s only good for coloring.

Think Kit Tools

6. Diagram The diagram tool of a shape (for example, a square or a circle) and the diagram tool will turn it into a perfectly polished version called a “smart shape.” You can also use it to draw lines and arrows.

7. Fill This tool looks like a blue paint roller, and you can use it to fill smart shapes with color. You can also fill empty areas with large blocks of color by dragging (this is called freeform fill).

8. Cut The cut tool is a gray pair of scissors that allows you to cut out a part of your drawing and duplicate it, move it around, or throw it away.

Color Control

9. Mixer/Color Picker — the mixer is a circle that allows you to create your own colors by swirling to mix them. You can also tap to see HSB sliders for an accurate color. You can tap to reveal the color picker, which allows you to copy colors from the page.

10. Palette Slots — the palette slots give you a place to store the colors that you mix up. You drag and drop the colors into the circles for easy access, and you can organize them in a way that is convenient for you. Paper comes with default colors in the slots, and once you customize yours, there is still an option to revert back to the defaults.

Stylus or Finger?

I’ve only had Pencil for six months or so, but I’ve been a Paper user for about two years or more. I never liked any other stylus because there was no palm rejection (it’s only for Pencil). For a long time I used my finger!

The drawings I made before I had Pencil and the ones I make now are very similar. Pencil is a lot of fun and much easier and quicker to use than a finger, but to be honest you can achieve a similar result with your finger with some hard work, patience, and practice. I think Pencil is totally worth it, but you can still use Paper without the investment.


In September 2014, 53 added a new service called Mix that works within the Paper app. It has over 1 million creators as of March 2015. You can sign up and share your creations made in Paper, as well as see what other artists are making and follow them. Not only that, but you can “remix” their work. You can draw on it and add to it, color it, change it, whatever you want. I’m going to post a separate entry all about Mix in the future.

In the end, Paper is a great app and remember that everything except for Pencil is free (be aware that Paper is  not compatible with iPhone and is only available on the app store.)  I highly recommend it and hope that you give it a try. I love Paper so much that sometimes I forget that my iPad does other things. See what you can create!


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