The word “retro” means a lot of different things to different people. Depending on who you are, it can refer to anything from the 1920s to the 1990s, perhaps even the early 2000s. Everyone has their own subtly different definition of what is “retro”.
Of course, if you’re an artist, then making “retro”-style art can be a great way to get inspired and to make your art both distinctive and fascinatingly nostalgic. But, of course, the trick to doing this is to actually find your own interpretation of “retro”. So, how do you do this? Here are a few tips:
1) Retro techniques: The best way to give your art a “retro” look, whilst still making it look unique, is to look at the kind of techniques that artists used to use in your favourite parts of modern history.
Although you shouldn’t directly copy the exact details of any part of someone else’s art, there’s no rule against learning and using general things like colour combinations, lighting styles, common compositions, general fashion types etc…. If you’re unsure of the difference between inspiration and copying, then read this article.
Generally, the more research you do into art, films, TV shows, illustrations etc… that were made during the time period in question, the more unique your application of these techniques will be. Why? Because you’ve seen lots of techniques used in so many different ways, you’re unlikely to directly copy the style of any one thing.
Plus, by learning “retro” art techniques, you’ll be able to give artwork that is set in the present day a ‘retro’ look too. For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a digitally-edited painting of mine that is set in the present day, but heavily inspired by both the 1980s and the 1990s.
The action-filled composition of this painting was inspired by the fact that old 1980s horror novel covers often feature a lot of dramatic movement. The high-contrast lighting is a technique that has been inspired by too many things from the 1980s/90s to list here, and which I use in virtually all of my paintings.
Like with a lot of my more recent art, the colour scheme was mostly inspired by a modern set of 1980s-style “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens“. The punk-style skeleton was inspired by old comics, heavy metal album covers and VHS cover art from the 1980s and 1990s.
So, if you look at lots of retro stuff (and modern retro-inspired stuff) and learn the techniques that are used in it, you can give your own original artwork a uniquely “retro” look. Even if your art is set during the present day.
2) Know yourself: Don’t try to make your art look “retro” just for the sake of it. You should only add “retro” elements to your own unique art style if you genuinely think that they look cool, and if they genuinely make you feel inspired. In other words, you have to know your own aesthetic tastes really well.
Just because a particular type of “retro”-style thing is fashionable (or unfashionable) at the moment doesn’t mean that you should copy it. Ignore fashion and focus on what you personally think is cool. If you’re not sure what that is, then look at your favourite old movies, comics, games, album covers etc… and ask yourself “what makes them look so interesting?“.
If you make retro-style art that is inspired by the things that you personally find “cool”, not only will you have a lot more fun making it (and feel proud of it) but you’ll also come up with a much more unique interpretation of that particular “retro” style than you will if you just try to make a particular type of “retro-style” art because it is fashionable or unfashionable at the moment
For example, with something ike retro music nostalgia, I tend to get nostalgic about FM Radio, audio cassettes and CDs. I’ve never really used vinyl and have no real interest in it. Yet, vinyl is the thing that people always think of when they think of “retro” music. This difference has inspired at least one comic of mine (it’s from 2016, so the art looks kind of old though):
Likewise, when people on the internet talk nostalgically about retro console gaming on the internet, the original NES is often the console that they mention. Yet, all of my early childhood console nostalgia is about the SNES (and the original Game Boy). So, if I was going to make some art inspired by old console gaming, it would probably be SNES-inspired rather than NES-inspired. Even though the NES is more “fashionable” these days.
So, if you know and understand yourself, your “retro” art will be a lot more meaningful.
3) Have fun: You shouldn’t take this “retro” stuff ultra-seriously. It’s ok to only be partially-inspired by old art. In fact, if you want your art to look unique, then your art shouldn’t be entirely inspired by any one thing (including one time period). So, don’t fuss too much about whether your “retro” art looks “authentic” or not.
It doesn’t matter if it looks “authentic”, or “historically accurate”. All that matters is whether it looks cool or not. So, don’t be afraid to blend things from different time periods. Don’t be afraid to add modern-style elements if you think that it improves your artwork. Don’t be afraid to change things. Don’t be afraid to use artistic licence.
As I said earlier, you should only make retro style art if it is something that you personally enjoy doing and because you personally think that it looks cool. To use a phrase from the 90s, “stop trying so hard”. If retro stuff inspires you, then add it to your art. If it doesn’t, then don’t. The goal is to have fun and to make cool artwork.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂