How to draw on pictures in the iOS 11 Notes app


The new iOS 11 Notes app is already much better than the previous version, but this new feature might tip you off. You can now draw on images with your Apple Pencil, just by tapping on it.

Previously, pictures and sketches lived side by side, but could never meet. Now, with the ability to doodle directly on images, you can do all kinds of things. Example: I keep a blank sheet of guitar tablature notation paper in the Files app, then drag it to a note and start writing on my template. It’s just a use. Another can be to draw mustaches on photos of your coworkers.

Draw over pictures in iOS 11 Notes

Drawing on a picture in iOS 11’s Notes app is very easy. All you need to do, if the image is already in a note, is tap it with an Apple pencil (or finger), wait for it to open, and start drawing. And when I say “open”, I mean the image zooms in to fill the screen, like you are tagging a PDF. In practice, you don’t feel like you’re entering a different edit mode. It is as if the image is enlarged to fill the screen for easier editing.

Speaking of PDF, you can draw on both PDFs and images at the same time, and you can go back and undo / edit any of your annotations at any time in the future.

The pen defaults to the black fine-line marker whenever you “open” an image to edit, which can be painful if you have to go through multiple images and draw on them with a highlighter, for example. (This may change ahead of the release of the final version of iOS 11 this fall.)

Draw on anything in Notes

The blue part is a PDF.  The rest, I drew on it in the Notes app.
The blue part is a PDF. The rest, I drew on it in the Notes app.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Scribbling isn’t just limited to pictures. You can also draw on PDFs in the same way. It’s also easy to import images into Notes to draw on. You can do it the old fashioned way, which involves pressing the little ⊕ symbol, pressing Photo gallery, then navigate to your image and press Ended to insert it. It’s so 2016, though. A much better way to grab an image is to drag it onto your note.

You can drag images from virtually anywhere, including:

  • Safari web pages.
  • The Photos app.
  • Another remark.
  • A thumbnail created by the new iOS 11 screenshot tool.
  • Pretty much everywhere else you can see a picture.

As mentioned above, I keep a guitar-related “paper” folder in a folder inside the Files app, so I can quickly drag a template over to Notes and draw on it. I used to use GoodNotes for this, but it’s much better, so far, to use the new Notes app. I can do a comparison article on Notes versus GoodNotes if enough people ask for it (spoiler – Notes sync is much more robust so far, at least for me).

Bonus tip: Notes stationery built into iOS 11

A new feature is hidden in Notes settings: lines and grids. Found under Settings> Notes> Lines and grids, this allows you to change the type of paper used by Notes. The choices are empty (the default), as well as one of three types of lined paper and three types of grid paper. The differences are in the line spacing or the size of the squares.

New stationery options from Notes.
New stationery options from Notes.
Photo: Mac Cult

When you choose a new paper design, it becomes the default for new notes – nothing happens to existing notes. You can then edit the backgrounds note by note, but that’s awkward. This is meant to be defined and (mostly) forgotten. Still, if you’re a human adult who still needs lines to write directly, then knock yourself out (a distinctly literal possibility, given your lack of coordination).

Now that Apple has added the option for stationery in Notes, everyone will want to add their own personalized stationery. I know I do. Maybe we’ll get it somewhere around i0S 16.

Apple’s new iOS 11 Notes app is proving to be a very good tool. You can scan and annotate paper notes, scramble PDF files, draw inline images with your notes, and even switch entirely to handwritten notes while indexing and querying them. For most people, Notes in iOS 11 will be more than enough to organize their, uh, notes. It’s really super.

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