The iPhone as paintbrush

Rob Walker
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"Smear," created by Tom Pregiato on the iPhone.

by Rob Walker

I’ve been a devoted fan of, which collects art made with iPhones, for a while now, and all along I thought this was an eccentric interest of mine.

It turns out, however, that this Tumblr has about 200,000 followers; and moreover, as I discovered when I reached out to my favorite contributor to the site, and then to one of its co-founders, the enthusiasm for the iPhone-made visual works showcased there seems poised to cross over: from the comparatively tiny screens of smartphones into the realm of gallery shows and physical works.

This was not exactly on the agenda when interaction designer and Phone Arts co-founder Daniel Littlewood started messing around with various visual-creation iPhone apps a couple of years ago. He was simply interested in exploiting his phone to creative ends — instead of merely using it to check status updates or play games.

“It’s a tool that can be used in many different ways,” Littlewood told me, and he wanted to explore what he could make with his iPhone, as opposed to what he could take in through it.

He posted some results to Flickr and as a result heard from the creator of one of the apps he’d been playing with: Doodle Buddy inventor Guillaume Hugon. They decided to launch Phone Arts, in November 2011, essentially to ask the question: “What can we do with our phones? How far can we take it?”

Hugon is in France, Littlewood in New York. Both reached out to fellow artists and designers, and rounded up about a dozen regular contributors to their Tumblr. Among the New York contacts Littlewood approached as a “guest” contributor is the guy whose contributions to the site largely hooked me on Phone Arts: Thomas Pregiato.

"Vase" and "Shear," two phone arts by Tom Pregiato.
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"Vase" and "Shear," two phone arts by Tom Pregiato.

“I was kind of turned off by it at first,” Pregiato admits. But the more he played with apps like Art Studio, manipulating images of, say, a snapshot he’d taken of an interesting pattern on someone’s jacket, the more he got into it. The results are visually beguiling: this textured abstraction started out as a cropped snap of an ad on the subway; this vivid composition was once a picture of a goldfish tank; and this jagged visual began as a picture found online of Picasso’s “Guernica.”

While other touchscreen-made art, by David Hockney among others, has been celebrated before, much of it has struck me as looking pretty much like traditional painting. That’s fine, but the pieces on Phone Arts, by Pregiato and others, often have a different quality — some tighter (and less gimmicky) connection between medium and message.

“I’d prefer not to give away my techniques,” Pregiato told me, but because his process largely involves using his fingers on the touch screen, it’s a form of art-making that actually feels “very analog.” I’m not the only one who’s impressed: Fans have inquired about acquiring physical versions of Pregiato’s pieces, which creates an interesting challenge. If printed at a size much larger than a business card, the images don’t really hold together. But he’s working on a surprising solution for de-digitizing online work into objects: 18-by-24-inch needlepoint versions of works like this one, now in progress.

Littlewood says the audience for Phone Arts started to spike about six months after it was launched and has continued to grow. Contributors to the site have gotten more ambitious, often tweaking images in four, five, or six different apps — Littlewood mentions SlitScan, SculptMatster, AutoDesk 123D, Brushes and others — before arriving at a final piece.

Along the way, many traditional art galleries have shown an increasing interest in tapping into the digital-art scene — not least, one assumes, because some online creators have racked up impressive Web followings. It did not surprise me to hear that someone from Tumblr itself, which is fairly proactive about cultivating and promoting anything remotely creative that plays out over the platform, got in touch with a curator that Littlewood works with.

Strictly speaking, though, I’d argue that it won’t take a gallery show to make a point about how to use free time and digital tools creatively: has already done that.


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