Jorge Colombo /// New York: Finger Paintings by Jorge Colombo

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New York: Finger Paintings by Jorge Colombo
With essays by Jen Bekman, Christoph Niemann, and JC
Chronicle Books, in association with
7-1/2 x 11 in; 120 pp; hardcover; 2011
ISBN 9780811879255 / ISBN10 08118792592011

Video preview on the left
Amazon page here
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Field Work
An essay
by Jorge Colombo

Each image in this book was painted from life, on location in New York City, between 2009 and 2010. And each image in this book was finger painted on an Apple iPhone G3, using an application called Brushes 1.1. (Both my hardware and software were already outdated at the time of this writing, by the way.) No photos or sketches of any kind were used.

It might have been easier to work from photographs: a snapshot takes only a moment, and then you bring it to your desk and take your time. But I prefer an image to carry my memory of the hour or two I spend standing on a sidewalk, drawing from the urban life passing by.

Cities end up acquiring their visual personality by way of collective contributions. Hard as they are to trace back to their origins, there are factors that define prevalent styles of windows or a main palette for buildings. Sometimes the identity of a city is obvious -- details and landmarks easy to spot -- but often that identity is to be found in subliminal touches. I find it a richer challenge to extract the intrinsic New York-ness or the San Francisco-ness out of a nondescript vista. That essence can be in the proportion of the sidewalks, scale of the buildings, quirks of architecture, urban vegetation, or quality of light. Like the chords of a tune that brand it as Cantonese, like a group of tourists that somehow projects “Scandinavian,” something triggers identification.

I grew up in Lisbon, Portugal, and moved to the United States in 1989, at the age of twenty-six. I’ve been fascinated by the visual patchwork of the cities I have lived in (Chicago, San Francisco, New York). I look for the traces, the scars, the accidents that have changed the character of a building or a street over the years. Architecture and urbanism’s grander designs are fascinating, but so are the instinctive interventions of mere users, clumsy and misguided as they may be. There’s as much humanity in dysfunction as in sophistication. Every detail, accretion, modification, damage, or patch speaks of the people who at some point passed through the landscape. I like to imagine their stories.

In my early New York years, I drew pen-and-watercolor portraits of passersby glimpsed in the street, one a day. I called that project The Dailies. Rather than choosing eccentric characters, I favored those I felt I had seen twenty times before. No particular emphasis on likenesses either, but I made sure each clothing detail was correctly recorded. The shape of a nose is just an accident of nature. The length of a dress, the brand of a shoe, a tattoo, these are cultural choices, more often than not insights into one’s self-perception, heritage, or aspirations. Crowds tend to sort themselves into style subgroups, not as many as we would imagine. Certain clothing items or hairstyles are almost exclusive to specific age, ethnic, or social groups. This will to conform to the sameness of a group sounds boring and unimaginative; to me, it’s also touching. People are trying to belong somewhere.

A technological breakthrough tends to be exciting at the beginning, and then it’s just a footnote. Doing something early on isn’t as relevant as doing something that will live on. We don’t really care about who first used acrylic paints or camcorders. The same phenomenon will happen with the iPhone, the iPad, and whatever follows. Just one more tool. And it won’t eliminate the tools that preceded it, either: acoustic guitars didn’t die when electric ones came along. Our tool kit is simply expanded. Using black and white film in 1910 was the only possibility; today, it is a choice, and thus has a different meaning.

Until the iPhone/iPad touch-screen boom, painting digitally was for the most part an indoor affair. On a park bench, even a laptop felt clumsy, let alone one with a drawing tablet connected to it. The iPhone/Brushes combo turned out to be to digital painting what 35mm film and Leica cameras were to early photography. Lugging a high-end, large-format apparatus to a location is still an alternative, but the allure of pocket-sized equipment is hard to beat. Computer touch screens seem like an inevitable development, both as a future standard and as a common art-making tool. To me, everything else—keyboard, mouse, tablet, stylus—feels obtrusive by comparison, like a prosthetic.

There are other apps around, but Brushes, created by Steve Sprang, a former developer at Apple, has served me well, so that is all I’ve used so far. Although Sprang has continued to improve the software, for a long time I chose not to upgrade, and stuck to one of the earliest versions: only three brush types and no layers. (Layers are a major perk in graphic programs. Like multitrack music recording, they allow you to work each component individually without affecting the others. But I enjoy the risk factor of having to get it right on the first pass.) The learning curve wasn’t that steep. It took me a while to confine myself to the 2” x 3” screen, but zooming in (800% maximum) and out (70% minimum) quickly became second nature. In fact, I have always tended to draw small, so covering the length of the canvas with a simple finger motion allows for broad strokes and easy control of composition. The brush width can be calibrated to a pixel-wide line, so it doesn’t matter how thick or slender one’s fingers are (a common question). Being able to draw on a surface lit from within makes it at last feasible to work outdoors at night without having to point a flashlight at what I am doing. And since Brushes exports its iPhone files to a regular computer not as images but as scripts, the drawings can be rebuilt as printable high-resolutions -- or strung as ever-popular stroke-by-stroke videos. Of course, the videos retain only the correct brushstrokes: mistakes are omitted, which would make any artist come across as preternaturally precise. The speed of those videos is a lie. Half of the process is trial and error.

Artists were working on iPhones long before I even bought one, sharing their work online. (Even one of my personal heroes, David Hockney, has been working on touch screen devices.) I first discovered Brushes on Flickr, through the sunset paintings of Stéphane Kardos, a French artist living in LA. When I got my iPhone in February 2009, it was mostly to check my e-mail on the go. Soon, I started experimenting with NYC landscapes, and a few of these drawings went up on my Web site. My brother-in-law Mark Yoes sent the link to his friend Jessica Helfand, who posted a brief note on Some media took notice—they can’t resist a gadget story -- and so did Jen Bekman, a gallerist I knew via mutual friends, who proposed to edition and sell some of my images online at Those images caught the attention of Françoise Mouly, art editor at The New Yorker. She was intrigued by the on-location character of the images. I visited her at the magazine offices, where we looked at every single Arthur Getz cover in the archives. On June 1, 2009, one of my images appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. It was the first time a magazine ran a cover entirely created on a cell phone. Other covers ensued; additional images started appearing weekly on the magazine’s Web site.

The New Yorker covers are a time capsule. And reviewing them in sequence is like reading a visual record of the New York intelligentsia’s self-image. Other than a decrease in trim size, typographic tweaks, and a big leap from the original 15¢ price, the only way to distinguish this month’s cover from one from the ’20s is by the clothing styles -- or the graphic ones. The sequence of images is riveting. Social classes literally emerge and vanish before our eyes, conventions of dress and posture are revised, the yearly calendar of rituals is revamped. Comparisons are made easier by the consistency of the format. Once-standard service icons such as dignified butlers and drivers become scarce; so do early instances of ethnic insensitivity. The very body types shift. The cocktail shaker-shaped upscale ladies of Helen Hokinson’s ’30s would be harder to find today: their social equivalents are likelier to be toned by yoga and personal trainers. Authority figures, growing younger and much less portly, are progressively enthralled by technological fetishism. There are only fifty-two weeks in a year, so cover themes are likely to repeat themselves under the Rea Irvin logo; and as decades roll by, that’s part of the appeal. Like jazz standards, a cover subject accumulates the patina of a classic as it is reworked by a succession of artists. The predictable calendar occasions -- New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, April 15, return to school -- are starting points for an intergenerational dialogue between New Yorker artists. Except for otherworldly eccentrics like Thurber, Addams, and Steinberg, who created their own universes from scratch, the magazine’s long-term artists such as Alajalov, Steig, Irvin, and Price remained faithful to New York iconography and its landscape. The first Christmas gift my wife Amy gave me was the Knopf album of all The New Yorker covers 1925-1989, with an introduction by John Updike. For a newcomer to the country, it was like happening onto a family album. One feels like every neighborhood, landmark, angle, mood, and experience has at some point been depicted there.

The paintings I create on the iPhone look unlike anything I have previously done. Although in recent years I had probably worked more on photography than on drawing, and had even started experimenting with short films, most of my career had been as an editorial illustrator. I didn’t have a fine arts background of any sort: my preferences ran to commercial and editorial art. Even my favorite painters, like Edward Hopper and David Hockney, tended to be of the narrative type. Other references for my work were photography (especially pilgrim-like wanderers of the WPA crowd and Robert Frank and Raymond Depardon) and film (cinematographers such as Gordon Willis and Robby Müller) and the meticulous, documentary Japanese woodcuts of artists like Hiroshige. Plus The New Yorker cover artists, who have always struck an ideal balance between commercial art and personal vision.

My drawing technique was shaped mostly by graphic novels of Francophile origin: the Hergé school and, later on, the sophisticated work of the (Á Suivre) magazine authors such as Jacques Tardi and Jacques de Loustal. Everything I did was rooted in neat line work, achieved by successively tracing over my own sketches until they became precise enough, and then applying flat watercolor coats (or, more recently, digital layers). This drawing style is hard to replicate on the iPhone, which feels a lot like painting with a blunt brush. But I have always enjoyed tailoring my approach to imposed limitations. On the iPhone, my line work became tentative, so I abandoned it entirely and concentrated on colors and shadows. I had previously rarely created images with no outlines, but sharp line work and controlled coloring are not easy when you’re painting with your finger on a surface smaller than a credit card. Loose smudges and bright layered colors are naturals. So I embraced the language suggested by the equipment, and ended up with a collection of loose, fuzzy, casually brushstroked images that years ago I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing. I captured my New York with much more immediacy than I had in my old watercolors.

My first personal interaction with The New Yorker had taken place in 1994. Françoise Mouly had seen some of the watercolor landscapes I was doing in Chicago, and asked me to send her some cover proposals. I had been admiring her choice of artists, many of them European types I had followed since my early years. But those were the Tina Brown years, which were characterized by a return to the more timely, topical newsiness and irony of the Harold Ross ’20s. I felt my un-ironic valentines to New York, as I see my images, were out of place in The New Yorker’s contemporary universe: I hardly offer a catch, a twist, a comment. My work is about perspectives, volumes, light, details, and atmospheres. I came to believe I had approached The New Yorker a few decades too late.

Yet a steady New York physiognomy has continued to turn up on New Yorker covers between provocative images, well into the David Remnick years. That vision has persisted, as can be confirmed by exploring the long hallways of the Condé Nast Building’s twentieth floor, where all the Mouly-assigned covers -- around nine hundred of them, by last count -- remain pinned in sequence. The recipe for a The New Yorker cover is elusive. One key factor does emerge: a passion for and enchantment with the magic of New York City.

The best way for me to find painting locations is on foot. Sometimes I pick a spot in advance; other times, I simply take a bus or a subway, exit at a random stop, and start exploring. I occasionally do advance research on Google Street View, but nothing replaces location scouting. I often get to a place that I expected to be a perfect subject only to discover that the surroundings are overpowering, proportions are dull, details are off... or that the perfect vantage point is in the middle of the street, amid the traffic, which is a problem if you plan to spend any time painting on site. Many of the images in this book are accidents of my everyday errands or recordings of key places from my personal history, memories to keep. A few are responses to other works of art: photos or paintings, film locations, that sort of stuff. It’s impossible to capture every aspect of New York City in a hundred images, so this is a personal collection of whereabouts, discoveries, preferences, moments.

Elements clash in an ever-inspiring kaleidoscope. I do my best to keep discovering my surroundings as freshly as if I had just arrived. The deep accumulation of historical resonance, ambitious development, art iconography, pop culture references, architectural landmarks, loads every New York street with its own lore. As often happens, ditching my precedents and changing my approach altogether when I started using the iPhone turned out to get me closer to my deepest intentions. These were the images I wanted to get out of New York all the time.

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This text was written in 2010. Tools and work methods may have changed ever since.