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Finger painting with Susan Murtaugh

Susan, you’ve had an incredible career in the graphic arts and design. Can you take us back in the day and tell us a bit about life before you retired from the field?

I am one of the luckiest people; I have had a very full and enjoyable work life. It’s marvelous to wake up every day and go to a job you like and care about. Sure there were a few off days or people who were weird characters but on a whole, life in advertising and design were chocked full of fun and challenges.

I got out of Art School (the Chicago Academy of Fine Art) in 1972. There was a recession then too, nothing that compares to our current situation, but bad enough to scare me that finding a job would be problematic. I held a job while in my last year of school, working as all around gofer and storyboard mounter at a nice little agency in Chicago called Bucan, they liked me but were hit with client reductions so I knew once June rolled around it would be time to move on.

I swear that summer, with fresh resume in hand, I had 24 interviews. And 24 rejections. So with my tail between legs I filled out an application for Montgomery Ward, a catalog house, on the order of Sears Roebuck, located on the near west side of the Chicago loop. I thought as worse-case scenario I’d be doing type paste up for the catalog. I got a call back, they liked my portfolio, said I was over qualified, which gives the employer the right to pay minimum wage and I was taken up to the store signage department.

I loved the crazy job, there were 15 of us. 12 old codgers, who had been there 20 or more years and 3 newbies. The difference between the 2 generations, we had heard of Helvetica, the older crew had not. Remember, no computers, they were for scientists. And were the size of buildings back then.

We would design fun posters for different store departments day in and out, get them approved by the boss and oversee our work’s production at the in-house wood type and printing department. Our designs were restricted to 9 typefaces… no Helvetica. It was fun and I loved the camaraderie and old timer’s stories. BUT after my 3rd semi-annual bra and girdle sale (a year and a half) I decided this might not be the future I had planned. So quietly I started sending resumes again. And as luck would have it I got a call right away from one of the leading design firms at the time, Whitaker Guernsey. I gave 2 weeks’ notice and started at the place that would steer my entire career.

You worked on packaging of toys at a very interesting time with respect to franchises that have become integral parts of today’s pop culture. Can you tell us a little about that?

In 1974 I got a great job working at Arneson and Craddock, a boutique design firm working out of a carriage house on North LaSalle Street in Chicago. Our desks were overlooking a little Japenese garden complete with Mandarin Ducks. Our major client was Kenner Toys, out of Cincinnati. Life was good redesigning the original Easy Bake Oven and Play-Doh products.


Late 1975 we got a call about a top secret project. Some guy named Lucas was doing an epic movie called Star Wars. And he was licensing toys and spin off items to hit at the same time the movie was released. Now this was not the way things were done back then. Disney had always marketed it’s stuff but it was not common practice, And somehow Kenner got the rights, and we got the assignment. There were 7 of us in the firm, including the 2 bosses and I don’t think we slept for 4 months. We had to get packages designed and prototypes made for February’s Toy Fair in New York. Again, no computers, everything was done by hand, and all those deep sky backgrounds were printed C-prints that had to have the backing stripped off and applied to the packages, a very expensive proposition especially if you ripped the print and had to start over.

Up till then all action figures were Barbie sized, Kenner made the brilliant move of making the figures 3¾” tall. They could fit in the Land Speeder and Millennium Falcon. It truly was a fun time. And for making all the deadlines Kenner sent each of us a mixed case of toys after the opening of the movie. I was one popular lady in my neighborhood, passing them out to the kids. Little did I know what prices they would fetch on eBay now.

FYI… I also stood in line for 6 hours to see the opening of the movie. And months later, when we got the Alien assignment, I unwrapped the prototype of the monster, said “what’s this” on the back of the head, pressed the button and the teeth shot out of the face, flew across the room and dropped behind cabinets, which then had to be moved to retrieve the teeth. I did get a very stern reprimand!

You have experience in such a wide range of creative painting tools.  What are your impressions of Photoshop CS5’s introduction of natural media brushes?  How do you see all these tools and creative options fit?  Is it a matter of preference or are there good reasons for digital artists to leverage many software applications?

A sketch of Susan’s studio space.

I do like that I have a bit of experience in all apps, knowing what each can do makes it easier for me to get the exact look I want in any art piece. If I’m working in SketchBook Pro on the iPad I use all the tools and blending modes to complete my piece. Once I download it to my “working Mac” I can tweak color or saturation, if necessary in Photoshop and once opened on the huge screen there are usually a few mistakes or strokes I realize need attention. I’m very happy with the new CS5 painting brushes and engine so far because I can now repair or add to work created in other painting apps and not make it look retouched. It’s only with this latest CS5 release that I feel comfortable painting in PS, though I still have a lot of experimenting to do, since it’s still relatively new. I still prefer starting all my work in SketchBook Pro on the Mac or iPad, or iPod… it’s such a natural feel for me and I’m so pleased with its straightforward ease of use and how compatible it can be with all other apps.

You are a very active contributor to community groups.  What are your opinions on online forum and groups on Flickr?  Have made valuable connections through the online community?

I do try to stay active on Flickr, after all it’s that community that really got me going in this new mobile digital world. I was so enamored with the work Stef Kardos was doing on his iPhone, I emailed him and asked a barrage of questions which he quickly answered with, I think; “just get the Touch and get to work, you’ll love it”. So I did and I do.

I find that a little encouragement can go a long way in making a difference in another artist’s life. I think we are all a little insecure and having the smallest pat on the back really makes a big difference especially when you are trying something new. AND the best part is I feel I have a whole new family. They’re all artists, each one understanding what it is like trying to picture the world we live in, what it means to us and why we must do what we do.

Susan’s Photostream:

As a contributing editor, can you tell us a bit about  How did it get started and, equally important, how did you become a finger painter?


Stef Kardos was how I started.

Early on I began corresponding with Benjamin Rabe and Matthew Watkins through email, as well as Flickr. We were experimenting with Brushes app and we’d try to learn from each other how to squeeze even more out of it. We were Beta testers at the time so we had to keep much of the dialog private and off the internet. I think they are both extremely talented and take a multi-disciplined approach to their craft. They’re visual and cerebral and they are producing all the time. I love their dedication and probably did more encouraging that they post rather than I post myself. Call me the great encourager! Benjamin is very adept at building websites and directing communications, so he set it up and Matthew came up with the name and we started filing little bits, getting it up and running. Now I’m very pleased to report that Mia Robinson has become part of the team and I can be lazy and just paint. She, along with the fellows have made the place to go for learning about this new movement.

Can you walk us through how you use your iPod and iPad?  How do you create such incredible artwork? Do you take what you’ve created on those devices to further develop?


Susan’s SketchBook Mobile tutorial featured in Digital Artist Magazine Volume 3 (

I love having my iPod Touch with me at all times. There is never an excuse for not jotting down an idea or a sketch. If I’m ever waiting for something, I pull it out if only to use the symmetry tool and keep my wrist and finger exercised and busy!

I think pictures do speak louder than words so I’ve enclosed many screen snaps from recent iPad pieces. You can see how I approach my pieces. Being from the advertising and design field I am by nature more of a drawer than painter so I almost always start with a rough sketch, I then refine it into clean outline form. I love the luxury of layers because you can experiment with different brushes and color without negatively impacting the initial sketch-work. And lately my work does seem to fit into a pattern of foreground and background. I think both are equally important and I spend as much time developing a background as I do with the subject itself. The introduction in SketchBook Pro of layer transparency has really helped me out a lot, as I can do all my initial work in black/gray now, which is just easier for me. As the piece develops into color I can go back and make the dark lines in contrasting or complimentary colors, negating the need to do that first step over at the end of the process.



Having layers also helps with background development, though my work is 2 dimensional I love to give the impression of space and depth in the picture and to do that some objects or strokes need to be in front and some in back and using lines, brushes and airbrush can bring the viewers eye selectively into a scene. I want the viewer to “feel” the depth. Composition and color are also important, so I relish the fact that I can move things around and adjust them with blending modes now as well. Undo is a valuable partner and so is my favorite feature, the “Bakawhite trick” of moving a brush off the top edge of the painting and have it turn into an eraser matching the dynamics of the previous brush exactly. I use that all the time to build texture and subtleties you could not get any other way.

Until now I’ve been a purist, working on my Touch or iPad and bringing the art over to my “big Mac” to check for mistakes, and to print and frame. BUT lately, I’ve been thinking with the greater control I get using the new Photoshop or my own designed brushes in SketchBook Pro I’m going to do the mobile, prep work on my iPad or touch and bring the work over to the desktop sooner. I do love making my own brushes and I must admit that true pressure sensitivity brings a lot more to developing better artwork. BUT that being said, I look forward to all improvements made on the mobile devices. AND most important, having these mobile devices has made me 10 times more productive on a day to day basis. I sit with my family in the evening, every night, and still work. Much better than being alone in my studio, or just watching TV.


Can you tell us about the upcoming show you are curating?  How did you become involved in this art show and what are your thoughts on the growing interest in mobile art?

Back in January of this year I had the opportunity to talk to a bunch of graduate students in Chicago about the viability of the new art on these mobile devices. In turn they arranged a show featuring some of the latest work done on the platform. I helped by getting digital files from Europe and I printed, framed and delivered them for the CAD Chicago show, iPhone, therefore iArt. It was quite a success, receiving much press and over 750 people attending opening night. Meanwhile I have been selling my prints at the Flying Pig Gallery near my home in Wisconsin. They were intrigued by the quality of work being done all over the world and we decided to do a gallery show there this summer.

The hardest part was picking only 23 artists. My selection criteria was that you had to be a longtime fingerpainter, at least one year, painting continuously, and committed to the movement and the community that supports it. I wanted to show the entire spectrum of art that was being done on the devices, abstract, figurative, cartoon, landscape, a wide range of style to engage the gallery visitor. I am quite proud of our chosen artists and that we will be able to show 3 pieces for each, a grand show The World at Our Fingertips, opening June 26th.

To learn more about the exhibit: 

You have spent a lot of time with students and young artists. What have you been noticing in your interactions with them?  What do you think the state of creativity is with the next generation?
Image: StudentWork.jpg

I think my biggest accomplishment to date has been being “Artist in Residence” for the Manitowoc Public Schools this year. I had 16 sessions with 6th graders and 2 sessions with advanced High School Students in the baccalaureate program. I did a 3 stage presentation, the first being a Keynote presentation designed entirely on the iPad. There were clips from the ABC news program with Jorge Columbo, Stef Kardos and myself. I also showed fingerpainting movies and demos. We discussed art from all over the globe and styles and the impact the mobile devices could make. Each child then had an opportunity to participate in group drawings using Brushes app on an iPad. The thrill of playing back the movie to each of them was priceless. They picked up nuances easily and could see the advantages to having your studio more mobile and not tied to wires and desks as traditionally has been the case. They are far more savvy than I was at the introduction of the Mac back in 1984….

I think we’re on the cusp of another technological growth spurt. The way we compute is changing again, and how we invent and master new ways of expressing ourselves is happening right now, we are part of it and we are taking charge of the way we would like to see our future unfold. I love being part of such a passionate community, one that is even closer to those that develop the apps and software. We all have a vested interest in it and with that comes the excitement of doing things different and better each day.


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