If you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator, it is unlikely that the first idea that pops into your mind is to illustrate movie posters. You probably think that’s a job for designers or marketing advisors, and I mean, you are not entirely wrong.
Art posters have often been considered as a secondary form of art since they were not born out of the will of creation itself, but with the function of communicating something, for advertising and propaganda.
However, their artistic value is undeniable: back in the modern age, posters were the ones to bring the new artistic movements to the streets and the common citizen, and they are still the first link we get to the movies we all love.
The relationship between illustration and posters goes way back, and nowadays, even though there are many possible ways of designing a movie poster, agencies in charge of them still hire freelance illustrators for some of their projects.
In fact, the big movie poster agencies keep a team of illustrators employed and ready for whichever movie, streaming, or TV project, the creative director or art directors need them on.
To learn more about art directors and creative directors in the entertainment marketing industry, then check these 2 posts out:
- 7 Skills That You Need To Be A Movie Poster Creative Director
- Top 11 Skills You Need To Be A Movie Poster Art Director
If you work in illustration but love cinema, here are some skills you really need to develop to get to be the artist behind those compelling pieces of publicity that we cannot help but see as beautiful works of art.
The idea behind a movie poster can be quite straightforward or very poetic, it can involve many characters, just one or none at all, but it has to be clear in any case.
Freestyle can be fun to experiment with, but how far can you get carried away?
Really complex illustrations can be fascinating to look at… when you have the time to do so, which is usually not the case when you’re running late for work, and you get to see a poster advertising a new movie in the street.
The public you are aiming your illustration at now is not that of a quiet art gallery, nor the peaceful readers of an artist’s book, but the ever-moving masses of the wild city, so make it easy for them!
Plus, your piece of art is competing with iPhones, and the general loss of attention spans we humans seem to lose more of on a yearly basis. Phone addiction is no joke, and that’s your competition.
Simple tips for clarity:
- Make sure it is clear what is the figure and what is the background, squint your eyes and check if the negative space of your illustration is balanced with the full one.
- Make the artwork easily comprehendible in under 3 seconds.
- Ask yourself; Is the configuration easy to read? Can you understand the whole concept in just one glance?
In the industry, the posters that don’t follow these rules are usually the ones of already well-established franchises.
Sure, most rules are meant to be broken, but first, you need to learn to master them; otherwise, your illustration will be “killed” quickly.
2. Color Theory
I know, I know: probably your art teacher said it first.
The thing is, you won’t get very far in the world of illustration if you don’t learn to deal with colors unless you devote yourself completely to black & white, which for sure won’t be enough to become a flexible, reliable, and diligent movie poster illustrator.
For that, at the very least, you will have to become really efficient at these three ways of organizing color:
A. Complementary colors
There are few things as safe as working with complementary colors. The most traditional pairs are made by taking one of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and the secondary color that comes out of mixing the other two (green, orange, and purple, respectively).
These combinations of color are very harmonic and pleasing to the eye; that is why they are so popular both in commercial movie posters and in fan art.
B. Analogous colors
These are basically three or more colors that are close to each other in the color wheel.
Maybe you can start by choosing some of the movie posters you like that seem to have minimal color variations and analyzing their color palettes. That will help you realize how much you can accomplish using only a few resources if you are original and creative enough.
C. Color accents
Maybe it is the red splash of blood in an otherwise very simple yellow background or the bright color of the title on top of an almost monochrome composition. Still, one thing is certain; it will be the one thing to stick in our minds about that particular poster.
Accents of color can be just one small detail, but they work great to create a lasting impression that will help the viewer remember how badly they want to see that movie as soon as it arrives in the cinemas.
Every decision that you make about the way you illustrate your poster, will be a part of its composition.
For example, if a character is placed in the middle of the poster, or if it appears in a bigger size than the others, that will almost always lead the viewer to believe it is the protagonist of the story.
Low angle framings make characters look more impressive and sometimes more evil, perfect for superhero movies.
If your character looks directly to the viewer, that will create an emotional connection, ideal for drama movies.
In romantic movie posters, the two main characters almost always appear interacting with each other like they are the only people in the whole world.
These formulas are not a rulebook, and you wouldn’t want your poster to be unoriginal and predictable. Still, you should always take them into account when creating an illustration, for they are conventionally associated by the public with a certain type of movie. That connection will be there whether you want it or not, so use it in your favor!
4. Empty Space
Oddly enough, when you illustrate a movie poster, you cannot think only about illustration per se. Characters, clothes, backgrounds, and shapes are, of course, important, but this is not a graphic piece that will work on its own.
A movie poster is also a means of advertisement, and that is where typography and text come into place. Speaking of typography, you absolutely need to know its importance, and that’s why this article should be read ASAP: 3 Reasons Why Typography Matters in Poster Design
When you start planning your composition, you need to take into account where the movie title is going to be and how that title looks. Names, dates, billing, and probably some kind of slogan or catchy phrase known as copy, are things to consider as elements that will be a part of the final configuration.
Maybe you don’t know for sure where each thing will go, but you at least need to plan in advance for them to have free space in your illustration.
The typography used in the title and the rest of the movie’s information is a major design choice that will interact with your illustration, so always keep it in mind.
5. Mood Definition
So if you are able to clearly communicate your idea, using a decent knowledge of colors to do so, while creating a solid composition that can effectively interact with all the necessary text, then you are almost in the presence of a killer movie poster.
But there’s something else: a movie poster really needs to condense the essence of the movie.
Fanart movie posters can look beautiful; they are fun because sometimes they take the movie elements and make them look in a vintage aesthetic, a certain art style, or a really personal way of drawing.
That is completely valid for a creative exercise but will not always work in a commercial movie poster. Professional movie posters need to give away a vibe that is loyal to the product they are selling.
If you want to learn more about the differences between fan art and commercial movie poster, then this is the article to help you out:
If you are going to illustrate a horror movie poster, you will want to imply more than what you are actually saying, to let the viewer’s mind imagine the rest.
An action movie poster will need to feel dynamic, maybe by using diagonals in the composition or by placing in a lot of characters to show that a lot is happening in this film.
And if the movie is meant for children, then the poster should obviously be very colorful and focus heavily on the characters.
6. Tech skills
The outstanding movie poster illustrators are proficient at both painting, you know real painting with brushes and paint as well as using Adobe Photoshop to create beautiful illustrations. It’s sporadic that you will find a professional illustrator that doesn’t know how to illustrate digitally in Photoshop.
That being said it’s highly advised to become an expert in Photoshop.
What about Adobe Illustrator, you ask? Well, Illustrator will allow for a certain style of illustration, and it comes in handy for sure.
However, from what I have seen, Photoshop created illustrations are used more. My suggestion would be to get good at painting in real life, then master Photoshop and finally get your Illustrator skills up to par.
This is assuming you want to become a very functional illustrator. The more skills you have the more jobs you will get.
7. Wacom Tablet and Wacom Cintiq
Hands down, you need to master using a tablet and pen. Every movie poster illustrator that is hired at big-time agencies uses pens and tablets on the daily.
First get yourself a Wacom Tablet and master it. This is the one I use: Intuos 5 Touch.
Should you upgrade to an expensive Wacom Cintiq?
Well, if you have the money then of course. Almost every agency I have worked for has its top illustrators using them.
That being said, when starting out, I believe you can get by with just using a Wacom Tablet, at least until you can save up money for your Cintiq or if you get hired full time at an agency, chances are you will have your own Cintiq provided or have access to one.
If you are an outstanding illustrator with a recognizable style of your own, a movie poster agency could hire you to do your thing on a certain project.
But if you are hired to work based on the idea of an art director, then you probably won’t have the same freedom to come up with your final illustration.
If you are serious about becoming a professional movie poster illustrator, then you need to be open to get feedback from the client and to adapt your ideas in multiple ways.
These seven basic skills will offer you a solid background to apply in any possible project.
Practice, have fun and once you see your abilities have improved, start putting together a portfolio to showcase. The more you learn about either of these five points, the better prepared you will be for your next movie poster illustration.
If you are interested in learning about the movie poster industry’s in and outs, then you may find our courses to be of help. We are currently putting together an online curriculum taught by professional art directors working in the movie poster industry.
I’d suggest signing up for our newsletter so that you can be notified when our courses are available. Also, read this article, so you know what not to do when making movie posters!
Good luck out there!