Adobe Fresco brings realistic painting to the iPad

AI-powered Live Brushes make oil and watercolor painting a lot more like the real thing.

Adobe has a second major app release for designers coming this year. Sure, Photoshop for the iPad is going to get most of the attention, but for illustrators and designers who dabble in digital drawing or painting, Adobe Fresco could be the real game-changer. In addition to syncing with your Creative Cloud workflow across desktop versions of Photoshop, Illustrator and more, Fresco's marquee feature makes digital painting with watercolors and oils a lot more realistic. Gone are the days when hardness, opacity and a few other parameters were the only variables you could control when painting in Photoshop. Now you can select an oil or watercolor brush and watch in awe as your strokes blend with the wet paint already on your (digital) canvas.

Adobe is no stranger to mobile apps. The company has built dozens over the years and its existing lineup currently tallies 13. They help with tasks like drawing, video editing, photo editing and turning the things you see every day into production-ready assets. If you also count the apps that allow access to your Creative Cloud account or your Adobe-hosted portfolio, that number goes up to 17. They all tap into the company's cloud-based workflow that houses files, fonts, assets and more in one spot. And to varying degrees, these apps allow you to send what you've been working on while you're on the go to full-powered desktop software for further refinement.

With Photoshop and Fresco for the iPad, Adobe's strategy is changing. Until now, the company's mobile apps have brought a piece of the desktop experience to your phone or tablet. That doesn't mean they weren't useful or powerful, but you still couldn't replicate a full workflow until you got back to your desk. For example, there are four Photoshop mobile apps right now, each with very different purposes. As mobile hardware becomes more powerful, specifically the iPad, Adobe is able to bring more of the desktop experience to a tablet. That's how we're getting a version of Photoshop for iPad this year. For the first time, a lot of the desktop tools are finally in one spot to use while away from your computer.

Adobe Fresco

Powerful hardware also enables the key features of Adobe Fresco, the drawing app formerly known as Project Gemini. With recent iPads and the Apple Pencil, Fresco taps into Adobe's powerful Sensei AI to recreate the physics of how watercolors and oil paints interact with paper, each other and the pressure at which they're applied or mixed. Officially called Live Brushes, these two painting options are the real star of Fresco for me.

I took undergrad painting classes as part of my graphic design coursework, so I know firsthand what it's like to work with oil paint on canvas. I know how you can mix and manipulate thick patches of color on the surface unlike acrylic paints or other mediums. How you can leave them for days, come back and they're still wet, ready for your next round of brush strokes or knife swipes.

I also know how incredibly difficult (and rewarding) watercolors can be. Let's just say I found out they weren't for me after a number of failures. In Adobe Fresco, though, there's no fear. You're working on a virtual surface with dynamic brushes that react like the real thing, but are easily undone or put on another layer so you can try something else without ruining your entire piece. You're not wasting materials trying to get it right, and removing the anxiety of messing up is extremely liberating.

It's one thing to see a demo or even art created with these Live Brushes, but it's another thing entirely to try them yourself. Every time I opened the app, I was amazed at how closely they resemble the real thing. And they're not only powerful, they're also a lot of fun.

Indeed, the oil Live Brushes react just like oil paint in the studio. There's dimension to the brush strokes, and you're able to mix colors on the "canvas" in a way you can't replicate in digital scenarios with a color wheel and solid swatches. Ditto for the watercolor dynamic brushes. Based on your pressure and customizable variables, you can watch the color flow from underneath the Pencil.

There are four watercolor Live Brushes (round detail, wash soft, wash flat and wet spatter) and seven oil options (flat, round, filbert, detail, glaze, chunky and short). Like any brush, you can change the size and flow to meet your needs. For watercolor, you can also adjust the water flow level, and for the oil brushes, you can tweak the amount of paint mix. You can also futz with variables like shape, pressure and velocity dynamics, as well as the angle of the brush. Lastly, you can turn the canvas texture off for the oil Live Brushes, and there's the option to adjust spacing and scatter for watercolors.

Though Live Brushes have the wow factor in Fresco that many will gravitate to, the app is also a powerful illustration, drawing and painting app with a lot of desktop-quality features. There are vector and raster brushes, so you can bring in your favorite tools easily and feel comfortable working on an iPad. Layers, masking, selections and shortcuts are here as well -- tools that make creating and editing not only faster, but non-destructive as well. You can also choose a simplified view that reduces the toolbars to just the active tool and visible layers. This means you can focus on drawing without the distraction of ugly side panels.

Adobe Fresco

Fresco works in tandem with Photoshop on the desktop, so you can move back and forth between the two. It also allows you to export a PDF to edit in Illustrator, should you need to do so. Adobe Fresco works with other Creative Cloud apps, too -- like Adobe Capture that helps turn things you see into assets like brushes. How well Fresco and Photoshop for iPad work alongside the full desktop apps will be key for creatives deciding to add a tablet to their workflow. And given how Fresco works alongside Photoshop CC, it seems like Adobe has already figured out how to make that a reality.

It will be interesting to see what Adobe does with its stable of apps. If it's truly able to create all-in-one pieces of software for illustrators (Fresco) and photo editing or design work (Photoshop), the company can probably afford to nix a few. Adobe isn't saying what will happen just yet, opting to wait until Fresco and Photoshop are out in the wild on iPads later this year before deciding how to progress further. Which means if there's a current offering you like, it's probably going to stick around for a bit.

For now, Adobe Fresco will only be available on iPad. More specifically, you'll need iOS 12.4 or higher and the iPad Pro (all models), iPad Air (3rd generation), iPad (5th and 6th generation) or iPad mini (5th generation). Adobe says the plan is to bring the app to more devices and platforms in the future -- like Microsoft Surface and Wacom Mobile Studio Pro. However, there's no timeline on when that might happen. And, of course, to make the most of it, you'll need a Creative Cloud subscription.

It's safe to say that as devices like the iPad continue to get more powerful, Adobe will have the ability to beef up its arsenal. And that probably means more full versions of desktop apps or more pieces of robust software like Fresco are on the way.

Images: Adobe (Illustrators: Tommy Lee Edwards, Kyle T. Webster, Daniel Presedo)