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Artists spread their virtual masterpieces around on networking site

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On a recent school night, Bryce Kho had her TV tuned to "Grey’s Anatomy," but the steamy antics of the hospital staff hardly held her attention. Her eyes were transfixed on another screen: her computer’s.

Kho, a 19-year-old college sophomore in San Diego, was busy sketching a likeness of her friend’s face, using the mouse to lay layer upon layer of translucent shades of pink and brown. By the time the show ended, Kho had already posted the 2-by-5-inch image on her friend’s Facebook profile for all to admire.

On any given day about 250,000 of the 64 million current Facebook subscribers scrawl everything from doodles to finely honed digital artworks like Kho's. The works are mostly destined for a friend or other subscriber's “wall,” a space on each person’s profile where messages can be posted. Some more elaborate works now have a home on the free site's own virtual gallery.

It's just the latest example of how social networking sites are changing the way people communicate, says Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. The art feature “seems to make communication more interactive and allows people to learn about each other through creative expression,” Sternheimer said.

The year-old online tool they use, called Graffiti, has become one of Facebook’s most sought-after applications; as of February, it had been downloaded 8 million times, according to Mark Kantor, one of its creators.

Kantor said he and the other creators of Graffiti initially viewed the application primarily as a new image-based way for people to connect. Most “use it strictly as a form of communication,” he said, such as scribbling messages of “Happy Birthday” in brilliant colors or a simple “I Love You” declaration decorated with hearts.

“I think art needs to be shared, and the Graffiti application is a great way to do that,” said Sasha Verma, a high school senior in Philadelphia who has also shown work in the online Facebook gallery, available only to subscribers. “Drawing is a personal thing, but sharing my art with someone allows me to share that experience with someone else.”

Others like Kho are spending increasing amounts of time producing illustrations that they say should be considered artworks in their own right—-even if the artistic effort was mainly an extended effort at procrastination.

Kho, a computing and art major, spends anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour-and-a-half on her Graffiti creations--time she admits she often should have spent studying. “The idea of using a tool that was clearly not meant to make fine art was very appealing to me," she said.

The application is simple to use, featuring three tools: brush color, width and opacity. Users can adjust the size of the cursor’s “brush” stroke, choose from a selection of colors, and modify each color’s saturation. Most users scribble lines with the aide of the built-in touch pad on their laptops or with a mouse. To create more elaborate pieces, many use a graphics tablet, a flat electronic sensory surface that allows a user to draw an image using a pen-like device. Artists can also "zoom in" when working on the intricate components.

As Graffiti users grow more experienced, their works look less and less like graffiti and more like miniature artworks. The work of Jeremy Deveraturda, 27, a recent fine arts undergraduate in New York, is often compared with traditional watercolor. That makes sense, he says, since they share the same attributes: a light drawing first, color intensity on the focal point, then a wash of color on top. Deveraturda, whose work can be viewed at www.funlabor.com, is inspired by drawings from art history books, and taps his own knowledge of how traditional artists made their paintings.

Jennifer Marshall, associate professor of American art history at Stanford University, says the conservative look of this new Graffiti art surprises her. “The idea of graffiti is to mark up space that isn’t supposed to be yours and reclaim it by messing it up," she noted. The more traditional artists are doing something different. They are "decorating this virtual space as though it were an architecturally built environment rather than simply a virtual experience,” she added.

More intricate pieces of landscapes and portraits can take upwards of 12 hours, causing friends of the artists to make remarks like “get a life” or “you spend too much time online.”

”No matter how long you’ve been doing it, the details take time,” said Rex Wilson, 19, who says he sometimes creates elaborate images during a boring lecture at Brigham Young University in Utah. “Even though I may get more effective, I don’t get any faster.”

E-mail: yv2121@columbia.edu