Stella McCartney muse Petra Cortright could be the first $1 million digital artist

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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Born in Santa Barbara in 1986, Petra Cortright grew up with the Internet. It wasn’t long before she realised that “what I could do with a computer was much more sophisticated than what I could do with my hands.” By the time she reached college, she was prolifically making digital “paintings,” collages and videos, and posting them online. But it wasn’t until 2007, when an art critic reviewed her work, that she began to see what she did as “Art with a capital ‘A’.” Since then, her profile—and her Instagram following at @petcortright—has steadily grown. Her most recent abstract digital painting sold for US$55,000, and the high-profile art collector and advisor Stefan Simchowitz told The New York Times Magazine he believes she will be one of only 2,000 artists in history to sell a work for more than $1 million. 

Cortright “paints” using Photoshop, a Wacom tablet and digital pens, manipulating layers and layers of images that she finds online. “I’ll get really excited about a tiny feather on a chicken or a picture of a kitchen,” she tells me, from the LA home she has just bought with her husband, the artist Marc Horowitz. She works in bursts of 10 or 12 hours, barely stopping to eat or drink, and wears yellow-tinted goggles to protect her eyes from becoming too red and sore. Once finished, the paintings are printed onto aluminium, silk or linen. 

Despite her modern techniques, Cortright cites age-old inspirations for her work, such as light, colour and landscapes. The problem, she says, was that she found traditional painting too slow. “You have to wait for the paint to dry, you have to physically buy a colour. It’s crazy to me.” And why mix paint when you can have any colour in Photoshop? 

The artist’s videos are just as innovative. When Stella McCartney saw them in 2014, she described the playful effects and graphics as “mind-blowingly cool.” The two have been collaborating ever since, and McCartney designed the artist’s wedding dress. “I am compelled to do what I do. It’s like a weird affliction or something,” Cortright says. “I don’t think anyone else works in this way.” If Stefan Simchowitz is right, that could be about to change.