Known mostly as “the Star Wars artist,” he draws inspiration from other forces, too
by GARY GERANI
Photo: (Poster) STRUZAN’S LONG RELATIONSHIP WITH LUCASFILM DATES BACK TO 1977 WHEN AN OLD ART SCHOOL MENTOR ASKED HIM TO DO THE PORTRAITS FOR THIS STAR WARS RE-RELEASE POSTER.
INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE TO A GENERATION OF FANS AND collectors as “the Star Wars artist,” Drew Struzan is indeed that and a great deal more. This sensitive and eloquent man, a self-described recluse, has redefined the art of the motion-picture poster, creating memorable paintings for more than 150 films since the early 1970s. Teacher and lecturer, he is the artist of choice for both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, E. T., Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hook—all have received the distinctive Struzan treatment, a phenomenal blend of realism, stylization and, perhaps the most important ingredient of all, heart. ❖ “It’s partly the talent and partly the temperament that drives me in this creative direction,” Struzan explains of his artistic nature. “I’m an introverted person. My power and my learning and my understanding of life comes from the inside out rather than the outside in. I’m at my strongest when I’m alone.” ❖ That said, Struzan is quick to deflate some of the melodramatic myths associated with his branch of creativity. “Many people get the impression that all artists are self-centered, that we have some kind of innate understanding of the universe,” he says. “But it’s not true. It’s just the way we learn to express ourselves. If you were a ball player, you’d need a team in order to express yourself, you’d need to cooperate with others. To be an artist, you need to be very introspective. You have to think about things, you have to ‘feel’ about them and you have to develop abilities to express them—and that’s the sort of stuff you have to do on your own. If you’re looking for someone to tell you how to do it, then it’s no longer your expression.” ❖ Struzan’s relationship with art and its ramifications started early on. Bom in Oregon City in 1947, the young fellow’s talent amazed all, and a career in the field of creative expression seemed inevitable. But with a recognition of his unique skills came a painful, unexpected price.
“My folks, unfortunately, were confused by it,” he remembers with a sigh. “It scared them. My father was very insecure, and I think he felt threatened by it. They were parents who were not particularly educated or enlightened in this area. They did tell me later that they willfully didn’t praise me because they didn’t want to hurt my brother and sister, who didn’t have the same kind of talent. Ironically, it wound up kind of doing the opposite. An artist is a person who needs a lot of love and understanding. I received no support, no love and no understanding. So I’ve really wound up living on my own... I’ve been that way all my life.”
Well, not exactly alone. Struzan lives with his author wife of 29 years, Dylan, and their young son in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Raised in California, he worked his way through a formal education at the Art Center College of Design and earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Great Distinction. Along the way, he learned what all illustrators must: the sometimes delicate balance between self-expression and commercial necessity.
“Art is a true language; it’s only as good as how well you leam to speak it,” Struzan clarifies. “I’m looking for a universal visual communication that elicits a universal kind of response, so you have to listen to people. If this is how a person reacts, what is he reacting to? Is it consistent all the time? When you discover that, you find a truth in your language, and a whole lot of what makes me successful is that I do listen.”
Living in Los Angeles, the heart of the entertainment business, Struzan began his freelancing for clients in the record industry (“I painted everyone from Liberace to Alice Cooper”) before movie makers took notice of his distinctive work. He and a friend formed a company to develop film poster advertising, supplying beautiful paintings for essentially grade-B productions. His big break came in 1977, when he received a phone call from his old Art Center mentor, Charles White III. White, a master of the airbrush, had just been commissioned by George Lucas to render a poster for the re-release of Star Wars. White needed help with the character portraits, and recalled his former student’s talents.
“Charlie did the robots and vehicles, and I did the people,” Struzan remembers. “It was the first time I had ever used an airbrush, although the portraits were actually rendered in oil paint on illustration board beforehand.” And what about the unique, “ripped off the billboard” look of the finished art? Was that part of the original creative plan?
“Necessity became the mother of invention, as it so often does,” Struzan reveals. “Originally, the poster that is ‘posted’ was all there was to it. It was conceived to look like a period piece, which is why I painted it in an ‘older’ style. After it was finished, and the lettering was done at the top and a space was put at the bottom for the billing, there wasn’t enough room for the billing because of the size of the logo. It was a contractual concern. We had to come up with a way of making more space for the billing.”
The inspired solution resulted in one of the most popular Star Wars poster designs of all time. “Charlie did some ripping and tearing on it, and I painted Obi-Wan Kenobi on the left to stick in the background, so it looks like there were other pictures underneath [the main poster],” Struzan explains. “Then we had more space at the bottom to put the billing in.”
Photo: (Poster) FOR THIS TEASER POSTER, WHEN THE MOVIE WAS STILL BEING CALLED REVENGE OF THE I EDI, STRUZAN SAYS HE "WANTED TO DO SOMETHING A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT.”
The challenge for the Revenge of the Jedi teaser one-sheet, promoting the trilogy’s third installment before its final title was announced, was a bit more basic. “I wanted to do something a little different,” the artist recalls. “It was a simple idea, more scale than anything else: the head of Vader in a big background, with a little-bitty laser fight out in front. There wasn’t an established look to [Jedi s advertising] at that time; the styles were all over the place. So the poster stands out as a peculiar one.” Since then, Struzan has revisited Lucas’ fanciful cosmos on many occasions. Preferring the montage format, he’s rendered memorable ones for the 10th anniversary poster, countless book covers and other campaigns. “A montage doesn’t necessarily tell the story—that’s what you see the movie for—but with enough elements, the right feeling comes across and the essence of the subject is conveyed,” he explains. “First it’s a selection of stills, objects, characters, the faces of the actors. Then it’s how they’re lit and colored.
What kind of composition do you use? Is it relaxed? Is it nervous? Adventurous? All those things begin to convey the soul of the film, the emotion of it, the coloration of it. I believe in truth in advertising, so I paint what’s really in the film.”
In recent years, a distressing trend has developed in American movie advertising, one that has sent many illustrators back to the drawing board as they reevaluate the changing marketplace. After a rich, 70-year history of painted posters, many producers are opting for a photographic approach to selling their films. “Photography is a direct reflection of reality,” says Struzan. “Art is interpretive, therefore it embodies more emotion and feeling. That’s why George Lucas usually goes with a painting for his work, because he wants to embody the feeling, or the soul, of the movie.
Despite this irritating trend, painting won’t fade away and Struzan will remain a fervent advocate of what he sees as art’s ultimate purpose. “Art can be... the thing that makes us humans, not animals,” he says. “It’s love and justice and wisdom, the things that should make us most proud and be most developed in our personalities.”
In striving to attain those ideals, Struzan stresses the importance of learning from—but not imitating—the masters of art and illustration. “People who have come before me have opened doors of understanding and appreciation,” he contends. “I want to take advantage of those opened doors and pass through them. While I admire the classic illustrators,
I surely don’t want to repeat them. I’m always asking myself, what more can I do—how can I open the door wider—so that people can have a new experience? I enjoy inventing things that people haven’t seen before.”
That’s a trait he shares with George Lucas, which may explain why Struzan has been commissioned to paint the filmmaker’s portrait for covers several times. Both are visionaries who have touched our lives with their unique
creations, enabling us to see and feel radically different worlds and experiences. “Maybe [art] won’t change the world,” Struzan recently told friend and colleague Michael R. Whipple, “but it should make it a better place to live in.” 4)
Gary Gerani is a regular contributor.
Photo: SINCE THE STAR WARS 10TH ANNIVERSARY POSTER, STRUZAN HAS DONE PLENTY FOR LUCASFILM, ESPECIALLY BOOK COVERS.
How Drew Draws
Drew Struzan undertakes an illustration in three steps: i) He renders a full-value drawing in graphite pencil. 2) The drawing is tinted with airbrush-applied acrylic paint. 3) Everything is rendered and tightened up, and occasionally colored pencils are used for accenting.
Struzan has the technical ability to paint in any medium—traditional oils, watercol-ors, gouache, airbrush or enamels—and chooses whatever he feels is appropriate for the subject matter. He coats his canvases with Gesso, a type of modeling paste that produces dramatic textures and patterns.
Art vs. Illustration
"I have the heart of an artist,” says Drew Struzan. "So even though I chose a career in illustration, I’ve always been a painter.
I mix as much of that passion as I can into an illustration.
"What I paint is art... and that’s very different from illustration, which is subject matter. I paint a movie or I paint a person, and that’s really the subject of it. But if I were to paint on my own, the subject would be art itself. You can bring up a
feeling of joy or peace or goodness or a motivation for strength and courage.
You can stir people intellectually or psychologically by digging into their hearts for a change.
"I learned how to paint an open-ended picture,” he explains. "It makes a person look into his heart, but what he finds there depends upon what’s in there. The most important thing about it is to make people look, which a lot people are afraid to do; they spend their lives avoiding that. It can be a very frightening place to look.”
[Source: Star Wars Galaxy Collector, #1, February 1998, P.22-25]