Anchorage artist using new creative tool: an iPad

  • Anchorage artist James R. Behlke demonstrates how to create paintings on his iPad at a workshop June 6 at the Bunnell Street Arts Center. -Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
  • Above: James Behlke’s iPad painting, “Late Afternoon.” -Photo provided
  • First of three steps in the process of creating iPad art using the Procreate art app. -Photo provided
  • Second of three steps in the process of creating iPad art using the Procreate art app. -Photo provided
  • Third of three steps in the process of creating iPad art using the Procreate art app.

In “Close to Home,” Anchorage artist James Behlke’s exhibit this month at Bunnell Street Arts Center, large charcoal paintings dominate the show. As big as 60-by-74 inches, the works show landscapes of upper Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm. Somber and subdued, the black-and-white paintings fit the mood of a common winter or fall scene, when dark clouds and low light turn everything into shades of gray.

Among his exhibit, smaller color paintings pop out, a new experiment in media for Behlke: the Apple iPad. At 15.5-by-19 inches or smaller, the paintings retain the feeling of the charcoal art but take his landscapes in a new direction. With an iPad, a pressure-sensitive stylus that can be used on the iPad screen and an inexpensive drawing app, Procreate, Behlke creates detailed images.

“This is like a $5 app,” he said at an iPad painting workshop at Bunnell on June 6. “It’s amazing what you can do with it.”

Since the advent of graphic art programs, computers have been used to create art. Tablets like the iPad have given artists more freedom. An object the size of a sketch book can give an artist not just a surface to paint on, but an entire color palette and brush and pen tool box. Behlke cited British artist David Hackney as one of the pioneers in the medium, first using an iPhone and then an iPad to sketch.

Behlke uses Procreate, a $5.99 app available through the Apple iPad app store. Other programs like Brushes have similar capabilities. At the Bunnell workshop, about a dozen people, many of them carrying their own iPads, followed Behlke as he demonstrated his technique.

Procreate allows artists to paint a layer at a time. Numerous layers can be added and the layers merged together to show the final sketch. Behlke said he likes to work in partitions; it’s also how he makes a straight line as a reference for a landscape horizon. Partition lines and study sketches can be used to start a painting and then hidden as layers. A background layer such as white also can be created.

“I like to start with some reference,” Behlke said. “Then you can zoom up and work in a more concentrated area.”

“Brushes” and “pens” don’t fully describe the tools available in Procreate. Pens and brushes can be of varying widths and textures. Artists can even use spray paint. An artist also can use an eraser tool that can have hard edges or blurred edges. The eraser tool, for example, is how Behlke creates patches of snow on a hillside. He draws the mountains first and then erases, revealing the background white.

“The snow — you can do it two ways, add or subtract,” he said.

Layers can give artists options. A base layer such as a line of mountains can even be copied from painting to painting, and then other layers added, as might be done in a series showing a landscape over the seasons. Layers can be used to create multicolor silkscreen or block prints. Photographs and other images also can be imported and “posterized,” or turned into painting-like images. 

Behlke suggested saving different versions of a work, so that if an artist doesn’t like one layer or one phase, an earlier version can be used. Procreate also has a “step back” feature.

“Your work is progressing so your layers are changing,” he said. “Layers are really useful.”

Like other iPad apps, in Procreate artists can use commands like pinching, tapping and double tapping to do certain things like zooming in. Behlke suggested downloading the Procreate manual, available as an iBook. With all the numerous layers, color options and tools, the program can be complex and daunting.

“You just have to think about what you’re doing,” Behlke said. “That’s the hard part.”

As with photographs or other computer-drawn images, iPad paintings can be printed on paper, canvas and other media. Behlke uses up to 18-by-20-inch sheets and prints on an Epson printer. An image can even be run through a printer multiple times, one layer at a time, which creates a transparent effect. It costs about $3 in ink to make one print.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

Close to Home

James R. Behlke

What: Charcoal and iPad paintings

Where: Bunnell Street Arts Center

When:  Through July 2


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