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The iPad's Next Frontier: Creativity For The Masses

On its fifth anniversary, a look at Apple's tablet as a medium for amateur self-expression, and what that might mean for its future.

The iPad's Next Frontier: Creativity For The Masses

A painting of a railway station roof in Brighton, England by iPad artist Caroline Mustard, created with the Procreate app

When I step into Apple’s flagship San Francisco store on Powell St., I’m used to the Apple Store app on my iPhone displaying a notification designed to gently put me in a frame of mind to buy stuff. Recently, though, I got something else: an invitation to check out the art on the walls.

And indeed, the store was decked out like a gallery. Massive billboardlike reproductions of paintings and photographs created with Apple devices loomed over products and the Genius Bar, each identifying the creator and the tools used to create it. Even a section of wall space normally dedicated to iPhone accessories sported art pieces instead.

User-created art on display within Apple Stores is in tune with much of Apple's current marketing message. For instance, the current "Shot With iPhone 6" campaign features photos taken by nonprofessionals, reminding everybody of the spectacular imagery that can be captured with Apple's phone camera. But the way that the company communicates to the world what an iPad can do is particularly meaningful, and particularly at this point in time.

Five years ago today, the first version of the iPad went on sale. Since then, Apple has sold 250 million tablets, which still stands as a record for the fastest-selling new product in its history. However, the pace of iPad sales has lately dropped, from 71 million units in Apple's 2013 fiscal year to 68 million in 2014. Though most gadget makers would salivate at the idea of selling 68 million of anything—especially something with an enviable profit margin—the downward trend leaves some observers wondering whether the iPad has peaked.

iPad art on the walls of Apple's flagship San Francisco store

The lull in momentum may be partially explained by a basic fact about the iPad: Even half a decade into its existence, it needs explaining in a way that the iPhone does not.

Back when Apple's tablet was brand-new, it was briefly received wisdom that it was optimized for couch-potato passivity and was not capable of being used as a professional creative tool. That era didn’t last long. Today, if you contend that an iPad is too underpowered to be of interest to seriously creative people, you have a bone to pick with the likes of everyone from David Hockney to Rihanna. Which is an argument you’ll probably lose.

Apple, whose ties to creativity date back to the era when the Apple II popularized color graphics, has helped spread the word about self-expression on the iPad through such efforts as its "Your Verse" campaign, which sought to show the tablet's value as a tool for filmmaking, prototyping, writing, and sketching. Still, that doesn’t mean that the average person who owns an iPad is exploring its tools for artistic pursuits. Anecdotally, I know plenty of folks who tell me that they mostly use one for casual consumption of content in scenarios when neither a phone nor a PC quite fits the bill. They like their iPads just fine—they just think that they’re doing everything they can do with one. Oftentimes, they’re perfectly happy with the iPad they bought two, three, or four years ago.

People who are satisfied with a product they own needn't be in a rush to replace it. That could be a factor in the iPad's current sales malaise. And if sales do take off again, it probably won’t be because the same people just start buying more iPads to do the same things they’ve always done with them. It could happen if Apple releases powerful new models capable of doing new things. But it could also happen if consumers simply rethink what iPads are already capable of doing. That's a reassessment that Apple is clearly trying to encourage.

Artists On A Mission

I’m sitting on a stool at that same San Francisco Apple Store, in an area on the second level most often occupied by people waiting for Genius Bar appointments. This evening, however, Apple is using the space for a presentation by iPad artist Caroline Mustard.

Mustard, a retired art director, isn’t exactly a latecomer to creativity. Some of the folks among the dozen or so people in her audience look to be in her general age group. Others could be her grandkids. She tells them that she became obsessed with digital art when her son bought her an iPad, and uses her tablet to flip through examples of her paintings, which are replicated on a large wall-mounted display.

Mostly, though, Mustard's chat feels less like a retrospective of her own digital artwork, and more like a call to action. Her iPad reignited her interest in self-expression, and she wants everybody to think of Apple's tablet as a creative tool.

For newbies, she recommends FiftyThree's Paper app, and mentions its price, $3.99. "That’s a cup of coffee, guys," she tells her audience. "There’s no excuse. For $3.99, you can start painting." (Not long after Mustard made that point, FiftyThree announced that it was making Paper completely free, eliminating even that four-buck barrier to creativity.)

With Paper, Mustard says, "You've got five brushes. That's pretty limiting, but you can create miracles with it." She also praises another iPad painting app, the extremely powerful and customizable Procreate. It has long been my assumption that serious iPad artists did their work with styluses such as those offered by FiftyThree, Wacom, and Adonit. I'm disabused of that notion when she fields a question about styluses from an audience member. "The best stylus is your finger—I really believe in that," she says. "I just lose styluses, so I have to buy them really cheap."

The Apple Store talk is only one example of Mustard's work as a sort of Jane Appleseed of iPad creativity. She's education director at Mobile Art Academy, which offers in-person and online classes on tablet and smartphone art. She teaches iPad art to students at Stanford University, as part of a program designed to help them try something new. She helps public-school art teachers learn to use iPads and is helping to organize a show of mobile art to be held this August. "Understand these are not pro artists," she says of the creators whose work will be exhibited. "Just people who have been empowered by their iPads into creating some amazing stuff."

Caroline Mustard talks about iPad art.

On another weekend, another iPad painter who happens to be a senior citizen, Helene Goldberg, speaks about iPad art to a different crowd in the same Apple Store space. Her manner is more low-key than Mustard's, and she spent her career as a psychologist rather than an art director. But her story is similar: She discovered the iPad, began to use it to paint, and just kept going, often using a painting app called ArtRage.

"I got really addicted," she tells her audience as she swipes through her work. "I started painting all the time."

Like Mustard, Goldberg emphasizes the low cost of getting into iPad art—"when you think about one canvas and five tubes of paint, it's such a bargain"—but she also talks about its convenience. Painting with real paint would take up too much space in her home. It would mean working with hazardous materials like cadmium and lead. And linseed oil, to which she's allergic. "I've got enough problems already," she says.

Goldberg explains that she's drawn to the iPad because it allows for experimentation in such a tidy, portable form. "The worst thing that can happen to an artist, I think, is to be self-conscious. I didn't want to get hung up creating perfect work."

Like Mustard, Goldberg references David Hockney's love of the iPad. Both women also claim that Van Gogh would have been an iPad fan if he'd gotten his hands on one. Perhaps he would have, once he figured out how to charge it and download a few art apps. But in a way, the fact that the tablet has changed the lives of people like Caroline Mustard and Helene Goldberg is a greater testament to its importance than any number of iPad works—real or theoretical—created by artistic geniuses.

Helene Goldberg shows off iPad art at Apple's San Francisco flagship store.

All About The Apps

Mustard and Goldberg spend as much time praising third-party art apps as they do the iPad itself, which is only logical. Apple has a long history of producing software to help nonprofessionals express themselves creatively, including current products such as GarageBand and iMovie, both of which originated on the Mac and made their way onto the iPad. Drawing and painting, however, are activities that it has left to other software companies—at least since the 1980s and the era of MacDraw and MacPaint.

But the company certainly seems to like Paper, the iPad sketching and painting app from New York-based FiftyThree. In 2012, it gave it an Apple Design Award and then named it as the App Store's iPad App of the Year.

Of all the art apps available for the iPad, Paper is the most approachable and Apple-esque. It revels in leaving out the sort of features that historically establish that a graphics app is serious. It doesn't let you create an image made out of multiple layers, and its art tools—pen, pencil, paintbrush, markers—offer no customization options. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as unsophisticated. It's just that all of its sophistication goes into simplicity, such as the remarkably fluid line you can draw with its pen tool. (It's so expressive that you might think it's reacting to how hard you press even when you use it with a non-pressure-sensitive stylus.)

Paper's Mix feature is a built-in social network that lets you collaborate on artwork with other users around the world.

"Great tools are simple," says Georg Petschnigg, FiftyThree's cofounder and CEO. "A Stradivari violin is pretty simple. A paintbrush is pretty simple, but when handled well, there's a lot of depth to it." He's talking about his company's design philosophy, but what he says also applies to the iPad itself.

Paper is available only for the iPad, even though tablets-come-lately such as Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 and Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 aim to outdo Apple's tablet as a medium for creative expression with larger screens and bundled pressure-sensitive pens. The iPad, Petschnigg says, "has the right features. It has a phenomenal display and tremendous battery life. It's very lightweight with great connectivity. It has a very consistent and reliable user interface paradigm. There isn't much to fuss around with on an iPad."

Even the fact that the iPad Air's display isn't all that large is an asset, Petschnigg contends. ""It's about the form factor of a legal pad. Think of how people use a legal pad. Attorneys don't just write text—they put in diagrams and organizational structures and timelines. It's a very free-form canvas for them. When we saw the iPad, we thought, 'This is a tool for thinking.'"

Looking Forward

Apple doesn't devote all that much space to third-party accessories in its stores. The ones it makes room for often tell you something of its overall vision for its products. And in January, the company began selling FiftyThree's $50 Pencil stylus—designed to work with Paper and other creativity apps—in its retail locations.

Apple's decision to sell the Pencil at its retail locations—the first and only stylus to claim that distinction—is an especially significant development given Steve Jobs's iconic dismissal of such implements with a yeccchhh! during the 2007 unveiling of the iPhone. He was talking about using tiny styluses as pointing devices on smartphones, not using one to sketch and paint on the iPad, a device that didn't exist at the time. But Apple acknowledging the stylus's worth still feels like an important moment in iPad history.

Which raises a question: Might Apple tailor future iPads to artwork and other forms of self-expression? It could. There are persistent rumors of an upcoming jumbo-screened "iPad Pro" that could, theoretically, include an Apple-designed stylus of some sort, at least as an option. Apple being Apple, it wouldn't discuss such a device until it was almost ready for sale.

Even if Apple doesn't push iPad hardware in a direction designed to enable greater creativity, it's going to become a richer medium for self-expression. When I ask FiftyThree's Petschnigg whether the iPad has peaked, he doesn't give Apple advice on what it should do to goose sales. Instead, he says that it's incumbent on third-party developers such as FiftyThree to keep pushing the boundaries of what the device can do. "I look at it from the standpoint of, 'Have we made the most of the iPad as software creators?" he says. "I say no. There's so much headroom."

On my most recent visit to Apple's San Francisco store, it no longer looked like an art gallery. Most of the paintings and photos were gone, replaced by expansive beauty shots of the Apple Watch and new MacBook, both of which will be showing up for sale in April. It was a useful reminder that the company is as busy on as many fronts as it's ever been. But given Apple's financial incentive to expand the world's impression of what an iPad can do, it's hard to imagine that it doesn't have bigger plans ahead for its tablet as a platform for creative acts by everyday people—a future that, even if it takes the iPad new places, would be in keeping with the modus operandi Apple has had all along.


[Artwork: courtesy of Caroline Mustard]

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