Three Tips For Making Art Set In Late 1980s/ Early-Mid 1990s America

Although I’ve never actually been to America, I’m absolutely fascinated by late 1980s and early-mid 1990s America (I’m going to define this time period as 1987-1996, even though 1988-1995 would probably be a better definition). From everything that I’ve seen and read about it, it seems like a really fascinating period of history in cultural terms.

Naturally, it’s also a setting that I’ve used in several paintings and one comic. But, it took me a while to work out how to make art that is set in this time and place. Although I’ve already shown off the line art for this painting, here’s a reduced size preview of a painting that I made that is set in this location/time:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 29th December.

So, I thought that I’d share a few tips for how to make art set in late 1980s/ early-mid 1990s America:

1) Research materials: One of the best ways to get a sense of what this time period was like is to watch and listen to as many things from back then as possible. Whilst you obviously shouldn’t directly copy anything from them, they can be incredibly useful if you know how to take inspiration properly.

Unfortunately, every TV show, film, album etc.. from that time period is still copyrighted. But, due to their age, second-hand copies of things from this time period can usually be found fairly cheaply. But, if you don’t have a large budget or you just want a quick general sense of the aesthetic of the time, then do a few image searches about the time period (but, of course, remember not to directly copy any of the images you see in your art). Likewise, check out this uncannily modern-looking HD footage of New York in 1993.

In terms of films and TV shows, I’d recommend checking out any of the following: “Twin Peaks” (Seasons 1&2), “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (Seasons 1&2 ), “The X-Files” (Seasons 1-3), “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air” (Seasons 1-6), “The Simpsons” (Seasons 1-7), “Drop Dead Fred”, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”, “Heathers”, “Trancers”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Tremors” and “Robocop 1-3”.

In terms of albums, I’d recommend any of the following: “Stranger Than Fiction” by Bad Religion (punk), “Smash” by The Offspring (punk), “Metallica” by Metallica (thrash metal), “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A (rap), “Days Of Open Hand” by Suzanne Vega (acoustic), and literally anything by Nirvana (grunge).

2) Fashions: From my (relatively limited) research, American fashion in this time period was kind of like a slightly stranger and/or mildly more formal version of modern fashion.

Generally, it tends to include things like trench coats/ biker jackets, plaid shirts, floral dresses, boxy sunglasses, sweaters worn like belts, white T-shirts paired with jeans, sleeveless dresses layered over T-shirts, longer sweaters with belts, pencil skirts, garish tracksuits etc…

Likewise, American goth fashions of the time tended to be a lot more understated (eg: black T-shirts, leather trench coats etc..) when compared to 1980s Britain (eg: large hairdos, fishnets etc..). American punk fashions of the early-mid 1990s were also fairly understated (eg: T-shirts, jeans etc..) when compared to traditional British punk fashion (eg: mohawks, safety pins etc..). Heavy metal fashion, on the other hand, is pretty much timeless.

This was also the age of grunge fashion, 1980s middle America and the whole “no logo” trend. So, there tended to be a preference for clothes without obvious branding back then. But, saying that, I’ve learnt most of what I know about the history of American fashion in this time period from looking at films and TV shows (where for advertising/copyright reasons, obvious branding was often avoided if it wasn’t part of a product placement deal).

3) Location design: Although many places in late 1980s/early-mid 1990s America probably looked fairly “ordinary”, locations in media from the time often tended to look interesting in all sorts of cool ways.

For example, offices tended to have much more of an art deco kind of look to them (eg: lots of marble, minimalist office furniture, abstract art etc..). Likewise, cosy wooden buildings tended to be a lot more popular too. Likewise, city streets often tended to have more of a “film noir” kind of look to them too.

Another way to make a location in a painting or a comic from this time period look more “historical” is simply to include technology from the time. Technology back then tended to be a lot bulkier than it is now – so, include things like CRT televisions/computer monitors, boomboxes, floppy disks, audio cassettes etc…


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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