Above: Composite shot: Creating digital art in the bar area at Pura Vida in Rio de Janeiro, September 2017.

A few months ago I found a really good airfare from Puerto Vallarta to Rio de Janeiro, and decided to go for it. I had now been living in Mexico for almost 3 years and hadn’t been back to Brazil for 4. I missed Brazil and wanted to see what it would feel like for me to be back there after living in Mexico.

I flew from PV to Rio at the end of August for a 2-week stay. Usually I pack my art supplies so I can draw and paint wherever I am, but this time I made a conscious decision to leave them at home. Why? Because I really wanted to spend some time playing with digital art on my computer. I often don’t let myself spend much time on digital art because the business side of my brain tells me I shouldn’t, for the reason that it’s much easier to sell a physical drawing or painting than digital work—even when turned into prints and posters, it’s not as profitable.

But I’m an artist as well as a businessman, so sometimes I just have to do something that may not make sense fiscally but which I’m drawn to as an artist. So I went to Rio to spend 2 weeks playing with digital art. (Except it turned into 3 weeks, due to Hurricane Irma and the chaos it caused with flights through Miami—my original flight was cancelled and I couldn’t get out of Rio for another 6 days. But I was having a very nice time so I welcomed the extension.)

I checked in to one of my favorite hostels anywhere, a one-of-a-kind place at the Ipanema end of Copacabana. Pura Vida occupies a picturesque old mansion which was once the Polish Embassy in Brazil. I’ve stayed there several times, and the staff is always friendly and welcoming, and now that they have more private rooms, I find it really comfortable as well. And reasonable!

Above: Shots of the Pura Vida entrance, and the breakfast spread on one of my earlier visits.

Because I’ve spent so much time in Rio over the years, I feel no need to go sightseeing. My goal was to just relax and enjoy being there, without the need to actually DO anything except what I felt like doing. And that was mostly hanging out at Pura Vida and exploring digital art on the computer, to a degree I don’t usually allow myself at home.

After spending a few days sketching digitally using both my computer and my iPad, I decided to undertake a full-on project. I chose to create a reimagined movie poster for one of my favorite films, Orfeu Negro (aka Black Orpheus), a French-Brazilian production from 1959. It seemed appropriate, since I was in Rio, and that’s where the movie takes place.

Above you can see the image I chose as my main reference, plus the image I used to create a very simplified backdrop. Below that, the result: a very simple graphic that evokes the mood of the place and the film without resorting to detail. I did two versions, one for the Portuguese-language version, one for the English. This project came together pretty quickly and was a lot of fun, and a good preparation for the more complex piece that came next.

My second project was a portrait of Italian actress Sophia Loren. For this project I used an approach I’ve refined over the years, where I start with a photograph, then simplify it by using Photoshop filters to remove detail, then posterize it to minimize the number of colors used. Once I’ve done that, I use the Lasso tool to create geometric shapes from the simplified lights and darks in the photo. This is where the art happens, because my aim is to transform those amorphous and rather uninteresting abstract shapes into striking combinations of abstract form—abstract forms which happen to fit together to create an illusion of a face.

Here I show you some examples of how I’ve used this approach over the past few years, to take a simple photograph and turn it into a complex interaction of abstract shapes, giving the image a kind of elegant crispness which I find really appealing.

The first image is, of course, Marilyn Monroe, from a photo taken in the 1950s. The second is James Dean, the third is Bob Marley, and the last series of images constitute a reimagining of the movie poster for A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), a classic French New Wave film with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. In the final image I show a closeup of the Breathless image to give you a clearer look at how I’ve broken down the lights and darks into flat abstract shapes.

This is the same technique I used for my portrait of Sophia Loren.

Starting with an old black-and-white photo I found online (left), I first used a filter (Noise->Media) to soften the image; then I posterized it to reduce the number of tones in the image (center). Then I did more work on the image (right), darkening some areas, lightening others, and heightening the overall contrast, so that the areas of light and dark not only defined the face and figure, but were also esthetically pleasing and would lend themselves to the next operation.

Comparing the two images above, you can clearly see how I took the rounded, amorphous shapes making up the areas of light and dark and reimagined them as geometric shapes. You can also see how choosing and adding a particular set of colors gives the black-and-white image an entirely different mood.

Above left is the full image. On the right is an alternate design I used for sites like Society6, so the image can be put on a t-shirt or other products.

I was now about halfway through my stay in Rio, and just starting to hit my stride in this digital-art adventure. I decided to do a nude next.

Going through my archive of photo shoots, I found an image of Eduardo I really liked. I didn’t like the background, though. So I stole a background from my Palm Springs photo shoot with Rob T. (using Photoshop to remove Rob from the image so I could repurpose it as a background). I liked the combination, so I began the process of turning it into a digital painting.

I had a lot of fun with this project. I really amped up the colors on the figure and I like the feeling of intense late-afternoon sun it creates. I also had a lot of fun with the background of trees and foliage, and especially the water in the pool. Above is the final, plus a closeup so you can see more clearly how I simplified the shapes and made them more dramatic.

I spent several days on this project and I was happy with how it turned out. I call it “Eduardo by the Pool.”

My final digital-painting project in Rio was the most ambitious. I chose an image from my photo shoot in Hawaii with Chinese-American model Brian.

As it happened that day, the battery had died on my good camera and the last few shots of the session were on an old camera with very poor resolution. And wouldn’t you know it, some of those shots were really great. But not useable because they were so low-resolution (as you can see in the closeup at right).

But the techniques I use to create digital art from photos don’t require a high-res photo. So here was my chance to take a poor photo and turn it into the great image I knew it could be.

Above is the tweaked version of the photo, ready to turn into a digital painting.

And above is the final digital painting, Brian at the Beach—after about 1 week of pretty intense work. Below are some closeups to show you some of the detail that went into this artwork.

I finished Brian at the Beach the day before my return to Mexico. Perfect timing—and a perfect working/playing vacation.

But there’s a good chance my next trip to Brazil will be much less relaxed. And I mean that in a good way. One of the few days I spent at the beach while in Rio was with a friend named Junior whom I’d met during one of my previous stays.

Junior designs swimsuits for a company in Rio, and loves my work. He’s also fun to hang out with. While hanging out with him at the gay beach in Ipanema (above), then later over drinks at Tô Nem Ai (the preferred after-beach hangout in Ipanema), I broached the subject of a return trip to do some photo shoots. My thought was that Junior could be the Rio talent scout/photo-shoot facilitator Luiz had been for me a few years ago. I think it’s time to re-create and update some of my previous Brazil photo-shoot adventures (as recounted in my e-books Finding & Photographing the Male Nude and O Gato). Junior was excited about the idea and we began laying the foundations for a future project. Stay tuned…

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