David Newman, artist at the courts2.0

Benjamin Rabe


David Newman with his portrait of Sal Navarro, photo by Peter A. Blacksberg

I met David Newman twice this year, first at the Las Vegas AU Mobile Art Gallery show and shortly after that in San Francisco for the Future/Canvas show. Knowing he has painted so many bay area web entrepreneurs at conferences like Google I/O e.g. (which are to me the modern versions of the courts of the new kings), I kinda expected a hipster person, but was surprised to meet a very calm and humble gentleman with a fascinating history.

David, you are a San Francisco based artist, why the fascination with all those web folks? What’s the idea behind it?

I live in San Francisco, which is just up the road from Silicon Valley. I see Silicon Valley as a state of mind, a world community of high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship, and not simply a place. I paint portraits of innovators in high-tech and other fields because they inspire me.

I’ve worked in the field of computer graphics since I joined my first venture-funded computer startup in 1982, Via Video, Inc, later acquired by Dupont as Dupont Design Technologies. I remember the feeling when I made my first paintings on the computer that year; it was amazing to paint with light. I also remember my excitement when I painted my first MacPaint painting in 1984, “Dance Processing (Like Crazy)

Dance Processing: MacPaint, January 1984

Dance Processing: MacPaint, January 1984

Painting high-tech innovators is my way of honoring the people who created the tools and media that I have used for my lifetime of computer graphics artwork, and those who are creating the communications and artmaking media of tomorrow. My intention is to document the people behind this revolutionary advance in human communications from a fine art point of view, with the intention of publishing my work online and in print, and showing it in galleries and museums.

iPad Portrait of Maja Adriaensen at Startup Weekend Mobile

iPad Portrait of Maja Adriaensen at Startup Weekend Mobile

Since I have begun my Portraits of Silicon Valley Innovators project in 2006 at Yahoo! Hack Day, I have become the official Artist-in-Residence for many tech events, including PayPal X Innovate, Women 2.0 Labs, Google Technology User Group Campout, Startup Weekend and iOSDevCamp.

How do people react when you ask them? Any fun story to share?

People are always very friendly when I ask if I can paint their portraits and publish them. I attend hackathons; weekend events in which people meet to collaborate on software projects. They form groups and plan a software project on a Friday night, begin design and coding on Saturday and present their finished programs to a panel of experts on Sunday evening. As developers work on their projects, unless they are in meetings, they are normally in a kind of a meditative state. This gives me an opportunity to perform a detailed visual interview without interrupting or disturbing them. My brand of portrait journalism requires the same kind of concentration that they are devoting to their software development projects. We work together, silently, side by side, yet separately.

iPad Portrait Of Steve Wozniak at Work Today

iPad Portrait Of Steve Wozniak at Work Today

One rewarding part is the friendships that develop over time. I have painted many developers several times over the years, starting with ink on paper in 2006, and we look forward to seeing each other at these events, and afterwards. It is a great feeling to come to an event in which many people are attending whom I have previously painted, who may not know each other yet. They know what I am doing, and they trust me to picture them at work in a respectful way.

iPad Portrait of Alexander Lucas, Google Analytics Developer Relations, at Google I/O

iPad Portrait of Alexander Lucas, Google Analytics Developer Relations, at Google I/O

You are doing all your portraits on the iPad now, when did you switch and why?

The first hackathon to which I brought my iPad was Chirp, the Twitter Developer Conference in San Francisco. Like a cyclist removing his training wheels, I didn’t bring my traditional media of 35 years, ink on paper to that event. It was a sink-or-swim experience, and I’m glad I did it that way. I painted my iPad portraits quickly, in black and white.

iPad Portrait of Elizabeth Westlake at Chirp: Twitter Developer Conference

iPad Portrait of Elizabeth Westlake at Chirp: Twitter Developer Conference

During the Chirp Conference, I quickly found that Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro application gave me a complete portable color painting studio that let me work in the equivalent of acrylic, colored pencil, caran d’ache crayons, and paint in a spill-proof lightweight medium.
It rewarded every stroke with a reliable response, and resulted in works that print beautifully as large as 17 x 22 inches. Since that day, I have created more than 110 finished portraits with 10,000 preparatory works, including animations.

iPad Portrait of Kimberly Dillon of House of Mikko at Women 2.0 Labs

iPad Portrait of Kimberly Dillon of House of Mikko at Women 2.0 Labs

The iPad is the most compelling medium that I have used as an artist. Unlike paper, it requires thoughtful digital asset management and backup, but that’s just a part of everyday life today.

Speaking about courts, that taps in to your professional background, right? You were a court painter before, even in a very prominent case?

Yes. I traveled to Guatemala as an artist for the San Mateo Times to draw the destruction and reconstruction after the 1976 earthquake, and I drew a portrait of the President, Kjell Laugerud Garcia, at Guatemala’s National Palace.

When I was at UC Davis, I began drawing editorial illustrations for the local paper, the Argus. When I came to UC Berkeley, I began making illustrations for the Daily Cal newspaper, and I started to cover important trials as an artist, such as those of Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther party. I also drew at the trial of Dan White for the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Dan White in Court

Dan White in Court

My courtroom drawings of the Moscone/Milk murder trial appear in the newly re-released book Double Play by my then-UC Berkeley journalism professor, writer Mike Weiss.

Dan White Trial: Jury - May 9, 1979

Dan White Trial: Jury - May 9, 1979

I was also lucky enough to have drawn the Dalai Lama as he spoke at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 1979. Many years later, I drew a portrait of Sean Lennon, which he was kind enough to autograph for me.

I often thought court painting could be a great use case of mobile painting. Do you know of any court painter out there actually using an iPad or a similar device?

All of the artists that I knew in the 70’s have retired or ‘graduated’ from life. I don’t draw in court anymore, but the iPad would be my medium if I did so again. I see no reason to bring paper, pen or brush.

I watched you painting and I find it fascinating that you’re able to break your process into small pieces by saving regularly.

Yes, I save my work every few minutes for later analysis, creative forking, file backup in case of hardware or software problems, and for creating animations which I post on YouTube.

What are your future plans, where will we see your paintings eventually?

I am continuing my series of Portraits of Silicon Valley Innovators project. I’m looking forward to meeting and painting the people who are creating the future — not just in Silicon Valley. I am painting commissioned portraits, and looking for opportunities to publish and share my work around the world. I am also looking forward to meeting and exchanging ideas with other artists who are using traditional as well as new media.

You can find David’s work on flickr, facebook and on iPadPortraits.com


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