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Artist Nolan Simon redefines digital art with Skype

You’ve heard of oil paintings by the old masters, priceless watercolors and rare etchings coveted by highbrow collectors. But how about portraits painted over Skype video calling? Forget fusty auction houses, millionaire art enthusiasts and velvet ropes. This is digital art, but not as you know it.

Detroit based artist Nolan Simon, recently embarked on a project where he painted portraits of people over Skype. Not only a good cause to raise money for a publications program run by the enterprising Motor City gallery What Pipeline — but also a fantastic way for anyone to appreciate, and own, one of his original pieces.

“The plan has always been to help What Pipeline with their goal to start a publication series. They’d like to produce artist’s books – something other galleries in this part of the US rarely do, due to the associated costs. That said, I feel like the role What Pipeline plays in Detroit is crucial and I’d be supporting them whether or not there was a project to fund.”

The original aim was to raise $15,000 as part of a Kresge Arts matching grant. And having a painting of yourself is a great way for people to appreciate an original portrait — as well as contributing to a good cause. Nolan explains his technique:

“I paint using oils. Of course, in my case the computer and projector do a lot to determine how the work will look in the end. The original live sessions took place over three days at the gallery using a webcam. The sitters sat across the room on camera. As the days went by and people continued to come forward asking to participate we decided to extend the project through the end of September. We opened the project to anyone on our mutual mailing lists via Skype — our friends live all over the world.”

A typical portrait takes about an hour, but the same problems as a conventional sitting applies. “Sitting still is a challenge. Also, when laptops and iPhones are involved it can be incredibly difficult to get a still image.”

And as you’d imagine, often the subjects of Nolan’s portraits are just as creative as he is.

“ I did separate portraits of a couple. He works for a major Midwest art museum and decided to set up a laptop and do the portraits of them both from the museum’s storage area. She set up a small step stool, pulled a large book from a nearby shelf, disrobed and we painted her nude covered by the book.”


Although there will be no exhibition (the subjects own their work privately), there may be a publication of the pieces. Nolan’s Skype project may be finished now, but he is always open to new commissions from anyone interested in their own portrait:

“In addition to working with What Pipeline here in Detroit I also show with 47 Canal in New York, Lars Friedrich in Berlin and Green Gallery in Milwaukee. Anyone interested in commissioning a portrait could contact one of my galleries and make an appointment.”


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