It’s not often that we profile an illustrator in Digital Photo Pro, but Bert Monroy isn’t your average artist. He’s part painter, part retoucher, and as far as we can tell, part camera. Monroy’s complex, intricate work includes a level of detail that seems impossible for a human to appreciate, let alone duplicate. For decades, Monroy has not only witnessed, but has helped create, incredible advances in digital imaging technology, beginning in 1984 when he had access to the first Macintosh model, the 128K.
The New York-born, Berkeley-based artist is a member of the Photoshop World Dream Team, and the technical guru creates digital paintings that are striking in detail and reveal a highly refined sense of awareness of his surroundings, which he’s able to convey onto a blank canvas.
We caught up with Monroy at the 2015 Adobe MAX conference in Los Angeles, where creative professionals gather to learn about new software tools, get hands-on training, refine workflow, network and perhaps, most importantly, get inspired. Monroy was a presenter at the conference, and we talked to him about his work and the lessons photographers can learn from his creations.
DPP: What’s the preferred term for the work you do?
Bert Monroy: I call it hyperrealism. There’s a genre called photorealism, but they kind of adhere to the photograph with a depth of field in their paintings. I followed the work of photorealists like Richard Estes and Ralph Goings, but when I tried to do paintings like theirs, I found myself not wanting any part of it to be out of focus. In my work, you see a bolt in a sign right in front of you and you look down the street 20 blocks inside a building, and both are in focus. Wherever you look at in most of my paintings, it will be in focus. It’s actually more like being there than a photograph. I can create more depth of field than a camera and I get more detail. If I put a little ant crawling up a wall and you get up real close, you can see the ant.
DPP: Your largest project, to date, “Times Square,” must have been a massive undertaking.
Monroy: It took four years. I had already done a train station in Chicago called “Damen” that took 11 months. That was my first panorama. I was inspired to do it because printers had evolved to the point where you could go up to 44 inches, so I created that piece 40 inches by 10 feet. Then 64-inch printers came out, and I realized that this was the time to do Times Square. The only way to get the feeling of Times Square is, like, Times Square, big and bold. When I put together how much of the scene I wanted to show, it ended up 5 feet wide by 25 feet long. Then Epson told me they were working on a translucent material that you could backlight. I thought, I’m doing an image of light at night, to backlight it would be phenomenal. So Epson built a gigantic lightbox and printed the piece on a GS6000. My tests were done on my Epson 9800, which is a 44-inch printer, and I also was constantly printing out 8x10s and 13x19s on my Epson 3800 to see if I could give an area more detail or if I had gone too far, as well as seeing how the people were looking. I finished it in 2007. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California is now building a lightbox so they can put it on exhibit.
DPP: Are you using photographs as a base for your images?
Monroy: For the Times Square piece, I did a lot of photo studies, taking around 6,000 over 10 different trips. Now I could also use Google Street View, zoom in and take a screenshot. “What does this trash can look like?” “What does that pole look like?” “What does that sign say?” A lot of Times Square isn’t real. There’s a billboard for Wacom, a billboard for Apple. Those billboards didn’t exist. The people on the street are all friends and family. I take a lot of artistic license.
DPP: So take us through the process.
Monroy: First, I take photographs for reference and then I sketch. By sketching, I get the dimensions and the angles based on how the eyes see rather than how the camera captures it, without the distortion of a camera lens. I used to do it on paper, but more and more, I’m sketching on an iPad. I write notes on details that the camera might not pick up and I might forget. Then, when it comes time for me to work, a lot of it just gets created on my own. I might add dirt and scratches and peeling paint to give something a little more soul, a little more character, to add my own feelings into a painting.
I usually start in Illustrator with a blank canvas and work up my perspective. I develop a horizon line, I’ll plot out the vanishing points, then from there, create the vanishing lines of where buildings are going to be so I can line up all the windows in the right way and so on. I create the vertical lines so I’ll know where’s the end of the building, where’s the beginning of it. Then those paths are brought into Photoshop where I’ll first stroke them into a layer called guides. Then I use those same paths again to—let’s say, it’s the windows—make them a selection, then fill them with a gradient and stroke them with some tone and so on. I keep building and building, layer on top of layer.
DPP: How many layers did you use for “Times Square”?
Monroy: Somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000. But that’s just not one file. The actual main file is made up of multiple files—building on the left, building on the right, up 7th Avenue. Each one of those individual files was made up of hundreds of other files. For instance, up Broadway, there would be Building Number 1, Building Number 2, and in those files, there would be a file for the storefront, and the storefront will have another file for, let’s say, the stuff in the window. There’s one where they’re selling skateboards. So there’s a file for skateboards. And there will be a lot of files for different skateboards, which would then get assembled into the scene of the window, which then gets put into the scene of the storefront, which then gets put into the scene of the overall building.
The comp file is where the main files are put, but then there are hundreds of folders for all the different elements that eventually get put together for the overall scene. I go to 100% on the original file—which I call the “Once Over” file—on my viewing monitor, which will show me a little portion of the painting. I start in the upper left-hand corner and look it over. I’ll say, “Oh, this shadow is off,” then I go back to the files and fix it, then put it in there, then move down, then over, then up, and when I get to the lower right, that’s the last segment of the painting, and make any adjustments needed in that area. I’ll flatten the file, call it by its final name, and I consider the painting finished.
DPP: How do you work on a computer with such a huge file before it’s flattened?
Monroy: In pieces. My new Mac Pro is fully loaded with 64 gigs of RAM. I can handle my current paintings on a machine like that, but there’s no challenge, so what I’m doing with my next painting, “Le Dome,” based on a restaurant in Paris, is I’m doubling everything. I’m going to get a lot more d
etail than I ever did before. The Amsterdam piece I did four paintings ago is the one that gave me the desire to go this way. The buildings and the trees were intricate so I did everything at 200% of what I needed. Each tree file was close to 5 gigabytes.
Most of the paintings from “Oakland,” which was the point where computers got powerful enough to render enough detail, are 197 megabytes flattened. You have to remember that a 15×20-inch at 480 ppi file can be blown up on standard printers and retain all its detail. “Times Square” was 6.52 gigabytes.
DPP: What about paper?
Monroy: For paper, I go from canvas to flat mattes to high gloss. It depends on the image. For instance, the Venice piece I unveiled at Adobe MAX is printed on canvas. I originally thought canvas would be great for “Amsterdam Mist” because of the textures of the fog, but when I tried it, I saw that I was losing a lot of the fine detail in the grain of the canvas in the buildings so I decided to go with a glossy paper.
DPP: The technological advances you’ve witnessed and experienced are incredible. What’s your setup these days?
Monroy: I use a Mac Pro with a 2.7 GHz 12-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 64 GB memory and a 30-inch Apple Cinema HD display, a Cintiq 24HD, a Q171b display and a Cintiq W1310 display. I have a Wacom 24-inch Cintiq HD and the Cintiq Companion 2, which I use to contain the panels for the various software in use. I also have a Wacom Intuos tablet to control the other two monitors that aren’t touch screens. There are multiple drives that include a Drobo, multiple G-Technology and Seagate drives, for a total of 38 TBs of storage on this machine.
I used PixelPaint for my first painting in color. Photoshop wasn’t out yet. PixelPaint was really cool, but it had only 256 colors and you were limited to 72 dpi. So things looked a little coarse. PixelPaint 2.0 introduced dithering—you were still limited to 256 colors—but instead of taking up 50 colors so you could get a smooth gradient in the sky, you could take up maybe four colors and it would dither, create a gradation, between each layer of color and create a kind of a hatch pattern, but your eye would be deceived into seeing a smooth transition. When Photoshop came out, things started to look more real.
DPP: In many of your finished pieces viewed from a little distance, it’s almost impossible to believe that you’re not looking at a photograph.
Monroy: That’s what I like to hear. I paint all of this in Photoshop. They’re vectors. I’ll create a wavy path that I’ll then stroke. That’s how the neons in my movie marquee painting, for instance, were done. They were stroked with a solid color. That solid stroke was then given a little glow, then I go inside in a separate layer that’s clipped with it. I’ll start painting a little dirt and dull the light at the edge because that’s where it gets a little dim. That comes from observing how things actually work. I tell my students to go through life with their eyes open.
See more of Bert Monroy’s work at bertmonroy.com.