Unlocking your inner artist could be just a screen swipe away. Carol Cooper discovers the new digital art democracy and meets the pioneers of a new medium

All of us start off as artists. Once the average junior human has got beyond the stage of purely filling tummy and nappy, they move on, via percussion, construction and demolition, to the visual arts – creating images and interpreting their environment via fingertip smudges, crayons and paint. By adulthood, for most of us the desire to daub has long been squeezed out by pursuits considered more vocational, and a full-time artist is seen as a rare creature, inspiring awe, often envy.

But since the launch of drawing and painting apps, such as Brushes in 2008, a quiet revolution has taken place that could affect a subtle shift in our concept of ‘the artist’. The habitual faffing with phones or tablets that marks modern life no longer means the user is just communicating, gaming or surfing, they could well be painting with pixels. Digital art is no longer the preserve of the illustrator on a studio Mac, it’s on the streets and in the hands of the everyman.

But what might have been seen as amateur app bothering or a fleeting gimmick has now moved into mainstream art, helped along by professional artists adopting the new medium with relish. Lake Michigan-based artist Susan Murtaugh, who worked in advertising and graphic design for 45 years, has been producing digital art for 20 years using Cintiq and Photoshop. She became a beta tester first for the desktop painting program SketchBook and then for the Brushes app, developed by Steve Sprang.

“I saw an iPhone painting by Disney art director, Stéphane Kardos, and emailed asking him how hard it was to do. He wrote back telling me to get one and get to work. I did and I’ve never looked back.” In 2009, Murtaugh appeared in an ABC news feature on mobile digital art with Kardos and Jorge Columbo, whose iPhone illustration made the June cover of The New Yorker the same year.

Various mobile digital art shows began popping up around the States as the movement grew, but it was the unveiling of David Hockney’s stunning iPad images at his Royal Academy, London exhibition, A Bigger Picture, in 2012, that placed the medium firmly on the global art scene.

“I believe the fame of Hockney and Columbo made it much easier for me and other artists to promote our work,” says Murtaugh. “It’s still in progress, though, and educating others is all part of the process. The hardest misconception to overcome is that we’re just pushing a button in an app, and art appears.”

Murtaugh spoke at the Second Annual Mobile Digital Arts and Creativity Summit in California last year, along with San Francisco-based British artist Jeremy Sutton, who’s been a digital artist, authority and pioneer for more than 20 years.

When more of Hockney’s iPad art was revealed at A Bigger Exhibition at San Francisco’s De Young gallery in 2013, Sutton performed a live iPad drawing event at the opening and taught workshops in the gallery. “My students and I would stand in front of our favourite Hockney works and draw them on our iPads. The level of excitement and awe was palpable!” he enthuses.

“Each of us was like a digital art Pied Piper attracting a little crowd of onlookers. What surprised me was when people exclaimed ‘Oh, so you can draw on the iPad?’ while they were surrounded by Hockney’s huge iPad prints and his replay videos [following the development of each piece] endlessly repeating on screens. It made me realise the power of seeing mobile art in action, created in real time before your eyes with the human hand and the iPad. It also made me realise that this was art for everyone. Everyone we met, old and young, wanted to have a go.” 

Digital painting from real life

A true polymath, Sutton started taking art classes while studying physics at Oxford University, and his fascination with new technologies led him to try digital painting in 1991 – he is one of only 36 Corel Painter Masters worldwide and teaches iPad painting internationally.

He got excited about the artistic possibilities of mobile devices after seeing Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone at MacWorld 2007 in San Francisco, and experimented with iPhone painting, but found the small screen limiting. After the 2010 release of the iPad, however, everything changed.

“From the moment I started drawing in earnest on the iPad I loved it. It was small and light enough to be truly portable and something I could carry with me, while being big enough to feel comfortable for sketching.”

Murtaugh also loves the ‘grab-it-and-go’ element of mobile digital art, while Hockney, who carries his iPad around in a specially designed jacket pocket, finds iPad drawing “much more interesting than computer drawing because it’s quicker. You can pick up a colour from another colour. You can work very fast [which] is something most draughtsmen are interested in.”

In his action painting events and workshops Sutton demonstrates the thrill of live drawing. “The convenience of the iPad makes it an ideal live sketching tool,” he says. “I love sketching portraits from life. There is something so special about the interaction between artist and model. It is such a different experience to working from a photo. As Hockney said, ‘Photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops – for a split second. But that’s not what it’s like to live in the world, or to convey the experience of living in the world.’”

The speed and ease of art apps mean they’ve been embraced for drawing from life, allowing a broader range of styles than the over-airbrushed look that has previously been prevalent.

“It seems many of the websites showing digital art in general, not specifically mobile digital art, tend to be showing more of the airbrushed, smooth-skinned fantasy type of art,” says Sutton. “The mobile digital art that’s [emerging] seems to include more variety of approach and more use of thicker, bolder brush strokes. This may be because mobile devices lend themselves to quick, spontaneous drawing and looser marks.” 

Breaking down barriers

Sutton says he’s excited to see that artists are experimenting with the new medium, pushing it in new directions, and Murtaugh, who has curated many international digital art shows, sees a world of possibilities ahead. “I see so much different art now. There are many photorealists and there are some killer abstractionists; Patricio Villarroel Bórquez and Helene Goldberg are two of my favourites. This is still a tool in its infancy. Time will give us more styles and more ways to express ourselves, perhaps in ways we can’t even imagine.”

So, just like any other new art medium that’s emerged in the past, from egg tempura to screen printing, mobile digital is leading to the creation of new artistic styles. But the new technology could also be leading to a radical shift in the way we think about media. “Defining ‘mobile digital art’ is like trying to define a moving target,” says Sutton. “It’s moving in space and time, since everything’s heading mobile. The devices we can use for digital painting are converging towards mobility from both ends of the spectrum: mobile phone screens getting larger at one end and laptop computers getting more compact and mobile at the other end. Desktop computer operating systems are evolving into universal operating systems that are indistinguishable from mobile/cloud operating systems. It’s just a matter of time before the barriers separating mobile digital art from non-mobile digital art will break down and the word ‘mobile’ will become superfluous – and digital media will be considered ‘conventional’.

I ask Murtaugh and Sutton if the new medium could also break down the barriers between artist and non-artist; if the mobility of the new tech and the ubiquity of its hardware coupled with the cheapness of its software will allow those of us who’ve not painted since childhood to return to the joy of art as we go about our daily lives.

“It’s funny, I had this conversation with other artists this year,” says Murtaugh. “I think we’re at the beginning of a new era that appreciates creativity in all forms. Anything we can do to encourage others to get back in touch with that inner child artist should be done. I like to empower those that don’t think they can, with the tools and the knowledge that all it takes is time.”

Sutton agrees that most of us start out in life “making marks and expressing ourselves in what we draw. It’s not about being born with or without talent, it’s a natural way we react to the world.” He feels there is a general movement in society for more people to express themselves creatively and we’re also becoming more used to interacting with screens. “Anyone signing a credit card payment on an iPad enjoys a few seconds of uninhibited mobile digital art as they create a signature on the screen with their finger. It feels natural to draw on a screen now. Drawing on a device like an iPad is less intimidating for someone who doesn’t think of themselves as an ‘artist’ but wants to have a go.” But if everyone is ‘having a go’ are they actually producing anything that’s any good?

Unsurprisingly, as a teacher, Sutton emphasises the importance of education: “When it comes to learning how to master the art of effective composition, use of line, shade etc, mobile digital art may be an amazing new medium but it doesn’t replace art education, practice and commitment to process and learning. Even Hockney took about eight months exploring and practising with the Brushes app on his iPad, after a few years of him already using it on the iPhone, before he felt ready to produce his iPad masterpieces. A tool is a tool is a tool – it’s what you do with it and the creativity you bring to it that makes a difference and produces great art.”

But is it art… and does it matter?

Kerry Crocker (aka Parasol B,, an artist who curated last year’s Smartphone Art Show at the Carrack Modern Art Space in North Carolina, feels that the more art out there the better, “These days most people have this powerful artistic tool in their pocket. And most definitely, mobile tech has revolutionised creative expression. I think that, ultimately, humanity can only benefit from more people making more art. But, if everyone is quickly and easily creating images the signal-to-noise ratio for quality content seems lower and lower – although it may just be that there is more content to sift through and the ratio of great to mediocre is the same as always.” So quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality. But does that matter? And what is ‘quality’ art anyway?

My neighbour Mike is an engineer, a down-to-earth man who’d never call himself an ‘artist’, but after upgrading to a phone with a decent screen he started to doodle while commuting, painting fellow travellers, then progressing to landscapes and still life. Practice having honed his natural talent, he’s built up an impressive gallery. As Murtaugh says, “If you put in the time, the talent will come. And it will make you very happy.” Surely, whether it’s art or not, that’s got to be a force for good.

For more of Jeremy Sutton’s work and his thoughts on mobile digital art see and for his online tutorials see See more of Susan Murtaugh’s work on