Pad and i: Part 1. Passion and revulsion.

When I was nine, my first stepfather would let me tag along to the computer room in the basement of Australian National Uni. It was a big room with lino floors and rows of clacking mainframes. Bill would hand a big cardboard tray full of index cards over to a grad student with muttonchops who would feed his math program into the computer’s maw. Tape reels would whirr, lights would flash, printers would clatter, while we would sit and wait for the results.

On the wall over the computer bank, there was a gigantic picture of a naked lady printed out on green and white striped computer paper. Upon closer inspection (and I inspected it very closely, it being a naked lady and all), it turned out to be made entirely of numbers and letters, what was known as ASCII art. To nine-year-old me, this piece of early nerd porn was both fascinating and terrifying. And that sentiment has more or less characterized my feeling about computer art ever since. I want it — and I am repelled by it.

In 1984, I got my hands on my first 128 K Macintosh. It came with a super crude application called MacPaint (it cost $125!) that let you draw in black and white. No color, no grayscale, just a bunch of simple textures. It was like painting in tweed holding a cinderblock with a catcher’s mitt. I fiddled around with it for ten minutes, then went back to the miracle of wordprocessing.

Later that year, I came upon a ground-breaking book called Zen and the Art of the Macintosh: Discoveries on the path to computer enlightenment which introduced me to the idea that you could somehow get all kinds of photos and calligraphy and textures (Woodgrain! Thumbprints!) into your computer and add them to your desktop publishing. Seriously, ye people of the 21st century, this was a Gutenberg moment for me — it rocked my world.

Next revelations to come down from the mountain in the later ’80s: Quark Xpress and Illustrator 88. The first helped me churn out reams of books, posters, and fake magazine articles, on my purloined laser printer. The latter confused and frustrated me. I couldn’t figure out how to cut paths or turn lines into curves, there was no preview mode, and drawing with a mouse was still as alien and annoying as Jar Jar Binks. I could write and publish entire books but I couldn’t draw even a smiley face to serve as an author photo.

Through the 1990s, I admired and hired illustrators who worked in Photoshop and Illustrator, making gorgeous airbrushed looking paintings with style and character and I’d beg them for tutorials only to stop them midway and throw my mouse down in disgust. This wasn’t drawing. It was engineering.

Next potential breakthrough, the holy tablets of Wacom. Finally, I had a thing that was sort of like a pen (only super-stiff, unresponsive, and plasticy) but I’d have to draw down here on the tablet while looking up there at my screen. Then I’d have to constantly reposition my cursor, right click things, open windows, command- this or that, and it all felt unnatural and mawkish. Worst of all, I would draw like I was word processing, putting a line down, then immediately going back to erase and redo it, then make it bigger, then lasso it and nudge it over, then look through some filters, then reduce it, shift the colors, blah blah… It was nothing like the directness and simplicity of a pen in a sketchbook, my own true love. Again, I met loads of artists who strummed their tablets like Andrés Segovia but I just tied my fingers into knots.

Ten years ago or so, my boy David Hockney started sharing his first iPhone drawings. He drew them in bed with his index finger while still having his first cuppa. Then in 2009, Jorge Colombo, a guy I’d met around town and who seemed like a regular human being, published the very first New Yorker cover drawn with his index finger on the iPhone. Come on! A New Yorker cover?! With the finger?

Next up, the first iPad. I got one days after it was released in 2010. I immediately downloaded a drawing app called Brushes, cracked my knuckles, polished my fingertips — and made utter, breathtaking crap. I tried a couple more times but it was awful. I hated the lag, the feeling of the glass, the garish colors, the interface…. I went back to using my pen to draw with and my index finger to scratch my butt and pick my nose.

Ever so often I would see some insane masterpiece drawn on the iPad and I would whine, whimper, and order a new stylus. They all turned out to invariably to be metal sticks with felt balls at the end, like spindly QTips that balked and scraped, a long cry from my favorite drawing pens.  When France Belleville Van Stone showed me her digital sketchbooks done with the Paper app and a plastic thing that looked like a carpenter’s pencil, I broke down and spent too much money buying my own. It broke the first day I used it. Back to the sketchbook.

(To be continued…)





18 thoughts on “Pad and i: Part 1. Passion and revulsion.”

  1. I think I beat you. I got my first Apple IIe in 1983. It came totally naked so I took some programming classes. A few years later, I got a Mac and found that drawing portraits of my friends with the mouse was strangely liberating. I never would have dared try it with a pencil! Later I bought a Wacom tablet but I’ve never been able to do anything with it…


  2. Danny Gregory your blog continues to entertain, instruct, and inspire me to continue in spite of setbacks. I now can post a few things, even while on the road. Take pictures and file them plus even find the files. Amazing and SBS isn’t even a computer skool. I think I haven’t had a tech device break on me in a while, just by turning it on. So glad you are back.


  3. You almost have me convinced….but your IPAD sketches will never have the luminosity of your ink sketches colored with Doc Martin ink.


  4. Yup, totally how I feel about digital drawing. I prefer the pen and paper approach. I have an IPad and a stylus and one of the apps but it’s too much work to learn how it operates. Frustrating at best and the final product is nothing I’m proud of. Hope your part II gives me some hope.


  5. Danny…you are freaking hilarious. I’m so happy you’re sharing your stories again! Thanks for a good laugh this morning.


  6. I bought that carpenter’s pencil stylus too, along with some other kind, they all wound up in a drawer… I worked my entire working life (over 40 years) as a computer programmer, I don’t want to draw on a computer, I want a dip fountain pen that scratches the paper, and watercolors that drip onto the page sometimes. Your doggy drawing is very nice, and I admire your ability to stick with it but this is one path I will not follow you down.


  7. I was a graphic designer for 29 years. First worked on an Apple in 1984 in high school. Every day in front of a computer for 8-10 hours. . . ugh. Changed careers in January and if I never see a computer again I am OK with that!!! But I LOVE my Wacom tablet. – I miss my tablet! Got one when they first came out because mousing gave me carpal tunnel. I too dislike computer art. I know how it is done. I have seen really beautiful things created on a computer, but to me they are cold and impersonal. Pixar is the bomb on my TV, but only handmade on my walls.


  8. What intrigues me about your post (btw welcome back, missed your missives) is the line “my first stepfather”……..?????


  9. Loved reading this Danny. Almost a mirror of my own journey, except I got off the train some way back and haven’t, quite, jumped back on to have another go, yet.

    Quark Express! My dad was ad manager for a newspaper group, and I remember some evenings him laying out pages with a pencil (always with a long knife-sharpened point), and a heavy 18in wooden ruler (now a treasured possession of mine), on the kitchen table. He died over 30 years ago A year later they brought out Quark Express. He would have loved it. But if it had existed 20 years earlier that task would have been quickly completed ‘in the office’, and I wouldn’t forever be able to see the faint lead-lined indents in the yellow fablon covering of our kitchen table, and remember dad sitting across from me as I ate my tea, I wouldn’t know how to sharpen a pencil ‘properly’ with a penknife (and why it was thus called), and I wouldn’t have had an endless supply of ‘scrap’ paper to draw on throughout my childhood!


  10. Good to hear your voice again, Danny. I have also been playing around with the iPad Pro and Apple pencil and have enjoyed your doggy drawings. Looking forward to hearing about more of your digital journey.


  11. In the late 80s, my brother and I visited dad on his freighter ship. There they had a satellite system FURUNO. Japanese. It was used to plot navigation course and all kinds of intricate captain stuff that my dad would use it for.
    Dad allowed us to play with it when it was in a non-operation mode. It had a screen with colors that you could actually draw with. We drew all kinds of simple objects on that small screen and it was in these bright vivid colors – blue, red, white, green. I still have the memory of pushing the buttons and seeing the colors. That was my first introduction to digital drawing (I guess).


  12. Loved the walk down memory lane regarding the advent of Macintosh in the publishing business. Been there! It was wonderfully funny to read this post. Brought back many memories of my beginning years as a graphic artist switching to digital. I sooooo resisted it! Never could get to drawing with the Wacom. Understood Illustrator a bit more. Love reading your posts Danny. It just makes me feel good inside! 🙂 Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.