In the last year or so, I’ve been creating art—mostly portraits—using S Memo on my cellphone. S Memo is like a simplified version of Microsoft Windows Paint: you get some drawing tools (pencil, brush, marker), an eraser, a text tool, a customizable color palette, and an undo function.

The whole thing began when I decided to surprise my friend Steve with a portrait of him. He has a bright smile and wears John Lennon glasses, so I did a quick portrait and texted it to him. He loved it, so I began doing other pictures and sharing them with him, and he encouraged me to keep doing them. He had a visitor from France and showed her some of my pictures, and she even commissioned me to do her portrait!

Left: the first S Memo portrait of my friend Steve. (Sep 2016)
Right: portrait inspired by Japanese entertainer Akiko Wada. (Dec 2017)

Alas, when I finished Steve’s friend’s portrait, I moved my finger to hit the save button. It got too close to the screen without touching it, but close enough to draw a gash of color right across her face just as I hit save. This is because my phone has a capacitive touchscreen, which relies on an electrical charge in my finger, so direct contact isn’t always necessary. This is also why I can’t use a stylus on my screen, thus limiting precision for drawing or creating custom colors. You can only save one custom color at a time and there’s no eyedropper tool to retrieve it if you need to use it again later. Even if I come close to recreating the custom color, the act of merely lifting my finger away from the screen is usually enough to cause the color to shift slightly.

Anyway, I told Steve’s friend I’d fix the mistake in GIMP and send it to her. After that, I began using GIMP to fix minor errors and mistakes, but Steve insisted that was cheating. The whole point of these portraits, he said, was they were done on a cell phone app with all the its limitations. Fixing them in GIMP was akin to fixing vocals in Autotune. I agreed and stopped using GIMP.

Since then, I’ve had to rethink how I do art with S Memo. I have to plan the order in which elements are drawn. I’ve gotten better at recreating custom colors, though they are never exact. I am much more careful about how I hit the save button. But despite these limitations, I can be more spontaneous and thus better enjoy the process, and not worry as much about creating an exact portrait of anyone.

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