The Daily Heller: Quantel’s Exquisite 50th Birthday

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Catalog cover. Copyright Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Andrea De Gioia/Young B&V.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of the first digital imaging tool, the Quantel Paintbox, it is apt that on May 9 the breakthrough company will be recognized in an exhibit curated by Adrian Wilson. “How Quantel’s Paintbox Changed the World” will debut at the Phoenix Cinema & Arts Center’s Computer Arts Society in Leicester, UK, on Tuesday, then travel to the British Computer Society in London in December.

“The 1981 Quantel Paintbox not only changed my life, it transformed the world by bringing digital images into every home via news and weather graphics, titles, logos, plus countless music videos and TV adverts,” writes Wilson in the PDF catalog for the show. “We were astounded by its revolutionary digital graphics, typography and video effects, all of us learning that nothing you see on a screen is in fact real.”

Richard Hamilton, Just What Makes Today’s Home So Different, 1992. © The Estate of Richard Hamilton /Courtesy Adrian Wilson Paintbox Archive. 

“The Paintbox taught us the aesthetics, visual language and the fake news of our digital age a decade before Photoshop or the internet existed,” Wilson adds.

The Paintbox was the first user-friendly digital studio—but at $250,000 it was out of reach for most artists, so Quantel donated them to art colleges, invited artists to be involved in its development and ran a paid apprentice scheme for emerging creators who wanted to learn highly sought after digital skills. “A Paintbox software engineer told me his proudest achievement was that his work enabled so many artists’ successful careers and, being paid $500 an hour in 1986, that included mine,” he notes.

David Hockney, Ceila Birtwell, 1984. ©David Hockney/Courtesy Adrian Wilson Paintbox Archive.
© April Greiman, MoMA & AIGA posters, 1988.

A curated set of 20 printed Quantel Paintbox images will be on view during the exhibition. This will be the first time this selection by international artists, including Keith Haring and David Hockney, has been shown together. The show also includes pioneering digital work by Richard Bernstein, April Greiman, Richard Hamilton, Ellen and Lynda Kahn, Sidney Nolan, Kiki Picasso, Larry Rivers and more.

Wilson, who is also working on a documentary about Paintbox, continues: “Despite global dominance and Paintbox being the verb for digital manipulation, Silicon Valley would take over with its inelegantly designed but far cheaper PC/Mac business models. Quantel predates Apple and the Paintbox predates Adobe, but both have been Photoshopped out of history for too long.”

Hopefully, the exhibition (or a larger version of it) will travel nationally and internationally. In the AI era, this is a precursor of image generation that came, went and will never be the same again. Ahhhh, innocence ruled the screen.

Posted inThe Daily Heller