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.
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.