Four Rambling Thoughts About Making “Film Noir”-Style Art

Well, at the time of writing, I seem to be going through a bit of a “film noir” phase with my daily artwork. So, although I’ve sort of talked about this subject before (such as this article about pulp fiction covers), I thought that I’d return to it again. But, first, here’s a preview of one of my upcoming “film noir” drawings:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size drawing will be posted here tomorrow.

So, here are some rambling thoughts about making “film noir” art:

1) Visual storytelling: Simply put, good film noir art often tells a story of some kind. Even if it’s just a picture of a detective with a trilby hat, a trenchcoat and a revolver posing theatrically, then it still implies some kind of action or backstory.

The thing to remember about the noir genre is that, apparently, films in this genre used to just be called “melodramas” at the time they were released. In other words, they were films about dramatic events, dramatic actions and emotional drama.

You can also see a lot of these elements “turned up to eleven” if you look at old 1930s-50s pulp novel covers – if you ignore the sleazier examples of this type of art, then most old pulp novel covers tend to feature melodramatic scenes of people firing guns, bursting through doors, lurking ominously etc… If there’s one word (other than “garish” or “lurid”) that describes old pulp novel covers, it is action.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your film noir artwork has to be particularly violent – but it should hint at some kind of story. Think of it as if your painting or drawing was a single frame taken from a longer scene in a film.

2) Source material:
Although I’m fascinated by the noir genre, I haven’t actually seen that many “proper” film noirs. In fact, the only “authentic” film noir I can remember seeing is probably the Bogart/Bacall adaptation of “The Big Sleep”. Even when looking online for second-hand DVDs of films in this genre, I was surprised at how (relatively) expensive they were considering their age. So, I haven’t actually seen much of the original source material.

However, of course, I’ve seen lots of things that are inspired by film noir. In fact, my favourite film – “Blade Runner” – is basically just a sci-fi film noir. This film has been an absolutely huge influence on my art and my artistic tastes, so I’ve absorbed quite a few “film noir”-style techniques “second hand” from this film. The same is true for all of the film noir parodies, pastiches, TV show episodes etc… that I’ve seen over the years.

What was the point of mentioning all of this? Simply put, it’s ok to learn most of what you know about the genre from second-hand sources. Yes, it probably isn’t perfect. But, by having a unique mixture of inspirations that have been inspired by film noir, your work will be much more likely to be a more unique interpretation of the genre.

3) Lighting: Simply put, the term “film noir” is French for “black film”. One key feature in a lot of film noir style art is the emphasis on darkness and high-contrast lighting. Of course, this style of lighting is nothing new – I mean, artists like Caravaggio were using it centuries ago – but it is something that is worth remembering when making film noir style art.

A good general rule for this (which works for lots of other types of art too) is to ensure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of your drawing or painting is covered with either black ink or black paint.

This makes the lighting and colours appear brighter and more dramatic by comparison. Here’s an example of the technique in some of my non-film noir pieces of art:

“And Once A Palace” By C. A. Brown

“Derelict Sector” By C. A. Brown

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

4) Monochrome or greyscale?: This is a bit of a tricky question since, although you can make film noir art in colour, it generally tends to look better if it is in monochrome (eg: containing no other colours than black and white) or greyscale (which includes black, white and grey).

Of course, the decision whether to use monochrome or greyscale is up to you. Generally speaking, greyscale tends to give your art more of a “cinematic” look and can also be useful for more subtle lighting. Monochrome, on the other hand, is perfect for harsh lighting and/or more stylised comic-book style art.

Both types of art have their merits and downsides, but if you’re new to making this type of art, then greyscale is easier to get right. Not to mention that, if you want to hedge your bets, you can always make your art in colour – then scan or digitally photograph it – and then remove the colours digitally.

To do this, just make another digital copy of your picture (so that you have a backup), open it in pretty much any image editing program. Then look for an option in your program’s “colours” menu called “hue/saturation” or “hue/saturation/lightness”. Once you’ve found it, then just reduce the saturation level to zero and… hey presto! ….greyscale art!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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 🙂