David Hockney’s iPad drawings

In my personal experience with drawing app for tablets, the response to touch on the surface of the tablet (the would-be stand-in for traditional drawing substrate) is quite impressive. The drawn markings reflect the amount of pressure I use: darker, more opaque, and thicker, compared to areas where I use a lighter touch. I can also layer colors in varying transparency, mimicking different materials such as watercolor, versus pastels or markers. The result is not too unlike using actual materials to make a drawing.

Drawing is an exercise of coordinating the hand to the eye, so while the first sketch tends to be less dependent on pressure, being mostly lines, but in order to develop the story within this sketch, emotions need to be evoked, through color or a sense of physical evidence left by the drawer.

Although I have not personally used a drawing app for tablets to any great extent, I have had the opportunity to witness the result of extensive exploration of the medium at an exhibit of David Hockney’s work in San Francisco’s de Young Museum a few years back. What distinguishes this body of work, titled “A Bigger Exhibition” is that the several of the pieces are entirely created digitally, utilizing a humble drawing app on his iPhone, and later, his iPad.

I refer here to David Hockney’s work because his time investment in the medium reveals an ownership of a unique level of craftsmanship. He started doodling in 2008 with the Brushes app when he discovered it on his iPhone. Since then he had graduated to using an iPad, which had larger surface area, and allowed him to use “more of his fingers.”

This is an example of a medium changing the end product of a craft and altering the possibilities of storytelling experience. The artwork can be presented in two forms: digital or traditionally printed as ink on paper. These two forms differ greatly in their experiential quality — the colors are different because they are based in different technologies: RGB for lights, and CMYK for ink on paper. The works shown digitally have an inherent luminosity because of the nature of the media; the screens themselves are backlit.

The other experiential quality of the works is the ease of enlargement in scale of presentation of these works. They could be enlarged digitally in computer and printed on large scale fabrics, or they could also be mapped onto several monitors mounted on a wall. With traditional substrates such as paper of canvas, the physicality of the object does not allow for change in scale unless if the drawing itself is painstakingly replicated utilizing the grid method on another object. This object would also have to be the size of the intended final presentation.

  In the digital medium we have such a limitation called “pixels,” which is the fundamental unit of any visual information.  All evidences of scaling of the work is dependent on the finite resolution of the file itself; the more the work is enlarged, the more visible these pixels will be. The experience of the viewer varies according to obviousness of these building block units. A viewer standing at a greater distance would have a greater illusion of continuity of form and color, whereas standing up close, the viewer will see the evidence of this illusion created with blocks of solid colors. There is a degree of revelation of the medium itself involved in the viewing experience. The viewer is reminded of the medium itself, but it is not much different from seeing witnessing gobs of paint on a canvas surface up close. The medium may have changed, and the process of craftsmanship may have also changed but the larger concept of the crafting a story utilizing available means remains the same.

One of the digital qualities that Hockney chose to embrace is the playback function of the Brush app. Each drawing stroke is recorded as a separate layer of information, so the iPad is able to replay every layer individually, revealing an animation of time and process. With traditional substrates, this replay of time would be impossible. The viewer, and the artist himself, are able to “travel back in time” so to speak.

While my experience with the table recreates a remarkable mimicry of visual possibilities achievable with physical media, what is conspicuously absent is the friction of contact of actual objects. Hockney, evidently, noticed this as well in his interview: “You miss the resistance of paper a little, but you can get a marvellous flow. So much variety is possible. You can’t overwork this, because it’s not a real surface. In watercolour, for instance, about three layers are the maximum. Beyond that it starts to get muddy. Here you can put anything on anything. You can put a bright, bright blue on top of an intense yellow.”

In response to the present limitations of recreating the physical world, companies such as Fujitsu has developed a prototype “haptic sensory tablet” that can convey a sense of contrasting textures such as slipperiness or roughness. While this simulated texture had been achieved previously existing technology by generating static electricity, Fujitsu’s haptic sensory technology utilizes ultrasonic vibrations to vary the friction between the touchscreen display and the user’s fingertip.

People from the village come up and tease me: “We hear you’ve started drawing on your telephone.” And I tell them, “Well, no, actually, it’s just that occasionally I speak on my sketch pad.”—David Hockney

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