Watch David Hockney Paint with Light, Using the Quantel Paintbox Graphics System (1986)

Think of the tele­vi­sion graph­ics you remem­ber from the nine­teen-eight­ies — or, per­haps more like­ly, the nine­teen-eight­ies tele­vi­sion graph­ics you’ve seen late­ly on Youtube. Much of it looks cheesy today, but some exam­ples have become appeal­ing­ly retro over the decades, and cer­tain works remain gen­uine­ly impres­sive as pieces of dig­i­tal art. Nowa­days we can, in the­o­ry, repli­cate and even out­do the finest TV imagery of the eight­ies on our com­put­ers, or even our phones. But in the days before high-pow­ered per­son­al com­put­ing, let alone smart­phones, how did such bril­liant­ly col­ored, ener­get­i­cal­ly ani­mat­ed, and some­times gen­uine­ly artis­tic graph­ics get made? The answer, nine times out of ten, was on the Quan­tel Paint­box.

Intro­duced in 1981, the Paint­box was a cus­tom-designed dig­i­tal graph­ic work­sta­tion that cost about $250,000 USD, or more than $623,000 today. To major tele­vi­sion sta­tions and net­works that mon­ey was well spent, buy­ing as it did the unprece­dent­ed­ly fast pro­duc­tion of images and ani­ma­tions for broad­cast. ”It used to be that we had a staff of artists who drew and drew,” the New York Times quotes ABC’s direc­tor of pro­duc­tion devel­op­ment as say­ing in an arti­cle on graph­ics for the 1984 Olympics.

“But with the Paint­box an artist can come up with a graph­ic in fif­teen min­utes that used to take two days.” Its capa­bil­i­ties did much to influ­ence the look and feel of that decade, for bet­ter or for worse: look­ing back, design­er Steven Heller rues its prop­a­ga­tion of “shad­ow-rid­den, faux-hand­made eight­ies aes­thet­ics.”

As a cut­ting-edge piece of hard­ware, the Paint­box was beyond the reach of most artists, due not just to its cost but also the con­sid­er­able kn0w-how required to use it. (Skilled “oper­a­tors,” as they were called, could in the eight­ies com­mand a wage of $500 per hour.) But for David Hock­ney, who was already famous, suc­cess­ful, and known for his inter­est in bright col­ors as well as new tech­nol­o­gy, the chance came in 1986 when the BBC invit­ed him to par­tic­i­pate in a tele­vi­sion series called Paint­ing with Light.  A show­case for the cre­ative poten­tial of the Paint­box, it also brought on such lumi­nar­ies as col­lage artist Richard Hamil­ton and “grand­fa­ther of Pop Art” Lar­ry Rivers, sit­ting them down at the work­sta­tion and film­ing as they exper­i­ment­ed with its pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“You’re not draw­ing on a piece of paper,” Hock­ney explains in his episode. “You’re draw­ing, actu­al­ly, direct­ly onto this TV screen where you’re see­ing it now.” By now we’ve all done the same in one way or anoth­er, but in the eight­ies the con­cept was nov­el enough to be hard to artic­u­late. Hock­ney empha­sizes that the Paint­box pro­duces “hon­est” images, in that the elec­tron­ic medi­um in which the artist works is the very same medi­um through which the view­er per­ceives that work. The eager­ness with which he takes up its ground­break­ing pres­sure-sen­si­tive sty­lus (“a bit like a kind of old-fash­ioned ball­point pen”), some­times with a cig­a­rette in the oth­er hand, shows that Hock­ney’s pen­chant for draw­ing on the iPhone and iPad over the past decade or so is hard­ly an iso­lat­ed late-career lark. Even in 1986 he under­stood what you could do with dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, and could also sense one of its prime dan­gers: you’re nev­er sure when to stop doing it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

David Hockney’s iPad Art Goes on Dis­play

David Hock­ney Shows Us His Sketch Book, Page by Page

Andy Warhol Dig­i­tal­ly Paints Deb­bie Har­ry with the Ami­ga 1000 Com­put­er (1985)

Time Trav­el Back to 1926 and Watch Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Make Art in Some Rare Vin­tage Video

Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Paint­ing Free Online: 403 Episodes Span­ning 31 Sea­sons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.