I found this print ad from 2010 and what immediately caught my eye was how epic it looked. That solitary skyscraper planted stoically amidst the icy landscape; I can almost imagine Bruce Wayne or Dr Stephen Strange staggering through the snow, peering over a cliff and gazing in awe at the monolithic building. I love the concept of the hotel standing taller than Everest, metaphorically taking gastronomy to new heights. The visual looks stunning and the event comes across as extremely exclusive and luxurious. Typography and colour palette are spot-on.
Taking a closer look, something else begins to draw my attention. Something just doesn’t ‘feel’ right about the landscape. I realise that the image has been extended on the left side. Perhaps due to a change in size, or adaptation from another artwork. The background needed to be stretched by about another 30 to 40 percent. Now, this is a very common problem in advertising, where a key campaign visual has to be used across various media, ranging from print to outdoor to web and nowadays even mobile. Invariably, something like this happens, where it’s not possible or practical to crop or enlarge the visual due to the proportions of the media space.
Photoshop to the rescue
In 2010, background extensions like this would no doubt have been accomplished in Adobe Photoshop. Under the usual intense deadlines, the designer or retoucher on this job would have been tasked to complete this as quickly as possible, so I totally understand if this had to be rushed out the door in order meet a publication date. And I’m sure that to the casual viewer it looked absolutely fine, given the novelty of the idea and its strong visual impact. However over time, with repeated viewing under a discerning eye, that mountain range would surely start to look a little disturbing. The background was actually extended by duplicating and flipping a portion of the image, effectively creating a mirror image. While this is a very clever and neat trick (which I’ve personally also used quite successfully), the problem here is that the line of symmetry is rather obvious as it creates a very obvious pattern on the seam. Also, the shadows are now on the opposite side, which is physically impossible in an outdoor scene where the sun is the primary light source.
Today in 2018, thanks to the wonders of technology, it is much easier to tackle challenges like this. I’ve cleaned out the image and used Photoshop’s Content-Aware Scale to stretch the background out, instead of mirroring it. Notice how the code is smart enough to stretch only the mountains and sky while keeping the building size and position totally intact.
The result isn’t perfect of course, but once the type and graphics are placed over the image again, I think the stretch factor wouldn’t be as obvious. More importantly, we wouldn’t be left with that strange, mirrored image of the mountains and its unearthly lighting.
Technology is the artist’s tool
Our art and design tools are constantly evolving and improving. Technology has forever changed the way we create. Personally, I’m a huge fan of digital art, and I love combining photography and computer imagery. For example in this image, ‘Inner Peace’, I’ve composited a photograph of a woman with a background created entirely in a 3D program. The software empowers me to actualise the idea, but it is still up to me to make the right decisions in order to create the mood and to match the colour and lighting of the 3D rendering to the photograph. All this makes the final image look more convincing and makes the narrative clearer and more compelling.
My point is that despite all the advances in technology and software capabilities, they will never replace the artist’s eye for detail. It is still up to the artist to craft the image till it matches the vision in his or her mind. In retrospect, it has always been the artist that is more important than the tools. I remember when image retouching was an extremely expensive and specialised service. In fact, it was a whole industry by itself.
Production houses invested fortunes in dedicated Dicomed imaging workstations, with specially trained retouchers, to create impossible visuals for advertising clients. But even back then, it was usually the collaboration between the retoucher and art director that made the most compelling images. The discerning eye of the art director was needed to make sure the retoucher could execute the composite to visual perfection while making sure it answered the brief and conveyed the message with emotion. Today, anyone with a personal computer and Photoshop has the power to do the same. There’s never been a better time for digital artists. Unless you’re an image retoucher working on expensive Dicomed workstations, in which case you’re probably out of business by now.
Artists who embrace technology discover new possibilities
To be clear, being an expert at Photoshop doesn’t necessarily make someone an artist or a designer. Conversely, the modern designer cannot compete without mastering the digital tools that are available today. Art and technology are becoming more and more intertwined. For more evidence of this, just take a look at the incredible work of Erik Johansson and Adrian Sommeling. These artists create breathtaking, surreal visuals that excite our imagination and challenge our perception of reality. They have successfully applied their skills as photographers to the digital medium where, instead of being ‘photo-purists’ who only capture the world through the lens, they instead create bold new worlds that exist only in their imagination. New developments are on the horizon, with technologies like AR and VR becoming more and more mainstream and accessible to artists. Before, such tools would require deep technical knowledge, beyond what an artist would possess. Soon, we will be able to consume and create AR and VR content right on our mobiles and tablets. Also, artificial intelligence and machine learning will likely make repetitive and tedious tasks a thing of the past. To the digitally savvy artist, this is profoundly liberating and will empower even greater work.
To re-use the metaphor we began this post with: Technology will take art and design to whole new heights. But in the end, it is still the artist behind the technology who will be making the art.