At WVFC, we’ve long been graced by contributions from resident artist Julia L. Kay as she explored the new frontiers of digital art — from her now-concluded Daily Portrait Project photoblog to her first explorations of drawing on the iPod Touch to the pioneering, international and still-ongoing Julia Kay Portrait Party. This year has been more than unusually eventful for Kay; last week, we checked in to ask Kay about some of this year’s major art projects. Below is the first half of a long discussion, with as many images as we could fit. (Above, see Kay’s fun feat of digital graffiti, in which she used Photoshop to place her own artwork on an Apple billboard.)

WVFC noted that you were among the presenters at the October MobileArtCon, the first conference of the International Association of Mobile Digital Artists, and worked with the conference organizers from pretty early on. What was it like when the group finally came together?
It was a fantastic experience to meet, exchange information and hang out with the people I’ve been communicating with online for the last year and a half. Of course there was lots of exchange of technical information — new apps were announced, styluses were discussed, artists demonstrated specific techniques. Valerie Beeby came from England and we presented on 21 different ‘lesser known’ apps for artmaking on iDevices. There were also conversations about the role of digital and traditional methods in artmaking. I moderated a panel of half a dozen artists on this topic, and there was a long session for teachers about teaching art classes using mobile devices

With artist Rita Flores. (Photo by Valerie Beeby.

Still, the best part of it was meeting the people behind the paintings. There were probably about two dozen artists attending the conference who also participate in the Portrait Party I host on Flickr, so we ‘knew’ each other more than average — from staring at each other’s photographs to make portraits of each other, and from seeing the alternate interpretations by each artist of the same photos we all work from. I think the most thrilling thing was walking into the opening event and looking around the room and recognizing the faces of people I’d drawn. People were calling out each other’s names with recognition even though they’d never met.

There was almost a cinematic effect, like watching the still photo you were familiar with come alive into the animated real person. A smaller group of us convened at the end of the conference to make some portraits of each other ‘live’, but for me it was the fact of Portrait Party members scattered throughout the conference that made it feel like ‘old home week’ even though we were meeting for the first time.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve met people in person who I’d met online to begin with, but prior to this it had only been a couple of individuals. I was pretty skeptical going into it as to whether people would be anything like what I imagined based on their photos, paintings, and online conversations. I was prepared to dislike people I’d been happy chatting with online. But it turned out my takes on people held up on meeting them. I think there is something about the Portrait Party interaction — we ask everyone to tell us their real name, not just their screen name, and they post pictures of themselves with their family and pets, in their gardens, at their jobs, making their art. And then they draw us, too, so we see how they see us, and how they see the world, to some extent. All these different aspects of the Party continue to amaze me, but more on that later.

In addition to the formal conference panels, the meetings, and the Portrait Party meet-up, conference organizer David Leibowitz organized several fantastic plein-air mobile digital ‘paint-outs’ around the city, including at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Times Square at night.

I didn’t make it to Times Square but it was fantastic to be at the ancient temple in the center of a bustling modern city with a group of artists engaged in the primal activity of drawing with our fingers but using the latest technology to record our impressions.

Between IAMDA, the  Flickr presence of your work, and the ever-growing Portrait Party, one could surmise that the fall/winter months have been  a period of astonishing productivity for you. But I also know that it may just be the new  technologies making the work more visible. How does it feel? What has changed?

I don’t feel like I’ve been any more productive -– for almost four years now I’ve made art every day and posted it to my blog. But for the last 1.5 years, I’ve also posted to Flickr, and that turned out to be a real change, because there’s an engaged community of artists interacting every day on Flickr. So instead of the occasional  one-way comment on my blog, there’s daily two-way conversation on Flickr. It’s true that a lot of it boils down to ‘I like this,’ but in order for someone to like it, they have to have looked at it.

So the underlying message is that I have an audience looking at my work every day, and I have access to interacting with my viewers. And of course I’m following lots of other artists’ work as well. The exciting thing is that mixed in with all the likes, we’re inspired by each other’s work to try different techniques or styles — and it’s great fun watching the resulting growth and changes.

Now, maybe the work’s gotten better or more interesting as a result… but that would be another story!

There have been a few major, external changes. One of them was simple: a new tool. Sometime after IAMDA, you started working on an iPad.  What was surprising, if anything?
The most surprising thing  is how incredibly small my iPod Touch now seems. I can barely believe I did most of my drawing on it for almost two years. I thought the iPad would ‘just’ be a larger piece of paper, convenient around the house, but that of course there’d be no substitute for always having my iPod in my pocket. Now I’m addicted because there’s so much more room to breathe.
It feels a little like having my hands untied, but I didn’t know they were constrained to begin with. In a weird way it reminds me of when I moved out of a live-work studio where the room we’d used for a bedroom had no windows (the well-lit space was dedicated to studios, of course). After I moved into my new window-lined warehouse I thought to myself, ‘I feel like I’ve been living in  a cave. Wait, I have been living in a cave for ten years!’ But while I was living there it all seemed fine. So what does it mean to have “more space to breathe” on the iPad?

My portrait of Steve Sprang, the creator of Brushes. (Made in Brushes for the iPad.)

It means that you can draw details and see the whole image at the same time. Of course with most apps you can still zoom in, but there’s less need to do so constantly. It also means that when you have menus to select drawing options, such as picking the next color to use, you can see the options and your drawing at the same time. On the iPod Touch, the menus usually replaced your drawing on the screen, so there was more guesswork and flipping back and forth because the color you chose wasn’t quite what you needed. Both of these things mean drawing on the iPad is much more ‘natural’ and less ‘geeky’ than drawing on the iPod Touch. I can see this also when I show it off to visiting family and friends. People were always interested when I showed them drawing on the iPod Touch. But when I show them drawing on the iPad, it’s hard to get the device back – everyone wants to draw!

Some apps haven’t been updated for the iPad, and just run in a little window in the center. I don’t have a lot of patience for those, and can only think of one that I kept on my iPad, DXP. Since it just applies filters, what’s important is the saved resolution rather than the size on the screen within the app.

Other apps, like TypeDrawing, Brushes, Inspire and ArtStudio, use the whole screen, and have iPad-specific interfaces and/or features. And then there are new apps that don’t run on the smaller devices at all. My favorite two of those are Drawing Pad and ArtRage. They’re a fun pair because they’re intended for opposite ends of the spectrum of audiences for art apps: one is aimed at children, the other at professional artists. I love them both. Drawing Pad is the one I recommend to anyone who simply wants to try drawing on their iPad. It’s very easy to use, beloved by children and adults, and never crashes. You choose what you want to draw with by selecting icons of familiar art supplies like crayons, markers, colored pencils and paintbrushes. You choose the crayon with the color you want and you draw. That’s it — no further adjustments of any kind, including no change to line size and no zooming; it’s very minimal. For the Portrait Party, I made this portrait of the artist known on Flickr as FoistClub.

At the other end of the spectrum, ArtRage does an incredible job of simulating professional art materials from oil paint to watercolors, and of course you select from millions of colors in a color picker. You can use your brush to pick up and mix with wet oil paint on the canvas. You can squish a line of paint directly out of a tube, and smear it with a palette knife or roller. Watercolors bleed into each other at the edges, and you have options for wet on dry, wet on wet, and so forth. With all these great effects comes complexity and bugs. The interface is much less clean than Drawing Pad with many menus, palettes, sliders and finger-tap combinations for accessing and changing the different settings. It crashes fairly frequently, so it’s important to save even more frequently.

Despite being aimed at professionals and taking much more patience to learn to use, I still find that if I set it up to paint with color mixing and hand it to someone to play with, they get quite entranced. And of course it is fun to produce works that really do look like paintings. I recently completed a commission using this app. The client knew the piece was going to be digital, of course, but they were quite impressed with how painterly the result was.

Also for the Portrait Party, I made this portrait in ArtRage of artist and musician Dan Harris, known on Flickr as Gringovitch. This piece also won Artist of the Day at, and received an honorable mention in their 2010 IPA grant contest. (For more info about the piece, click here.)

It’s interesting to see how the different simulations are accurate not only in the look of the results, but also in the process needed to create them. For instance, drawing with a limited set of crayons or colored pencils in Drawing Pad is much quicker and easier than making an oil painting in ArtRage.
Also, I’m a much more experienced oil and acrylic painter than watercolorist, and I was amused to discover that I do better with the oil/acrylic simulation than the watercolor simulation. It emphasized to me how we bring the skills we have to whatever tools we get in our hands.

In part two next month: what it feels like when a project you created becomes a brand and a movement, or how Kay felt when in-person “Julia Kay Portrait Party” gatherings began happening around the world. For more of Kay’s digital art wonderland, see her Flickr stream and portfolio site.

Join the conversation

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  • Lynsey Goodrum March 27, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Great Stuff!

  • Julia Kay January 29, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Thank-you everyone!

    Anyone drawing on their iPhone or iPod Touch (or iPad, but the presentation was more focused on the smaller devices) might be interested in the presentation Valerie Beeby and I made at the MobileArtCon2010 on “20 Art Apps in 50 minutes”. The pdf of the presentation can be downloaded here:

    There is also now video on youtube (thank you David Leibowitz!) of almost the whole presentation – we missed a few minutes at the beginning. Due to youtube’s length limitations, it’s broken up into 4 parts. Here’s the first part, on that page you’ll find links to the rest:

  • martin goldman January 5, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I loved hearing about a meeting of minds finally expressed through the fingers. Thanks for your impressions and suggestions. Much appreciated!

  • Tamar Bihari January 5, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Thanks for this, Julia (and Chris). It’s fascinating to learn about the digital art world through your experiences — the apps and the surprises and the developing community. Looking forward to part two.

  • Margarita Pérez García January 4, 2011 at 3:33 am

    With the ipad one has “more space to breathe”, I fully agree and felt the same about it. What is curious for me, when changing from the iphone to the ipad, was the realisation of the number of constraints I had, and sudden how free I felt with the change: more space, better ergonomy in some apps, les constant zooming, in many cases extra and advanced features, and specially a better quality output (higher resoution of images). Now I find difficult to switch back.

    Also, I feel that the way one masters real mediums (pen, markers, crayons, watercolours, oils…) has a direct impact on what we are able to create with digital devices. I feel comfortable using pen, markers and wax crayons to draw, hence digitally I develop a linedrawing work. Not confident with oils or watercolours, digitally I feel equally lost.

    On the other hand, the digital work has an influence on the “real” work: digitally I started to create portraits using juxtaposed flat colours areas, and now I’m enjoying cutouts with real paper.

    So glad that meeting you, Julia, opened to me so many doors and perspectives of creation and looking forward to part 2 of this interview!

  • Dan Harris January 3, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Julia is one of the power forces behind the mobile digital art world. In addition to being an incredible artist, she is an articulate spokesperson for all of us and a pioneer in discovering new apps and techniques in this medium. The success of JKPP attests to her vision and leadership. I look forward to part 2.

  • Maureen Nathan January 3, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    fascinating insight into the digital aspect of your practice and great to hear your take on JKPP, your amazing creation. look forward to part two next month

  • Sharon Donnnelly January 3, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Very nice piece, Julia and Chris! I appreciate your thoughtfulness about your work. It’s fascinating, what you are doing with the new technology to continue your art.

  • Sue Hodnett January 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Nice one Julia, always good to read your thoughts on JKPP & other aspects of your work.