How to paint modern noir with one-point perspective

Illustrator Nick Harris explains how to use simple digital tools and basic art rules to create a ominous setting.

How to paint modern noir with one-point perspective

Here is an image with a twang of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence – a scene of dread in a small town diner. There are numerous ways to imply oppression, repression, threat, dread, foreboding – whichever particular blend you want.

Making an image figurative immediately offers facial expression, clothing and body language to your arsenal. I've picked an every day cafe scene, but its retrograde style combined with dingy lighting and a general feeling of grime suggests a downbeat feel. You might prefer the opposite, with brilliantly lit but featureless surroundings – cold and dehumanised in a different way.

I'm splattering clues all round this scene. Eye-level looking down: the main figure is hunched over, wearing a rumpled, bland suit without a tie, and peers out from under furrowed brow. He is pale and drawn, boxed in by straight lines, be they furniture and fitting edges or cast shadows.

Making an image figurative immediately offers facial expression, clothing and body language to your arsenal

He sits alone. With everything else in relative shadow he is effectively spot lit. Exposed. Negative and controlling slogans adorn many of the surfaces around him. A shadowy figure in uniform watches him. Why is not explained. It all adds to the sense of threat to the individual figure.

In the context of a sequential story you would not need to lay it on this thickly. In fact it's often more effective to drip feed the clues over time to build tension. The thing to make the viewer understand that is a sense that the men here are not in control.

01. Vanishing point

How to paint modern noir with one-point perspective

Nick drew this image in ArtRage, but any digital art software will do!

I know roughly what I want, so I mark out some basic shapes in ArtRage 4, using one point perspective keyed to a vanishing point on a high horizon line near the top of the composition. The impression of looking down, puts the focal character below the viewer. Once these building blocks are in place, it becomes easier to place the figure in its space.

02. Point of interest

How to paint modern noir with one-point perspective

Different brushes are used, along with layers, to build up a mood

I block in muted base colours using the Chalk tool, then build up tonal depth with layers of watercolour and a couple of flood filled Gradient layers, all set to Multiply mode. The flood fills are of different colours, so that by working into them separately with my chosen light colour (a cool blue/white here) I can introduce variation and interest.

03. Textures and layers

How to paint modern noir with one-point perspective

Body language, viewing angle and elements composed around the figure to make him seem trapped all add to the atmosphere of oppression.

I flood fill a layer with raw umber set to Multiply over the top, working back into it with my light colour again. To bring more interest and atmosphere and to suggest a dirty windowpane, I work through a Textural Stencil set up to cover the entire image surface. I make it obvious at the window but soften the effect the further away from the light source.

Words: Nick Harris

Nick Harris went digital in the year 2000, after 18 years of working with traditional methods. Today he works mainly in children's illustration. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 102