Ordinary to Extraordinary

by eter Kotsinadelis

Rob Burman

January 01, 2011 — If you’ve looked through a magazine and saw an ad for Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Converse, Coors, Michelin, Coca-Cola or many others, chances are you have seen the work of master illustrator and retouch artist Rob Burman. For years he has made the ordinary look extraordinary, or as Rob modestly puts it, “sometimes an image just needs some tender loving care.” But when you look at his the images you can clearly see why his skills are in such demand.

Rob decided on a career in art while still in high school. “I chose this career because I always liked to draw,” he explains. His talent earned him a scholarship to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI. “I learned a lot in college and at the time we did it all traditionally using pencils, paintbrush, airbrush and illustration board.” Graduating with a degree in advertising, Rob took a job with Skidmore-Sahratian, now Skidmore Studios, a large and reputable Detroit-based commercial art studio. “I have to admit I was bit intimidated at first. They had a staff of illustrators, designers, retouchers and sales people who were the best in the business.”

Skidmore provided Rob with exactly what he wanted, a solid foundation and a place where he could expand his skills. As Rob describes it, “I learned more my first year working at Skidmore than four years in school. When I had questions or problems I was able to just walk over and talk to any one of a number of talented artists. It was an incredible place.” He spent more than 25 years at Skidmore, working for almost every division of the big three automakers, as well as other household names like Coca-Cola, Land O’ Lakes, 
and Michelin.

While skilled in traditional illustration and design, Rob was one of the early adopters of digital illustration starting around 1998. “I was painting mostly with brush and airbrush, realistic illustrations whether it was cars or car parts or any other product. Skidmore started running workshops for their artists to teach them how to work digitally. Art would be done differently and the delivery system changed with it. I knew I had to change as well.” Taking all he knew, he retrained himself to do it digitally. “I was particularly interested in Photoshop because of the incredible capabilities it offered. So I spent a lot of time learning everything I could about it.”

Rob eventually moved on, taking a position with Armstrong White, a leading design studio known for their CGI work. He quickly became a favorite among some of world’s largest ad agencies including BBDO, JWT, Saatchi & Saatchi and Campbell-Ewald. “It was great working with these agencies, as it gave me opportunity to work with West Coast clients such as Toyota and Nissan. I was also fortunate to work with Michelin and also nearly every division of Detroit’s automakers.”

Rob’s skills in automobile retouching and his more recently acquired digital imaging skills were a winning combination that kept him constantly busy. “Many times the CGI images auto companies have created do not look as realistic as they could. With some time, retouching and other changes, I can make them looked like the real McCoy. You would really have to study them to see otherwise.”

Based in Detroit—an area whose economy is largely based on the automobile industry—he eventually left Armstrong-White. “It was inevitable. With the car companies and the economy both in trouble they simply could not afford to keep everyone. So I decided it was time to venture out on my own.” Using his extensive knowledge on retouching automobiles, Rob started networking and began looking to other industries for potential work. “Believe me, some may think making cars look good is easy, but it’s not. If you can do cars right you can do anything.” He also put together images to sell himself. One he called “Noah’s Ark,” [See “What’s Inside”—pg. 50] and another “New York’s End of Days.” “You can do amazing things with creativity and Photoshop layers. I wanted to create these images to show off my versatility.” These and other images showcasing his work are all part of a slideshow on his Web site.

Today Rob finds himself working with a wide variety of clients such as Bernina International AG, one of the world’s largest sewing machine manufacturers. Bernina came to him with a group shot image that needed serious attention. As Rob explains, “The image was badly cropped with arms and legs cropped out, whether by accident or not this had to be corrected. I also needed to create a different background, which involved masking out heads and hair and still make it look natural. This image was cut up pretty badly. It was a challenge, but I able to bring the image back to life.” 

Rob’s work with Bernina has made them a repeat customer, and while he continues to find work with many other companies his reputation among advertising agencies working with the auto industry remains. Recently Campbell-Ewald hired Rob to work with a Detroit-based photographer shooting the new 2011 Chevy Cruze. “I have to edit each of the 50 or more shots the photographer takes of each car. Each has a different exposure, lighting, etc. and they all are combined to create that one perfect shot.” Once this is complete he’s off to the West Coast where he will again be working with the same photographer, editing images that will be eventually provide just the right background for each car. “Companies like this because of the savings. We shoot the cars locally, and then travel to get the right background. Once we have both we carefully place car in a background and retouch them so they look as if they were taken there.”

With more companies looking to keep costs down by making their CG images look as real as possible, Rob’s considerable talent is sure to be in demand. So the next time you pick up a magazine and see an ad for Bernina, Coca-Cola or Chevrolet, you might ask yourself, “Is it real? Or is it Rob Burman?”

View more of Rob Burman’s work 
on his Web site www.robburmanretouching.com.

Peter Kotsinadelis is a writer/photographer living in Pleasanton, CA. He may be reached at peterk727@gmail.com

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