Artist of the Month: Arturo Rodriguez
is a photomanipulator and 3D photoshopping artist from Central Texas. His patent approach to art is marked by an increasing curiosity that often takes the shape of it most recent medium, reaching out and grabbing forth into new modes of artistry. I met with Arturo last Saturday behind Urban Outfitters.
Jason: It’s hard to find stuff about you on the internet, especially because there’s also a Cuban surrealist artist named Arturo Rodriguez
Arturo: I was searching myself the other day and there’s a percussionist who has the domain name arturorodriguez.com. He had that website for as long as I can remember. I remember, I was in Dallas and we used to go to the public library and I would just search myself – this guy has had the same domain for years.
J: (laughs) Holding it down!
A: Holding it down! He’s a percussionist.
J: Do you go back to Dallas often?
A: It’s been like two years… It’s changed a lot. Well actually, I haven’t been back since the last solar eclipse. I drove my Dad there, we were in Dallas for a couple of hours but we couldn’t stay, we had to drive to Missouri.
J: You have family in Missouri?
A: No, that was just where you could see the totality of the eclipse!
J: Oh! That’s so cool that you guys took the trip all the way up there. So you used to go to the library a lot when you were a kid?
A: Because we didn’t have internet, I would go to look up cheat codes for video games!
J: (laughs) I used to do the same thing!
A: So you know how it is! Just print it out! Sign in, they give you a timer, switch up the games…
J: I totally forgot about that whole part of my life.
A: It’s funny you say that. I’m not really a people person, so when all eyes are on me I’m like “Oh crap, what do I talk about?” I have so much to talk about, but I don’t know how to put it into words. But now I feel comfortable with you because of the library and cheat codes. (laughs)
J: (laughs) I’m glad! Was there ever a point where you would go to the library to make art?
A: I’ve always had an appreciation for art. Good music, I was music-based. We grew up with a lot of music. A lot of indie-rock, indie-electronica, and underground hip-hop. And then you have Mexican music. There was a whole bunch of music that steered me into graphic design, during the MySpace era.
I started doing MySpace layouts and I liked the fact that I could code the page to look a certain way. I used to go to Lunapic, it was like this very very terrible photo image editor online where I could post text – it was just weird. I would just do my layouts there until I saw this guy who ran layoutstreets.com and his layouts were really good. They were like mixtape cover quality layouts but for MySpace. You listen to a lot of the music at the time - Lil Wayne and stuff - and you kind of get inspired by that.
I started thinking to myself maybe I should do [graphic design] and lo and behold, I was lucky to have my uncle’s laptop and he had Adobe Photoshop Elements. Try doing some of the photshopping on the old versions. It’s hard! Impossible!
A: It’s just terrible you know? But it’s what I worked with. I got my jumpstart there. My first graphic ever was for my classmate and I made a layout for him, it was like a DJ screw layout. I made him a DJ Screw layout – I didn’t do the blingy stuff because I was always that guy who didn’t want to do what everyone else does. So I made him a nice, formal R.I.P. DJ Screw layout and he was like “Wow! This is so fucking nuts! Thank you!” It was pretty cool at the time, but now when I look back at it… (laughs)
A: I don’t want to show anybody! I do have that library though, it’s on Photobucket!
J: I’ll have to do some searching!
A: I’m think about doing that – when I’m comfortable enough. Opening my Photobucket to the public. We all started somewhere.
J: It’s cool that you can look back at your old stuff and see that you’ve been growing.
A: Yeah, definitely. A decade! 2008-2009.
J: Was it easy for you to stay committed? You were doing this because you loved the art, did you find it difficult to find time to make graphics and designs?
A: Throughout my Photoshop career I never found myself taking too long on a project. I already had what I wanted in mind – I guess I had this overflow of creativity all the time. I wouldn’t even draft anything it was just ‘okay, this has to get out’. Seven times out of ten it would come out the way that I wanted it to look.
When I’m creating I think ‘What can I do realistically with the tools and skills that I have?’ I was trying to fit in with the tools that I had.
I’ve always had time, that’s another thing, because I was not very social in school. All my hard work and dedication, I focused that onto what I loved doing.
J: And thematically, you started out with the R.I.P. DJ Screw
A: Yeah, mixtape rap covers, stuff like that!
J: And now your style is more surrealist…
A: It is. And then I was messing with a lot of text. Then typography came afterwards. I was noticing I liked a lot of the fonts that the mixtape covers were using and a lot of them were pretty expensive fonts! LHF, have you ever heard of those?
J: I haven’t!
A: Letterhead fonts – they’re the ones who have the federal fonts, like the ones that are on currency. That’s another thing that I got into. Everything lead into something else.
J: So from mixtapes to typography…
A: To currency. It was the aesthetics. I would search every country’s currency! It’s just weird. It’s just stuff that you just don’t really think about.
J: Do you have a favorite country? A country whose currency you like best, aesthetically?
A: Um, I want to say a lot of the African countries because they have animals and nature and scenes of life. Their currency takes over the full frame. Brazil’s is interesting, they’ll have a head, and then have it mirrored on the other side. It’s called a reál. I have one in my glove compartment. I like France’s. North Korea actually has a really interesting one. They really paid attention to the design!
J: That’s fascinating, such a unique and genuine interest, I’ve never heard that before.
A: But yes, you want to know when I really started getting into surrealism…
J: Yeah, so was there like a moment or a piece of art that really triggered your exploration of surrealism?
A: There’s one account that made me start to want to do photo manipulation and that’s when I really started getting serious. On top of this one class that I had at ACC. I’ve had one semester of art school, it was basic illustration. This one class was the only thing that I needed because it was focused on lighting and that’s where everything changed. Everything pre-2015, I wasn’t paying attention to lighting- I wasn’t messing with the color dogde or color burn tools, any of that. The stuff that I really needed. Not until I found this account on Instagram, the name is @abdullah_hamadah. It’s this group of guys in Kuwait who do these funny photo manipulations – like big head small bodies or it’ll show them doing funny stuff.
There’s one of somone riding a surfboard, but it’s a cube of water with an infinite background.
I liked all of his stuff and I thought ‘You know, I want to do something like this.’ He was a photographer too and his photos were really good and that’s when I started getting into photography.
J: So did you take that class at ACC knowing it was about lighting, to help improve your photography?
A: I did not!
J: What made you want to take that class?
A: I was going to school for UI/UX design. At the time, I had accepted that art isn’t as much in demand as science is – like computer science and web design. So I thought, what if you could fuse those two together? I liked user interfaces too which stems from when I had a thing for Windows UI application. Graphical elements, progress meters, buttons, programming, C++. I used to want to be a computer programmer as well when I was a kid. I was pirating a bunch of high-end digital programming like Microsoft Visual Studio. In like 6thgrade! I was in my little world with my Windows Millennium Edition doing a bunch of experimenting. Doing some things your typical sixth grader probably wouldn’t do.
J: That makes a lot of sense.
A: Part of curriculum was that I had to take an art class. I didn’t go to school for graphic design, I felt like everyone wanted to do that. The professor even said the same thing. (laughs)
J: (laughs) So you started getting interested in lighting, then you took more photos so that you could manipulate them?
A: Yes. Yes, I started taking pictures of myself. I don’t have them with me on my current phone but on my old phone I had pictures of a lot of the stuff that I was doing. My brother would take a picture of me on the DSLR and I would photoshop me headless with me head in a blender – stuff like that, just because @abdullah_hamadah was doing the same thing. I always appreciated his attention to detail.
J: That’s definitely something that I’ve noticed about your work as well – you create these scenes that are clearly not based in our real world, but the details suggest some kind of reality.
A: Yeah, I did that for a good year, photo manipulation. In 2015 I got on Instagram and I was posting random stuff with apps. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Fragment app?
A: Matter app?
A: They were these editing apps for phones, for artists. People would make like Tycho type art. That was the time when the 80s were coming back with the synthwave and vaporwave and stuff like that. Tycho and Com Truise and all those artists started bringing that ‘80s aesthetic back. So I would take photos and use the Fragment app to defragment images. Then I started hashtagging my stuff – I figured I’m near Austin – let me tag myself with “hashtag Austin” and that’s how I found @igaustintx and that is where I met Javier. He’s been a long time friend of mine.
I met him through candy minimalism, do you know Matt Krump? He’s a candy minimalist. Around that time, there was a feed that had structures from Austin that were very clean but had a pastel background. Everything changed again when I found minimalism. That’s the breaking point right there. I started doing shoots in San Marcos – There’s this place called Pancake and I shot the sign and then I put this beautiful blue pastel background on it. I started becoming known around the central Texas region as the candy minimalist other than Matt Krump. He had a thousand followers then, he has a million followers now. There are people that I saw grow based in this style.
I did candy minimalism for a while but then I started to get back into photo editing, photo manipulation. In 2016 I realized I was finding it difficult to find assets to photoshop into my pictures. I wanted to do a photoshop project where I was headless, but with a TV in place of my head. I would search on google, ‘television’ but I could never get the perspective that I wanted. When you go to Google and you type in ‘television.png transparent’ you’ll never get what you want. So I figured there has to be some way that you can create a television the way that you want.
J: So how did you do it?
A: I thought ‘How can I create a television? What’s that solution?’
3D happened in 2016, in the beginning of the year. I was terrible at it, so in the meantime while I was learning 3D, I started doing pastel surreal minimalist 3D spaces. I realized that wasn’t going anywhere so I downloaded Blender and that is when I started becoming serious about 3D. It’s rendering engine renders photorealistically. That’s when everything started looking realistic. I didn’t know at the time that I was super attracted to photorealism. That’s all I cared about after that – making sure that everything that I was creating had real lighting. Every day after work I’ve been modeling, compositing, trying different shading techniques. It’s a lot of work and a lot of effort because when you come home from work you’re tired.
J: Do you think that your experience in digital lighting carries over to you ability to light real world images for photography?
A: Yes. I’m able to speak in the same language as a photographer. The rendering engines that you use are trying to replicate real life. I’m able to direct someone with lighting. Studio environments, even outdoors. That’s compositing. If I take a picture of an empty space, I love adding something that’s not supposed to be there. I’ve done several pieces recently of Austin buildings…
J: Yeah, the Jenga building, the one with the hands…
A: I love doing that. I don’t love deceiving people. (laughs) There have been people who have DM’ed me saying “Where is this!” and I’m like ‘It’s not real!’ (laughs)
J: That’s hilarious.
A: I had this one girl who went all the way to Bastrop to find the National Geographic logo.
J: Oh wow!
A: Stuff like that. It’s really powerful, photorealism and 3D. I had to start taking it seriously when I realized that people could actually think that [my manipulations] are a real photo!
Here in Austin there’s not that much of a 3D base. I feel like people think of it more as a corporate tool.
J: You mentioned that you want to use 3D for good, but its so easy to create a world where this could be used evilly…
A: It is. That is where 3D-scanning comes in. Its photogrammetry. Essentially, you’re able to gather real photo data points and reconstruct them digitally. I wanted to do it and I talked to all these people about doing it but they were all concerned with the ethics of it. You could rig an image to make it look however you want it to.
The real potential for evil is in sculpting. There’s this sculptor, Ian Spriggs, he makes these sculptures… you can’t tell the difference between the sculpture and reality. What if he rigs someone’s image to make it do whatever he wants it to do?
J: That’s scary!
A: (laughs) 3D is the future and lighting is everything!
Arturo Rodriguez is a photomanipulator and 3D photoshopping artist from Central Texas. @simulsynced
Words by @jas.ikp
Photos by @theoctopi