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Adobe Fresco: Everything Illustrators & Designers Need to Know

Here’s a walkthrough of what you can expect with Adobe Fresco, as well as powerful, actionable tips to get the most out of it that you won’t find anywhere else.

Stephen Palacino May 25, 2021 · 13 min read
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Made especially for touch devices, Adobe Fresco is a dream come true for anyone who wants to indulge in the thrills of painting and drawing right from their digital devices. Released on September 24, Fresco gives free rein to illustrators and designers who want to let loose with their creativity.
The app’s user experience was designed to be simple and straightforward, making this program an accessible illustration and design tool for even beginners. That’s really saying something when you consider that the current king of illustration apps has got to be Procreate, with its recent introduction of textured typography.
Adobe Fresco is here to give Procreate a run for its money, betting on its pick-up-and-use interface as the game changer between the two apps. Here’s a walkthrough of what you can expect with Fresco, as well as powerful, actionable tips to get the most out of it that you won’t find anywhere else.

The Problem That Adobe Fresco Solves

Adobe has a long line of apps that many of us are already familiar with, even if we haven’t had extensive experience with all of them. From Adobe Spark to Adobe XD, the brand’s products have been a staple for designers for many decades.
The thing about many of the company’s drawing and illustration apps, however, was that they were often nothing more than bare-bones versions of their desktop programs. For instance, though you could use many of the features in Sketchbook and Illustrator on your mobile device, there were noticeable restrictions.
Fresco aims to solve all that by being the first Adobe app of its kind that actually combines all of the beloved features of Adobe’s various drawing apps into one offering. As a result, it should attract both professional designers looking for a serious, all-in-one tool for their projects and those who are just getting their virtual hands wet with Fresco’s digital paint.

Previously known as Project Gemini, Adobe Fresco is perhaps one of the most user-friendly apps that the company has ever released. Mindful of its large base of designers who use its products, Adobe has made Fresco compatible with Photoshop. Simply put, you’re able to transfer all of your files between both apps without any friction.
Before Fresco, you had to contend with the workflows of design projects—managing files, the import and export of work, and the addition of any new brushes—across different apps, especially when you weren’t on desktop. Naturally, that tended to add extra steps and extra time (read: friction) to your design workflows.
That’s not to say that Fresco will solve all of your cross-app needs, but it goes a long way toward offering better software for better UX for its users. As an app that was designed especially for the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro, Adobe Fresco treats illustrators to a desktop-quality design app that you definitely want to check out as a digital artist.
You can start out for free with the basic version of Fresco and then upgrade to the Premium version through in-app purchases. Note that the free version will limit your selection of brushes, one of the app’s main features, and you’re not allowed to export any high-resolution files.

What You Can Do With Adobe Fresco

Any time much-anticipated software like this is released, everyone wants to know about its features. Fresco is feature-rich, but there’s no filler from what I can tell: Everything is tailor-made to fulfill the amateur and pro illustrator’s design needs.

The Brush Collection

For starters, Adobe asserts that Fresco boasts the biggest brush collection on the planet (more than 1800 digital brushes in total), backed up with smart technology that results in a digital painting and drawing UX that feels very natural. Just do a search for the types of feel, materials or textures that you want in your brushes, and Fresco will treat you to a virtual smorgasbord of brushes that were professionally designed.
In terms of brushes alone, the selection is vast (compared to other illustration apps), and it’s all integrated right into Creative Cloud. As a matter of fact, simply save your files as Cloud PSDs (a new format) to sync them across all of your devices. What you’ll get is:

  • A collection of more than 1000 Photoshop desktop brushes that you can access right on your iPad Pro
  • Raster and vector brushes
  • Live brushes that, with Sensei technology, reproduce gorgeous watercolors and creamy oil paint

Sensei technology is what Adobe calls its artificial intelligence and machine learning engine. Due to the emphasis on realism, you’ll feel like you’re working with tangible materials even though you’re painting digitally. That’s the effect Adobe is hoping you’ll come away with.

Live brushes are the app’s big feature, so you definitely want to experiment with them.
Though it may be hard to imagine without actually using the app, Live brushes allow you to work with watercolors and oils in such a way that their textures, colors and behaviors (how they flow, how they mix, etc.) simulate what you’d expect if you were working with a palpable canvas and easel right in front of you instead of a digital device.
Feel free to select the exact size and texture of your brush. Depending on the pressure you use in your illustrations, you’ll also automatically impact the intensity of your colors.
Don’t like the brushes Fresco has or simply overwhelmed by the sheer choice the app offers? No problem. You also have the option of downloading or importing your own selection of brushes, for extra freedom in your designs.

Painting and Drawing in the App

As soon as you select your brush, digital paint flows freely from it. You’ll be surprised you’re working in an app instead of with the real thing. You’ll see your colors pooling and being “applied” to your screen as if on a tangible canvas, thereby giving visual texture and a sense of symmetry or asymmetry to your compositions. This epitomizes a great user experience.
You have the option to prevent your colors from running into each other and creating new mixtures when you want them to stay separate instead; simply implement boundaries to keep your watercolor designs pure.
You also have control over how the paint behaves on your screen. Change the flow of the paint, how intense it comes across, and its interactions with other paints and various elements in the composition.

Simulating oil painting feels surprisingly intuitive. Start in one area on your digital canvas by blotting your oil; then, begin to combine your colors and experiment until you find that ideal blend of colors. The way the colors mix together on your screen is very lifelike, and you can smoothly sample any new colors with your brush.
In terms of making things as accurate as you possibly can get in a painting app, try this on for size: You can actually determine whether or not your brush is going to refill itself. True to life, the more you paint in Adobe Fresco, the less vibrant the colors become. The reason? Why, there’s less paint on your virtual brush, of course.
As a bonus to beginners and even seasoned users who want to hone their skills, Fresco comes with a slew of in-app tutorials that walk you through the possibilities of what you can do and how you can take advantage of all the more advanced features.

Tools to Use

Finding your way around the tools within Fresco is going to be key to how efficiently your design workflows proceed. Adobe has decided to include and exclude some tools that may throw designers for a loop, however.
You’ll find tools like:

  • Paint bucket
  • Brushes
  • Lasso
  • Move or transform
  • Layers (color burn, multiply)

On the other hand, conspicuous by their absence are tools like:

  • Magic wand
  • Clipping mask
  • Gradients
  • Text tool (like what you can do with Procreate, which was recently announced)

That’s not to say that working in Fresco leaves you wanting more options. Adobe has minimized the number of tools you can use so only the essentials remain as you complete your digital art projects.
For example, when you draw, you’ll use a newly designed selection and masking sequence that allows you to isolate portions of a layer and transform selections into masks. You can also configure your user interface just the way you want to accommodate either left- or right-handed painting or drawing. When you want to focus on painting and only painting, you can opt to go into full-screen mode to ensure you won’t have to deal with any distractions.

Exporting Your Work

As a designer, you know there’s hardly anything more frustrating than not being able to access your illustrations at various stages of creation whenever you want to, on any device. Ideally, working with the digitized version of a canvas—which is what Adobe Fresco essentially is—should mean that you can always pick up where you left off, just like if you were working with a real-life sketchpad.
Adobe has heard these concerns and has therefore prioritized letting users save and manage their files with no hassle. Fresco enjoys integration with Creative Cloud, which is Adobe’s set of cloud services that allows for easy syncing across all of your devices. As a result, if you subscribe to Creative Cloud, your Fresco designs will live on all devices where Creative Cloud is installed, letting you seamlessly pick up where you last left off in your painting project.

Not only is losing files no longer an issue, but you also get to efficiently export your digital artwork to other Adobe apps such as Photoshop and Illustrator. This is particularly convenient if you need to add some last-minute touches to your design or prep your illustration to be printed.
Here’s the rub, unfortunately. None of this easy-syncing capability comes for free or is cheap. Adobe expects you to shell out up to approximately $53 per month just to enjoy this service. It’s all based on the plan you select, and $53 per month would be the most expensive option, but this represents another cost on top of what you’d be paying to enjoy the Premium features of Adobe Fresco. In contrast with Procreate, which is only a one-time buy of $10, this is much more expensive.

What Drawings Look Like With Adobe Fresco

I can tell you all about Fresco, but the best way to behold the potential of the app’s creative freedom is to have a look at what digital artists just like you are doing with their paintings. You won’t believe that some of these were actually created on a digital device because they’re so lifelike that they seem like they were done by hand, with an actual paintbrush and canvas.
Here are some of our favorites (thus far):

Overcast

Adobe Fresco is ideal for painting landscapes, such as this artwork that demonstrates the use of reflection in a dreary, foggy and overall atmospheric setting.

Image Credit: Angeline Vu

Note how the app’s affordance of control within each brush lets digital artists get as smudgy as they want in the background and then exercise more definition for the subject matter in the foreground.

Portrait

Minimalist, black-and-white portraits are also easy to create in Fresco. This portrait of a girl looks like it was actually created on a sketchpad, by hand, by an artist who had the live model right in front of him.

Image Credit: Art Bor

Technique is everything in painting, and Fresco allows you to use shading and shadows to your heart’s content to create just the right mood that you want. Also impressive is the stippling effect around the girl, which lends the artwork added, visual texture.

JOKER MOVIE

On the other side of the design spectrum, we have something a lot more colorful and in-your-face. An homage to the controversial Joker movie, this portrait goes in just the opposite direction with vibrant, noisy hues that are as confrontational as the digital painting’s subject.

Image Credit: Jeffrey Fulgencio

Of note is how the clashing colors work well together due to the seamless way the app lets digital artists mix their colors of choice. The ensuing gradients give you a sense of how truly complex you can take things within this app to come up with an aesthetic that pops right out at you.

The Night Shogun

Looking like something straight out of the pages of some medieval, illustrated manuscript from hundreds of years ago, this digital artwork is an ode to the design trends of the east. Featuring a warrior riding a fearsome dragon, the composition is evocative beyond belief and successfully captures the nocturnal tones of night with its mostly neutral color base.

Image Credit: Chodon O’Leary

The digital painting is also a good study in contrast, more specifically, simplicity versus complexity. Some shapes like the moon and the mountains are very elementary, but take a gander at the scales and wings of the dragon, and you’ll see the impressive level of meticulous detail you can achieve with Adobe Fresco. Overall, it’s a testament to the depth of the brushes and tools available to you in this app.

Frankenstein Monster

We’re all familiar with classic horror movies and their monstrous stars. One of the more memorable classic-movie monsters is Frankenstein’s Monster. Here, it’s almost like you’re not even looking at a digital painting. Instead, it looks like you’re staring Boris Karloff right in the face! Indeed, this composition is based on a still from the 1935 movie, The Bride of Frankenstein.

Image Credit: Daniel Presedo

What’s truly astounding here is how aesthetic and vivid the illustration is, although the digital artist is mainly working with one color: green. He achieves that by using different shades of green, which is a testament to how deeply Fresco will let you mix your colors until you find just the right tint or shade. The degree of detail in the face and neck, achieved by different shading and contrasting techniques, is both a credit to the artist’s skill and Fresco’s tools.
For a more detailed glance at all the stunning creations in Adobe Fresco, have a look at its Behance gallery.

Software to Unleash Your Inner Picasso

The hook with Adobe Fresco is that it lets you create gorgeous paintings on your digital devices that look like they were drawn by hand on a tangible canvas, using a real-life paintbrush. To create the kind of software to make this a reality is a feat in and of itself.
Fresco has a fair learning curve, so it should appeal to both amateurs and professional digital artists who use the app for their work projects. The app is intuitive to pick up and use, though you’ll have to experiment with it to really get the hang of it (if you’re completely new to drawing and painting apps, that is).
The real question is, can Fresco dethrone Procreate as the leader in illustration apps? While Fresco is backed with Adobe’s technology and brand reputation, Procreate has years and years of a loyal fanbase built into its product as a massive advantage. Though Adobe Fresco faces stiff competition from Procreate, it has enough of a seamless UX to get some Procreate users to reconsider.


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About the Author
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Stephen Palacino

I work with entrepreneurs and small businesses on web design and brand strategies, as well as run business development for a video production agency. When not designing, you'll find me out with my family on a road trip making bad jokes and drinking too much coffee.

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