Jorge Colombo has mastered a small, unlikely canvas for his large, painterly images: the iPhone. His minimalist urban snapshots have graced several covers of The New Yorker, conveying familiar, yet ordinary scenes that evoke the energy permeating his favorite city.
In what he calls these "valentines to New York," Jorge imagines the lives of people who pass through this urban environment. Focusing on the "no ones" who don't draw attention to themselves, instead of easy-to-spot eccentrics, his impressionistic finger paintings honor these workaday people's transitory presence.
Born in Lisbon, Portugal, Jorge (pronounced "George," the Portuguese way) now calls New York his home — and really loves the city despite its flaws, or perhaps because of them. What interests him is not the city's showy aspects but the seemingly infinite, nondescript details that make any city livable.
His work is the subject of a book of essays by Jen Bekman and Christoph Niemann, called New York: Finger Paintings by Jorge Colombo (Chronicle Books, 2011).
When we first met Jorge, he was using Brushes, a painting app for iOS. Since our interview, he has been experimenting with Adobe Ideas, a vector drawing app for iOS. In fact, he used it to draw the rooftop scene below and the Staten Island ferry shown later in this article.
Although Jorge has digitally painted scenes in other places like Paris and Vienna — even Vinalhaven Island, Maine — he focuses mostly on the city he's called home for 15 years, which is where we caught up with him.
Inspire: What does creativity mean to you?
Jorge Colombo: To me it's a combination of trying to emulate something that is important and influential to you, and mixing in your own personality with misperception of what the original thing was in the first place. You end up with something that's all your own, as opposed to being just a faithful reproduction.
I heard this story about a British musician, Photek, who as a kid tried to get into some dance clubs but was too young to enter, so he could only hear echoes of what was actually being played inside. He started playing it on his own, reproducing the energy and tone of the music — only to realize later that the real music inside the clubs was completely different. Trying to match his distorted idea of that music, he ultimately created something of his own.
Inspire: What do you love about New York?
Colombo: New York is a mess, but I love being here. It's a complicated city with lots of problems, but everything about it makes me happy. Part of it has to do with its history — the mystique and the ghosts that are in it.
New York tends to be filtered by so many representations and artists, from Edward Hopper to the Velvet Underground or Woody Allen or Robert Frank. All of these people defined the way you think about the city; you can't escape that. You see a place partly through the eyes of the people who looked at it before.
That's what a city is supposed to be: a revolving door of people who come and go, people who try and stay, people who move away; things that were started and abandoned, broken and patched, aggregated and divided, scarred and embellished. It's a little bit like us: we are the accumulation of traumas and joys, experiences and discoveries, memories and scars, hand-me-downs and thefts. These are all the things that make somebody's personality. New York has a lot of that personality.
I like what makes a place distinctively that place and not somewhere else. In the case of a city, it's the proportion of the buildings, windows, and streets; the general patina, energy of the traffic or absence of sounds; the quality of the light and presence of water. All those things somehow make a place really identifiable.
Inspire: Well before discovering the iPhone and iPad, you sketched with a ballpoint pen and did daily watercolor portraits. Do you miss the tactile nature of pen, paint, and paper?
Colombo: I remember fondly all the tactile experiences associated with working in a classic way: the smell of the paper, the wetness of the paints, the responsiveness of the brush, the bottles of paint or ink on the table. It's still a sweet memory.
But I have always been the kind to simplify my toolkit. If I see ten pencils on my table, I put five of them away so I have to work with five, or maybe just three. I relate to a universe where not only your required equipment is considerably reduced, but it's also not even particularly relevant. A writer's good or bad pen doesn't affect the quality of the writing. I got a little tired of always working with watercolors and pens. The preciseness of the process became particularly exhausting: the fact that I could not make any mistakes in watercolor — without starting all over again — and the fact that I had to have a surgical-like setup to work.
Discovering that I could make paintings on location with the iPhone became appealing. I am not interested in doing something particularly contemporary or computery. This technology appeals to me mostly to do stuff that could be done with gouache, watercolor, or pencil. I don't even have to have light falling on my sketchbook anymore, since there's light coming from inside [the device]. The main reason I use this digital tool [iPhone] is portability and functionality — and the blessed Undo function, which becomes addictive.
Inspire: Do you call your art sketches, paintings, or drawings?
Colombo: If it depends mostly on the line, it's a drawing. If it depends mostly on shapes, colors, volumes, and shadows, it's a painting. If it's done in a loose, quick way, it's a sketch. But that's just academic terminology. Ultimately, nobody really cares that much. We still call a mostly spoken rap track a song. These are conventions, but things keep changing.
Inspire: You started with the iPhone, but do you prefer the iPad now?
Colombo: There is less real estate to work with on the iPhone screen, although I got a lot of mileage out of it. The iPad offers a lot more precision and comfort. You don't have to zoom in and out so much to see what you're doing. I do most of my work now on the iPad and use the iPhone mostly for sketching ideas. Sometimes I exercise myself by making small drawings, but they are easier to do on the iPad.
Inspire: Do you use a stylus?
Colombo: No. I make a point of never using a stylus. The non-stylus approach is important to me. Drawing with one finger seems far more organic, with one less mediator between the body and the surface. It's like playing the piano: the complex engineering is hidden inside the box. You can concentrate on the idea.
Inspire: Has working on the iPhone changed your style?
Colombo: My early watercolors were very precise. Every line was met, all the t's were crossed, and all the i's were dotted. Everything was very exact.
In the beginning, I could not do that on the iPhone. My finger felt clumsy, and the brush strokes felt very loose, but to me, it was important to use that new tool because it had so much potential for me. I actually changed the way I worked and started working in a much looser, more impressionistic style using simple colors and simple shapes and simply suggesting components rather than meticulously rendering them as I did before. Today I can work with the same precision on an iPhone or iPad with my finger as I can with a pencil on paper.
Inspire: What inspires you to do a painting of a particular place? Do you consider a place for a while first, or do you do it right away?
Colombo: More often than not, I do things on the spot. Once in a while, I make note of something for future usage, but it's not common. I prefer to work under first impressions, and I especially do not work on top of photographs. Taking photographs and then painting over them is a little like lip-synching: it doesn't count as real singing. Part of the fun is looking at whatever is in front of you. I am the kind of artist who prefers to work from something in front of my eyes rather than something from within my mind or imagination.
Inspire: What time of day do you prefer to work?
Colombo: I'm totally a night person. Sometimes I go through a work phase where I'm working early, but there have been times when I was going to bed at dawn. I have no problem with that.
I feel more comfortable in environments and in seasons of the year, or in countries, where there is less light. I could completely live without blue skies, just grey skies and clouds, but I also like the fact that at night only the relevant elements, the ones that are properly lit, emerge. It's a little like those music compositions that have a lot of silence so the few notes that matter are easier to hear, as opposed to when everything gets buried in the same big bright wall of sound.
Inspire: Given that you're a night person, what does an average day look like for you?
Colombo: One of the things that complicates my life is that I work in different fields. I work occasionally as a designer, sometimes for long periods, typically at magazines. In the case of the paintings, it probably can be divided between work for hire or personal work. Because most of my stuff is done on location, I had to train myself to work more efficiently away from home. I often work at places like the New York Public Library on 42nd Street or in cafés. I get a lot of work done in trains or city parks.
When I am in public places, I can work with all sorts of discomforts and mess around me. The more horrifying the music is, the easier it is for me to work. If they are playing music I like, I get distracted, but if they are playing some kind of music that I particularly dislike, I become more efficient and get more work done.
Inspire: Do you ever run out of ideas to paint in your familiar surroundings?
Colombo: I find it more interesting to find the treasure inside your own pockets than at the end of a rainbow — to find something enlightening, rewarding, fulfilling, and exciting that is right where you would least expect it.
Anybody can make fascinating paintings or photographs out of exotic locations, superstars, or supermodels. What's a little harder is finding something exciting and moving about the storage place downstairs from your building or about the first person you see at the checkout counter.
You look at some place or somebody and you find something interesting, and if you are doing a good job, you help other people discover it too.
Inspire: What advice do you have for aspiring artists or hobbyists?
Colombo: I don't feel like images make sense alone as much as they do as an ensemble. Choosing which ones you use, and don't use, is important. It's the equivalent of putting words together. If you put them in the right sequence, they become an amazing poem. If you shuffle them around, it's just gibberish.
I find that working for a specific audience, even if it's just an audience of three, makes more sense than not thinking about your audience at all. My website, for instance, has a lot of things open to the public, but there is a bunch of work that I put online but share only with two or three people. You don't need to show everything to everybody, but it's important to maintain a certain dialog by creating some hideouts where you can put things online just for a few chosen eyes. It makes getting feedback so much easier.
Inspire: Where do you go online for inspiration?
Colombo: I keep frequenting Tumblr because if you want a collection of pictures of chairs or whatever, you can bet someone made a Tumblr feed dedicated to that subject. That's fascinating.
I'm also a big user of Instagram. I put three photos there every day. Instagram is a little like radio for images. The community is the ham radio crowds of yore. Back in the day, you would hear people on the shortwave radio discussing their trips or their experiences. Now you see people sharing pictures and their experiences — and peer pressure leads people to get better and better at depicting them.
People are getting more and more sophisticated in how they look at art, and part of it is because everybody is doing it. It's getting demystified. Everybody has just enough tools to make something interesting, even if it's just in an amateur capacity. That's a good thing. Art is too important to be in the hands of just artists, right?
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.