iPad Junkie

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Richard Shulman leads dual life as attorney —and mobile digital artist.


When you’re born into a family of lawyers, the pressure is on. And Richard Shulman didn’t disappoint. For 17 years, he has been in solo practice in Bloomfield Hills as a criminal defense and personal injury attorney.

He wanted to be an artist.

“I was always interested in art,” he says. “At a young age, it came naturally to me. Deep down inside, I wanted to pursue art, but I came from a family of lawyers — my father, my brother, two uncles, an aunt.

“My dad would kill me for saying this, but he told me, ‘Art is a great hobby; law is a profession.’”

Now Shulman has both — plus his dad’s support for his art.

It all started with an iPad. You know, those ubiquitous computer tablets that people use for everything from games to readers to, well, making masterpieces.

“I doodled, but I had no formal art training,” Shulman says. “I took a couple of sketching classes at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, that’s all.

“With the slow economy, I found I had a lot of time on my hands. I bought an iPad in June 2010 and was drawn to the art programs. I found four or five really good professional programs, and I started to play around.”

His wife, Trista, was pregnant at the time and went to bed early, so Shulman climbed in, too, but stayed up until 2:30 or 3 a.m. drawing.

“I couldn’t put the iPad down; it was new media, it had just came out,” says the Birmingham artist. Because of its portability, it went everywhere with him. He took it to coffee in the morning and drew; he took it to court and drew. He began painting on the iPad just two months later.

“I was fascinated with faces, even though I was never any good at them,” he says. He started doing self-portraits and then wanted to share his work. He posted them on Flickr, a popular photo sharing website, with the apropos user name iPad Junkie. On Flickr, he stumbled into Julia Kay’s Portrait Party (JKPP, as it’s affectionately known by members).

Based in San Francisco, Kay set out to do 1,000 self-portraits in three years. That’s about one a day. When she achieved her goal in 2010, she threw a virtual party, inviting other artists to join the fun and paint one another from photographs, and then post their work on her Flickr page. The group has grown from 60 artists and 200 portraits to an international community of nearly 700 artists in various media — including iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad — who have posted more than 20,000 portraits.

Participation in JKPP connected Shulman to the small cadre of other iPad artists around the world. In fall 2010, he made the leap and left his wife at home with a newborn to attend a meeting in New York of international artists forming a group called the International Association of Mobile Digital Artists (IAMDA).

“I couldn’t resist,” he says. “About 150 artists from all over the world showed up, and they were just as interested as I was in programs, brushes, styluses. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I came back even more passionate, but I needed to really learn to paint.

“I spent thousands of hours teaching myself the ins and outs of programs. With traditional media, it might take me 20 years to learn to paint, but I taught myself in 1½ years. You can erase, you don’t have to wait for the paint to dry, and there’s no mess.”

At the second IAMDA conference last year, he was one of the presenters, teaching others techniques he had mastered on his own.

Shulman, 42 and a left-hander, became so adept at the painting programs that he pushed some beyond their original parameters. He began contacting developers with questions, and then became one of a small group of mobile digital artists who work with developers.

He since has done live painting demonstrations for software companies and digital brush manufacturers, such as Nomad Brush and Autodesk, at conferences like the recent MacWorld/iWorld conference in San Francisco.

“It is a symbiotic relationship between the end-users, the developers and the device manufacturers,” says Chris Cheung, product line manager for SketchBook/Digital Art for Autodesk in Toronto. “What is really amazing is the emotional connection users have with the tools they use. When this chord is struck, magic happens.

“We see so many different types of work, intentions, styles and techniques. Art truly is subjective, but I can say this: When I see the creations by artists like Richard, I am constantly amazed. It is cool to know he uses SketchBook, but when I look at his work, I only see his work, not the tool that created it.

“I’ve also seen his work develop over the last couple of years, and seeing his creative journey is definitely inspiring,” Cheung says. “We are constantly inspired and amazed by the creative ways the tools are used and by the incredible talent.

“Richard is one of those users who stands out because of his personal story. I mean, the guy is an attorney who runs a private practice. How amazing is that, that by day he specializes in trial law and by night he is a passionate ‘iPad Junkie.’ We, as people, really can’t be defined strictly by our careers or online profiles. How relieving is that?”

“Legitimate” Art?

What Shulman does has many names: virtual art, iPad art, mobile digital art. Whatever it’s called, how does it fit into the venerable world of recognized art forms, such as those featured in museums around the world?

Just as the American studio glass movement, which began in the early 1960s, took a while to gain acceptance as “legitimate art,” mobile digital art is definitely moving in that direction.

This month, Venice’s sixth annual Arte Laguna competition, ranking among top competitions in the world, gave its first prize to an artist in its new virtual art category. Shulman entered a family portrait and was named among the top 10 finalists out of 400 entries. His work also has been shown in exhibitions in San Francisco, England and New York.

Smaller galleries seem to be taking the lead, mounting shows that display work directly on iPads and iPhones or prints of work done on the devices.
In 2010, galleries were showing iPhone art; more recently, iPad artists have been showing work at galleries around the world.

Famed British artist David Hockney is boosting the legitimacy of mobile digital art with exhibitions in Europe of work he’s done on the iPhone and, more recently, the iPad. He started exhibiting work on the devices in 2010. Hockney, 74, currently has a show of his iPad art at London’s Royal Academy of Art through April 9.

And work by others is reaching museums, too.

“They are showing our work,” says Susan Murtaugh, a respected mobile digital artist from Wisconsin. “Recently, 30 of us had work on iPads in Hamburg’s Museum of Modern Art.

“It is not virtual, it is just art,” she says. “It is art, the iPad is a tool, the person using it is the artist. Artists choose their medium, and perhaps they use many. It is valid. It is here and [we] are on the cusp of it, and it does bridge traditional into this new age.”

Corrie Baldauf, a professor of art history and practice at four Michigan universities, is familiar with Shulman’s work.

“I see a new narrative in Shulman’s art practice,” she says. “iPad art is a new and innovative artistic process. In a crowded, fast-paced world, Shulman is contextualizing the iPad as the new virtual artist’s studio. Clean, captivating and portable.

“His dedication to the practice of digital painting places him in the top ranks of a new generation in contemporary art. His prolific practice has evolved, joining digital painting with performance. Beyond the captivation of observing his process on a lit screen, his stories and connections with a handful of international iPad pioneers point to a bright artistic future.”

Shulman communicates with iPad artists all the time and is delighted when he can arrange to meet them in person. At one such meeting, he and two other artists painted portraits of one another while they sat in a restaurant.

“The network is ever growing,” Murtaugh says. “It started out quite small, a handful who would comment on posted work, ever encouraging. The number of artists grows daily. I have well over a thousand contacts now, and I can’t tell you how much viewing their work has made my work get better, too.”

The Man, The Artist

Richard Shulman is a thoughtful observer. A darkly handsome and subtly buff man given to wearing button-down shirts and sweater vests. Only his orange Crocs and oversized watch might give away his artistic side. His iPad is always with him.

You’ll find him quietly painting most mornings at the Starbucks at Maple and Lahser. He is drawn to realism, reflections, faces. So he could be painting a mom with a child on her hip or capturing the contours and reflection of a crushed soda can on a table. He might be there two or three hours, depending on the demands of his law practice.

“In law, I deal with people having problems,” he says. “With the art, it’s about finding answers and coming up with solutions.”

Shulman had an “a-ha” moment last fall when he decided to learn how to commercialize his art and make some money by painting.

“It’s nice to have another source of income in these times,” he says.

His initial investment was for the iPad — and now the new iPad (around $800) — professional-level apps with well-stocked palettes and brush shapes and sizes (under $10 each) and additional brushes and styluses ($18-$40 each).

His first thought was to do his iPad art as a performance. At a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah, he set up a camera, screen and printer and then painted the teen and her friends from the photographs he shot. Guests could watch him on the screen as he painted.

Then, an event planner in New York hired him last October for a party given by a real estate mogul there.

“People liked it,” Shulman says. “It was completely different from what they’ve seen before. It was a lot of work, but rewarding.”

Also in October, he did a live demonstration painting on the iPad at the Detroit Institute of Art’s annual gala.

“It was really special,” he says. “I gave my Dad a ticket to see me create art under the roof of the DIA. His expression was priceless. That brought it full circle for me.”

A program Shulman uses allows him to paint and record every brushstroke and then replay it as a video. It’s fascinating to see how the painting takes shape one brushstroke at a time.

Shulman hit on another application for the animation. He has created painted, animated sales presentations set to music, a perfect foil to the more traditional, static Powerpoint option.

He created one for ImageOne, a managed print services company in Oak Park, and they loved it.

“It’s more efficient because it’s easy to share, send or stream on any mobile device, and it’s less expensive,” Shulman says. “I knew what I wanted to create, and I just figured stuff out as I was going.”

(Watch some of Shulman’s videos at redthreadmagazine.com.)

He also started doing graphic facilitation by creating conceptual maps of conversations. He goes into a meeting and takes notes to create a visual memory jogger of what was said there. His work is then uploaded to the company website for all to see.

He recently created one for ePrize, based in Pleasant Ridge. In one painting, CEO Josh Linker is standing in the center, surrounded by clouds of text featuring key points from the meeting.

“I feel like I’m innovating and on the cutting edge of things,” he says without being boastful.

JUDAISM AND ART

“I grew up in a strongly traditional Jewish home, and was influenced by arts and culture by my parents,” he says. “My mother was creative, especially with food. My father, who is now 82, loves the arts, especially theater.

“I believe that Judaism teaches us to follow our passions and to be both involved and of service to the community. Also, as Jews, we tend to place an emphasis on hard work and success, and most of all, learning. Mediocrity is not cherished in Judaism.

“I believe that these values pour over into my work ,” he says. “I always knew how I wanted my work to end up, but didn’t necessarily have the skills to achieve this end, at least when I started. I have worked extremely hard and never stopped learning to do better. I have also embraced the aspect of community in networking with my fellow iPad artists. This formula, if you will, has helped me get to this point.”

Shulman grew up attending Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. He and his wife now take their family, including Alex, 13, Sawyer, 8, and Ruby, 18 months, to Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.

Because he paints five to six hours a day, he admits that sometimes his family wants him to detach from the iPad and pay attention to them. But when he talks about his family, you know he’s actively involved.

When his new iPad arrived this month, he gave his sons his original iPads to play with. One son immediately went to the art programs. Trista got his iPad 2.

“I love the new iPad; it’s a game changer because you have more control,” Shulman says. “It has higher definition than a hi-def TV, but it takes some getting used to.” When he ordered it, he had Apple engrave “iPad Junkie” on the back.

Recently, he downloaded a new app called SketchShare that allows him to paint simultaneously on one canvas with three other artists anywhere in the world, all  while they talk with one another, thus enhancing the social aspect of the media.

Reflecting on his two professions, he says, “My time as an attorney is not a waste. The training is great background, especially the communication — and I’m a good lawyer.

“I feel one lawyer is not offering the world anything more than another,” he says. “Moments of brilliance don’t come out as often as when I paint. Each painting is a new discovery. I’m creating something others are not — that’s the best use of my talents.”

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