The Rise of the iPhone Artist: Is Canvas Dead?

artisytiphoneWe live in a world of too much information, where everything is processed at lightening speeds and what was hot once becomes easily discarded (Sega Dreamcast, HD DVDs, Minidiscs, iPhone 3GS) as something new and shinier comes along. In such a fast paced age it’s no wonder that artists are turning online in an effort to boost sales and raise their profile, but where does the line between online promotion and turning into a commercial sell out get drawn?

This arena has been heightened to such an extent that artists are now looking to expand their creativity in the techsphere, and taking the route of design orientated towards technology then the traditional canvas by making cellphones and laptop cases their new canvases. You may argue that this was a natural progression, but does being displayed on an iPhone case destroy the intrinsic value of the artistic work? It may be a great way of getting your designs to other markets who are less involved in the art scene, but does this detract or enhance the artistic medium?

Vivienne Tam, a couture catwalk designer has found the technology sphere a great way of promoting her designs and she has now teamed up with HP for the 2nd year to design a netbook emblazoned with the key motifs from her catwalk collection. The laptops became so desirable that those both in and out of the tech world were lusting after them, and the strategy paid off, as her latest butterfly netbook was featured in this year’s SATC2. The rise of popular craft sites such as Etsy and Folksy (a UK equivalent) have given creative people yet another avenue to explore, and many have chosen to opt for creating iPhone and laptop cases and designs, as opposed to fashion focused pieces. Indeed, both sites offer a ‘Geekery section’, set incongruously alongside Crochet, Candles and Jewelery. Technology has become as much about style as it has about the end product, and it’s interesting to see how this has lead to a mash-up with the art world.

We spoke to Andy Howell Founder of ARTSPROJEKT Global Creative Network (a place which brings artists together and allows them a chance to collaborate and display their work online) about how he views this association.

‘In the beginning walls, paper, canvas, and screen printing my own t-shirts were the norm. After I became a pro skateboarder my chosen mediums blurred between commercial products like decks, apparel, bags, and videos, and the traditional stuff I had been doing up to that point. Pretty soon I started to dismantle the institutional differences between fine and commercial art by featuring the art and artists involved in my brands’ products the same way I featured the riders.’ So how did he get involved in gadgetry then?


‘The first “gadgets” are with our case partner Speck Products, including iPhone and iPod cases with Artsprojekt artist’s original works reproduced on a well-designed and high quality product. At the risk of sounding redundant, art reproductions as functional products is not only a great platform for expression, it gives everyday fans the opportunity to live with art in a way that is accessible and comfortable for them. I thank Warhol and Keith Haring for early forays into art as products, and Murakami for continuing to prove how seamlessly art and products of varying price and volume can co-exist in one artist’s career as both a means of reaching an entire addressable audience and remaining culturally relevant at multiple levels’.

4701877764_5d1791d236_oBeastman who creates skin designs for the company Smirkabout, shares his reasons for going the commercial route.  ‘I have previously done graphics for T-shirts and skateboards, so doing designs for gadgets was a similar process’, he told us. ‘I got involved when Smirk About approached me to license some of my artwork for use on their various products. I think it’s an interesting way for artists to reach a wider audience.’ When asked whether he makes more money by selling this way he replied, ‘I personally make more money selling my original paintings, but who knows… if Smirk can sell thousands of my skins then maybe I’ll get rich!! Haha! The art world has been rapidly changing direction over the last decade. I think it’s a good thing, the street art and graffiti movement, as well as media and the internet have changed the way the world sees art, and has influenced a whole new generation of artists and art buyers.’ Beastman has a website and Flickr but is not involved on any social networks.

B04-001Bill Carman, an artist for SmirkAbout first got interested in art as a kid. ’I guess I never really stopped all that cool stuff I was doing as kid. I just got more serious about it as I found that I could make a living doing it. So art and design is not what I’m into, it’s what I am. It’s great to have a lifestyle rather than a job and make enough money to eat. I work with and on many different things. For the most part I am known for acrylic paintings on things like copper, wood, and paper. But I also do drawings on many different surfaces. In fact one of the Smirkabout skins is a drawing on mat board.’
He was recently approached by Smirkabout to get involved in creating skins.’ Honestly I didn’t really know what all this stuff was when Smirkabout asked me. Now I think it’s pretty exciting to have my work all over the world on people’s devices.’ He feels his integrity is intact however, ‘I’m an illustrator at heart so I believe art can be made and used in many different ways. Integrity is a personal thing and if any artist says that they don’t want to make money from their artwork then I believe they are being less than honest.’

A03-001Olander, who also works for Smirkabout echoes his thoughts.  ‘Design is important to me, and I love buying products with nice designs that makes me happy. I think this feeling shines though in my work, and that is why people from different companies contacted me- maybe they saw my vision too in my work.’
We asked if she felt that designing for gadgets decreased her integrity as an artist. ‘No!’ she says.’ I choose which designs that should go onto gadgets and I am happy they are there. If I want to create work that is unique I create paintings. My level of integrity is organic; it can shift and move. Sometimes I make many designs available for everybody, and sometimes I make small limited editions.’

getDynamicImageHannah Stouffer, an artist for Casemate  shares her thoughts on working online, ‘Having an online presence is huge – it’s becoming our only means of communication and is an incredible outlet for every type of information imaginable. I’ve had a site up for as long as I’ve known how to work with the web, even before I was an ‘illustrator’. Her foray into working with gadgets appears to have been fairly accidental, stemming from a love of printing. ‘I (was) silk-screening the floors, the walls, tees, posters, stickers, anything I could find’. This segued into licensing her work, which then made its way onto a variety of devices, from clothes to iPhone skins. When asked if she felt working like this decreased her artistic integrity, she retorted, ‘Do you feel with merging your writing with technology decreases your integrity as a writer?’. I’m guessing that’s a no, then.

It’s interesting when you look over the artists as a collective to see that quite a lot of them aren’t that digitally savvy. They may create products that are featured on thousand of phone and games consoles, but personally they aren’t always aware of the latest trends online. This isn’t true for everyone (notably the 20 something’s) , but it does seem to be a majority of artists. Bill Carman from Smirkabout says ‘My wife signed me up for a Twitter account but I don’t know how to use it. People keep signing up for it and I don’t even know how to get there’. Regular users of Twitter will know that it’s not an interface issue, more of a personal reluctance to get involved in something one doesn’t quite understand. As art is supposed to be organic and grow in a similar way to the twittersphere that’s fairly disheartening. Merely having your work featured online and a blog is not necessarily enough, as often the added personal element of social media will actually help increase awareness of your work- which leads to higher sales!


Andy Howell of the ARTSPROJEKT is aware of this, as he tells us of the many MANY networks he belongs too. ‘Some sites that I am directly connected to are Artsprojekt.com, theprojekt.artsprojekt.comandyhowell.comflickr.com/photos/andyhowellandyhowell.tumblr.com, @andyhowell43, @artsprojekt’. Then again, he is the founder, so one expects this level of understanding from him, and he has made a major success of the business. He told us that, ‘Over the past 20 years I have made roughly the same income through fine art sales as I have through the sale of products, prints, and collabs.’ Pretty good going we think!

Though many artists now design for the digital world, they don’t seem to be gaining the level of income we might assume, as they collectively tend to make more money from sales of their work in the old fashioned manner. The combination of digital and canvas work keeps them fresh though, and allows them a foothold in the world should the canvas market disappear. It suggests people still place more value on actual prints rather than accessories, and tend to regard iPhone skins and the like as adornments rather than art that is worth investing in. Olander mentioned that ‘99% of my commissions I get via the Internet’, so the web is definitely a tool that can be utilized, but how does one raise sales? The question is how to make digital-art more commercially viable, and I would hazard a guess that the clue is in the suffix- the art aspect of it all.

If research has shown us that more value is given to actual art work, how about creating bespoke digital art rather than a one size fits all print? Perhaps the new way of selling would be to create numbered iPhone cases or skins, where each one is hand drawn then sealed in gloss, rather than factory made mass produced designs? It’s tricky to decide what would be most successful, but I would guess that this avenue might reap major rewards for savvy enough artists.

The art world as we know it is changing however, and with more and more people viewing technology as an art form (how many times has an iPhone owner told you how beautiful their phone is?) the art worlds love affair with technology will expand. Carman says, ‘The art world has always been a living growing organism. If it doesn’t grow then it dies. So it is not even a matter of a good or bad thing. It is matter of necessity. If it did ever stop growing it would cease to be art and become decoration only.’

Perhaps it will evolve to a level where artists get involved in the design at the developer stage? That would be a nice turn of events, and might mean some of those beautiful prototype drawings we see could actually be created. Time will tell, but it will be exciting to watch it all unfold.


Leave a Reply
  1. Understand the concerns expressed here, but to be honest digital is the space of now and the future. Canvas art will always have its place and merit, but to be profitable and gain ground in today’s world some form of digital is required.

  2. Understand the concerns expressed here, but to be honest digital is the space of now and the future. Canvas art will always have its place and merit, but to be profitable and gain ground in today’s world some form of digital is required.

  3. I think you’ve made some truly interesting points. Not too many people would actually think about this the way you just did. I’m really impressed that there so much about this subject that’s been uncovered and you did it so well, with so much class. Good one you, man! Really great stuff here.

  4. I think you’ve made some truly interesting points. Not too many people would actually think about this the way you just did. I’m really impressed that there so much about this subject that’s been uncovered and you did it so well, with so much class. Good one you, man! Really great stuff here.

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