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 🙂


Short Story: “Off Hours” By C. A. Brown

It had been raining for so long that the noise was as easy to ignore as static on the radio. The view from my office window was as grey as one of those newfangled tele-vision screens. Even the mug of coffee on my desk looked like the oil tray for some machine that only mechanics care about.

I’d thought about sitting back and reading the paper, but I wanted to look professional in case a client walked through the door. Not to mention that I’d read it so often this morning that I could tell you exactly which pages the four murders, three scandals and six stabbings were on. Even the spittle-flecked editorial railing against the corrupting influence of crime comics had stopped being amusingly ironic.

If Marla wasn’t out for lunch, she’d probably tell me that this was the perfect time to organise my case files. But, I’d already thought about that. The problem was that I’d had this annoying habit of getting a run of cases from people called Bentley, Bertelli, Billingham, Brockley, Breen and so forth. Most of my recent cases had been affairs, accidents, arson, assault or alimony too. Whichever way I organised the files, my rickety old filing cabinet would still become dangerously top-heavy.

My eyes drifted over to my typewriter. There had been some interview in the paper about an insurance clerk who wrote a swashbuckling nautical romance on his office typewriter during the off-hours. My guess was that the interview had been insurance against his boss finding out about it. Not only did it read like a sly advert for the company, but who wants the bad publicity of firing a genius?

I took a sip of coffee. It tasted like coffee. Lukewarm coffee at that.

Sighing, I reached for the paper again. But, before I knew what was happening, I’d already scrunched it up and thrown it at the ashcan in the corner. It missed. Even a crime comic or a swashbuckling nautical romance seemed like more exciting reading material right now. But, I couldn’t exactly leave them lying around my office. People tend to frown on that kind of thing.

I stared up at the clock. It was still twenty five to two. There was a good chance that the cheap gears inside it had seized up. I didn’t feel like taking it apart to find out.

Then, just as I was thinking of sneaking off and catching a matinee, I heard footsteps. Running a hand through my hair, I sat back and put a smile on my face. First impressions matter. Not to mention that, for once, I was actually happy about being interrupted by a client. Had it really come to this?

A few seconds later, a hazy silhouette appeared in the door window. I’d been meaning to get one of those frosted glass windows like you see in the movies, but it turned out that not cleaning an ordinary window does pretty much the same thing at a fraction of the cost. Ingenuity.

Finally, there was a sharp knock. I smiled and said: ‘Come in.

Marla stepped through the door with a huge grin on her face. ‘I was on the way back from the diner when I happened to meet the people who’ve just hired the room next to ours. Get this, they’re an up-and-coming swing band! Isn’t it exciting?

As the first out-of-tune trumpet blasts pierced the walls, I let out a sigh and said: ‘Great. Just great.

“Finale” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #10)

Stay tuned for a full series retrospective tomorrow evening at 9:30pm [GMT]

After the Christmas rush had started, I’d begun to get a little too used to the sound of people knocking on my office door. Don’t get me wrong, ever since I’d found myself in the strange situation of becoming a consulting detective for the users of a trendy new “gig economy” private detective app who found themselves out of their depth, this had been my most successful Christmas yet.

But, I was getting too used to people knocking on the door.

This was probably why I didn’t recognise the knock until it was too late. That sharp, gunshot-like rapping which portends nothing but trouble. It isn’t the indiscriminate hammering of an angry caller or the soft tapping of a charity collector, it’s the knock of someone who feels that they have every right to frighten you and all the time in the world to do it.

Come in, it’s.. open.‘ I said, as a sinking feeling washed through my gut. I had mere seconds to prepare myself.

The door swung open and two men in designer suits walked through. They were mid-thirties, athletic and wearing sunglasses. One of them asked me my name. I considered giving a false one but I had the feeling that they’d probably seen a photo of me before. So, I gave them my real name.

With a sharp intake of breath, the other man said: ‘We understand that you’ve been providing a “consulting detective” service.

I shrugged: ‘Are you interested in hiring me?

He held up a corporate ID card like it was a police badge: ‘We are shutting your little operation down.

Huh? There’s no law against helping out the poor souls who signed up to your app.‘ I shrugged again, careful not to show fear.

The man closest to the door reached into his jacket and pulled out a sheaf of papers. Speaking in a robotic monotone, he said: ‘Terms and conditions, section five, subsection thirty-two. Provision of unauthorised ancillary services….

I must have zoned out for a few minutes but, when my attention returned to the room, he was still reading. ‘…subject to any action the company deems necessary.

The other man spoke softly, like he was trying to be my friend: ‘What this basically means is that you need to stop offering your services to our customers. It..‘ He made a show of trying to control his emotions ‘.. disrupts our ecosystem.

Or what?‘ I asked.

Robot man stepped in again: ‘You will be in further violation of our terms and conditions. This could result in suspension of your…

Ah.‘ I grinned ‘I never signed up to them. And, more importantly, I never signed up to your app either.

Robot man said ‘Yes, but your clients have. We demand to see a list of all of our users who have used your services. Examples have to be made.

I shrugged and tapped my forehead: ‘It’s in here. First rule of a good P.I is to know what not to write down. The second rule of a good P.I is to start recording as soon as someone official knocks on the door.

I made a show of reaching under my desk and pulling out a small dictaphone cassette. ‘The papers will no doubt be interested to know about your attempts to access private data about my clients. And, if they aren’t interested, there’s always the internet.

The men were speechless. With a smile, I gestured towards the door: ‘But I hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust you can see yourselves out.

As they shuffled away sheepishly, I cracked open a new bottle of scotch and poured myself a large measure. Outside my window, the snow continued to fall and the Christmas lights above the high street gently glowed and flickered. I twiddled the blank dictaphone cassette between my fingers before putting it back under the desk. The third rule of a good P.I is, of course, to be a better con artist than the ones who walk through your door.

“Headlines” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #2)

Stay tuned for the next story tomorrow evening at 9:30pm GMT 🙂

Raymond Chandler once said that a slow moment in any investigation could be livened up by an armed man suddenly bursting into the room. What did he know about detective work? The whole point is not to get involved in cases that include men with guns. If I wanted that, I’d have joined the police.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel that bringing a gunman to justice would give me the kind of free publicity that my slick new competitor, Prest Investigative Services – or P.I.S as I like to call them – could only dream of. At the very least, it would give me an excuse to actually dust the chair on the opposite side of my desk.

Unfortunately, my chronic bullet allergy put a bit of a dampener on the whole idea. Still, as I finished my second glass of own-brand scotch, I couldn’t help but think that the basic idea had some merit. A good, headline-grabbing case would really take the P.I.S… But not a case with guns.

Of course, the universe has a sense of humour that is more twisted than the mess of wires behind my computer. How else could I explain the fact that, as I began to fill my third glass, the silhouette of a tall man gripping what looked like an old service revolver suddenly appeared in the frosted glass panel on my door.

If movies had taught me anything, it was that this was the time to scrabble through my desk drawer for a pistol, duck behind the desk and fire a warning shot between his eyes. The only problems were that movies are movies, my desk was made from cheap MDF and this was Britain not 1930s Chicago.

Even if I could get through the decade and a half of clutter clogging my desk drawers, the only thing I could muster was a staple gun that I’d borrowed from the estate agent’s down the hall during their grand opening. When they closed a week later, they never bothered asking for it back.

But, that would involve sorting through my desk. And, that’s a four-day job that I wouldn’t even do if someone held a gun to my head. No, I’d have to be smart about it.

My eyes rested on the ornate marble finish pen that took pride of place on my desk. After I’d filed off the “Ebenezer’s Floor Tiles” e-mail address on the side, it actually looked like I’d paid good money for it.

Picking up the pen, I slipped it into my jacket pocket and pointed it forwards. If movies had taught me anything else, it’s that an object poking through one’s jacket pocket is always mistaken for a gun.

Ducking behind the desk, I began to plan my next move. It would have to be quick. There was a fifty percent chance that the man outside was facing away from the door. If I slipped it open quickly and acted tough, he might actually think that I’d got the drop on him.

Keeping crouched, I made my way to the door. With shaky hands, I reached for the handle. My heart hammered like an angry bailiff. It was now or never.

In one move, I flung the door open and jabbed the free pen into the guy’s spine. Putting on my toughest voice, I growled: ‘Drop it or else!‘. He dropped the gun.


Anyone who tells you that any publicity is good publicity is a liar. Luckily, the old geezer saw the funny side of it though – but it meant yet another name on my already lengthy Christmas card list. And my office chair was still as dusty as ever.

Review: “Total Recall 2070 – Machine Dreams” (Film/ TV Show Pilot)


I can’t remember when I first heard of “Total Recall 2070”. But, once I’d heard of a Canadian TV series from the 1990s that looked like “Blade Runner“, I just had to watch it. There was only one problem – it bizarrely never received a UK DVD release.

Luckily though, a while before writing a review, I found a reasonably-priced second-hand US import DVD of the feature length pilot episode “Machine Dreams” on Amazon. Surprisingly, this episode was released as a stand alone straight-to-DVD film in the US.

So, I was curious to see whether even a fragment of this TV series was worth all of the waiting and searching. In a word, yes.

But, before I go any further, I should warn you that there might be some PLOT SPOILERS in this review.

Yes, it even has the close-up eyes at the beginning, like "Blade Runner" :)

Yes, it even has the close-up eyes at the beginning, like “Blade Runner” 🙂

As you may have guessed from the title, “Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams” is based on Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 cinematic classic “Total Recall” and it features both the recall machine and the nefarious Rekall corporation. If you’ve never seen “Total Recall”, it’s a film set in a cyberpunk future where a company called Rekall gives people virtual reality holidays by using technology to implant artificial memories into their brains.

“Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams” follows trench-coat wearing detective David Hume and his partner, who are investigating a mysterious shooting at the Rekall facility.

And with that kind of moody lighting, you can tell that it probably isn't going to just be a routine investigation...

And with that kind of moody lighting, you can tell that it probably isn’t going to just be a routine investigation…

After a gunfight with several rogue androids, the androids get away and Hume’s partner is killed – but the Rekall corporation don’t seem too happy about co-operating fully with the subsequent investigation.

Soon, Hume finds that he’s been assigned a new partner (called Ian Farve) and has been reassigned to desk duty.

On the plus side, Farve seems to be in his element behind a desk.

On the plus side, Farve seems to be in his element behind a desk.

But, after an Eastern European woman with no prior criminal history and no apparent motive is arrested for kidnapping, there seem to be some strange elements to the case that prompt Hume and Farve to investigate further…

Since “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” are both based on stories by Philip K. Dick (eg: “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” and “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” respectively), “Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams” takes a lot of influence from “Blade Runner” too.

Yes, this is pretty much “Blade Runner – The TV Series”! Again, why didn’t this entire TV series, or even just the pilot, get a UK DVD release?

Seriously, this is basically a low-budget version of “Blade Runner” and it is awesome! Yes, the precise details of the story are somewhat different to “Blade Runner” but there are a lot of wonderful similarities. To say any more would spoil the story but, if you like “Blade Runner”, then you’ll be right at home here. Everything from the grizzled detective to the philosophical issues in the film is pure “Blade Runner” and it is amazing!

For example, this scene is a really cool homage to "Blade Runner", although the events of it play out somewhat differently....

For example, this scene is a really cool homage to “Blade Runner”, although the events of it play out somewhat differently….

However, that said, this is bascially “Blade Runner lite”. In many ways, this is more of an amazing sci-fi noir detective thriller than a slow, contemplative, intellectually deep masterpiece. The plot of this film contains a certain level of complexity, but it’s a lot more “streamlined” than the plot of “Blade Runner” is. If anything, the pacing and plot of this episode reminded me of a cross between an “ordinary” detective movie and an episode of “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex“. Which is never a bad thing!

Thankfully, although the episode quite obviously sets the scene for a larger TV series, the film’s story is (mostly) self-contained. Yes, there are a couple of small plot threads that are left hanging, but there aren’t really any major cliffhangers. The main story of the episode is resolved by the time that the credits roll. Likewise, the US DVD thankfully seems to be free from any puritanical American TV censorship too.

The acting in “Total Recall 2070 – Machine Dreams” is reasonably good and is what you’d expect in a TV show or low-mid budget movie. Hume is your typical weary and cynical film noir detective character and many of the other characters are fairly well-acted too. But, the stand-out character in the episode has to be Ian Farve, who manages to be both subtly amusing and intriguingly mysterious at the same time.

Although, if you're a cyberpunk/ sci-fi fan, Farve's personality and demeanour is probably a plot spoiler in  it's own right.

Although, if you’re a cyberpunk/ sci-fi fan, Farve’s personality and demeanour is probably a plot spoiler in it’s own right.

The set design in “Total Recall 2070” is surprisingly good too, considering budgetary limitations. Yes, the film contains a few (surprisingly good) examples of late 1990s CGI landscapes, a few “futuristic” locations that look like something from “Red Dwarf“, a few scenes set during the day and a few repurposed “ordinary” building interiors. But, there are also some truly spectacular set designs here.

In particular, both the interior of the police station and the street outside look like something from “Blade Runner”.

Yes! The set of EVERY TV show should look like THIS!!!!

Yes! The set of EVERY TV show should look like THIS!!!!

Seriously, this is a TV series that looks like "Blade Runner". WHY don't we have this in the UK?!

Seriously, this is a TV series that looks like “Blade Runner”. WHY don’t we have this show in the UK?!

Yes, the street location is re-used for quite a few scenes but it’s busy, visually complex and atmospheric enough to stand up to a fair amount of screen time. Likewise, the police station gets the whole “cyberpunk noir” aesthetic right in quite a few scenes – with stone carvings and pillars, an array of glowing screens and lights, a gloomy atmosphere and lots of interestingly-shaped windows. It looks really cool:

Plus, it gets the "ordinary film noir" thing right too. There's even someone with a trilby hat!!

Plus, it gets the “ordinary film noir” thing right too. There’s even someone with a trilby hat!!

All in all, this episode is amazing! Yes, it isn’t quite as good as “Blade Runner”, but it’s still probably one of the coolest pilot episodes that I’ve seen! It’s dramatic, atmospheric, visually spectacular, thrilling and filled with cyberpunk goodness 🙂

Yes, it’s as much an ordinary detective thriller as it is a sci-fi film, but no doubt that the sci-fi elements are probably expanded on during the rest of the TV series. My only real criticism of it is the lack of a UK DVD release of the entire series! Seriously, this shouldn’t be some kind of obscure single-DVD US import. It should be a large, well-worn boxset on my DVD shelf!

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂