The Instagram feed of Mike McKenney (@the_real_theory) is home to some of the most transfixing graphic art you’ll find and certainly some of the most complex and colorful composite work on the platform.  His palette range is insanely broad and there seems to be no end to his ingenuity.  Mike’s implementation of Mextures in his creative process is something we’ve been following for some time, and frankly, we’re beyond impressed with it.  We had a genuinely enjoyable time catching up with Mike to learn more about him as a person and an artist.  Read along! 

My name is Mike McKenney (@the_real_theory).  I am 35, originally from Manchester, CT and went to school at the University of Vermont.  My wife Michelle and I met in Vermont in 2007 and recently welcomed our first child, Olivia, into the world.  She was born on February 1st of this year and she melts my heart.  The three of us and our boxer Alpine currently reside in the Salt Lake City area where we very much enjoy skiing and the mountains.   

My “real theory” is that you can be whatever you want to be.   You can make up your own world - your own reality.  This is significant to me because I spent most of my life believing that “life” was much more precise and scientific than I’ve found it to be.  That point of view was stifling and difficult for me.  

In the late 90s, probably as an escape, I started experimenting heavily with psychedelics and other drugs like Ketamine and MDMA.   That scene was an easy segue into an Oxycontin, heroin and cocaine addiction.  I found “art” when I finally got clean in 2012.  My graphics are the antithesis of precise and calculated.  Today, I use my time to create graphics as an escape and it’s some of my favorite time.   It helps me to stay totally focused in the moment and let go of the unimportant.

Most of the work you see on Instagram is iPhone only and is created with Mextures, Pixite Apps, Brainfever and Glitche.  When I’m not changing diapers, throwing Frisbees for the dog, or listening to music while I make graphics into the late night, I’m a CMO at a healthcare related software company. 

What is it that you’d like to communicate in your work?

I have no intentions of communicating anything specific with my graphics and I hope that each person can take away something unique to themselves. 

How would you describe your style?

I would describe my style as spaced out composite digital collage.  The process by which I produce a graphic is fluid.  It’s a puzzle where I make the pieces up as I go. 

How did you first get into design and what keeps you interested in it?

There were a few things that happened at the same time that helped me to discover graphic design.  I suppose it's worth mentioning that when I was a kid I liked to draw and paint, but I put it down for 20 years.   Around the same time I cleaned up in 2012, three things happened that were pretty close together: 

1.  My wife came home one day with an iMac.  This was a new deal for me because it was the first time I actually liked using a computer.  Something about the Apple computer clicked with me.  

2.  I started working at a small digital media agency, saw some of the work they were doing and said to myself “I can probably do that”.  

3.  At night I started messing around with Pixlr on the  iMac and a couple iOS apps.  I quickly found the Adobe suite and that was that.  

The thing that keeps me interested in design more than anything is all of the amazing people I'm meeting as a result of my Instagram account.  It's so much fun for me and I love it.  

What does your editing process generally look like from start to finish?

Here’s an overview of what my editing process usually looks like.  Most pieces take me between 30 minutes and 2 hours.   My personal favorites usually come together pretty quickly.  

 1.  I drop a light source element from Lenslight or Alien Sky onto a solid black background.  

 2.  I bring the image from step #1 into Glitche, crop it, and then I’ll start scanning it around in different ways until I like the way it looks.

3.  I bring the image from step #2 into Mextures to play with the tones or I’ll manually adjust the coloration in Union App until I like the tones.  

4.  I bring the image from step #3 into Union and use it as a background for a space scene or a face replacement.  It is here that I start adding stock resources. 

5.  Next, we have back and forth trips to Glitche, Alien Sky, or Mextures.

6.  I usually finish all my images in Mextures with grit or emulsion after I blend certain sections of the landscape, or I use guest formulas.   I’m particularly fond of the landscape formulas and any of the presets by Cora Edwards.

My most frequently used apps include: Mextures, Union App, Matter App, Glitche, Glitch Wizard, Alien Sky, LensLight, Circular App, VSCO and Decim8. 

For what purposes do you generally use Mextures for in your process? 

I use Mextures to achieve my “style”.   I use the product (iOS app + desktop overlays) to add texture, light, depth and coloration.   Typically my stuff that looks totally gritty and vintage seems to be what the audience responds to most.   Mextures is to credit for this look.  

What has been your favorite piece to create so far?

My graphics have a life-span in my own mind.   I seek the feeling I get when one of them starts to come together, rather than the feeling I get from a particular piece.   This is may be why I try to make something new each day.   It’s like the soup of the day.   New day, new soup, same chef.   

What is your goal when it comes to creating and designing?

Thanks for asking me this question.  I hadn’t really thought about it and I guess I have several.   One of my goals when it comes to creating and designing is to cover the collage spectrum. I would definitely like to get into some hand cut analog, a la @mr.babies, one of my favorites out there and I’d also love to learn Cinema 4D.   

And as far as where I’d like it to end up, it would be really cool if my daughter gets into this stuff if she wants to.   Between my wife and myself we have many different interests so I’m hoping we will be able to expose her to things she can become passionate about.   And beyond that, everything else is just more cherries on top.

Do you feel like Mextures has offered anything unique to your ability to create?

I’ve use mextures for almost every single piece that I’ve created, but I don’t believe I’ve ever used the same formula twice.   The color palettes I start with are usually all over the place, but through tons of blending and many iterations, Mextures allows me to dial in the tones to fit my overall aesthetic.  Most of my work, such as in life, happens by way of trial and error and then eventually I just get lucky.  From start to finish I believe it helps me to produce my own signature style.  

How has social media played a role in your work?

I think there are four words I would use to describe the role social media has played in my work: 

1.  Inspiration - it is so cool to get positive feedback and good vibes back from people when you put something out there.   This is inspiring.  It's also inspiring to see what other artists are doing.  

2.  Exposure -  we can reach some amazing people and interact.   

3.  Competition and progression - because this somewhat open source environment is one of instant feedback and visibility I think that graphic artists are putting their best stuff out there and not holding much back.  I'd say this fuels the community to constantly be pushing itself forward.

Who are the people that have truly inspired your work?

My life, my wife, my daughter, my family, Biggie, SRV, Radiohead, The Disco Biscuits, Com Truise, Stanley Donwood, Mr. Babies, Monet, Mays, Slime, the mountains, the sun and the unknown.

Be sure to check out loads more of Mike’s phenomenal work here!