The Art of Movie Posters

Learning About Art from the Movies

movie poster, art tutorials, art tips, beechhouse media, Mark Taylor,
The Art of the Movie Poster - we can learn a lot about marketing!

This week, we take the last deep-dive of the year and look at how the movie industry uses art to draw (no pun intended) in the viewers and we ponder if there is anything we as artists can learn from the movie industry that will help us to create even better art that grabs the viewers attention and we might just learn a little more about marketing our artwork too! Grab some popcorn because you now have an excuse to stream movies in the name of art!

In short…

As is becoming the case recently, I will be bringing you a snippet of the article before every deep-dive because I am so very conscious that especially at this time of the year we have less time than usual! So here’s a snippet of today's deep-dive into the art of Hollywood’s art and marketing machine!

  • We can learn a lot from the streaming services about how they use visuals to engage their audiences and subscribers. The use of colour plays a pivotal role in engaging the audience and making them stop scrolling.
  • The use of colour can be integral to setting the time frame of the story within a piece of art and it can be used to introduce the characters or summarise the entire film too.
  • There are psychological factors at play which are used by the algorithms of streaming services to serve us the content we might be more interested in engaging with, can these same factors be applied to our artwork and marketing materials?
  • We can use image and video thumbnails to introduce our work and you could even create new thumbnails for your websites too. Using bolder colours, less subtle shading and larger text in small artworks will convey what you want to say in a small piece of art.
  • The use of negative space is used effectively to convey more meaning. Films like the original Poltergeist used negative space effectively to create one of the most iconic horror movie posters of our time.
  • Composition can if carefully carried out, convey the key message of the story within your art.
  • Using faces with expressions make work more relatable and can let viewers know what the story of the work is within milliseconds.
  • We should be localising some of our marketing and making it more appealing for audiences in other regions around the world and locally too.
  • We should re-surface older works periodically rather than just promote them in short bursts only once or twice. Having a future content strategy is key to ensuring that the work you create today or last year, isn’t forgotten tomorrow.
  • Limiting the colour palette and adding a slight touch of motion blur to an image can provide it with a much deeper sense of movement.
  • It is all about experimentation and testing, if something doesn’t work, change it until it does.
  • VHS and Betamax video covers were way better than the images we see today, and I really do miss Blockbuster Video!

Do read on if you want to find out more about what we can take away from the movie industry that might just make us into even better artists!

art by Mark Taylor, Beechhouse Media, Procreate 5, symmetry art,
A 20-minute creation using Procreate Version 5 - Harmony Pallete and Dynamic Colours along with symmetry!

Making Movies…

The business of making movies has always been an expensive endeavour, the record currently goes to Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, which cost a whopping $378.5million to make or allegedly, about a third of the cost of having a cruise ship built which makes it seem like a real peachy bargain.  Those numbers are eye-watering and yet at the same time, these numbers seem to be fairly familiar in the film business. When we talk about millions and billions, as an artist, that kind of money is but a dream. Even when an artwork sells for however many millions, it is the secondary market that usually reaps the fruit of the artist’s work, not so much the artist.

We listen to the news and all they seem to say on it lately is how much things are going to cost or how much a government is spending and the numbers just become noise. Millions, billions, trillions, are difficult to comprehend, what we do know as artists though is that we could spend that much on a quick trip to the local art supply store. I remembered reading an analogy a few years back that translated numbers into something more relatable like time and this is what it said.

  • A million seconds is 12 days
  • A billion seconds is 31 years
  • A trillion seconds is 31,688 years

So the pirate-themed film was roughly the equivalent of 4506 days (just over 12 years) based on that sort of scale and a cruise ship is worth around 31 years, that’s a lot of money even for a blockbuster movie or a ship.  These are the kinds of numbers that make art supplies seem like a bargain. When a studio spends that kind of money, at least initially, the success of the film comes down to one thing. The hype that comes with the marketing campaign and the public reaction to it.

It’s not until the first critics and the public have watched the film that a movie is truly deemed as being a must-see or a must-avoid, there is often months and sometimes even years of building up the hype ahead of a movie release and this usually involves the creation of lots of marketing materials and lots and lots of artwork and photography and every major studio has something in common with every other, they all have only seconds to tell the film's story and make you want to go and see it and for this, they rely on the film poster.

It is true, you can’t tell a good book by its cover and the same is true of films, but a cover or poster can make a huge difference in at least the public’s perception of how good the film or book is going to be. But a picture is worth a thousand words and can have a massive impact when it comes to books and films. There have been great films with bad poster art, as there have been great books with dull covers, but there is no denying that even these bad films owe at least any success they do have in part to the marketing materials used by the studios and the choice of artwork used to promote them.

So what makes a good movie poster, and more specifically, is there anything we can take away from how movie posters are created and apply similar practices into our own artworks? Is there a template for a great movie poster that guarantees success and engages the viewer, and perhaps more importantly, are the templates transferable more broadly in the art world?

Learning from the Streaming Services…

I have been creating book covers for a number of years and whenever I get one of those vague commissions when the author outlines the plot of the book but doesn’t have much of an idea of how it should be represented as a cover, I have come to instinctively get some kind of vibe as to what might or might not work better for the cover. Much of that vibe though is from looking at cover trends from over many years and then working out which market demographic typically purchased the book. It is a complex process at times not to mention that there are always a hundred and one things that you have to be aware of when creating book cover art.

The same is true for films and it becomes even more obvious when you start to carry out research by looking at your Netflix library. Yes, that’s the reason why we artists do seem to love a little guilty Netflix pleasure from time to time, it’s not because we want to escape, sit back and watch great TV, we are officially carrying out artistic research.

The artwork you see on Netflix as you spend the next seven hours working out what to watch is designed to grab your attention, or at least some of it is. Those pesky things we call algorithms are at play even in your Netflix library. The algorithm will determine what you might be more interested in watching and will serve up those films and tv shows, even giving you a predictive percentage score on how much it thinks you will enjoy the show or film based on what you have watched previously. Machine learning is at the very heart of almost everything we now do.

But there is another algorithm at work that is designed to stop you scrolling and start watching. This one works by selecting one of the many image thumbnails available for whatever show and displays the one that is more likely to appeal to you. Yes, that is exactly why one day you might see an image of Amy Poehler on the cover and the next, the legendary Ron Swanson and yes, I know the actor's name is Nick Offerman but Ron Swanson is my hero and apparently, he is a carpenter in real life too. 

On streaming services, algorithms are working out what visually appeals to us and they seem like they are learning from every action we take, the same is true of course for social media. We live in a world that is increasingly controlled by the algorithm. That’s kind of scary and kind of positively disruptive too, art is arriving at a point in time where computational recommendation systems are beginning to serve up what they think we want to see, even when it comes to art.

Netflix wrote a blog on Medium which you can find right here, where they discussed A/B testing, something that many of us do in our own marketing efforts and they also announced that by their calculations, they have to capture a members attention in 90-seconds otherwise it results in what they define as a failed session.

They also discussed that neuroscientists have discovered that the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, and that across the board, it takes much longer to process text compared to visual information. I really do recommend taking a look at any of Netflix’s blog posts because they really do offer an insight that is just as useful to us in our everyday activity when marketing our art.

In that blog post, Netflix also discussed things like client-side impression tracking and stable identifiers for each artwork where they created unique stable IDs for each piece and how their creative team source higher resolution images and make changes to the artwork, touching it up and changing the title treatment and bear in mind too, that Netflix is global which means that regional languages and cover art has to be used in specific areas which add immensely to the number of artwork thumbnails that have to be available to serve.

multiple language requirements for streaming service artworks
I am Legend - Image Copyright of Respective Owner - used to demonstrate multiple language requirements

The algorithm is at play whenever you are streaming films and TV and it is in play when you use music streaming services, recommending new songs based on what we have listened to or reacted to before, and we use rating systems to feed them the information that refines their thinking even more. It makes it better ultimately and more convenient but I do think that it also limits our own decisions and inadvertently removes some of our ability for free choice.

Our culture it seems, is being more and more defined by the filtering of our feeds and I don’t think I had made that correlation until I started looking into it a lot more and much of this that can be observed is fairly subliminal. As artists, we need to remember the things we know about art that none of these services and systems do.

Even phone cameras are becoming increasingly more intelligent, it is almost impossible to now capture a bad photo as some phones have built-in AI. I downloaded a new camera app last week that slows the shutter speed right down and removes the people from a scene so that I could turn up on the Golden Gate Bridge on a Wednesday afternoon and take a photograph of it without any traffic regardless of the amount of traffic on the bridge at the time the photo was taken, minimising the amount of editing I would then need to do. It is all done with AI and I can finally get those ghostly water effects on waterfalls. I can’t even begin to predict where art or photography will be in another decade, the lines are becoming ever increasingly blurred.

The question this week though is whether or not we can take the learnings from the various film and TV industries to make art that resonates more with our people. When I studied art it was all about colour theory, golden ratios, consistency, and all of these are still very important, but there is also something that the studios have picked up on that we might be able to use as well.

bigfoot art, Mark Taylor, Sasquatch art, trending art,
Rock Star by Mark Taylor - Available Now from Pixels and Fine Art America

The Art of the Movie Poster…

Movie posters are really like traffic lights. We see a red light and we are supposed to stop, amber, proceed with caution, and green for go. Cartons of milk have colour codes too, as do tubs of Pringles, and no matter what the product, we instinctively know what each colour means. The colours are subconsciously telling us part of a story or identifying the brand and movie posters do this too.

Remember that we might only glance at a film poster on a billboard for a few seconds and in those few seconds, it has to tell us a lot of information and sometimes there is so little information that what is not said says it all. Netflix might be a bad example given the changing nature of their thumbnail images, but when I think about film posters it is as if they are all produced on a variation of a template. I can’t recall a modern-day independently produced film that didn’t include yellow as a key colour, maybe to catch the attention of a smaller independent producers work.

As independent artists the question is, would it make a difference if we followed a similar approach, maybe adding yellow elements into our business cards or our logos. Maybe on the profile pictures that we have to refresh for social media. I don’t know the answer and I haven’t tried, but maybe if it works for Hollywood.

When I think about comedy films I always think about Eddie Murphy for some reason and great news that there will now be a fourth Beverly Hills Cop arriving on Netflix at some point and I hope soon. But whilst Eddie Murphy is at least for me, a comedic genius, the colours Black and Red are consistently used in comedy films. Take a look through your streaming service library and you will see what I mean.

With comedies and romances, it isn’t unusual to see two characters leaning against each other, perhaps to reinforce their differences of opinion, Pretty Woman, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and these are the kind of templated artistic offerings that you can never un-see in your streaming library once you know they are there. Over the weekend I counted around a dozen films using a similar template, all on the home page of Netflix and they were all very different films, all followed the same genre.

Two people in a romantic looking embrace, coupled with washed-out skies and dark contrasts, compositional pieces always seem to indicate romance or that the film is a bit of a tear-jerker. When I look at the poster for Titanic or Brokeback Mountain, both share some quite remarkable visual traits with each other in their composition and palette, and a couple of floating heads somewhere in the background is usually the giveaway that tells you what the film is about, and introduces the characters. Just one question, why are so many floating heads used in romantic films?

When it comes to horror movies, there is usually a heavy hint of black, white, and red, along with creative use of negative space. Take a look at the original poster for the film Poltergeist where a young Heather O’Rourke was bathed in a sea of darkness and that is fairly reminiscent of horror posters ever since the original movie appeared. This bold palette is often coupled with an extreme close up of lips, ideally with blood dripping, or a close-up shot of an eye which might explain a little about why one of my earlier works, Cry Me A River, turned out to be one of my best sellers.

Cry Me A River by Mark Taylor, eye art, Beechhouse Media, Fine Art America,
Cry Me A River by Mark Taylor

Action movies, I can’t think of many blockbusters that haven’t used the inevitable black and blue as background colour and a purple hue is often added to films and show posters where their stories are set in the ’80s. Careful use of colour really does seem to not only set out the introduction of the film or shows story or genre but certain colours do seem to reflect certain ages in which the productions have been set.

Placement of the film's characters is also key to the look of a poster. When the characters strike a pose, most will show what could be their best side, head turned, or the pose will show the back of the character with a head turned and looking back towards the viewer. Take a look at the posters for Blade starring Wesley Snipes and then at Marvel’s Captain America film and you will begin to see similarities in the composition of the poster.

Psychological films follow similar characteristics with the actor usually appearing head on as was created in the posters for the Kings Speech, The Martian, and Michael Clayton, and yes, streaming services are filled with these kinds of thumbnails too and many variations of them even for the same film. Many of the psychological thrillers also seem to have heavy text placed entirely over the image, often a tagline that is more prominent than the film's title.

Need a sense of speed? Reduce the amount of colour that you use and add a little motion blur. The Fast and The Furious, The Transporter, and many other promotional posters all appear monotone with one or two splashes of vibrant colour usually reds, oranges, yellows and greens. 

If the film tells the story of someone on the run then it is inevitable that a running figure is used in the composition, take a look at The Firm starring Tom Cruise, and The Next Three Days, both of them featuring a running figure. I might be the only person to have never watched the Bourne series of films but they too have a running Matt Damon. How many celebrities own red dresses? Just from looking through my library over the weekend I must have counted at least twenty plus covers where the actress in the film was depicted wearing a red dress, and again the film genres were all very similar.

Film posters really do seem to be templated to some extent, yet all of them can tell a very different story in an entirely new way and I think there is a lot that we can learn either when creating our art or creating the promotional materials that we rely on for marketing including video.

streaming art, thumbnail images,
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - copyright Netflix 

The Video Thumbnail...

Video as we have all come to work out over the past couple of years, is perhaps one of the most powerful forms of marketing that engage people on our social media profiles and pages. There is little surprise, with the number of streaming services rapidly increasing and the sheer volume of video that gets watched on social media every day, not having the video in our toolbox makes very little sense.

Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney, Prime Video, and all of the others, all use thumbnails to entice us into viewing what they have on offer. If we stop and take a look at how each of these services promotes their offer we begin to see that the thumbnail is a key element that gels everything together so maybe, that’s exactly where we should start.

Most video is consumed on a mobile device, I know this from my own analytics and the chances are that you are currently reading this article on a mobile device, maybe most of everything you do online is done on a mobile device these days, I know it certainly is for me. As I get older I am noticing that my eyes aren’t what they were, I need new glasses, I also need a couple of hours to get my eyes tested, but I figure that next year I will officially have 2020 vision… Ok, I am done with bad jokes now but that one was thanks to my Facebook friend Cliff.

With that said, it begins to make sense that whenever we create thumbnails for our video, they have to stand out. Most social platforms allow you to add a thumbnail image to your video otherwise you kind of have to go with whatever the platform picks out which might be the dullest scene that appeared in your video. The settings for this are usually found in the edit options along with each video, all you need to do is to ensure that the image or video clip that you are using is something that can be seen.

From what we have learned about how streaming services select the images, we can apply albeit taking a rather more manual approach, an image that will begin to tell the story contained within the video. When you are working with small images though, clarity and colour are vital, you need to provide some feeling that conveys what you want the image to say.

With this in mind you should think carefully about the colour palette, using a bright, solid, saturated colour that stands out and completely ignores subtle shades because at the size of a thumbnail those delicate shade transitions will be lost. In terms of text, when working on the small stuff, you need to go big. The bigger you can make the text the better but equally, the inclusion of some negative space will make the image look more professional.

The thumbnail and this should really go without having to be said, should be connected to what is in the video. There has to be context and consistency, and you should ideally be using images that introduce the story rather than tell it completely. As for consistency, brandifying (not sure that’s a word but anywho) your content will leave the viewers in little doubt has to who produced it. Consistency in art is vital, consistency in branding is categorically essential.

Using people isn’t a bad thing either, as humans we are programmed to respond to faces and especially when those faces have defined emotions. Remember that you have milliseconds to stop the scroll of the viewer and invite them to watch what you have, so exaggerating the expressions when using faces is probably the right thing to do because it tells the story a lot quicker and leaves the viewer in little doubt. When we take a look at the streaming services use of expressions in their thumbnails, what we tend to see are more expressive faces and that is for a very good reason, they have less than mere seconds to tell you what they want to tell you.

Vanity, Ape art, social art, bigfoot art, mythical art, Mark Taylor,
Vanity - My latest release - alternative title was going to be: Is Social Love Shallow! By the way, I am creating a WIP article on this piece!

Have multiple marketing materials…

If there is one key takeaway from what we can learn from all of the streaming services, it is that they are masters of localising and individualising pretty much everything that they do. Personally, I have some thoughts on hyper-personalisation in that I don’t particularly like it, I will maybe write about why in another post, but localisation seems to be a must. There really is little point in pulling together a bunch of promotional materials in a language that your primary audience doesn’t speak.

That is also a consideration for artists more generally. When I look through my own sales history what I tend to see is that whilst many of my buyers reside in the USA and the UK, I also have buyers from the Middle East, Australia, and more recently, Iceland. Some brands have got localisation completely wrong in the past and I am sure they will do in the future too, but because it is easier than ever to be seen globally and arguably easier to be seen globally than locally, as artists we do have to be aware of cultural differences and what might or might not appeal to people from across different regions. Again, the streaming services seem to have this one worked out, hence their library of different images pointing to the same film or show.

There are multiple ways of presenting the same message…

One of the most striking observations I think I made throughout a couple of months I spent researching this stuff was that there really are multiple ways in which art can tell the same story. As artists, we strive to be consistent but that doesn’t at all mean that you have to always stick to the same thing. If we look at movie posters there are consistencies, yet there are also multiple variations that lead us to the same point. The question here is whether can apply any of those variations either to our art or to the marketing of our art.I think we can and to an extent, it might even help with the workload.

The industry uses advance or teaser posters to build excitement and we know that this is something that the mega galleries do too. They will heavily promote art events and often, the message is shaped differently depending on the time it is being given. The images might be different, there might be more use of negative space, to begin with leading to a packed poster filled with the story or plotline just ahead of the release.

Some will use only a symbol, in the USA, coming soon to Theatres near you might be the strapline, in other regions it might read coming soon to cinemas near you. Again, localisation is used within the art to appeal to different markets. For poster collectors of which there are a lot, they will be looking out for things on the posters that indicate which campaign the poster was used. For advance and teasers, usually the letters ADV will appear somewhere in any text, usually towards the bottom of the image.

The main posters will be very different, maybe less use of negative space and whilst the teasers will be teasing the film, the main poster really is all about the announcement of the film which makes me wonder if there is an element within this, that would fit with the marketing of our art. Maybe use elements or sections within the artwork before the big reveal. Tease the work out rather than go with a single big bang and then move on.

The film industry is a big money industry and everything is geared to keep that money pouring in, even years after the films initial release. The studios and distributors will revisit older works and this is something that as artists we should all be doing more of. There is little point in spending a heap of hours on a work and then only ever posting it once, and posting across multiple platforms or in multiple groups on the same day doesn’t count. What we really need to be doing is to revisit the work we created this time last year or the year before or the year before that or earlier and having a follow-up strategy that might appeal to new people who never got to see the original work.

The film industry reminds us every five or ten years, sometimes more regularly that a film was released by creating an anniversary edition of the film and yes, you guessed it, creating anniversary marketing and promotional materials to hoover up a little more cash. If the film wins an award, new promotional materials are created and a new award based template is created to display the awards the film or tv show has won. Again, this is something that we really should be doing to squeeze every last drop of marketing out of any of our artworks and without the risk that we are just re-exposing the same content over and over.

In the poster collector world, the anniversary editions of the posters are not generally considered as being authentic because they have been offered to the general public rather than being intended for use in theatres, so the value of these are less despite that they are still from the studios. In art, this can be slightly different as editions can be a great way to entice art collectors who maybe can’t quite afford the original work.

The movie industry also use editions for their posters and in some regions, fewer posters will be printed to serve a particular audience which adds in a value that is similar to the all-important scarcity value that we artists strive for.

The studios will also use materials like Mylar coatings, or they will produce lenticular designs and for collectors, these are generally seen as the Holy Grail of movie posters, especially when they have been produced as theatrical promotional materials. Most of the studios have always produced multiple variations of their posters, often A/B versions and a few also did C/D and with MGM I recall also seeing X/Y versions at one time. You can usually tell them apart from the lettering that appears in the lower right border of the poster and some are more collectable than others.

I have been collecting Disney art, animation cells, and film posters for many years and found out recently that one of them might be rare, it is also signed by the artists who created the original work. It has literally been in a sealed tube for the past twenty-years so next year I am going to try to work out exactly what it is and I will keep you posted! It might have been the best twenty-bucks I ever spent and as far as I know, the only two that were ever signed are both in my collection.

Yeti selfie by Mark Taylor, bigfoot art, Sasquatch art, Fine Art America, pixels,
Yeti Selfie by Mark Taylor

And I learned that I miss Blockbuster Video…

It was a sad day for the town when my local Blockbuster store finally shuttered its doors for the last time. Today it is a charity store which I think, sums up where the world is currently at. In itself, the difference between the two stores is almost artistic in that it shows what the world was, or at least how we remember it and the grim reality that the economic crisis back in 2007 is still ringing out today. I do wonder if the endless search for something to watch on Netflix is the new trip to Blockbuster because I remember spending a couple of hours sometimes trying to work out what to rent!

I also learned from writing this article that VHS and Betamax video covers were absolutely way better than the digital offerings we see today. I’m not sure whether or not that is because videos could be held, you felt like you owned something, or because of some nostalgic feeling of times that I remember as being good. I guess that shares some similarities with artwork too, and as a primarily digital artist, I can still see why some people prefer painted canvases.

I think too that VHS and video covers, in general, tended to use the AIDA marketing method. For those unfamiliar with this, there is an entry on Wikipedia which you can read right here. AIDA is an acronym that stands for Attention or Awareness Interest, Desire, and Action and covers the steps that are taken from the time the customer first becomes aware of a product or brand through to when the customer trials a product or makes a purchase. There are many alternative models that exist in marketing but most of them are rooted in the AIDA camp and combined they collectively form a hierarchy of effects models. I think much of what we see with streaming services is predicated on this marketing model too.

Nearly Christmas…

If you have any favourite film posters that you think are more art than marketing, let us know what they are, and do also let us know if you already follow some of the principles like reducing the number of colours in a piece of art to depict things like movement. There are heaps of possibilities that we could introduce into some of our works using the same kinds of visual psychology triggers that Hollywood use, and I for one, will certainly be bringing a little Hollywood into some of my future works. 

Well, it is nearly the end of another year, and I am hoping upon all hope that 2020 will be great for the arts. No matter what else is going on in the world, art has always been an anchor that we can escape to, and I really do wish each and every one of you, all the very best in the New Year.

I am going to be taking some time off over the Christmas break, I am still waiting to have the kidney stone taken out but I will also be attempting to pull together some new content including video tutorials for using Procreate. Now version five has been released to the public there is a lot of new stuff under the hood of what has become one of the most significant art applications of recent years for digital artists and compared to its competitors it still wins hands down on value and providing the tools that professional digital artists and digital painters need and all without any ongoing subscription. It is an absolute bargain.

And with that, I would just like to thank each and every one of you for supporting me through social media and visiting this site week after week. If you find the site valuable, please consider giving me a share especially because I will continue to refuse to monetise this site. It has been built to support independent artists and will remain independent. I refuse to be told what to say or to nickel and dime artists. 

As I mentioned last week, I am planning on bringing out new content very soon, and I am going to be taking the odd week here and there away so that I can focus on creating not just the new content but also creating for a couple of special projects I am now working on and will be bringing you news about those projects very soon. Hopefully, at some point soon I will be kidney stone free too, I mean, let's hope I am not still giving you a kidney stone update in the middle of 2020!

As always, stay well, best wishes and happy creating!

Mark x

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here:   

Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes towards to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website at

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