iPhone finger painting application Brushes catches on

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Write
Friday, October 23, 2009; 9:22 AM

Finger painting used to be the province of the preschooler. Now adults do it. Doodlers do it. Serious artists do it, like pop art master David Hockney. They do it -- as we do nearly everything these days -- with an iPhone application. "Brushes," which allows users to paint on the white digital canvas of an iPhone screen or iPod Touch using their fingertips, hit the app store in August 2008. Sales soared earlier this year after artist Jorge Colombo designed The New Yorker's June 1 cover art using the application.

Now the Flickr photo group "Brushes Gallery -- iPhone Art" features nearly 10,000 works uploaded by users. Brushes 2 debuted last month with improved layering capability, allowing the painter to compose on several layers of canvas at once. Also last month, Canadian artist Matthew Watkins, who contributes to a blog that celebrates the joys of Brushes, opened the exhibit "L'arte ai tempi dell'iPhone" in Bari, Italy.

"One can set to work immediately, there's this wonderful impromptu quality, this freshness, to the activity," Hockney told the New York Review of Books this month, "and when it's over, best of all, there's . . . no clean-up. You just turn off the machine. Or, even better, you hit Send, and your little cohort of friends around the world gets to experience a similar immediacy."

More than 100,000 people have downloaded the application.

"It has a low barrier to entry," says the app's soft-spoken, 33-year-old software designer Steve Sprang, who lives in Mountain View, Calif., and gets 70 percent of each $4.99 download fee. "There's no mess and it's always with you."

To exhibit a medium that has evolved from technological curiosity to celebrated creative conduit, we asked four Washington artists to compose pieces for us using Brushes. And we want to see your work, too. Watch a video of the creation of a Brushes piece and submit your own Brushes artwork at http://washingtonpost.com/style.

Patterson Clark, 54, is an artist for The Washington Post.

"It's a supremely mobile way to paint, allowing one to work quickly in cramped, dark spaces. I'm intrigued by the idea of using iPhone paintings as a way to take readers to places where photography is inappropriate or forbidden. Unfortunately, iPhones are taboo at the Supreme Court, so I chose Bar Pilar on 14th Street Northwest instead."

James Huckenpahler, 40, is an artist, instructor of new media at George Washington University and a member of Dorkbot D.C., a coalition of artists and engineers who are interested in the intersection of electronic art and physical computing.

"It's nice to be forced out of my comfort zone. Using Brushes for the first time was a lot like drawing with an Etch-a-Sketch for the first time: You've got to completely recalibrate the eye-hand coordination, learn where the sweet spots are in the technique and generally figure out how to make something new and beautiful that doesn't rely on old, sleepy habits."

Cassandra Kopecky, 17, studies visual arts at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

"As a young artist, I do think that this technology is very cool and convenient, but it did drain the battery of my iPod. I think that, in the future, I would work with it as long as I had a wall charger. I do see this as being a different medium for artists to work in, but I see it as a medium that will not replace traditional methods, but work alongside or independently from them."

Kyle Spence, 20, is a fourth-year architecture student at Howard University.

"I've actually used the Brushes application to sketch out some of my preliminary designs for architecture work. It's portable, and when you don't have a pen and paper and you want something you can e-mail to yourself, you have a digital copy of it. And the cool thing is you can take a photo with the iPhone and then paint or sketch on top of it."

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