Behind the iPhone-created New Yorker cover

CNET News catches up with the artist who created this week's magazine cover on his iPhone, and with the developer who created the Brushes program he used.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
4 min read
"Finger Painting"
'Finger Painting' is the cover of this week's New Yorker. Jorge Colombo

The art that graces the cover of this week's New Yorker magazine is entitled "Finger Painting." It's the ideal name, since the artist created it using nothing more than his finger and trusty iPhone.

Artist Jorge Colombo designed the scene of a New York City hot dog vendor using an iPhone app called Brushes, software he only started using in February. Created by developer Steve Sprang, the $4.99 program lets anyone from amateur to professional draw and paint using the iPhone as canvas.

In e-mail interviews with CNET News, both the artist and the developer spoke about their background and their inspiration.

As illustrator, photographer, and graphic designer, Jorge Colombo has seen his work published in a variety of venues, from magazines to books to the Web. Originally from Portugal, he moved to the U.S. in 1989 and bounced from San Francisco to Chicago before making the Big Apple his home.

Empire State Building
'Empire State Building' Jorge Colombo

His passion for the city is clear in his work. His iPhone cityscapes show off Manhattan in all its glory, depicting scenes of the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, and even Katz's Deli, a famous New York eatery. "I keep gravitating towards the urban landscape," he says. "So many stories behind each scaffolding, each mismatched addition, each broken window, each parked truck."

Colombo says that "Finger Painting," a familiar Manhattan scene of a hot dog vendor with his customers, is something he drew from life. "There are countless (numbers) of those carts in NYC, especially in that stretch of 42nd Street. I love the idea of a little restaurant self-contained in a cart, the idea of concentrated systems and kits appeals to me. As proven by my carrying of my studio in my pocket now."

Working on a small medium like the iPhone poses some challenges, but Colombo rises above them. "I tend to focus on advantages, not limitations," he says. "I like using my fingers. I like the quick eyeballing of colors. I like the endless Undo function. Wish I had a bigger screen, and long drawing sessions depletes my battery. I'm all the time ducking into cafes or restaurants, forcing myself to consume something while I recharge the phone on a socket to go do more drawings."

Though people can use a stylus to draw on the iPhone, Colombo says he uses just his finger and finds working this way very organic. His work as an illustrator for 26 years beforehand helped a little. "The 800-percent zoom doesn't hurt either."

A video clip showing how Colombo created "Finger Painting" details each stroke used to build the evocative image.

Colombo's watercolor and ink paintings have been featured on the pages of the New Yorker, but this is his first work to achieve the cover. It's also the first iPhone-generated art to appear on the cover of any major magazine. The New Yorker promises a new Colombo drawing will grace its Web site each week.

Brushes developer Steve Sprang has long enjoyed working with graphic tools. He hails from Apple where he was a member of the iWork team, responsible for creating the suite's 2D graphics and designing how the user interacts with the on-screen canvas. With his interest in computer graphics and creative tools, he says he's always sought out those types of projects.

Brushes is the iPhone app used in this week's New Yorker cover art. Steve Sprang

Sprang initially began work on his Brushes app in March of 2008--it popped up on the Apple Store that August. But a painting program wasn't his original idea. "Initially, I created a color chooser as a way to get familiar with iPhone development. I figured it might be useful for any number of apps," he said. "Once that was working, though, it seemed obvious to me that I needed to build a painting app. It's a natural fit for the touch screen."

Since Brushes went live, Sprang says there have been more than 45,000 total downloads. Though the program is designed to be used by anyone, it's brought out the best in a variety of talented and professional artists, whose work can be seen on the Brushes Flickr group.

Sprang says he knew Brushes had potential when he himself created one of its first sample paintings--an apple against a white background. Though he had drawn a bit in the past, he had never painted before and was surprised how well it turned out. "At that moment," he said, I became very excited to see what a properly trained artist could do. I'm still impressed on a daily basis by what appears in the Flickr group. I'm lucky to have such amazing users!"