Meet Robert Mondoux. His friends call him Bob. We've been his friend for decades, so we think we've earned that right. Bob is a Montreal artist who mainly paints snapshots of fascinating little details in and around the city.
He starts off with photos that he's taken, then gets to work to recreate them with his unique brand of artistic flair. His attention to detail is more than impressive – it appears almost obsessive. The results are nothing short of magical. We love his work.
Now let's go get some insight into how he does this stuff...
So Bob, when did you start creating these paintings from your photos, and what gave you the idea to do so?
RM: Hi Mark. Thanks for having me on your site.
Well, to answer your first question, I would tell you that I'm 52 years old and have always been a visual creative in many areas.
I began with an obsession with underground or low-budget film-making: Super-8, 16mm, ¼ inch video, HD digital video, etc... This was always accompanied by constant exploration in graphics, posters, t-shirt art, cartoons as well as digital 2D and 3D imagery and animation and Special-FX.
I've worked in digital animation imagery for several years now, and I increasingly felt the need to counter-balance this world with a more visceral, hands-on medium.
So I began a long series of photo-images with an eye towards de-volving them backwards toward a more primitive state; a painting.
After accumulating enough images to convince myself of the value of this pursuit, I began the paintings about two years ago. After some experimentation, I felt enough of a continuity to present them publicly.
Well, we're glad you did! How do you choose your subjects?
RM: Initially, there was a lot of thought involved regarding Urban Imagery. There's a great movement already afoot of Urban Landscape painting – from classics like Edward Hopper to current lesser-known artists like Detroit's Stephen Magsig or Montreal's Jeremy Price.*
I was inspired by this movement, but realized my focus was less vast and street-wide but more roof-corner, parking meter, or isolated traffic light. My view narrowed to a few small fissures in the sidewalk, or a rusty aqueduct valve, in order to make the viewer feel the rest of the surrounding world outside the canvas frame – if that makes any sense.
But as I continued my photo-taking process on long walks and lunch breaks through older parts of Montreal, I found that my “planned” images were sometimes less interesting than those quickie-after-thought-grabbed-nearby-just-because-I-was-there-and-why-not ones.
I would later review the photos and find this magical thing in the corner of that 'quickie-grab'. So I think you need both a plan, and an openness to spontaneity and happy accident.
What kind of camera(s), and which software, do you use for your photos?
I have a Canon Rebel AE for planned excursions, but also found that just using my LG phone's camera was a way to always be ready for any spontaneous moment.
I only use PhotoShop – or even just my phone's simple photo adjustments – in order to see the details I know I want to focus on. I just bring them out of the darkness, for instance, even if they may return to darkness in the finished painting.
Or I only use PS to “assemble” a shot from several elements. Like that sky over this building, and tuck that lamp post closer to the left. This assembly – if even required – is very choppy and cut-and-paste and only serves to guide me like a sketch. The “work” is on the canvas.
That's interesting. So can you give us some idea of your workflow? What’s the process from when you first see a scene you want to capture to when you actually start painting?
RM: Sure. The process begins by being obsessed, willing and ready.
I only use my own personal photos, with very few exceptions.
I almost always have some kind of camera on me.
I jolt the driver of the car to “Stop here! Stop here!” or wade through traffic and stand on the middle double-line to aim up at that roof edge.
I squeeze through ripped metal fences and climb broken concrete foundations to grab that shot (Have I mentionned that I'm 52? Not getting any easier.).
I believe that my guerilla-style film-making days made me ready to “steal” any moment and grab any opportunity I can, as best I can.
Then sometimes that shot I nearly killed myself for ends up being meaningless – it just doesn't translate onto the image as I had hoped. But that quick shot of the bus on the way home – look at that – it's perfect. So you just have to be ready for anything.
After I sift through and select a few images, I begin cropping them – moving the edges inward – and creating a parameter that will suit the canvas frame. Many artists use the “landscape” shape (wider than tall) to bring out their worldview. This is the natural way we see the world with our two eyes – wider than high. It's also why movies are shot that way.
But I'm 6 foot 1 inch tall (metric SHMETRIC...) and fairly slim. I feel this has perhaps skewed my viewing preference to being taller than wide, and I've found an instinctive fondness for the taller format known as “portrait” style.
I also find it brings out the parallel vertical lines so abundant on city streets; the door frames, the corner edge, the parking signs, the lamp posts.
Then I sketch out the scene edges onto the canvas. This can become like an architectural drawing, using rulers, stencils and compasses. This accuracy allows me to pick and chose the details desired and which ones to purposely disregard.
Wow! That sounds very involved. But I guess that would be needed with the level of detail you put into your work, right?
RM: Actually, there are two important things I've learned in the painting of man-made structures and objects:
1. Decide what to ignore/leave out.
You simply cannot always paint every separate brick when there are 1500 of them way across the street. This is a common error of beginners; to overload the image with tiny detail. The beginner will either overcrowd the image with brick lines, or semi-give-up and vaguely mess in some patchy brick spots. Remember this ISN'T a photo. The photo's over there on the table, THIS is a painting. A painting transforms the image into an organic, hand-made experience.
There's the “World's Greatest Dad” mug from the store, all perfect and machine-made; then there's little Cindy's hand crafted, crooked, lumpy ceramic masterpiece for Dad. I'm more after Cindy – so to speak...
Edward Hopper is again a great example. His sidewalks are smooth and rounded, his “brick” walls are actually one tonal colour with no lines or brick divisions. Hopper uses our collective memory and familiarity with “brick walls” and his masterly use of colour to tell us it is brick. He can then draw us in to focus elsewhere.
2. Retain an organic final look and feel.
This is a subjective issue for different artists. While I try to keep loose with grass, or clouds, in my workflow I use rulers and tools to transcribe the structures onto canvas, but then very purposefully paint them in free-handed. I've found that this gives me a more human and natural illustrative feel to the final image.
Even if at a distance it seems straight, you can approach and see the wavy curve and flow of those straight lines. This gives the organic value I want, and also feels more accurate to me. After all, any older building is starting to warp and curve. The foundations move. The window sills sag. As do we all 🙂
Hahaha... Okay, while you’re painting, do you always stick to a specific effect or mood that you had in mind from the start, or do you sometimes deviate along the way?
RM: Great question, Mark. Once I've chosen one of my photos to paint, I usually will have thought about it for a long time. I either have the “chosen element” already in the shot, or have readied myself to create a specific effect or look to it.
That said, God bless happy accidents. Do not dismiss that wrong flick of your wrist, that smudged line of colour. After swearing at your blue streak, step back and take a long look at it. Take that “error” deep inside you and search for its own beauty, and let that beauty guide you to it's surrounding and supporting design. Or, hey, just paint over it.
You normally paint on wooden-frame canvases of 20” X 16” (50.8cm X 40.6cm). Why and how did you decide on this particular size?
RM: I began my paintings on small little 5” x 8” boards, just to initiate myself into what paint and brushes do exactly. These little boards really helped me explore strokes and colour and contours. After that I moved up incrementally to 8”x10” and 12” x 14” or so, then finally settled on a 20” by 16” size. It suits my work space and my level of detail/abstraction for now.
I've been told to paint larger pieces, as they might be more marketable, but I think you should stick to what grabs you, and what feels comfortable. You will evolve towards other things eventually anyway.
We really like the black borders you add to each painting – it makes them ready-to-hang. Where did you get this idea from?
RM: Ah yes, the black borders. I have gotten equal amounts of praise and grief for those. They are painted on as part of the finished image – like the borders in a magazine or a poster.
My first images included this as an afterthought. It probably comes from my graphic design background – where the image and it's surroundings have equal weight. Then I found that I liked it very much and it became a sort of signature element in my paintings.
I also play with the border depending on the image. My own pieces are almost always black but, instinctively, my commissioned works veer toward coloured borders, if any. I also use the border in order to sometimes omit the frame edge entirely on one or two sides – usually toward the sky, so as to “open up” the cage on that side and let the image flow outward.
Ok Bob, we have to ask: what's with all the street lamps?
RM: Yes Mark, I loooove street lamps! Not quite sure why, but I think that visually, they have a protective embrace over the city street.
They hover above and watch over us. They can be comforting when they work or disturbing, like when they're smashed or defective. They can turn on too early and have a dim warm glow across dusk skies, or they cast long tentacled shadows over blistering summer streets. What's not to love!?
We love the two paintings of Malmö we commissioned from you! If any of our readers would like to have paintings of their cities created, what would they have to do?
RM: Well, first they would have to like my paintings 🙂
Then they can contact me through the email address on my website at http://robertmondouxpaintings.yolasite.com/ .
After that, we'll talk...
Well, thanks for your time, Bob. It's been truly amazing to find out how your mind works when it comes to your artwork. Just a little bit scary as well. 🙂
RM: Thanks. I think. But yes, thank you again for inviting me to your site.
*Follow the links to see city art by the artists that that Bob was talking about earlier:
So, what do you think? Do you have a cool image from your city that you'd like to see on canvas?
Leave us a comment, and get in touch with Bob through his website...
We're always keen to get your thoughts on our articles and interviews.
Thanks for reading.
Enjoy your life in the city.