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Discover how to convey horror in your artwork

Find out how an expert artist uses style, composition, and narrative to portray horror in this free taster of Beyond Art Fundamentals!

Find out how an expert artist uses style, composition, and narrative to portray horror in this free taster of Beyond Art Fundamentals!

If you prefer, download this sample as a PDF!

I'm thrilled to be illustrating the horror chapter in this book, as that's always been my favorite genre of entertainment. I know the challenge will be to stay away from obvious clichés while allowing room for some well-known horror cues.

When tasked with creating a piece where the brief is simply to illustrate "horror,” there's an initial knee-jerk response of full moonlight and cold, blue colors. I decide that I want to at least avoid that and instead go for a fairly neutral gray-brown palette and use a foggy day setting rather than a moonlit night. I toy with the idea of creating a full daytime horror scene, which is possible, however I think it's better to meet somewhere in the middle so that I am producing something a little different but still imagining that there's an audience – they want horror and I've got to give it to them in a still image.

A decision I make early on is that I want to switch the style of the piece from my usual realistic approach to something stylized, so that I can use shape language and color to exaggerate reality here and there. I use 3D software to make a base before going into Photoshop, but you can still follow along if you don't use 3D.

If you prefer, you can start working from step 05 if you're using a 2D medium, although I still cover some important research in the earlier steps, so I recommend you read them. You can also check out my Tranquility tutorial on page 164 for a 2D variant of this workflow.

After looking through my inspiration folders on my computer I decide that a good way to showcase the horror theme is to set it in a decaying, industrial environment. Let the terror commence!

Step 01: Gathering reference

My first step is always reference-gathering. There's something fascinating about twentieth-century American architecture centered around industrial themes. There's so much character in the shapes and materials, combined with how well they age. I begin searching online for photos of old warehouses and try to think of a story. Perhaps there's an old abandoned warehouse in an industrial area where dark things are happening? Maybe someone is going there to investigate? The architecture itself sells a lot of the concept. I want to avoid having a character present, because that can be too obvious. I think it might be better to say it with just an environment and some kind of underlying narrative.

© Steve Lovegrove / Adobe Stock

© Steve Lovegrove / Adobe Stock

© Tamas Zsebok / Adobe Stock
Search for relevant reference material online, or take your own photographs

Step 02: Initial 3D block-in

To represent horror is to present a situation where there are unknowns, sort of a mystery. For me, horror is about representing questions with ambiguous answers; physical forms and locations with ambiguous edges and corners. So I want to combine fog and atmosphere with aged, abandoned architecture to give an unsettling vibe.

I use Autodesk's 3ds Max to block in the scene, using a single dome light with a cloudy sky image for lighting. I think about wooden materials while building these forms, as well as silhouettes that will read clearly and quickly convey the notion of "spooky and abandoned.”

The 3D block-in stage allows me to quickly set up basic shapes, lights, and camera angle

The 3D block-in stage allows me to quickly set up basic shapes, lights, and camera angle

Step 03: Experimenting with composition

I try a few different moods using different images. The top-left design in image 03 is the first idea I arrive at, and I put it into Adobe Photoshop for a quick paint-over. I like the idea of having a vehicle in the scene, so I think a van might be interesting. While pondering the narrative aspect of the horror theme, I decide it would be great if the van is an ice-cream truck! It will contrast with the unhappy surroundings. However, the first render no longer feels intimate enough, as we're too far away. The second render (image 03, top right) is a little better, but I want more of the ground plane to be visible, which the third render achieves. Finally I arrive at the render in the bottom right.

I try to achieve the right camera angle and composition, as well as flesh out the rest of the scene

I try to achieve the right camera angle and composition, as well as flesh out the rest of the scene

Step 04: Final composition

In the previous step and leading up to this step I had begun with a scene that I was happy with (in the very first thumbnail), but something is telling me that it isn't enough. This is a key voice to listen to. I realize that I'd made this mistake before and the problem is not getting in close enough to where the heart of the scene is. I decide to edit the image's point of view so that the truck is up close and we can associate with it but then also feel the ominous looming of the abandoned building.

Here I arrive at the final composition in 3D, which gives me enough confidence to know that it will work as a painting

Here I arrive at the final composition in 3D, which gives me enough confidence to know that it will work as a painting

Step 05: Line art

For those of you who don't use 3D, you can rough in your composition using Photoshop or pencil instead, and then create a tighter line drawing to arrive at this stage.

To create the line art from my 3D scene, I render the scene out with just the dome light on, then use Photoshop's Find Edges filter to convert everything in the 3D render to lines. It's a very useful way to give you a line art basis for a painting.

Here we reduce everything down to lines and get rid of the 3D render

Here we reduce everything down to lines and get rid of the 3D render

"I had begun with a scene that I was happy with, but something is telling me that it isn't enough. This is a key voice to listen to”

Step 06: Initial values

My converted line drawing is now on its own layer at the very top of the document and set to Multiply. Now I can paint underneath it and match the overall value structure of the test render. I create a separate folder for each complete block of values and create a basic structure of values to build upon, but how you organize and apply your values is up to you. If you are working traditionally, it can help to do some separate value studies of your composition that you can refer back to as you paint.

Now we can start to paint under the line work

Now we can start to paint under the line work

Step 07: Start of the paint work

In this step I paint in the far buildings and begin work on the ground plane and grass. I try to use a neutral brown-gray palette. There's not much color in the ambient light at all, so everything will be kept roughly to its local color. My main consideration will be the atmosphere: the values will lighten and the saturation will diminish as they become farther away, and often within the space of one building because there's also a thick fog. I like how vague the distant buildings are, again playing on the theme of mystery.

Now that I have the basic shapes blocked out, I can start the painting process

Now that I have the basic shapes blocked out, I can start the painting process

"The values will lighten and the saturation will diminish as they become farther away, and often within the space of one building because there's also a thick fog”

Step 08: First lights added

It's worth mentioning that my workflow here is a little tight. I deliberately use lots of layers in Photoshop for maximum control – I'm not making a loose painting. So rather than paint the light directly onto a single layered painting, I have a collection of lightening layers such as Exposure and Color Dodge which I apply using masks. This way I can achieve a consistent, clean addition of light which hits whatever is underneath it, and also allows for some warmer colors to break up the colds. Of course, your approach to adding lighting may differ. If you are working traditionally, make sure you are familiar with the fundamentals of lighting and have a lot of references available.

It's time to add some light effects to the scene via the headlights

It's time to add some light effects to the scene via the headlights

Step 09: Establishing a look

To achieve a consistent style (in a piece that is intended to have a particular style), I like to work on one area tightly, establish the look, and then use that as reference for other areas of the painting. Here I start on the stairs; you // It's time to add some light effects to the scene via the headlights// Now I can move on to the structures and establish a style0809can see in image 09 that the wood is a little crooked. I have chosen to use an art style which is inspired by the styles of recent animated movies, but pushed a little further towards cartoon while retaining fairly realistic lighting. It's an interesting combination that, in this piece, allows for a certain amount of grit without putting the viewer in the safe and comfortable genre of "cartoon.” It enables me to push the shape language and colors and to allow those to help sell the creepiness I want.

Now I can move on to the structures and establish a style

Now I can move on to the structures and establish a style

Step 10: Architecture

I return to my photo references here to get a general idea for how this first building will look. It's a mixture of sheet metal and wood. I think the sign will be a key element in selling this building, as well as the light which illuminates it. Lighting something from beneath always looks spooky and I use the same method as in step 08 (with masked lightening layers), this time going for a cooler tone. I experiment with a few sign types before choosing the one you can see in image 10, as it's quite subtle. I also start to build up the fog here to better match the initial concept.

By now I've established a style and can start to apply it to the buildings

By now I've established a style and can start to apply it to the buildings

Step 11: Architecture, continued

With the previous structures in place I have an established workflow for painting the architecture, so I can now apply that to the main focal building. The wood has to be uneven, and so too does the actual geometry of the walls.

It's important to make sure that all the elements, with respect to their values, group visually together within their value group. So the values for all the buildings could be considered as one middle ground value group, and the truck and the background would be the other two. Within its own value group, no value should jump out and distract the eye or create visual noise. Here I add the eerie green light coming from within the building, plus a little smoke to imply activity.

The building is our main focal point so it's important that we get it right

The building is our main focal point so it's important that we get it right

Step 12: Foreground truck

I feel that the line work of the ice-cream truck is a little too complex for a stylized image, so I reduce the details and then add the basic color masses. I also add the silhouette of the hanging body. This will remove the ambiguity of the scene and push it towards horror. We don't want to go up to that room with the green light!

Now I work on the ice-cream truck's basic structure

Now I work on the ice-cream truck's basic structure

Step 13: Foreground truck, continued

I want the truck to have some story to it. The fact that it's an ice-cream truck is a good narrative element, but I want to take that further and give it some wear and tear as though it's been through a little adventure already, possibly leading up to this final encounter. It's these kinds of elements that really help with storytelling. So here I add a little dent over the wheel and some mud splashes.

The rendering of the truck must be treated with the same style as the rest of the piece

The rendering of the truck must be treated with the same style as the rest of the piece

Step 14: Finishing touches

I add the ice-cream menu on the side, which already brings out the story element of that component. Then of course I add a little blood smeared on it for extra horror goodness! It's around this stage that I experiment with placing a little hint of a person in the driver's seat, but every attempt looks forced and too obvious, so I decide to leave it up to the audience to decide where the driver went. I also add a little value separation between the near building and the main building to create more of a silhouette there. Finally I shift the color palette towards green, as it's becoming a little warm and the scene needs to be slightly less friendly. Overall I'm pleased with the mood this piece conjures up, as well as the story lines that could unfold from it.

Final image

Final image

Pro tip: Story comes a close second to composition

Story is the overall idea or concept of the piece. Sometimes you make art that's just pretty and you'll notice it doesn't get much attention. But throw in a little backstory or some elements that make us go deeper into the scene or character, and your audience will not just appreciate the piece but delight in it. As with composition, don't just settle for a guy standing on a mountain and call it a story. Really think about elements that make your audience curious as to what's going on and invite them in to explore. What's in the box? Who's around the corner? What story happened to get us to this scene?

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