From Pigment to Pixels


By Wendy Cromwell


For decades, artists have experimented with digital tools, often incorporating or referencing technology in their paintings. As a result, cutting-edge collectors have come to seek, if not expect, these innovations from artists. At the same time, art is now part of the direct-to-consumer economy through online platforms and auctions. As the time we spend online accelerates, we are ever more seduced by the virtual experience of art, which continues to improve as technology evolves. Increasingly, paint and code are interchangeable. How did we get here? Prior to the global pandemic, I resisted looking at art online. But with increased screen time, I’ve come to appreciate the giant role technology plays in painting. While the artists who focus on this phenomenon have come to define an era, what lies ahead in terms of Web 3.0 and the Metaverse will make this moment seem quaint! A Brief History of Paint Let’s start at the very beginning: 20,000 years ago, the first artists mixed charcoal with animal fat to make cave paintings. Then, in Pharaonic Egypt, artists mixed pigments into thinned egg yolks, known as Tempera, which remains on tomb walls today. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that artists discovered how to bind pigments to oil, a revolution that changed how images circulated. Tempera was limited to walls and wood panels, whereas oil adhered to canvas, a game-changer that made art more transportable (and shareable… kind of like the internet). Following this breakthrough, oil dominated for centuries—that is, until acrylic paint entered the picture when it was invented in the 1960s. The future is in plastics. Acrylic paint is water-soluble and can be thinned to a watercolor-like consistency while the color stays bright (think neon), synonymous with the 60s aesthetic. And unlike oil, which dries super slowly, acrylic dries fast, thus speeding up production. Andy Warhol famously used acrylic paint in his silkscreens, a commercial production mode where the image can be endlessly reproduced. From Silkscreen to Computer Screen The invention of painting software in the 1980s transformed paint from a physical object into code. Warhol—prescient in almost everything it seems— famously said: “Paintings are too hard. The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems.” So naturally, he embraced this new form of painting. Warhol made it official in 1985 when he created a digital portrait of pop star Debbie Harry using Deluxe Paint software on a personal computer, the Commodore Amiga 1000, heralding a new age of pixels-as-paint. Case Study: David Hockney David Hockney (b. 1937), a classically trained painter, was quick to adopt digital art tools in the 1980s––and not as a media stunt, like Warhol the influencer–– but to augment his painting practice. He first used a fax machine, then a color Xerox machine, to make digital prints. A series of 33 “Home-Made Prints” sold for nearly $1 million at Sotheby’s in 2021, demonstrating the level of demand for these works of art.


With the invention of the iPhone (2007) and the iPad (2010), Hockney used painting software to sketch outdoors, creating a suite of “iPad drawings” that were digitally printed onto paper in limited editions. Hockney stated: “This is the closest I’ve ever come in printing to what it’s like to paint: I can put something down, evaluate it, alter it, revise it, all in a matter of seconds.” An added bonus? “I realized that with the iPad I could draw without moving from my bed.” We feel that too. One of Hockney’s iPad prints, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) - 4 May, 2011, edition of 10, achieved $671,000 at Phillips in March 2022. In a plot twist, Hockney’s steady production of editioned prints didn’t dilute his market; rather, the opposite occurred. In 2018, Hockney’s acrylic on canvas painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972 fetched $90 million at Christie’s, crowning Hockney the most expensive living painter. Takeaway: Hockney’s reputation has benefited from his innovations in the digital space, keeping him in the game spanning a seven-decade (and counting) career and achieving icon status. Is there anything this guy can’t do? Show You the Money While digital innovations in art still underperform the analog painting market, painters who incorporate technology are highly collectible, as indicated by the market intel below. 1. Avery Singer (b. 1987) - Happening, 2014 achieved $5,253,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2022. Singer drafted the composition using SketchUp, a 3D rendering software, then projected the underdrawing on canvas, and painted over it with acrylic and airbrush. 2. Julie Mehretu (b. 1970) - Emergent Algorithm (Manara Circle, Palestine), 2012 sold for $4,890,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2022. Mehretu incorporates digital architectural blueprints into her abstractions, which she renders in acrylic and ink on canvas on board. 3. Laura Owens (b. 1970) - Untitled, 2016 sold for $1,593,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2022. Owens’ produced this painting by mapping cubic pixels (via screen printing) onto dyed linen. 4. Wade Guyton (b. 1976) - Untitled, 2006 sold for $5,989,000 at Sotheby’s in 2014. Guyton is known for his pioneering use of EpsonUltraChrome inkjet on canvas to create his paintings.

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