Turn your Instagram photos into oil paintings, thanks to China's counterfeit art villages

By Erin Griffith , written on November 21, 2013

From The News Desk

Ever worry that Internet is too ephemeral these days? That precious photos are too often snapped, Snapchatted, and forgotten? What ever happened to photo albums and scrapbooks? What ever happened to preserving precious memories?

Oh right, there are plenty of services offering convenient ways to print our photos onto scrapbooks, calendars, magnets, tote bags, t-shirts, coffee mugs, onesies, pint glasses, boxers, water bottles, pillows, monopoly boards, iPhone cases, keychains, flasks, hoodies, christmas ornaments, shot glasses, wall decals, laptop skins, yoga mats, jewelry, flip flops, pajamas and shower curtains.

But what about something more lasting and timeless? Something classier. Regal, even.

For that, I give you Pixelist, a startup that creates oil paintings of your Instagram photos. That's right. Starting at $150 a pop, Pixelist will commission an oil painting of that sepia-toned latte you drank last week, or your feet on the beach, enhanced by X-Pro II, or that sunset pic that got 37 likes, thanks to your deft use of the Kelvin filter.

Highbrow, meet lowbrow.

As much as I like the idea, the most interesting thing about this startup is not what it's offering. It's how it's executing it. Pixelist is based on Hong Kong. The startup has used its geographical advantage to connect with a Chinese artist community in Xiamen, China, to produce the paintings.

China has two major villages full of professional artists; the most famous one is Shenzen. In 2007, Reuters reported that around 60 percent of the world's oil paintings are produced in Shenzen. That village churns out five million replicas of art by the likes of Da Vinci and Van Gogh each year. Artists like Qiu Zhiyong, who Bloomberg interviewed in 2008, produce 20 paintings a month.

According to a Pixelist rep, the artists it employs "would otherwise be copying classic paintings or mass-producing the dull abstract pieces in nearly every budget hotel room wall."

To find its painters, Pixelist founders Will Freeman and Conor Colwell spent a year testing them to get a group consistent enough to translate peoples' bathroom selfies to canvas. Eventually, Pixelist users will be able to view an artist's portfolio and pick their painter.

In July, Pixelist raised $25,590 on Indiegogo to get its start. As of this week, the site is open for business. If you're thinking of gifting a Paintstagram for the holidays, the last day to order in time for Christmas is today.

Pixelist isn't the first company to capitalize on Instagram's popularity. Instagram has turned the world into amateur photographers. Companies like CanvasPop, CanvasWorld, Prinstagram, and Instaprints have sprung up to sell Instagram-fied goods.

But Pixelist is the first to offer handmade, custom products based on Instagram pics. Anyone can make a print on a photo. But an oil painting is much more impressive. And thanks to Pixelist, it's longer just for the Rich Kids of Instagram.