Drew Struzan and Navigating History

I’ve received a lot of comments, emails, and at last week’s NCFIC conference, lots of questions about the DVD cover for Navigating History. Lots of you have wanted to know who did it, how it was done, why it was done, and if I realized that it was copying Indiana Jones. In short, I painted this poster in an effort to communicate the vision of the first season of the Navigating History show, and I did my best to copy Drew Struzan’s style, partly because he set so many of the visual precedents that we associate with adventure, and partly as a tribute to him.

Navigating History: Egypt

Drew Struzan, now retired, was in many ways the most successful movie poster artist in the history of film. His technical ability was unmatched, and his aesthetic style was incredibly appealing, but his greatest skill was capturing the best elements of a film and making them stronger. He made adventures more adventurous, dramas more dramatic, and the posters were almost always better than the movies. When I became a man I put away childish things (and then watched as George Lucas made them into stupid, infantile things), but even so… I’ve got to admit that looking at the posters makes me want to watch Star Wars again.

Even though his work only involved creating advertising materials for films that were already complete, I believe that he had a significant influence on the direction of Hollywood in the 80s. Films with Struzan posters did well financially, and sequels, spinoffs, and imitations seem to follow the essence of the posters as much as the plots of the films. Also, in the same way that John Williams brought film scoring back to a symphonic and orchestral base after the improvisational synth soundtrack trends of the 70s, Struzan brought more of a fine-art sensibility of portraiture back to advertisements that were becoming crude and intangible.

Not that fine art and Star Wars really go together in other respects

His posters are yet another example of commercial illustration, which socialists and auteurs denigrate as being low-brow populist drek, really being some of the best art of its time. John Sargent, Norman Rockwell, and Drew Struzan, within the constraints and supports of the free market, have created some of the most technically superior art of the last century, while their contemporaries in the subsidized or “proper” art world were generally lost in the ugly and abstract.

This is also obvious in film. Talented filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis are at their best when working for critical employers using limited resources to sell tickets to a dubious audience. When they have unlimited budgets and can coast on name recognition with an army of yes-men supporting them, they create bloated, pointless movies that were probably more fun to make than to watch. Of course, these Hollywood blockbusters still have good photography, thrilling scores, and at least some measure of story – a holdover from the disciplines achieved by these directors in their younger, more structured, free-market days.

A definite decline is apparent...

If you think I’m being harsh, consider the new generation of “free-thinking” indie filmmakers with no constraints or rules or even marketing goals. Inevitably, they make terrible, selfishly-motivated films that only artsy posers can pretend to like, just like the works of unconstrained composers, painters, and sculptors of the past. When a desire to communicate edginess or chaos (usually under the pretense of truer truth or more realistic reality) trumps the desire to communicate actual truth and reality (as Rushdoony wrote, “Reality reflects the mind of God, not man.”), the artist must shake off all traditions and standards of his craft, as well as the limits of the market.

In fact, as Christian observers, we can go further. We can see active rebellion against created order in the works of many artists, particularly those artists who desire only self-expression and self-satisfaction. Artists who specifically work for the glory of God (such as J.S. Bach), the approval of paying clients (the Dutch Masters), the gratification of a paying public (professionals during the Golden Age of Illustration), or all three (J. S. Bach), tend to achieve a better aesthetic, amazing technical ability, and are much less likely to go insane.

Now, it should be noted that Drew Struzan’s amazing artistic talent and solid technical disciplines have largely been used to glorify Hollywood films and rock albums, and this in itself is an important lesson. Art is a powerful tool, not just passive or neutral decoration. We need to think long and hard about the effect that our creative energies may have, and who might benefit from them. Whatever can be said about Struzan’s legacy, I think that when we see a man who is skilled in his work, we should take notice.

The Back to the Future Trilogy

Struzan is a master of lighting, color, and composition, and since I can’t really simulate mastery, I decided to copy a few of his trademark poster elements and the overall look of his physical style. Specifically, I wanted to evoke the Last Crusade poster, possibly his best work. That poster also contains a few hat-tips to the original Raiders poster by Robert Amsel, so I studied it as well.

These posters have a rougher, older, more distressed style than some of Struzan’s more airbrushed, 80s sci-fi posters, but you can see a lot of his signature elements: a college of overlapping faces, many elements or locations from the film expertly blended, at strong atmospheric feel, harsh back or side lighting with very soft fill, a broken frame made of architectural elements around the subjects, and some glows or lens flares, usually from a visible sunset.

Raiders of the Lost Ark PosterThe Last Crusade poster

Struzan tends to mix transparent acrylic paint and opaque color pencil to create his posters. Sometimes the paint is applied over a pencil sketch with an airbrush, and sometimes the sketch goes on top of a thickly applied undercoat, and the brushstrokes become part of the image. However, the final touches are usually sharp, bold pencil lines, which look loose and sketchy but fall precisely in the right places.

His adventure posters have less airbrushing and more pencil, usually rough pencil scratches over rough brushstrokes, which get rougher the farther they get from the main portraits. Worn fabrics and worn stone are accentuated, sometimes with a pass of charcoal or pastel, sometimes with a few paint spatters from a brush. In short, a lot of very analog physical elements that are hard to recreate digitally.

Note the pronounced paint daubs and brush strokes on this CD cover

First, I tried to duplicate all of this in Photoshop by simply painting over some photos that I’d assembled into a rough mockup, but it really didn’t match. At all. It turns out that the best way to simulate the look is to bite the bullet and actually do the work, so I started over with a pencil sketch and painted on top of that using the colors from the photos.

Then came the textures, the paint spatters, the lens flare, and the detailing, essentially in the order that they’d be done on a board, or at least, as near as I can guess how Struzan likes to do them. It took me a few days of sketching, painting, and experimenting… but Struzan can create a complete poster, start to finish, in two days, and that’s without cheating in Photoshop.

Mockup, sketches, and the final product

Attempting to copy another artist is very educational. I’ve always liked Struzan’s work, appreciated his eye, and thought that I understood all the elements of his style, but attempting to duplicate it forced me to really study him in a way that I never had before. I only wish I had time to redo this poster from scratch, since I now have a much better grasp, and appreciation, of the craftsmanship that is involved.

I don’t have much time for painting in general, but traditional art is one of my main interests, and I’ve decided that if I have a few free days in 2012, I should keep experimenting. I’ve already started a list of other artists to copy in an effort to learn more about them, since that seems like one of the best ways to hone my own analytical eye. Which makes yet another lesson that I’ve learned from Drew Struzan.

The finished three-panel DVD cover for Navigating History:Egypt


  1. Just one little nitpick… The poster of Raiders of the Lost Ark was made by Richard Amsel. You can even see his signature in the right bottom corner.

    - Jose R Acebes
  2. This is a very educational and interesting post, Isaac, thank you! I’ve always liked those posters but was not aware of the history behind them.

    - Grace
  3. Wonderful stuff! Thanks for those fascinating insights and I completely agree with your analysis. I love what you were able to accomplish by careful study and imitation of Struzan’s work.

  4. Great job! I’m impressed.

    - Daniel
  5. My family was thinking about using this series for a Sunday School class. Is the series easily broken down into 20-30 minute segments? We wanted to spread the series over a 8-12 week period.

    - Colvins
  6. Great article on Drew, thanks for the info. FYI, Drew created a DVD that’s a step-by-step art lesson in the illustration techniques that he uses to create his famous posters. Drew shot it in his studio and it’s segmented into chapters for easy reference like: composition, painting, drawing, air brushing, etc. You can watch excerpts from the DVD at Drew’s YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Haveyjames#p/u/6/Cf-xlYvR1CY and you can purchase the DVD from Drew’s website: http://www.drewstruzan.com
    The DVD “Creating and Conceiving the Hellboy Movie Poster Art” makes a great for anyone interested in art.

  7. That is very artistic! The details make it look just like a star wars or Indiana Jones poster. I have yet to watch Navigating History: Egypt. It looks very fun!

  8. I shall have to show this post to my sister, who is a traditional artist who also learns best by copying the masters. (right now she is learning what goes into making traditional German frakturs by making copies of originals). In any case, I found your post instructive and fascinating!

    This is a totally different subject, but I had to ask: My family and I just went out to see Tintin last night, and I found it to be an all-around very well made movie. If you have the time to share (and have seen Tintin), I would very much appreciate knowing your thoughts on the film, from the viewpoint of a Christian film maker.

    - Hannah Lashbrook
  9. Thank you for posting this article! I agree with Grace, I’ve always admired the skill and artistic sensibility in these posters but didn’t know anything about the artist. I remember when I tried my hand at copying the Indiana Jones posters, a few years ago when I was searching for a sufficiently adventuresome art style for my brother’s birthday card; it was lots of fun! And I agree, copying an artist’s works is the best way to learn about them; I’ve learned far more that way than I could begin to say.
    I also really appreciated your comments on so-called ‘commercial art’ versus the modern concept of art for art’s sake. The concept that art should have no greater purpose than the fulfillment of the artist’s own ego is so pervasive in our age that it easily seeps even into the Christian idea of art. Whereas the reality is that art done with ANY purpose outside of itself, even if it is the purpose of fulfilling the gratification of a paying public, is far superior to the art of self-worship. The sad fact is, that when an artist seeks to make self-expression his purpose, he will succeed; but that very sucess is his failure, because the self all on its own is a blankly horrifying thing.
    I’m curious to know who the other artists on your to-study list are!

    - Abigail
  10. Your poster is really spectacular! I’ve been studying Drew Struzan’s work over the last year and it’s exciting to see other christian filmmakers take an interest in his work. I recently created a Struzan style poster for C.S Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet” as part of a college final. If your interested, I’d love to compare technical notes.

    - Stephen Ronan

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