Making art with iPhones

Using just his hands and an iPhone John Bavaro creates stunning art

The process no. 1
The process no. 1
The process no. 2
The process no. 2
The process no. 3
The process no. 3
The process no. 4
The process no. 4

Using just the small screen of his iPhone, American artist John Bavaro produces amazingly ethereal works (in fact, he says the new iPad is too large a surface for him). His finger and an app called Brushes are his only tools, although he often takes a rudimentary sketch from a photo to use as an outline. Is this the future of art?

You’ve been a traditional painter for a long time. What made you decide to work with the iPhone?
I had finally jettisoned my BlackBerry and, like most new iPhone owners, I was starting to form a ‘community’ with other users, trading tips. I’m a college professor, and one day a student of mine sent me an article about ‘painting on the iPhone’, which featured iPhone drawings by David Hockney. I was amazed by what he’d done, decided to download the Brushes app myself, and I haven’t looked back.

Tell us about your process.
Some of the works are photo-derived and others are not. In the ones that employ a photo source, I ‘paint’ semi-transparently over a cartoon sketch from the photo, then I begin to build a texture in layers. It’s not dissimilar to oil painting, where glazing and stumbling techniques are used. By pinching and expanding on the iPhone screen, I blow up parts of the painting so I can select the smallest brushes and articulate details, even with my index finger. The Brushes program records a playback that can be outputted to an incredible resolution, so a 3.5-inch painting can be blown up as large as you want to make it.

Is it the unusual process that makes your art popular?
I think mobile media devices represent the cultural zeitgeist, because we’re approaching a time when everyone not only owns them, but also rely on them day to day. In your pocket you have a machine that can entertain you, inform you and locate your place on the planet. When you consider that the average smartphone has many times more memory than the computer power of the original moon lander, you have to wonder what the future might hold. As for the popularity of the artwork, the fact that it’s done on the iPhone makes it ‘amazing’ to most people, but because it’s a common device, I think people also take some kind of ownership of it too. It’s like when you read a book that you ‘swear you could have written yourself’. The novelty of it will soon be a thing of the past though. I am one of seven founders of the International Association of Mobile Digital Artists. We already have members in 15 countries, and recently held our inaugural conference in New York: people came from as far as Germany, Australia, Spain and Croatia to share knowledge. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Does your wife ever tell you off for being on your phone all the time?
My wife, Suzanne Proulx, is also an artist in traditional media, so she’s aware of the artistic process. But when I paint with oils in the studio, there is a starting and stopping point, there’s studio time that one must budget, there is preparation to be done and, most importantly, one of us has to look after the kids. The problem with the iPhone is that it’s like having a pocket studio that you can use while on the couch watching football.

What does your work say about the future of art?
I don’t think physical art will go away. Last week I went to New York to see the Abstract Expressionism show at MOMA. I was overwhelmed to be in the presence of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still masterpieces. These real pieces will always be what people crave. But then a digital agnostic like me became a digital disciple, and I think a cultural shift is afoot. When paired with the recent dip in the economy, the cutting of arts funding, the inability of artists to ship their work, or the inability of venues to host them, mobile media makes sense. Even the online gallery, which was once seen as a poor replacement for real space, is gaining legitimacy. People rejected photography a century ago, and I remember people rejecting answering machines 20 years ago because they thought they were too impersonal. Everything has a threshold moment, and it takes populist technology like the iPhone or iPad to bring people in from the fringes.

iPhone Variations: The Genus Series continues at Rotunda Gallery, American University of Dubai until November 21

The lowdown
John Bavaro
Age: 45
Nationality: American
Price of works: About Dhs920 each (unframed)

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