R aheem Nelson’s vast and varied artwork portfolio includes published books, portrayals of television stars and caricatures of strangers. He’s done Art Deco versions of pancakes and shaving cream, and, like many artists, he’s done a few self-portraits.
Unlike most artists, Nelson creates his art on an iPad.
Becoming an artist was always the plan; Nelson’s been drawing since the second grade, and attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he got a BA in cartooning.
Becoming a digital artist, though? That was a surprise. It started incidentally, when Apple released the iPad in April 2010. “I wanted one,” says Nelson. But his pragmatic nature demanded a reason to justify the purchase. When he saw a video of someone using the app Sketchbook Pro to draw on the device, he found it.
He’s been doing that ever since, in his spare time anyway. Nelson’s a paraprofessional at the Augusta Lewis Troup School during the day. He hits the gym after work, and then gets to digital painting. Not one to idle, he’s also a volunteer with The Future Project, aiding with its social media presence.
But back to the painting. Nelson uses Nomad brushes (“paintbrushes” created for a glass screen and resembling a sleek pen with a little, focused sprout of bristles on one end) and apps including Sketchbook, Brushes, Procreate and Paper to create the pieces, which he sells online at the website BlueCanvas.com. Prices range from $12 for a small print to $200 for a larger one on canvas.
Among the colorful, some realistic and some impressionistic, works are portraits of notables like Steve Jobs and Amy Winehouse, landmarks and vistas in New Haven and New York City, comic book heroes (like Batman) and television anti-heroes (like Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad), as well as characters of Nelson’s own creation.
Nelson—who sometimes goes by the nickname Ra (a shortening that’s stuck since his high school days) or Ra the Sun God—has created two books of his work, both available at Lulu.com. His first, Little Robots, Volume 1, is a compendium of comics starring, well, little robots that he was putting out every Sunday, featuring “whatever I think is funny during the week,” he says.
City images are highlighted in his second book Through The Elm to The Big Apple, inspired by four years commuting to Manhattan for art school. Among the New Haven scenes, he’s captured Lyric Hall, Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria and Wilbur Cross High School (where he attended) for posterity.
“The project was really my love letter to New Haven and New York,” he says of the book, which features essays by artist Jorge Colombo, along with essays submitted by New Haven’s co-working collective The Grove, which is holding a book signing for the upcoming Little Robots, Volume 2, on April 27.
That partnership is just one example of how Nelson’s dedication to marketing himself and his work has paid off. He’s using social media—Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, you name it—to get out there, as well as good old-fashioned public relations tactics. “I think one of the best things I learned in the past year is how to write a press release,” he says.
Nelson counts clients both private and corporate. He’s producing advertorial art for digital ad agency GlobalWorks, and recently served as an artist-in-residence for Sony in Manhattan, where he drew caricatures of customers using Sony’s Duo and Tap tablets.
He envisions more art shows, books and gigs. When I ask if the goal is to get “really famous,” Nelson laughs but says yes, he’d like to be well-known—but also imagines teaching digital art someday, as well as teaching artists how to market themselves and their work.
People often ask him if, having traded paint and canvas for pixels and touchscreen, he misses working in more traditional art forms. He replies that what he does on his iPad feels essentially the same; it’s still a means to express ideas and get creative. And, looking at some of Nelson’s works—his painting of Yale’s Battell Chapel, for instance—it’s clear that the new and the traditional aren’t mutually exclusive.
Good news for these techie times.
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Written and first photograph by Cara McDonough.