For the past year, I’ve been painting emoji.

Mike Sall
Mike Sall
Aug 28, 2016 · 3 min read

I’m not sure how to describe it other than: I’m fascinated by emoji, so I paint them. There’s something about these things that captures life today. I was thinking about this a year ago, how they’re core to all the ways I interact with other people and the world. I realized I wanted to have art that documented what’s going on, and I wanted to make it myself.

It’s the first time I’ve felt compelled to paint. I painted in high school, but that was more about learning than expression. This time it’s a nagging feeling. I want to convey this thing. I want to figure it out.

I bought some supplies and started painting in my backyard. Eventually I needed a better setup — too many bugs, sun setting too early — so I rented a small workspace. And, crucially, I got a chair with a cushion. Now hours can pass and I barely notice.

They’re all oil paintings, 1'x1' except the bottom one, which is 3'x3'.

The building where I rent space had an open studios, which is when they open the space to the public and the artists show and sell their work. I debated for a while whether to participate and then at the last minute I signed up. It was my first time showing art to strangers. It was super nerve-racking, and I felt out of place, and no one bought anything. But I’m really glad I did it.

The best part has been seeing how people react to the paintings. A lot of people laugh. I feel like that’s the perfect response. Emoji are personal, yet universal, like an inside joke everyone gets. It’s less about the image and more about the times we use it. At the open studios, I had long conversations with people about when they send certain emoji. We talked about their different potential meanings. They told me their favorites and suggested ones for me to paint. A few people even took their phones out and showed me their messages.

I’m still painting. I haven’t figured it out yet, and sometimes I feel stuck. But there’s something here and I don’t know how long it will last, so I want to capture it before it passes. If you’re interested, I’m sharing updates on Instagram at @emoject.

Mike Sall

Written by

Mike Sall

Head of Product Analytics at @Coinbase. Previously Head of Data Science at @Medium