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Touchy touchy

by Tony Curran, 8 December 2015

Tony Curran ponders whether our phones can change the course of painting.

As long as you're here, 2013 by Tony Curran
As long as you're here, 2013 by Tony Curran

Two years ago I embarked on a project called As long as you’re here. I sat in the National Portrait Gallery near the information desk for thirty-three days straight, drawing anyone who sat down opposite me, using an iPad. At the end of the sitting I emailed the subject their digital portrait. I was curious about how people would participate in my project, whether they would be interested in it, and, if they were, how long they would be willing to sit. What surprised me was that the sitters and visitors to the Gallery who watched me drawing were fascinated with the technology. A very common question people had was whether I thought the iPad was the future for portraiture and art.

How I came to use the iPad

In 2009, fresh out of art school, I got an iPhone. Money was tight and it was a huge investment; I downloaded as many free apps as I could find, determined to get the most that I could out of it. One of the first things I downloaded was the drawing app, SketchBookX. Whenever I needed to kill some time, I grabbed my phone from my pocket and started drawing. I drew the backs of strangers’ heads on the train to work, drew sketches of friends from memory, and my girlfriend while she read the weekend paper. Whenever I ran out of money for painting supplies, I painted with pixels. Meanwhile, I continued to paint and exhibit with traditional materials whenever I had supplies; I didn’t take the phone paintings all that  seriously. Initially, drawing with my phone was awkward. It took time to orient myself to the colour swatches, the controls for changing virtual brush types and sizes, and to figure out the different functions within the app. Even though an iPhone screen is small, most drawing apps allow the user to zoom to see and work with individual pixels. For example, in the app, Brushes, the zoom capacity is 6400%, meaning that no matter what the screen size is, the details can be continuously refined. I grew better at working with the miniature scale and started pushing it further. I started to take notice of other artists who appeared to be using the device both for its portability and capacity to easily distribute luminously colourful images to audiences. I began to ponder whether iPad drawing could be considered an artistic medium in its own right, the same as oil paint, watercolour or charcoal, or whether it is more a simulation, with nothing new to call its own.

A number of established artists have already blazed a trail with this digital medium. A prominent example is David Hockney, who has been using his iPhone and iPad since 2008 to draw landscapes and everyday objects that reflect his daily life, emailing them to his friends as gifts. Hockney’s ‘art star’ status attracted a tsunami of media coverage when he launched his first exhibition of iPhone and iPad art, Fleurs Fraîches, in Paris in October 2010. Another is Jorge Colombo, who published his first drawing in The New Yorker in 1994; his iPhone sketch featured on the cover of the 22 May 2009 issue. Colombo’s sketches are of life in New York City, drawn outdoors – ‘en plein air’. Hockney and Colombo both use Brushes, a simple app that cost about three dollars at the time, and is now free. A feature of Brushes is that it records the drawing process as a video; Hockney has exhibited his videos, and Colombo’s are available on his website.

Their work encouraged me to switch to Brushes, and I started to see iPhone drawing as a time-based moving image art form, as much as a device to make a still picture. The images I created could be instantly and widely distributed through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and (now) Instagram, or by emailing them to friends. What I saw as a new, revolutionary technology was, in fact, a slight twist on technology that has been available and used by artists for at least half a century. What distinguishes art that’s created on an iPhone or iPad from previous forms of digital painting is the directness of the touchscreen and the portability.

‘Not so new’ media

While touchscreens can be considered recent technology, Sketchpad was the first digital drawing program. It was developed in 1963, and, with the aid of a tablet and electronic stylus, allowed the user to physically draw lines rather than rely on the written commands that previous graphics programs required. Computer programs like SuperPaint (1973) developed digital painting further, until MacPaint (1984) was released to the mass market. The release of Macintosh and Personal Computers resulted in a huge industry in digital art and illustration, with digital painting subsequently dominating the graphic design and publishing industries.

American figurative painter Philip Pearlstein used one of these early drawing tablets to make digital paintings in the 1980s. In Pearlstein’s time, anything digital was considered rare and specialised, because the equipment required was expensive and prototypical. In the documentary, Philip Draws the Artist’s Model (1985), his digital painting process is replayed, showing the painting unfold over time. It’s unclear which computer program Pearlstein used; it is likely to have been SuperPaint, which was the first painting program capable of recording the painting process as a video. This recording/playback feature was also to appear later in the iPhone and iPad app Brushes.

Recording the process of artistic production has been of interest to artists since at least the end of the second-world war, with videos of action painters and abstract expressionists, most famously Jackson Pollock, and others, being filmed since 1950. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film, The Mystery of Picasso (1956), shows Picasso painting with an ink that ran through onto the back of the canvas. By filming the back of the canvas, Clouzot captured each brushstroke as it happened, without the artist’s hand and body occluding it.

The development of the digital, however, has meant that the elaborate studio set up of cameras, spotlights, film supplies and crew has been replaced by the mechanics of the computer software which automatically records the process. The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has thus led to a ‘democratisation’ of sorts, with the time-based element of drawing easily captured by anyone,  allowing greater potential for drawing to emerge.

In the years leading up to the iPhone’s release, other portable technologies such as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and Palm Pilots gave artists the opportunity to draw on-site and immediately distribute images electronically. Simon Faithfull’s PDA drawings are linear and monochromatic landscapes that draw strength from their limited colour and visible pixelation. The clear signs of digitisation produce a tension with the careful and awkward lines of an artist’s hand drawing from observation. With the PDA’s internet connectivity, Faithfull could distribute his drawings electronically, both via email and directly onto web forums. In 2008, four years after Faithfull’s PDA drawings, the iPhone and iPod Touch were released, making full colour digital painting portable and accessible in a way that it had never been before.

A digital aesthetic

So, with the advent of such ground-breaking technology, what have the artists chosen to paint? Thus far they’ve chosen to paint the same things that artists were painting before the touchscreen, and before the digital. And they make digital paintings the same way they always have, layering transparent colours to produce images resembling their material oeuvre. The subject of Philip Pearlstein’s digital drawings is the same as the subject matter in his oil paintings. The way he builds his paint layers remains the same, with naked portraits drawn and painted from life. From line drawing to under-painting and layers of glazing, his ‘pixel play’ reveals a seductive tension between new technology and the academic traditions of grisaille.

Digital artists have also followed the path of the Photorealists from the 1960s. The YouTube video of Kyle Lambert’s 2013 photorealistic iPad painting of actor Morgan Freeman went ‘viral’, attracting over 14 million views (at time of writing). The video shows the drawing process of Lambert, as he meticulously repaints a digital photograph of the actor, Morgan Freeman. His resulting image is identical to the original photograph, attracting praise from some viewers, while others are more critical, citing the pointlessness of the task of spending (apparently) 200 hours to make a digital file identical to another digital file, which could simply have been copied and pasted in an instant.

While there appears to be nothing new about what painters are depicting with this new technology, the video record is certainly an advantage of the medium that’s being utilised by artists in this emerging field. Pearlstein says of his digital drawings that he prefers to show them as videos rather than as prints or finished images; David Hockney exhibits his digital paintings as both prints and videos; Lambert’s labour-intensive recreation of a photograph is a ‘pointless’ still image, but as a video, it’s an online sensation.

It’s unclear what the future of this art form might be; it may be that iPad art is unlikely to emerge as a standalone medium, but more a tool to be used at the sketching stage to produce bigger, better and more tangible things. The video playback has allowed my own art practice to do exactly that. As a sketchbook that automatically records every brushstroke, it allows me to return to any stage of an image that I produce. For example, knowing that every brushstroke is recorded, I don’t have to work toward a finished image when painting a digital portrait; instead I can allow the sitter to move around, knowing that the end result will show the subject’s movements throughout the sitting, as opposed to their physical appearance alone. It also means there is less risk in experimenting throughout the sitting. I can compare stages in the portrait, assessing which frame is more visually interesting – if one frame has more detail, perhaps a previous or subsequent frame has a more dynamic or interesting composition.

I found the video playback function of Brushes added significantly to my 2013 project at the National Portrait Gallery. While I produced 194 portraits over the 33 days, I also ended up with a 4-hour video time-lapse of the drawing process, showing sitters’ changing positions, and emphasising the amount of time they sat for me. More importantly, the video adds to the project aesthetically, as it constantly changes, building towards an image of someone who is erased as soon as they are formed, while the next person might never ‘fully’ form.

In an interview in 2011 David Hockney said that touchscreen devices would encourage artists to draw again. While it’s impossible to tell if Hockney’s prophecy will come true, one thing we can say for certain is that, in an age where touchscreens are everywhere, there are fewer barriers to drawing and painting than ever before.

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