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Art by app: Putting art on the iPad

It has taken five decades but artist Tom Phillips tells Susannah Frankel that he has finally found the way to realise his vision for a masterpiece – on the iPad

An artist's re-working of an obscure Victorian novel might not seem, on the face of it, to be the most obvious subject matter for an iPad app. The medium lends itself to rather more obviously high-impact – not to mention mainstream – material, surely.

But when Tom Phillips' A Humument is released in that format later this month it will prove any sceptics wrong. The man in question is no stranger to a pioneering viewpoint, of course. Formerly chairman of the Royal Academy Exhibitions Committee, Phillips is very much part of the British art establishment. He has painted respected portraits of everyone from Samuel Beckett and Iris Murdoch to John Gielgud and Salman Rushdie; his 1985 translation and illustration of Dante's Inferno is well-known. Even still, his approach remains determinedly pluralist and even maverick. With this in mind, when, almost half a century ago, he began work on A Humument no one could have foreseen just how well-loved this example of a little-known process would become. The aforementioned app is the fifth edition of the title. Thames & Hudson published the fourth in 2004 and will produce another next year.

Here's what happened. Late in 1966, Phillips set out to find a second-hand book – costing the precise sum of three pence – with a view to transforming every page using pen and ink, painting, collage and the cut-up technique that first came to his attention through the writing of William Burroughs. The end result would be an entirely new version of the original. On a routine Saturday stroll out with his friend, Ron Kitaj, he found just what he was looking for, a mere stone's throw away from where he has long lived and worked, in a junk shop on Peckham Rye. First published in 1892, WH Mallock's A Human Document is the surprisingly salacious tale of a love affair between a supposedly respectable gentleman and a married woman. Although he is now something of an expert on Mallock, and on A Human Document in particular, Phillips had never heard of it. He claims never to have read the book from cover to cover.

Today, almost half a century on, Phillips, 73, is sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by the customary regimented clutter. Rulers, compasses, technical drawing pens, watercolour pans, brushes, scalpels and old copies of the TLS rub shoulders with over-filled ashtrays, clusters of tiny coffee cups, vintage postcards, newspaper cuttings and piles of correspondence. His attention, however, is focused on assorted pages from A Humument, that positively glow on his iPad screen.

"I personally think that the pages look better on the iPad than they do in real life," Phillips says. "That glow is the quality you're always looking for but painting colours onto paper doesn't always work like that. Here, because of the illuminated screen, the pages look like church windows." They do indeed. The modern-day illumination that Phillips has long strived for has perhaps found its finest incarnation to date thanks to Apple's latest technology, and the artist is more than man enough to enjoy that fact. "My hope is that this will appeal to a completely fresh non-art reader who wants to find something a bit different," he says.

The purist view might decree that the digital format threatens the sanctity of fine art in much the same way as the music aficionado bemoans the death of vinyl. But, says Phillips: "The art stays the same. It's just like listening to music. You can listen to it as background or you can go to a concert hall and listen to it with all your concentration. The music stays the same. People might like the slight hiss of vinyl but that's pure nostalgia. There's a whole generation out there that isn't in the least nostalgic about books."

The A Humument app was developed for the iPad by Phillips with the technical assistance of John Bowring ("He's like Lisbeth Salander but he doesn't look like her," Phillips muses) and combines 367 pages with an interactive feature called the Oracle. Users can consult the Oracle by choosing a particular date which relates to a corresponding page number. To the sound of a spinning roulette wheel, two adjacent pages then appear on the screen and may be read in tandem, investing them with new meaning.

"Strangely enough, I've always wanted to do this," Phillips explains, "right from the beginning. People used to make Charles Dickens an Oracle, and Virgil, too. They used to find two chance pages and put them together. The classic example is the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, which is built like that. But rather than doing the I Ching with a laborious coin toss, if you've got it on an iPad you just press here and off it goes. It will come up with surprises. It surprises me, which is nice. You're playing with chance."

Playing with chance, from the choice of the original novel to the page Phillips decides to work on at any given time and its positioning in the book, underpins this entire procedure. Once a page from the original has been chosen – and Phillips by now owns many copies, devotees of the project sending them to him - it is stuck with Gloy paste onto damp cartridge paper then onto a board using brown gum strip tape. The next stage involves "mining" the original Mallock text. Words and phrases are isolated in pencil and notes are written in the margins of the page. Soon, the paths or "rivers" that run between them begin to appear. "Much of the pictorial matter in the book follows the text in mood and reference; much of it is also entirely non-referential, merely responding to the disposition of the text on the page. In every case the text was the first thing decided upon; some texts have taken years to reach a definitive state." Words may be witty and even at times bawdy. Whatever the mood, an intensely musical and poetic quality prevails as does the sense of a love of humanity despite its failings. The visual references used, meanwhile, range from, "a telegram envelope to a double copy of a late Cezanne landscape." American comic strips, postcard portrait, photography, passport stamps and Islamic and African art all also make an appearance, to name but a few.

Of course, Mallock's A Human Document has its own narrative – it masquerades as a found journal that tells the story of Robert Grenville, "an upper-class cracker-barrel philosopher ex-poet and diplomat who falls in love with a sexy prospective widow from Hampstead". Phillips has also introduced his own lead character, thwarted romantic Bill Toge. Toge features solely on pages where the words "together" or "altogether" appear, the only two words in the English language where the letters that make up his name are found sequentially.

The opening page of A Humument is perhaps the clearest statement of its creator's intent. "The following sing I, a book, a book of art," it reads. This is, today, among the finest examples of an artist's book in history. More personally: "About half the evenings of my life have been spent doing this book," says Phillips. "I'm very fond of it. It's like a good old friend. And it's never let me down."

'A Humument' app is now available from the Apple Store

Different strokes: artists who embrace the digital

Morgan Durno

David Hockney

In a new exhibition titled Fleurs fraiches ("fresh flowers") at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, David Hockney displays a series of works produced almost entirely on his iPad. Hockney used several applications, including one called Brushes, to draw the pictures. Rather than printing the drawings, the iPads themselves are displayed. The exhibition also includes a video of Hockney finger-painting the Eiffel Tower on an iPad screen in real time.

Mark Wallinger

Having previously worked in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, the Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger used digital technology to produce a 3D text-based work for his 2000 Credo exhibition at the Tate Liverpool. The work, including two passages from the New Testament, required special glasses for viewing. After the show the text was reproduced in a limited edition set and distributed on CD.

Tomoko Takashi

Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2000, Tomoko Takashi famously creates installations and sculptures out of rubbish. She also produced Word Perhect an online work that examines the effect that word processors have on language, which turns impersonal typed emails into hand-written ones.

Gilbert and George

Having always hand-coloured the photos in their fixed-wall grid pieces, Gilbert and George's 2005 Gingko series used exclusively digital editing techniques to produce 25 pictures incorporating images of the leaves of a ginkgo tree. Since then they have digitised the production process creating deeply saturated fields of colour and eerily symmetrical images as in 2008 work 'Burn in Hell'.

David Austen

The Barbican's 2000 ArtFutures E-magination exhibition featured David Austen, a professional painter who was loaned a Hewlett Packard Colour LaserJet 8550 printer a week before the show. Austen was asked to produce a work that could be printed on it. He hand painted five separate prints in editions of 200 which were given away. Austen's fee came from Hewlett-Packard.