Jeremy Sutton: The Hockney-inspired digital artist who teaches people how to do iPad paintings

San Francisco-based artist Jeremy Sutton has been experimenting with ‘digital paint’ for 20 years. He talks to Lucy Handley about David Hockney’s iPad art, and his live paintings and performances

The first time I saw ‘proper’ art done on an iPad, it was at David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture exhibition at London’s Royal Academy three years ago. The Yorkshire landscape was writ large and spectacular throughout the galleries, culminating in the stunning The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, made up of several ‘paintings’, all created on an iPad.

Hockney subsequently exhibited at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in a show called A Bigger Exhibition, featuring Bigger Yosemite, made up of five iPad paintings, as well as more traditional charcoal drawings of his beloved home county.

Art on an iPad

The artist who performed at the opening of that show? Not Hockney himself, but Jeremy Sutton, a physicist-turned-artist, who creates portraits, collages and landscapes using his iPad.

I say ‘performing’ because he does just that: paints and draws digitally in real-time, and then projects what he’s doing on to a screen, takes a video of it, and then uses that to show people how it’s done.

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Detail from Billy Gibbons, 2014. This portrait of the ZZ Top guitarist was painted live at a Las Vegas car show

His subjects have included Sir Richard Branson, Adobe founder John Warnock, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons – and the slightly less esteemed author of this piece. Speaking to Jeremy over the phone and via a real-time presentation on my PC, I can see him in his San Francisco studio surrounded by portraits, including those of Einstein and Newton, appropriate given his physics background.

We meet a few weeks later when he’s in London to take a workshop at the National Gallery, and he paints my portrait on his iPad while we sit outside a Fitzrovia cafe. The next day he sends it to me, complete with replay, soundtrack (we choose ‘Route 66’ in a version sung by Ella Fitzgerald) and statistics. He’s taken 35 minutes to do the portrait, in 1254 brush strokes.

Becoming an artist

Jeremy grew up in Southgate, north London, and was creative from an early age. “My mum’s an artist, so I grew up with art. I’ve drawn since I was three or four, but I did end up getting very interested in physics.”

After doing a physics degree at Pembroke College, Oxford, interspersed with courses at the Ruskin school of art, he worked in sales and marketing for Oxford Instruments and then found himself living in California’s high tech hub Palo Alto in the late 1980s.

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Inky, 2015. Created at a life drawing class

“It was there that I got introduced to digital paint and it was one of those coincidences in life: I happened to be situated where people were creating the machines, the Macintosh computers, the software, and so I got introduced to digital painting [and] fell in love with it.”

He was eventually made redundant, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “I thought ‘I should just go for it’, and do what I was meant to do with my life, and that was 20 years ago.”

Now 54, he finds that many of his students are in their mid-40s onwards, and are learning to paint digitally for the first time. “A lot of them have careers, and they’ve always wanted to express their creative self.

They’ve been supporting their families, and they say: ‘you know what, I’m going to do something for myself’ and they explore their creative side. I’m finding that a lot, both for people who are in careers and those who have retired.”

And it’s this demographic Jeremy expects to attend a one-day iPad art workshop he has coming up at the V&A in July, where students will get inspiration from its galleries before creating their own digital artworks.

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Detail from Sasha, painted live at the Apple Store, San Francisco

Earning a living from art didn’t happen immediately. “It’s really, really hard work, [and] yes that has been my only job for the past 20 years. In that respect I do a lot of different things, I do commissioned artwork, I do a lot of education and training and run the website PaintboxTV.com, I run workshops, I do performance art.

“So within the realm of how you earn your living as an artist, I do a lot of different things and wear a lot of different hats. that’s inevitable, you have to do that to earn your living as an artist. It’s always an adventure.”

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Ishmeet, 2014. Created on a plane from London to San Francisco

A commission would cost someone ‘in the thousands’. “As an artist, you are not only selling a physical product, you are selling intellectual property [you have to consider] what the client is going to do with the imagery.

“Some clients are private individuals and they put it in their home, some are corporations and they have a series of my artwork on display.”

Jeremy Sutton’s legacy

Jeremy’s work is clearly influenced by Picasso, Matisse and Hockney and he wants his legacy to simply be that his art is enjoyed. “I’ve had incredibly moving and touching responses from my portrait subjects. It makes everything worthwhile. If you look through some of my work, I tell a story of people’s lives and that has significance for them.”