Elan Katav holding paiting with make art feel better text overlay
Cupixel is an app that uses augmented reality to allow users to trace images from their phones. Cupixel founder, Elad Katav, says the app’s artist-led experiences set the app apart.

Photos courtesy of Cupixel

Elad Katav grew up in Tel Aviv and spent 10 years serving in the Israeli Defense Force doing cyber security. He then took a job at a tech startup in Israel, and then another that brought him to the United States 12 years ago. Although art had never been his focus, he’s now the founder of Cupixel, an app and kit company that helps novices draw using augmented reality.

While living with his family in the Boston area Katav says he got the idea for Cupixel when he saw a portrait made by artist Scott James Gundersen who creates mosaics from wine corks. “I saw that and thought I could do it, too, so I tried to create a giant portrait of my son from my wine cork collection.” 

Katav says that until that point he was never “an art guy.”

“I didn’t go to museums or galleries. I didn’t understand it and I thought it would be easy, that I could complete the portrait in a week. What I realized is, it’s not easy.”

He showed his failed masterpiece to a friend who joked that maybe he could make some money out of making it easier to make art. Although it didn’t start as serious suggestion, the more Katav thought about it, the more it made sense. 

He says there’s a comparison to be made with how novices create quality work in other sectors. In cooking, for example, a chef creates a recipe that home cooks use to make delicious meals. In photography, professionals use expensive lenses and lighting while novices get pretty impressive results with their smartphones. But, he says, art just doesn’t work that way. As a novice, it’s really challenging to make art like the pros. This challenge presented the perfect opportunity for a new business.

cupixel ap open with paper behind it
hands drawing with cupixel ap up in front
With Cupixel, a photo from your camera roll can easily be turned into a line drawing. Looking through the phone at a drawing surface, subscribers can trace the drawing.

Modeled on the concept of camera obscura, an image projection technique theorized to have been used by Renaissance artists including Vermeer, his idea was to use the smartphone to turn any image into a traceable outline. Katav began doing some market research.

“I saw that art was a big market and I wanted to disrupt it. To show that anyone can make art,” he says. 

In its original incarnation, Cupixel users looked through their phones at a series of small tiles placed on a drawing surface and traced. The company launched in 2017 selling kits and a phone mount on HSN. Even with the product’s drawing size limitations, about 2,500 users downloaded the app and that initial interest motivated the Cupixel team to invest and make improvements. 

Today, Cupixel users can use a surface that’s up to 12”x12”. The product consists of a subscription app that costs $12.99/month for a family membership that includes four users (the first month is free), a hardware mount to position and hold the smartphone, supply kits including acrylic paints, boards, and brushes as well as greeting cards, and a suite of online art classes that pull it all together. (Rather than calling them “classes,” Katav clarifies that they are “experiences.” “We are having fun,” he says.) Soon, Cupixel will be launching live art demonstrations within the app as well. 

Cupixel has paid a lot of attention to its products’ packaging. The mount and kits are sold in sleek black boxes that are reminiscent of Apple’s white matte packaging. In August, the mount and kits launched at JOANN stores where Katav says they’ve signed a two-year deal to be featured in aisle endcaps with video screen displays demonstrating the software in action. Cupixel will soon be available at other retailers as well. 

woman instructing painting in recording studio
hand holding small square painting
On the left, Cupixel’s video studio in Newton, Massachusetts, where the company films artist-led experiences. On the right, the original product was made for small tiles. Now, Cupixel images can be traced onto drawing surfaces up to 12″x12″.

Within the app, subscribers can access over 1,000 licensed images available to trace. The library includes fonts to trace as well. And there are artist-led video classes, filmed in Cupixel’s Newton, Massachusetts studio, that help users through the whole process. Cupixel’s current instructors including Shirley Shemer (who also serves as VP of Content and previously held HR roles in various companies), freelance painter and makeup artist Hayley Dunne, Boston-area artist Elana Mokady, and Katav himself. Katav says Cupixel is in talks with several “mega” artists and new collaborations will be released soon. Paid subscribers can also select any image from their camera rolls to transform into an outline to trace.

Cupixel has raised a total of $12.4 million, including a recent $5 million seed round led by JOANN which invested $2 million.

“The CEO of JOANN loved it on the spot,” Katav says.

JOANN has made several other technology investments over the last few years including in laser cutting startup Glowforge, the acquisition of the print-on-demand fabric company WeaveUp, and a forthcoming collaboration with Singer that will be a sewing pattern projector with proprietary subscription software (the chair of Singer’s board, Stanley Rosenzweig, is also the chair of Cupixel’s board). In 2017 JOANN acquired online course platform Creativebug.

There are other apps on the market that will turn a smartphone image into a line drawing to trace through augmented. Tracing Projector is free and allows users to select from 650 drawings or upload their own photo or file. Da Vinci Eye is a one-time purchase of $6.99, includes video tutorials, and allows users to record time-lapse videos of their drawings. Katav acknowledges Cupixel’s competitors, but points out that none of them offer the combination of hardware, kits, and expert-led instruction the way that Cupixel does.

Katav says that the evolution of the Cupixel logo reflects the evolution of the company itself. At first, the “i” was the only letter rendered in red, representing the internet connectivity of the app. Then, the team revised the logo so that the “x” was highlighted, emphasizing the fusion between art and technology. And now, it’s the “e” that’s in red, representing Cupixel’s mission of bringing art experiences into people’s lives. “Bob Ross provided you with an experience,” Katav says. “We want to be part of the experience world.”

Abby Glassenberg

Abby Glassenberg

Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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