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…)