Bert Monroy: Painting Believable Worlds in Photoshop

June 19, 2015 Updated: August 9, 2015

This is part 7 of a 9-part series. To see the full series, see At The Confluence 

The increasing prevalence of photography has fundamentally changed the way representational art is created and perceived in the modern day. At the Confluence examines how some of today’s artists have responded to the shift.

A few years ago, Bert Monroy showed his work at the Art Expo. The Expo is an annual gargantuan affair, with booths upon booths occupying the hangar-sized space at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.

Epson, the color printing company, was featuring prints of Monroy’s large, minutely detailed streetscapes. Monroy’s work makes the viewer feel as if her consciousness is omniscient. No visual data point, anywhere in the scene, is out of focus. It’s like knowing the whereabouts of everybody in a city all at once.

"Lunch in Tiburon" by Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)
“Lunch in Tiburon” by Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)

Monroy was hanging around to answer questions from potential buyers. A gallery owner came and brought his nose up close to the work.

“It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed. “Is it oil?”

“No, it was printed on an Epson printer,” Monroy explained.

“Yeah, but what about the original? Is that oil?”

“No, it’s digital.”

This man didn’t say another word and walked away. Monroy wanted to go over and kick him.

Years before that incident, a notable photorealist gallery in New York rejected his work. The letter said that Monroy’s hyperrealistic digital paintings were nothing more than slick advertising art and that nothing can replace good old-fashioned hand and brush technique.

“Ironically, if it weren’t for my traditional hand and brush technique, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do on a computer,” Monroy said in an interview.

He doesn’t work with galleries anymore.

(Courtesy of Bert Monroy)
Digital painter Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)

Monroy trained in painting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He went into advertising and illustration, and later taught at SVA. Today he teaches online and at San Francisco State University the art that he spent decades teaching himself how to do—painting in Photoshop and Illustrator.

Early Adopter

It began in 1984 when Monroy was working at a small ad agency in downtown New York. The company was going to computerize. Ads weren’t to be designed anymore using reams of tracing paper and illustration markers—the toaster-faced Mac 128 was the future.

I had experimented with oils, watercolors, gouache—but was never really satisfied until the computer.
— Bert Monroy, digital painter

Monroy found a computer store that was showing the machine and played with it. Purely by accident, he stumbled on the FatBits function, which allowed users to zoom in and manipulate individual pixels.

"Blue Truck" by Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)
“Blue Truck” by Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)

“Something clicked. I thought, that’s it. This is the medium of the future,” he said. “I had experimented with oils, watercolors, gouache—but was never really satisfied until the computer. When I realized I could zoom in, and that I would be able to get more detail than I can working traditionally, that’s when I realized this was my medium.”

He gave up the ad agency that summer, and drove right into digital art.

Monroy became part of a small, tight community of digital creatives in New York City who met almost every day to sketch. Being an early adopter, software companies started sending him programs to try out. That’s how he came to play with Photoshop before Adobe did.

The Digital Canvas

“Illustrator is the pencil on the canvas, and Photoshop is the paint,” Monroy explains.

When Monroy sits down at his tricked-out computer station with a new project, he starts drawing out the skeleton of his subject in Illustrator. Usually it’s a street scene, full of complex buildings, signs, and structures. Because Illustrator produces vectors that are infinitely scalable, it’s easier to establish perspective in Illustrator than in a pixel-based program like Photoshop.

For example, if his painting of Times Square is 25 feet wide, the vanishing points he draws to mark out the places where 44th Street disappears into the periphery would be 65 feet apart, lying outside the painting itself. In Illustrator, making sense of such huge proportions would be a matter of drawing to scale.

Monroy makes separate vector files for each element, and then compiles them in Photoshop, where they are stroked and “painted.” By the time a moderately complex digital painting is completed, it will comprise thousands of Photoshop layers. Monroe’s “Times Square,” the largest image he’s ever created, is composed of 750,000 layers.

But before any of this, he begins by observing the scene. He takes photos to note the physical layout of a place. He makes sketches to interpret what his eyes see rather than what the camera might distort. This also helps capture the mood, as he experienced it. Where a camera might pick up a night scene as warm and orangey, a human would see and feel a scene bathed in soft white moonlight.

A screenshot of Bert Monroy's Photoshop program. His finished digital painting is on the left, a photo reference on the right. In his fine arts work, Monroy does not use tracing. (Screenshot/Epoch Times)
A screenshot of Bert Monroy’s Photoshop program. His finished digital painting is on the left, a photo reference on the right. In his fine arts work, Monroy does not use tracing. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)

Written notes remind him of details that don’t come across in photos, such as the sign outside Spenger’s Fish Grotto in Berkeley, Calif. In the photo Monroy took, the sign appears to be hung with thick black ropes. But in reality, it is hung with cables encased in clear plastic tubing. The camera, because of the way it meters light, was unable to capture this fact. This he notes and is able to recreate true-to-life on Illustrator and Photoshop.

I consider myself a hyperrealist because if you zoom in, you can see clearly all the way down the street.
— Bert Monroy, digital artist

Monroy, though he uses photography in his work, is not a photorealist. Photorealists, he said, adhere to photographs, which have areas of focus and areas out of focus.

“I consider myself a hyperrealist because if you zoom in, you can see clearly all the way down the street,” he said. “Everything is in focus—it’s essentially an unlimited depth of field.”

Digital Doesn’t Smell

Monroy’s not a big fan of turpentine, paints, cleanup.

“That maintenance hinders the creative process,” he said. “With digital, if you can think it, you can do it. You can fiddle with the blue without washing brushes or mixing new paints—just modify a layer. Plus it has ‘undo.'”

"Late Afternoon" by Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)
“Late Afternoon” by Bert Monroy. (Courtesy of Bert Monroy)

Layers and filters are massively useful for the type of experimentation Monroy loves. Instead of painting tiny stucco texture, use a sandstone filter. Layer styles can add shadows and highlights and control light directions. One can move layers, and if the result is screwed up beyond repair, delete layers without disturbing other elements in the image. 

The one area where digital can’t beat painting is texture. A physical painting has brush strokes; a printed digital one does not (at least until 3-D printing changes that).

Today, students are attracted to digital as a way to cheaply and easily bring images to market. People often come to Monroy’s classes with the idea of making money in illustration, he said.

But a lot of schools nowadays teach the technical aspects of a computer program, but not composition, shading, and perspective—the very basics that allow an artist to understand how to make images look good. That’s Monroy’s challenge now as an educator.

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Bert’s Digital Studio

Main station

64 GB of RAM
1 TB internal storage
Drobo drive and multiple G-Tech drives for a total storage capacity of 35 TB
27″ Wacom Cintiq touch monitor
30″ Apple monitor
20″ Optiquest monitor
Wacom Cintiq Companion
Wacom Intuous Pro tablet
Epson Perfection V750 PRO scanner
Epson 3800 printer
Epson 9800 printer
HP Laserjet 5000N

Second station

MacPro Tower
8 TB storage

Various MacBook Pros and mobile devices.

Bert’s Artistic Influences

Early influences: Maxfield Parrish, 20th century illustrator, and Alphonse Mucha, Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist. 

Later influences: Photorealists Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Robert Bechtle, and John Baeder.