Hockney, iPad and creative expression


The Royal Academy in London has an exhibition of works by David Hockney, including a collection of pictures created with an iPad. The iPad works are at the physical heart of the galleries, occupying the largest room in the Royal Academy, and seemed to dominate the overheard chatter and murmur of the visitors.

It is remarkable that, just two years after the iPad’s introduction, it has become an important medium for an artist such as Hockney and one capable of drawing new crowds to the venerable institution of the Royal Academy. The response to the exhibit has been extraordinary. It has been busy every day since opening in January, such that the gallery has extended its hours in response to demand, staying open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

It is attracting visitors who rarely frequent galleries. When I attended it was almost uncomfortably full with young and old, Londoners and tourists alike, from all walks of life.

The body of work itself is magnificent. Its central theme is the detail of changing seasons in rural England. Hockney captures a country rarely seen by tourists self-confined to the bounds of central London. The locals who inhabit the woodlands, lanes and fields of Hockney’s pictures will find familiar scenes cast in a new light.

I hope the prominence of the exhibition will encourage exploration of England’s many rural regions, particularly among those who visit from abroad and previously returned home convinced the stone heart of London was representative of the country.

The iPad pictures are one of several mediums which reflect the breadth of Hockney’s talent. They sit alongside oils, charcoal, photographic collage, video and sketchbooks filled with pen and ink.

Hockney has a history of experimenting with new tools, but his use of the iPad deserves special attention. It is unusual for new technology to be so readily embraced by a 75 year old and speaks to the universal appeal of the device.

The iPad works are arranged in chronological order, enabling visitors to chart the artist’s changing use of the device. It is a prolific collection, averaging one picture a day over a couple of months. The experimentation with techniques is clear to see. In some Hockney builds up colours and shadow with many individual line strokes, in others he uses touches of a digital airbrush to create clouds. Some rely heavily on colours blended with a finger tip.

Most remarkable of all, however, is the scale. The pictures are huge, yet printed at such fine resolution that even close-up it is hard to discern they are made of pixels rather than pigments. To achieve this, Hockney transposed his established technique of working on canvases in sections. Each overall image was created by zooming and scrolling around a large virtual canvas, allowing the artist to construct each part of the grid in fine detail, so that it could be printed at size without pixelation.

Hockney’s comfort with working in sections while maintaining a sense of the overall image makes him an ideal candidate to experiment with the iPad. It will be interesting to see whether the increased resolution of Apple’s new version impacts his future work.

The use of the iPad is central to the wide appeal of this exhibition. It has attracted the interest of those who might have been unmoved without this novelty. Most importantly, however, it has inspired a sense of possibility.

As I left, I overhead a mum asking her son, “Are you going to have a go with the iPad on the way home?”

It seemed to sum up the factors which combine to make the iPad a popular canvas for creative experimentation, be it music, drawing or photography. The mobility of the iPad would allow it to be used on the train ride home, its accessibility meant it would be easily mastered by a child and its sociability would keep the family engaged during their journey.

We initiated a MEX Pathway, #8, entitled ‘Inspire new forms of creative expression through mobile devices‘ in February 2011 and the iPad has been an important enabler of this theme. There was a noticeable trend towards supporting creative experimentation as a use case for tablets at Mobile World Congress this year, with Adobe releasing new tools for both iOS and Android, and Samsung featuring a sketch artist on its stand.

Hockney’s work, despite its many virtues, is not a new form of expression, but rather a successful example of transposing existing techniques into the digital sphere.

The MEX Pathway #8 working sessions in May 2011 arrived at a number of conclusions about the future of mobile devices as creative tools. Here’s an extract from the Pathway summary:

  1. The embedded person-to-person communication capabilities of wireless devices make them ideal tools for new forms of creativity reliant on shared interactions between multiple people.
  2. The proliferation of wireless devices is still being driven by their primary role as communications tools, but this is enabling new digital creative capabilities to filter into the mass market by stealth. Examples include capacitive touchscreens for digital painting, processors for music creation and cameras for digital photography and video. Users can experience new forms of creativity first through the generic capabilities of their mobile devices and are then more likely to buy specialist tools if they decide to pursue an activity further.
  3. New sensors are facilitating new forms of creative expression, including ambient light detectors, dual microphones, gyroscopes, digital compasses, GPS, thermometers and capactive touchscreens and other surfaces. Once included in a device, developers often find additional uses for sensors beyond the manufacturer’s original intentions.
  4. Mobile devices allow creative activities to happen closer to the user’s source of inspiration, simply by virtue of the fact they are almost always nearby. Users can create a digital painting when they come across a beautiful landscape or record their dreams when they wake up because their mobile device is always within reach.
  5. Creativity is innate. Interfaces which feel most natural and similar to the physical interactions we already have with other humans are most likely to facilitate creative experiences on digital devices. Haptics adds tactility, an essential element for natural interfaces.
  6. New forms of creativity can bring users closer to the old and familiar. For instance, input from motion sensors could be used to ‘age’ digital photographs in the same way a favourite photo in a wallet would develop a patina over time.
  7. The potential for new forms of creativity is limited by people’s tendency to categorise experiences according to their stage in life. Douglas Adams said: “Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it, until it’s been around for about ten years, when it gradually turns out to be alright really.”
  8. Creativity is deeply personal. 10 people in the same room, equipped with the same tools and asked to draw the same thing will all produce different results.
  9. If you’re trying to encourage users to experiment with new forms of creativity, remember three rules: make it easy to find, simple to use and fun.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture‘ is at the Royal Academy until 9th April 2012. A word of advice: if you’re planning to visit (and I thoroughly recommend it), allow plenty of time to queue, or if you’re lucky enough to know a Royal Academy member, ask them to take you as a guest: you’ll bypass the queues and their membership allows you and them to attend without additional charge.

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    Antoine RJ Wright

    I draw on my iPad as well. The benefit of apps like adobe Ideas with their large canvases makes it possible to do the kind of detailed work that you speak of here. In some respects, each app is like a variation on the fact that the iPad itself is a blank canvas. Makes for some insert over possibilities,

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