Ariel Klein, Artist
Ariel Klein, Artist

Picture an artist painting outside of her studio, in a local park, café, or public square. She’s probably sitting opposite a canvas, holding a brush in one paint-stained hand and a palette in the other. You can imagine what a hassle it was to lug all of her art supplies there and back.

Local artist Ariel J. Klein regularly paints in public, but he doesn’t need to bring an easel, tubes of paint, or brushes with him. He uses his iPad. “It’s really nice to have a complete color palette on hand wherever I go,” he says. “It’s a lot less messy, and I can even paint on an airplane.”

Using a few different apps, including Procreate and ArtRage, Klein has been painting on his iPad for about a year and a half. After earning his BFA in traditional painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2012, Klein worked out of a space in Silver Spring before moving to 52 O Street Studios in Truxton Circle. He started using his iPad as a portable sketchbook while traveling and to paint his observations in coffee shops and restaurants. “I don’t even use a notebook anymore,” the 25-year-old says. Most of Klein’s paint-on-canvas pieces are based on those digital sketches. Other digital works get run through a high-quality printer as final pieces. (Klein sometimes paints on his iPhone, too, but finds it’s too small to capture much detail.)

As with his canvas work, on his iPad, Klein can blend colors, select different brushes, zoom in to apply finer details, and zoom out to see the big picture. He can even create simulated paint drips if he wants to. Klein’s found freedom in some of the tablet’s benefits over analog painting; he’s particularly fond of replicating certain parts of his digital paintings, copy-pasting imagery from one side to the other. When I visited him in his studio in January, Klein showed me a sped-up video on his iPad that captured each mark he’d made (and erased) on a recent self-portrait. At one point, the left half of his face flipped across the vertical axis to the right side, making the face perfectly symmetrical. With the exception of Rorschach-style prints, this would never be possible on paper or canvas.

“self-portrait” by Ariel J. Klein

With these digital tools at his disposal, Klein’s non-digital works have started to take on a new aesthetic. “I’m trying to bring digital qualities into [analog] painting,” he says. Klein is currently working on a series of oil-on-canvas paintings, each a close-up of the exact same face in different colors. He hopes to make about 50, covering one whole wall of his studio. The idea is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s famous portraits of celebrities— and it turns out Klein’s brand of digital painting takes a lot of cues from Pop art.

Like Klein, a lot of Pop artists replicated imagery to create multiples of a single work. Pop artists had an inclination toward mediums and methods that could easily be reproduced—like silk-screen prints—as a way of both making art more affordable and thumbing their noses at the Abstract Expressionists, who were enamored with the one-of- a-kind nature of their own works. Artists who paint on tablet computers can print as many multiples of their digital paintings as they please, and the copy-paste function is ideal for Warholian image repetition.

Before Pop art came around, silk screening was considered the fodder of advertisers, not artists. Comics were for children. And everyday objects were not worthy of large-scale public sculpture. Pop artists worked to bring these “low” art forms into the realm of “high” art, often combining elements of the two worlds into a single work. Roy Lichtenstein always painted his Ben-Day dots—the pixels of comics printing—by hand. Today, artists like Klein sketch out ideas on iPads and later transpose the digital images to their canvases. Although art created on an iPad is not necessarily considered a “low” art today (David Hockney uses one, after all), digital painting is not considered as legitimate a medium as analog painting. A BFA painting program would never let its students paint exclusively on a tablet—though these days, some photography departments don’t require darkroom classes, so the advent of a digital-only painting program may not be too far off.

“Cafe” by Ariel J. Klein

Practicers of Pop art and iPad art share an inescapable interest in mass culture, advertising, and consumerism, but that interest manifests in opposite ways. Pop artists devoted a lot of their works to elevating everyday objects, with a nod to pop-culture darlings of mainstream media, celebrity, and ads. Warhol liked to talk about his art as mass production, his workshop as a factory, and the artist as a machine, churning out works that featured Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup, and the New York Post’s front page.

Artists working in digital painting today don’t always borrow the current capitalist aesthetic for their works’ imagery, but the sentiment comes through in the medium. Klein doesn’t say he draws on a tablet. He says he draws on an iPad—and he’s not the only one. In his captions and wall texts, Hockney labels his works “iPad Drawing” and “iPhone Drawing.” Roz Hall, a U.K.-based digital artist, categorizes his works as “iPad Art” and “Surface Art,” with subcategories for the various apps he used to make the works: Procreate, Brushes, Sketchbook Pro, InkPad, and Fresh Paint. A brand-name product has become an artistic medium.

And just as Perrier put out limited editions of Warhol-inspired bottles in 2013, the brands these artists have been inadvertently advertising are coming back for more.

“The Conductor” by Ariel J. Klein

On Jan. 1, Apple announced a campaign called “Start Something New.” The campaign commissioned 12 artists, including Hall, to create works (mostly photographs) using Apple products. The pieces are posted online and, until recently, were on display at every Apple store in the world, a number of which also invited artists to lead workshops on digital drawing, painting, and photography.

What does Klein think of all this? Is it good for publicity, a sell-out move for the artists, or just another example of capitalism co-opting a creative movement? “I like it,” Klein says. “I think it’s nice that these artists can get some sponsorship. It’s like being sponsored by a paint company… like Gamblin.” He points out that DJs already get invited to Apple stores to do demos, so why shouldn’t Apple support visual artists, too?

Pop art earned critical and popular success in part because its subject matter and execution were accessible. Pop artists were much more concerned with their reception among everyday people than with the opinions of art-world critics. Apple sees a similar approachability in the works of artists who use its products, which is why the company seeks out these artists to help it advertise its hardware. Klein says that when he paints on his iPad in a public place, small crowds often gather around and ask what he’s doing. “People especially like how I’m copy-and-pasting and duplicating the image,” he says.

Though you probably won’t see any Hockney works at the Apple store anytime soon (the galleries that represent him would likely have none of that), it seems fitting that, as an artist associated with the Pop art movement, Hockney took so naturally to the iPad and iPhone in his 70s. Painting on an iPad may have its limitations (a glowing screen, a stylus that doesn’t always apply the right amount of pressure, and a flattened paint texture), but those might soon be fixed with an updated model or a new operating system. After all, when you’re using an iPad, Klein says, “things take less time.” Pop art captured the consumerism of the 1950s and ‘60s. Could tablet art embody our increasingly fast-paced, outcome-oriented, tech-obsessed world?

Photo by Darrow Montgomery