A Stroke of Computer Genius

The exhibition "Ernesto Rodriguez/Rick Novak"

Cuban-born artist Ernesto Rodriguez's piece Lunch Break is a shimmering, bucolic, Renoiresque picnic scene, sans diners, in which a blanket and basket sit beneath the shade of a large tree. Renoir and other impressionists gave their landscapes a gauzy effect by incorporating broadly painted, broken brush strokes, capturing the essence of nature's ever-changing visage. Rodriguez does the same thing, only instead of paint and brushes, he uses a camera and computer software: He takes a photograph of a scene, scans it into the computer, and then digitally paints over the parts he wants to manipulate, pixel by pixel, using a pressure-sensitive pen, or stylus, which is wired into the computer like a mouse.

"No filters are applied. No buttons are pushed," says the artist. In fact Rodriguez's stylus recognizes 256 levels of pressure, giving him true-to-life touch. In Lunch Break this digital dallying is evident high in the tree branches, where leaves and twigs morph into psychedelic swirls of green and yellow.

"It's very hard not to get carried away with special effects," according to Kirk Williams, Web designer and marketing director at Steven F. Greenwald Design, Inc., the Fort Lauderdale graphic-design and framing gallery where a selection of Rodriguez's work is on view along with South Florida scenes by local artist Rick Novak. But, Williams notes, Rodriguez adds just enough flourish to make the viewer look twice, not enough to overwhelm the quaint scenes he captures, mostly during trips to Europe. "The great thing about Europe is that it is timeless," offers Rodriguez, who lives on Catalina Island in California and spends a few months a year at his house in the Florida Keys.

Rodriguez got a taste for art from his grandfather, a graphic designer and mural painter, while growing up in the small town of Morón in Cuba's Camagüey province. Art was to be a passing fancy, however, at least for the time being. Rodriguez became a psychologist and went to work at the International School in Saudi Arabia. But in 1983 he met National Geographic photographer Jim Doran, who was on a Red Sea shoot. Recalls Rodriguez, "I would spend time just being his little gofer." In return, he says, "he taught me lighting, he taught me composition, and just the joy of photography -- period. At age 33 I realized I was miserable and that [art] was always what I wanted to do.

"From that I went on to study with [noted New York photographer] Jay Maisel," continues Rodriguez, now age 46. In 1988 he opened his own business in Los Angeles, an agency specializing in corporate graphic design and photography. His clients included Arco and GTE.

In 1996 he was designing graphics for a water district's annual report when he was asked to frame some industry shots -- workers in the field, for example -- for the boardroom wall. He produced digitally enhanced renderings from photos, and the district loved them.

"That's what really launched me on this whole path," he says. "That was the turning point."

Turning point indeed. Last year he pulled in $2 million, no mean feat considering that digital art was shunned just a couple of years ago. Looking at Rodriguez's moody, vivid, impressionist photos, it's easy to see the appeal. In Holstina he frames a seemingly contemplative white bulldog with brown markings sitting atop a black wire bistro chair, and on the wall in the background, shadows have been manipulated into a dreamy haze. The sidewalk seating area of a Paris eatery is the subject of Café Paris, in which wicker-backed chairs are lined up neatly behind tables, as if awaiting the dinnertime rush; cracks in the stucco façade of the restaurant are exaggerated and tinted in muted green and blue tones, lending the scene the same calming, overcast sheen that marks all of Rodriguez's work.

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John Ferri