Finger-painting with Matthew Watkins

Riding The Mythical Beast Of Unbridled Creativity

No more than a decade ago, a portable sketchpad with unlimited pages and access to colors might have sounded like a dream and only that.  Until recently, pen tablets and software such as Adobe Illustrator  have provided artists a new form of digital media to work with. While artists may be delighted to take advantage of technology when it offers opportunities to connect with other artists, galleries, art-lovers, and more; a bag of unwieldy wires and gadgets is hardly practical or inspiring for the on-the-go or plein air art artist.

The introduction of the Apple iPhone and iPad, however, is a different matter. Ideally small, thin, light, aesthetically benign, well-suited to the visual and kinesthetic sensibilities of artists.  In the case of iPads, easy enough to carry in leather folders, they simulate the familiarly pleasant feel of a book. These gadgets revolutionize the childhood joy of fingerpainting and provide a new outlet for artists. Not only to create and share their work faster, but to feel free to experiment with no concerns about wasting supplies and creating excess clutter in small studio spaces. Of course, the tendency of technology to become obsolete quickly may prove to be a shortcoming. Some artists will find that no gadget substitutes for the different textures of paper or canvas, the glide of the paintbrush, or the friction of a pencil. The feel of a touch screen has a charm all on its own.

Been there. Done that.

Matthew Watkins, iPhone artist and a founding member of the iAMDA (International Association of Mobile Digital Artists), drives enthusiasm for the creative potential of this new medium. His work, in itself, is a marvelous example of how digital mobile media can impact the art world, and his experience with the iPhone is one to which many artists will be able to relate:

I have not been much of a gadget person, and I never had a happy relationship with telephones. I find them invasive. But when the iPhone came out, I knew I needed one. I already drew daily and painted regularly in acrylics, but the Brushes App on the iPhone changed the game. It started a creative revolution.  I could use it anywhere, and it gave me the chance to recover more creative time in my life.  It allowed me to set my imagination free from a number of things that were holding it back. Not that I was unhappy with my traditional art, it just gave me more possibilities to give value to my imagination and time.

Striped City

When I did an iPhone fingerpainting demo for the Italian art critic Pietro Marino he was quick to point out that the more things become technological, the more they are becoming manual. That is absolutely the case with digital fingerpainting. Superb ergonomics combined with natural gestures like swiping with three fingers to undo. Sometimes when I draw with pencil now, I find myself missing these gestures. I can’t undo!

Another Pretty Face

Watkins, who currently resides in Italy, regularly uploads a great variety of digital works to his site WatkinsMedia and his flickr photostream. is another website for iPhone and iPad art he founded along with mobile artist and webdesigner Benjamin Rabe.

Whether the works are whimsical, historical, or profoundly ambient, they are always fresh. As far as apps are concerned, he speaks highly of Brushes, Sketchbook Pro, Artrage, and Artstudio, but clearly enjoys experimenting with many, many others, and even those who do not speak Italian can appreciate the short video on art news in which he showcases the versatility of the medium.

A Secret Place

Naturally, there are unresolved questions regarding property rights and how to sell a work when the closest thing to an “original” only exists as a digital file. Watkins explains–

People are always asking me how you can sell digital work. To be honest I am not really sure yet.  First of all, that’s not where I am at today. I am more interested in the creative process. In discovering the medium and what I can do with it. Since a digital painting doesn’t have an original so to speak, like an oil painting, it’s a little like a drawing in the sand except that you can share it. You can try to attribute value to it by making editions; I had some carpets made from my work in Katmandu for example. But it’s more about interaction and ideas. And how much is an idea worth?

I am frequently asked about digital rights, or how to protect my work online. Up until now I haven’t really even tried. Sharing my work with people online has given me so much more than protecting it. I have been painting since I was a child, I have published my work for years, but now I feel for the first time that my own personal creative message is really getting out there. Like Cory Doctorow says, artists don’t want DRM, artists want their work to be appreciated.  That doesn’t mean that people should feel free to rip off other peoples illustrations or photos for commercial use, but we have to face the fact that how the content is shared or consumed has changed. Social media has facilitated interactions between artists and their public in a logarithmic manner. Every fingerpainting is just one finger-swipe away from being shared, downloaded or turned into a desktop.

Topoletto And The Burden Of Knowledge

Continuing in this open-minded and connected outlook toward making and sharing art, Watkins founded iAMDA along with other fingerpainters in 2010.  Together they promote and support artists using digital media. As of October 2010, iAMDA has now become host to Mobile Art Con , a convention for digital artists.

We had our first MobileArtCon in NYC in October at the NYU – ITP Tisch School of the Arts.  I think all agreed that it was a big success and a massive amount of fun. We brought together artists and app developers from around the world. Many of us had been working together online for years but actually met for the first time in NYC. We had four days of events, seminars and painting. A large group of us descended on the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum to paint, and we drew a big crowd with a fingerpainting flashmob in Times Square.  There was a closing exhibition at the Openhouse Gallery in Soho. It was all a very emotional experience. This year is going to be even bigger.


Watkins is also concerned about education and who will be able to use this new technology:

With every new digital instrument there is a new digital divide.  So many students still don’t have access to this technology, or even know it exists. We are working with institutions around the world to facilitate the adoption of digital devices in school curricula.  Children have a natural propensity for this technology, it’s a shame to see so many students left out of using what can only be defined as a revolutionary artistic medium.

Collaborative mash with Hoyland UK students

Last but not least, one has to wonder whether working with an iPhone or an iPad will change the way artists look at how any given medium influences the finished work. The interplay between traditional art materials and digital media seems to be quite positive for Watkins:

It has allowed me to work in far more directions, and faster. It has allowed me to walk down many roads so to speak. I can quickly develop and idea and see if it’s worth building on further in a digital or analog context. And although I never stopped drawing on paper, but now I am also going back to acrylics to develop some of my digital ideas. I am fascinated by the differences.

Sometimes life is like tweeting from the back of a bicycle riding hippo with an umbrella in his hand

See more of Matthew Watkin’s work on his website Watkins Media and on his flickr.
Christina Wegman is a painter, freelance writer, music teacher, and art event coordinator currently residing in Alabama. Since she hosted her first one-woman art show in 2007, many of her paintings have been displayed in the Huntsville Museum of Art for the “Unique Views of Huntsville” juried competition, and her work has been represented by several galleries and organizations. Born in Los Angeles, California, she has traveled widely throughout Europe and studied in both the U.S. and Canada, where she chronicled some of her thoughts on life and culture at Un Portrait De La Vie Moderne: A Culture Blog . Her website Abstract Träumerei.


4 responses to “Finger-painting with Matthew Watkins”

  1. […] Piece about our Matthew Watkins and all things fingerpainting over on Escape into Life. This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 at 11:16and is filed under interview. You […]

  2. Love the art and the video. The IPad opens you and silences the critic. I like that you used the word Fingerpainting, which allows that whimsical, childlike playful attitude. For me the IPad had released an artist’s block and opened my eyes to create for the sake of creating and especially not to take myself too seriously.
    It also opened me to what if’s and creative problem solving. Everything seemed like a first, and because there
    isn’t an investment in materials, it didn’t matter if I made a mistake, nothing loss. Great Blog!

  3. Sand625 says:

    I agree with Janet especially with regard to the term Fingerpainting. I started using the iPhone and iPad through necessity rather than choice at first, (my hands often can’t hold a brush anymore along with a host of other reasons 😉 but I find them inspirational now and would hate to be without either. My art has gone off in directions it never would have without them and talented souls like Matthew are an inspiration.
    Great blog, thank you 🙂

  4. […] as portable digital sketchbooks and are sparking a new phenomenon in the art world. In a recent feature with artist and founding member of the iAMDA Matthew Watkins, we talk about the many facets of […]

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