Three Reasons Why The Noir Genre Is So Interesting ( If You’re An Artist)


[Edit: D’oh! I’ve just realised that I posted an almost identical article about this subject in February *facepalm*. Even so, this stuff is worth repeating.]

The night before I wrote this article, I watched the first episode of a dystopian alternate history drama called “SS-GB“. One of the things that I thought whilst watching was “Wow! Some parts of this look a bit like ‘Blade Runner‘. I love the lighting, the costumes etc..” It was then that I remembered that the only thing that these two things have in common is that they were both heavily inspired by the film noir genre.

So, I thought that I’d look at some of the really cool artistic features of this genre and why it’s worth checking out if you’re an artist. There are too many to list here, but here are three of them:

1) Lighting is everything: One of the cool things about the noir genre is it’s heavy emphasis on lighting. The term “film noir” literally translates to “black film” and gloomy darkness is a central feature of the genre. All of this gloom makes the lighting stand out a lot more than usual.

In other words, it’s a genre that allows you to play around with the lighting. You have to think carefully about the light sources in your artwork and place them in such a way that they highlight the important parts of the painting, cast dramatic shadows etc… whilst still ensuring that the painting still contains enough darkness to contrast with the light.

Likewise, if you’re blending the noir genre with the sci-fi genre, then you can also give your artwork a “futuristic” look by using different colours of light (just make sure that they’re complementary colours). Like in this heavily digitally-edited painting of mine from last year which uses red, green and blue lighting:

"City Of Towers" By C. A. Brown

“City Of Towers” By C. A. Brown

Another good thing about film noir lighting is that it’s also the perfect thing to use if you’re making art in a hurry too. Since a good piece of noir art should contain as much (or more) darkness than light, it usually means that you only have to add detail to 30%-70% of the total area of your painting, like in this painting of mine that will be posted here in December:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 5th December.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 5th December.

As you can see, about 50-60% of this painting consists of nothing more than black paint. So, atmospheric film noir lighting can also be a great way to save time too.

2) Visual Storytelling: Another cool thing about the film noir genre is that, because it started with detective and thriller films (and things like hardboiled detective novels, crime comics etc..), there’s a lot more emphasis on visual storytelling. In order to create an interesting-looking piece of film noir art, you pretty much have to hint at some kind of story in your artwork.

This is probably also one reason why noir-influenced art tends to turn up in comics quite a bit too. It’s a style that is designed for intrigue, mystery and melodrama. After all, virtually every early work in the noir genre had to tell an intriguing story of some kind. So, storytelling is a huge part of the genre.

This emphasis on storytelling also extends to the interesting range of perspectives and compositions used in the genre. For example, one instant way to add a suspenseful “noir” look to your artwork is simply to tilt everything in the picture by 30-45 degrees. Like in this cyberpunk/noir sci-fi painting of mine:

"Midnight Centre" By C. A. Brown

“Midnight Centre” By C. A. Brown

3) Fashion, minimalism and location design: One of the cool thing about the film noir genre is it’s emphasis on fashion and style. Because the genre evolved during a time when fashions were more formal, the genre tends to look a bit “unrealistic” in a visually interesting way.

Plus, since this is contrasted with the minimalist simplicity of many vintage fashions – eg: dark trenchcoats, sleek black dresses, three-piece suits, pencil skirts etc.. it can give noir artwork an almost timeless look too. I mean, it’s one reason why the noir genre can be so easily combined with the sci-fi genre – like in this old sci-fi painting of mine from 2015:

"Data Tower" By C. A. Brown [2015]

“Data Tower” By C. A. Brown [2015]

In addition to this, the location design in the noir genre is quite interesting. In older works in the noir genre, locations just tended to be fairly “realistic” and slightly minimalist.

But, in more modern interpretations of the genre, there tends to be more of an emphasis on locations that are intriguingly cluttered with lots of fascinatingly mysterious objects. This can be a great way to hint at a larger story or to create a location that seems both cosy and creepy at the same time. Like in this painting which will appear here later this month:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 17th November.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will appear here on the 17th November.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

One comment on “Three Reasons Why The Noir Genre Is So Interesting ( If You’re An Artist)

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