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Jorge Colombo: Artist At Large

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday October 19, 2011

A few years ago, when chatting with Jorge Colombo at an opening or some such event, I mentioned that it would be fun to do a studio visit/interview for DART. He said, “Sure, meet me Wednesday on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street, that’s where I’ll be.”

That seemed odd and interesting, so I did, and found out what Jorge was up to. At the time, his iPhone drawings were not so much known around town, so we had a good laugh, then went to the library at ICP to escape the chill.

Last Friday, we revisited the scene, having coffee in Bryant Park to look through Jorge’s new book, New York Finger Paintings (Chronicle Books in association with 20x200.com, 2011). This time we escaped to the library when a surprise downpour chased everyone indoors. Then this Q&A:


Detail, from New York Finger Paintings, copyright and courtesy Jorge Colombo

Peggy Roalf: In his Introduction to Finger Paintings, Christoph Niemann said that these drawings are like “accumulated mental snapsots … melted into a single piece of art.” When you first began drawing on the iPhone, did you see it as a completely new and different way of making a picture?

Jorge Colombo:For me, yes, it was new. All my life I had just drawn (outlining, then coloring); now I had to paint (shapes and values, no lines). This was determined by the restrictions of the medium and by the absence of skills I was yet to acquire. My priorities were clear, though: I was determined to make things work for me with this new tool, and I was eager to return to my landscape sketching on location, much more than holding on to my usual style. What mattered all along was not the look, the finish, the medium, and definitely not the technology. I just wanted to be back exploring the streets in quest of the visual icons of a city. And I wanted to get my pictures executed as fast and as cleanly as possible.

PR: I used to associate your drawing style with “The Dailies,” which have such a spare, graphic quality. What was your first reaction to the softness in the results you got using the Brushes app? Has this “look” permanently embedded itself in your psyche? Or have you found a way emulate your linear style in the new medium?

JC:It's a bit easier to do linework on the iPad, but I only got one of those after I finished the book, in order not to disperse myself. It feels a bit like drawing with a pencil, even if I'm using the finger instead.

PR: Do you prefer creating night-time scenes to daylight scenes?

JC:Of course! Much more dramatic. You start with nothing but black, you add as little as you want, you let the viewer connect the dots. In my book's cover, there aren't any buildings painted: just light spots, some close and some far. The task of assembling the whole goes to you. There are so many night equivalents—a poet's blank page, a musician's silence, a director's stage—asking for nothing but the essential.

PR: What’s the strangest thing you witnessed while standing on the street, drawing on your iPhone?

JC:Nothing that wild, really. The most remarkable street I've worked on was actually in Las Vegas. I was working on a small collection of wedding chapel pictures, working at night on that desolate stretch between the Old Strip and the New Strip. There are basically three kinds of businesses there: chapels, pawn shops, and bail bond offices; all open 24/7, and all with bulletproof glass. Nobody in the sidewalks, other than a couple busboys at the end of their shift, a vagrant picking up cigarette butts, a girl in a miniskirt and with her shoes in her hand, Belgian tourists entirely lost...

PR:Is there any view of New York that you return to again and again?

JC:Water towers! They feel like space ships that landed on top of buildings. Especially when you're standing right underneath them. I'm all the time sneaking into unlocked rooftops or asking people if they have high-floor views I can go visit and draw from. Hint hint, readers.

PR:For you, ‘landscape’ includes the urban scene, architectural form, faces, and expressive bodies. Are you ever tempted to paint herbaceous or rocky landscapes, or you a total urbanist?

JC:I have very moderate interest on nature, so cities are what I normally gravitate towards, and where feel inspired to work. The human mark fascinates me more than the evidence of biological action. And I have a hard time painting trees. But I like the challenge, and if I find myself stuck in the great outdoors I tend to try my hand at it. It just doesn't happen that often.

PR:As you no longer require paper and all kinds of art supplies to create your paintings, do you ever long for, or indulge in, prowls through incredible art supply stores?

JC: And how! Earlier this year I was in Vienna, and the art supply stores there are something else. One of them is actually as big as a Staples megastore. Temptation leapt at me aisle after aisle: should I try a large series on graphite? How about woodcut printing with all these snazzy tools? Oh, great watercolor sets, maybe I should? In the end, though, common sense prevailed. Alas.

PR:What’s your favorite thing about leaving the city you’ve come to immortalize in your work?

JC:For all its splendor, New York has its drawbacks: chaotic and rushed, unbalanced and merciless, and dirty as hell. I've been escaping to locations around Europe and enjoying the smaller scale and mellower pace. But I always look forward to being back home in NYC. It's like those people who fall in love with someone full of bad habits. Problems abound, but the passion is stronger.

PR:What advice would you give a talented young illustrator who is struggling to find his/her identity?

JC: Lou Reed tells a good Andy Warhol story about that. He says Andy would catch him slacking around the Factory and ask: "Lou, how many songs did you write today?" Reed, who hadn't written any, lied and said "ten." Andy: "You won't be young forever, Lou. You should have written twenty."

PR:What advice would you give a talented young illustrator who is just beginning to make a mark in the commercial world?

JC: Oh, how shall I say this? Making a mark is great—feedback and recognition and profit and all that—but it can also become an addiction—not necessarily a good one. There's nothing wrong about doing something nobody else notices or likes. The thirst for approval can get in the way of being true to oneself. 

PR: So you’ve made the leap from ‘artist in his studio’ to ‘artist abroad’ in the sense that your entire studio, from reference, to the tools you use to create your work and communicate, are all embedded in the iPad that rides with you everywhere. Now that you are completely at home in your miniature digital studio, what are your hopes for the next big thing?

JC: Telepathy, of course. Can't wait to NOT need any machine.

Jorge Colombo was born in 1963 in Lisbon, Portugal; moved to the USA in 1989. Has lived in Chicago and in San Francisco. Living in New York City since 1998 with his wife, artist Amy Yoes. He has worked as an illustrator, as a photographer, and as a graphic designer. 

His cover illustration for the June 1, 2009 issue of The New Yorker was the first one created on an iPhone for a major magazine. Video animations of his Finger Paintings have since appeared weekly inwww.newyorker.com. The book "New York: Finger Paintings by Jorge Colombo," containing one hundred landscapes created on an iPhone, plus essays by Jen Bekman, Christoph Niemann, and JC, was published in 2011 by Chronicle Books in associationwith 20x200.com.

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