Four Reasons Why The Noir Genre Is So Interesting For Artists

2017 Artwork Noir Art article sketch

Well, although I’ve talked about pulp art before, I thought that I’d look at something subtly different today. I am, of course, talking about the noir genre. Although the two genres are very similar, I’d argue that the noir genre is slightly different since it generally refers to a particular style or type of art, rather than a type of art that is set in a very specific time and place (eg: 1920s-50s America).

The noir genre has probably had a large influence on my own art – either indirectly (eg: being inspired by things that are, in turn, inspired by the noir genre) or, more recently, more directly. It’s one of the most inspirational genres that I’ve found.

So, why is the noir genre such a cool and inspirational genre for artists? Here are a few of the reasons.

1) It goes with everything: In artistic terms, the noir genre is a combination of an aesthetic and an attitude. Because of this, it can be combined with all sorts of things that you wouldn’t traditionally associate with the genre. The classic example of this is, of course, the film “Blade Runner” which seamlessly incorporates futuristic science fiction elements into a genre that is traditionally associated with the 1940s/50s.

But, because most of the things that make the noir genre what it is (eg: gloomy lighting, emotions, drama, a slightly gothic atmosphere etc…) aren’t time-specific, you can apply a timelessly cool film noir-like style to pieces of art that are set in virtually any time period or in any genre.

For example, here’s a slightly noir-influenced panel from a webcomic of mine set in Victorian England that will appear here in full in early-mid March:

Although it is perhaps slightly on the colourful side, the art in this comic panel was slightly inspired by the film noir genre.

Although it is perhaps slightly on the colourful side, the art in this comic panel was slightly inspired by the film noir genre.

2) You get to play with lighting: As the name suggests (“film noir” is French for “black film”), noir art tends to be on the gloomier side of things. Because of this, it means that you can do all sorts of cool and dramatic things with the lighting in noir art, for the simple reason that it stands out more against the gloom.

As such you can do a lot of cool things with the lighting in film noir-inspired art than you can’t do in other genres. Yes, the carefully-placed lighting in the noir genre is hardly new (I mean, Tenebrist artists were doing this kind of thing in the 17th century), but the contrast between light and darkness in noir art has an extremely distinctive and fascinating look to it.

Not only that, you also have to choose your light sources carefully – meaning that they have to be a part of the “story” within the painting or drawing.

For example, you could use the flare of a match as a character lights a cigarette, you could use the glow of a computer screen in a dark room, you could use the angry glow of a sunset, you could use the dramatic muzzle flash of a gun, you could use a dramatic-looking neon sign in the background etc.. In noir art, even the light sources are often part of the drama.

For example, in this old noir-influenced horror painting of mine from last year, the main light source in the painting is a mysterious red glow that is just tantalisingly out of frame. Only a muted dull orange/brown wall-mounted light provides any other lighting to the picture.

"Late Return" By C. A. Brown

“Late Return” By C. A. Brown

Because all of the light sources in noir art are often artificial lighting, this also means that you can create a bold and vivid colour scheme in your art by choosing the types of lighting carefully.

For example, in this digitally-edited and noir-influenced sci-fi painting of mine that was posted here a week or two ago, the main light sources are two red strip lights and a small red television screen. These red lights are contrasted with the blue areas of the picture in order to create an ominous atmosphere:

"Midnight Centre" By C. A. Brown

“Midnight Centre” By C. A. Brown

3) The fashions: Although the noir genre can be applied to pretty much any time or place, one interesting facet of it is the fashions that work well in this genre.

Generally, slightly old, minimalist (in style, not amount of clothing!) and/or understated fashions tend to work best. Although the fashions in the historical film noir genre look wonderfully vintage these days, they were of course, totally ordinary and unremarkable at the time.

The best way to describe fashion design in the noir genre is probably “slightly formal fashions in informal situations”. This contrast between the two things sums up one of the things that makes the noir genre so instantly fascinating. Likewise, the fashions in film noir art are often both pretentious and unpretentious at the same time. It really gives the genre a truly unique look and it is one of the things that makes it so fun to use in art.

To give you an example from my own art, although this digitally-edited painting (set in the 1990s) is only mildly influenced by the noir genre, you can hopefully see what I mean about the contrast between formal fashions and slightly informal situations.

"1990s Office Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“1990s Office Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

4) Instant drama: Finally, because of some of the things that I’ve mentioned, art in the noir genre just instantly looks dramatic. Plus, since it is a genre that takes it’s inspiration from film, there is also an emphasis on action and visual storytelling in this genre.

A good piece of noir art will look like it could almost be a single frame from a much larger film. This gives noir art an intriguingly mysterious, yet instantly thrilling appearance that helps to grab the audience’s attention in a way that most other types of art can only dream of.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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