Adobe Fresco shows oil and water(colors) do mix

Adobe is really, really late to the game with its sketching and painting app for the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, but that's not such a bad thing.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
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Lori Grunin
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Adobe Fresco makes me wish I had talent. The company's iPad Pro app for painting and sketching also makes me wish the Apple Pencil had a softer nib, but hey, one dream at a time.

Watch this: Adobe announces Fresco for Surface Pro

There are a lot of painting apps littering the App store, most of which have more brushes with better-developed features. Procreate has seven sets of options for every brush, including the ability to adjust the Pencil's behavior on a brush-by-brush basis. ArtRage has custom paper types and metallic papers and ink.

The feature-complete beta of Fresco that's been keeping me up at night doesn't even come close; in fact, it's missing a lot of crucial capabilities and brush types, such as charcoal, airbrush and palette knife; smudging; color jitter controls; and the ability to save custom brushes and palettes. Those and more are on the roadmap.

But when it comes to blending strokes for oils and watercolors, I haven't seen anything on mobile that comes close to Fresco's realism. Adobe credits Apple's latest graphics processor and Metal graphics API for delivering the speed necessary for the real-time mixing. Watercolors. See how they run.


A very wet watercolor brush made the oil swatches bleed and mix.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Adobe calls them "live brushes," but really they're just brushes that behave the way you expect. It's more accurate to retronym the types which don't act as "static brushes." And both are really engineering distinctions; the live brushes don't live with their not-live painting pals, pixel brushes, a list that also includes sketching, inks, rakes, markers and so on.

Fresco also has a handful of vector brushes, which aren't editable like an Illustrator path, but which are resolution independent (can scale without jaggies). They flow like gel ink onto the "page", and they were the only ones that really felt like they were emerging from the hard Apple Pencil nib.


Will it blend? Yes, it will. Fresco also has a full set of layer blending modes. You can't mix vector and other types of brushes on the same layer.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Fresco's brush engine is generally compatible with Photoshop's , and you can import any standard brush. At the moment, you can't adjust settings for unsupported capabilities, such as color jitter, but if you bring in a brush that uses it, it will respect the existing jitter settings.

There are some basic, manual selection and masking tools, including a useful option to lock a layer's transparency to use it as a mask.

Fresco is designed to feel natural for artists to pick up and use. For now, at least, it isn't for people who want (or need) shortcuts like importing existing masks or to reuse pieces from other Fresco projects. Adobe Capture is one of my favorite Adobe mobile apps, and I wish it and Fresco worked better together. I wish Fresco worked better with Libraries as well.

In fact, despite its ability to open and generate layered Photoshop files and produce Illustrator-editable PDFs, Fresco doesn't feel much like a production tool because of the difficulty with repeatability and reusability. But based on recent discussions I've had with artists, there still seems to be a gap in the flow between mobile and the desktop. So maybe they don't care.

Fresco doesn't have official pricing or availability, but it will likely follow the model of $10 per month and inclusion with a Creative Cloud subscription a la Lightroom CC. Adobe won't be holding it for its Max conference at the beginning of November, though, instead there will be shipping beforehand. That's probably so its thunder isn't stolen by (hopefully) Photoshop on iPad. And while it currently only runs on the iPad -- specifically, iPad Pro (all models), iPad Air (3rd generation), iPad (5th and 6th generation) and iPad mini (5th generation) -- we may see it for other stylus-friendly platforms in our lifetime.