Born in Oregon in 1947, artist Drew Struzan rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of the movie poster industry, crafting iconic images for some of the biggest films and film series in movie history. A graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, where he worked his way through school by selling his artwork, Struzan was a freelancer for several years before being hired as a staff artist at Los Angeles design studio Pacific Eye & Ear, where he created album covers for artists such as Black Sabbath, Roy Orbison, Iron Butterfly and more. Struzan’s design for Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare was voted voted by Rolling Stone as one of the Top 100 album covers of all time.
In 1975, Struzan started Pencil Pushers, an artistic collaboration that led to work on film posters. During this period, Struzan primarily created artwork for B-movies such as Empire of the Ants and Food of the Gods, until he was contacted by a fellow artist and offered the opportunity to work on the poster design for the 1978 re-release of Star Wars, the success of which made him one of the most in-demand artists in the world. In the years since, Struzan has produced artwork for the subsequent Star Wars films and books, as well as dozens of other films including E.T., Blade Runner, Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Police Academy. With his lifelike portraits and rich, detailed brushwork, Struzan’s designs highlight the strength and humanity of the characters and, in the process, helped to elevate the movie poster medium to the level of fine art.
The 2013 documentary, Drew: The Man Behind The Poster, explores Struzan’s life and work, and features interviews with filmmakers and actors such as George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Steven Spielberg, Thomas Jane, Guillermo del Toro and Frank Darabont.
Struzan lives in California with his wife, Dylan. To learn more about him and his work, visit www.drewstruzan.com.
Stylistically and/or creatively, who were your biggest inspirations and influences when you were young?
In college, Lorser Feitelson (one of my instructors) was an inspiration artistically. I love draftsmanship so I gravitated toward the great draftsmen like Pontormo, Reubens. I learned how to draw from them. I love the Impressionists for their color. I like color. I want my paintings to be beautiful. I like strong composition. It gives power to a piece. I learned from Cezanne and Degas. I love quality art. I think art has the power to make the world a more beautiful, happier, loving place. I picked up style and techniques from those who have done the very best throughout history.
I get work where people have a concept but they ask me to work my magic on the idea. What they mean is give it composition, make the color beautiful, draw beautifully and get the likeness. They know I can do that and it happens to be what I love doing. It turns out that’s what people like to see and that’s why I started painting in the first place, to make people happy.
How do you think your life might have turned out differently had you gotten your Master’s Degree and become a teacher at the Art Center?
I don’t meditate on “what ifs.” I’m so happy with where my life is and what I do. I wanted to teach because when I was in school, that’s all I knew. I had no experiences. I hadn’t been anywhere or seen anything, so when I went to school to become an artist, I saw teaching. I taught some classes while I was still in school so I thought I could do this. One of the greatest blessings I ever got was that I didn’t get my Master’s Degree. I had to go find a job and I found something I really like to do. I get to please people throughout the world. The circumstances produced a life. I couldn’t leave for NY where publishing was, so I stayed in LA and found work in LA. Long story short, I wound up in the movie industry and my style and technique developed accordingly.
About ten minutes. I did an album cover called The Brothers Johnson where I tried the airbrush. I never wasted my time. I just jumped in and did it.
It gave me a tool that created other effects. It does things a pencil can’t do, the way a paintbrush can’t do, the way charcoal can’t do. You can mix color dry. If you mix wet color together, it is hard to make purple. You do it with an airbrush, you put down blue and put red over it and you get a perfect purple. You don’t mix color; you look through the color. It changed the way I mix color and changed the way I apply color.
I didn’t give up painting with a brush. I still use that tool. I still make color with pastels. I still use all the mediums. Airbrush just gave me another choice. That’s important to me because I’m inventive and creative in the way I make art. The spotty texture I like is done with an airbrush (like on Goonies). You can’t do it any other way.
I looked at parchment and wondered what makes it look that way. It looks motley but it also looks like coffee has been spilled on it. Then I create what I want from there. Spray water, then paint, and blot off the paint. That’s one technique. I do a lot of things to create the texture I want. I put sand in paint to get what I want. I spray turpentine over wet oil paint for texture or mix water and oil. Whatever it takes. I’m looking for new ways to create beauty.
Working in the movie industry, I’m always looking for an easier and faster way to do something because I often have to create work overnight or in a very short time-span. If you look at the cover for the Mad Magazine I did, you’d swear the sweater was knitted but it wasn’t. I didn’t render it. I cut out the shape on the mask, painted the sweater, put some knitting on top of the paint, squashed it down, and then pulled it up. Looks like knitting.
Everybody knows more than me so they all fascinate me. How about the guy that wrote and directed Pan’s Labyrinth? Wouldn’t you like to know the mind that can do that? How about the most beloved movie of all time, Shawshank Redemption? When you look at Shawshank Redemption, you absolutely see the heart and mind of Frank Darabont. Or the guy that did E.T. The guy that did Star Wars. I know these people for their creativity, their love, their ability and desire to give these gifts to humanity.
I’m an artist that was driven by necessity. I was stupid and ignorant and young. All I knew is that I had a wife and a child to provide for. I could have gotten a job anywhere, but I had a purpose. I wanted to be an artist. I looked for work being an artist. No matter how cheap the drawing, I was doing what I wanted to do. I got into the movie industry because they saw my work on album covers. They asked me to do the work and my answer was “yes” because I needed the work and it was doing what I wanted to do. I learned the necessary business of the industry in which I was working. I learned what was necessary to be successful to work in that industry. It wasn’t just painting the pictures. It was understanding the movie, the creative drive of the directors and the actors. It was understanding story, understanding that a poster wasn’t supposed to tell a story but was supposed to invite you in.
Mel Brooks told me “the movie poster is an invitation to go see the movie.” It is to excite you, show you something that interests you and makes you curious as to what the story behind it is about. I’ve learned these things because I needed to know them to do the work. And then, because I loved the painting, I learned how to do it well within the industry and for the job that I was performing. You learn how to do what you need to do. The peculiar thing is that I stuck to my passion which was art, wherever it came from.
When designing a poster, at what stage do you have to consider the typography of the title and the credits? Does a studio simply tell you how much space they’ll need for the title and let you work around it accordingly?
I always have to consider that as a necessary part among other things I have to consider that are contractual. It varies about size and placement with each job. They don’t always have that information ready when I’m doing the work. Sometimes I design from knowing the business. It’s not specifically and continually the same. The only thing that is consistent is that they need the space. They can change the size of the title and billing and still keep it contractual. It isn’t a giant issue. You just have to be aware and create the space.
What made you decide to start incorporating images of yourself and people you know into your work?
Necessity. My son posed as E.T. because he was the shortest person I knew. He put on my bathrobe and posed like E.T. If I needed a pretty girl, I painted my wife because it was cheap, available, and timely. I posed as Indiana Jones.
Are there any movies released during your career that you wish you’d had the chance to create a poster for, either because you enjoyed the movie or because you had a clear vision for what the poster could’ve looked like?
I don’t think that way. I’m grateful for what I get. After a while I was so damned busy that I didn’t have time to think about anything else.
George Lucas and I get along very well. When it comes to creative thought, we are much the same, quiet and introverted. The best thing was, if you didn’t know, when George Lucas was young, he wanted to be an illustrator. He has great love and respect for illustration. He’s bought almost every piece I’ve ever painted for him. It led to respect for the art, respect for my work, respect for my thinking. He just let me run free. He let me paint what I wanted to paint, more or less. It was wonderful to not be bossed around by some ignoramus who doesn’t know anything about art.
Painting is not just moving paint around. It’s about having concepts and designs and compositions and ideas and purposes. It’s not just materials. It is a sensitivity to the story and the project to be able to know what things in a movie and a story that are touching and inspirational to people. That’s a concept that I can address. Most every director I work with say that I am able to hone in on the important things in the film and give them expression. I’m not just painting wildly – like, I like cars so I’m just painting the cars in the movie. No. Whatever their passion was, I get it and I can address it and I can paint it. I’m trying to give back to the director what he’s been trying to give to us. I do that in one image.
How did the idea for your documentary, Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, come about?
A director and a producer with a passion for movies made a small movie which was originally called Sexina: Popstar P.I. They called the best illustrator they knew to create the poster for their film. To their surprise, I said “sure” because I’m still in the framework of “I need the work.”
When they were ready to make their second movie, they asked themselves what they wanted to make it about. They decided to make it about me because they both like my work. They called me on the phone and asked if they could make a movie about me. I said okay as long as they make it nice. That’s where the idea came from.
Where do you see the movie poster industry going in the coming years?
There is no movie poster industry. It’s all done on computers, directed by business men. It’s become an industry that’s been given over to businesses rather than artists. Art is gone.
From your perspective, what are the biggest differences between the art world now and the art world when you were starting out? Do you think it’s easier or more difficult for young artists to make ends meet these days?
When I was in school in the ’60s, the art world had the saying “art is dead.” It was said that there is nothing more to do. I don’t think there’s been a resurrection.
I’ve only lived one life. I can’t tell you what came before. What’s happened in my short lifespan is that illustration has gone down the tubes. Artists have always been hungry. Rembrandt died a pauper. The biggest thing going was publishing. Magazine covers. Book covers. N.C. Wyeth did that his entire life. Leyendecker did magazine covers. Rockwell, magazine covers. Those guys made millions of dollars. It is gone.
Movie poster work is a very small industry. There’s a finite amount of films made each year. Very small industry. How many poster are there going to be? It’s hard. It’s terrible. The only people making money off of art are art schools. Without patrons of art, there are no artists. That goes for fine art as well as illustration.
I went to Japan to sell my work. They have an appreciation for art. It’s not that way in America. It’s too bad there is so little appreciation for art in America.
Are there any other contemporary artists that you particularly admire?
All kinds of us out there. Too numerous to mention. In my field, I’m absorbed with the work of truly great artists. My inspiration is all around. It comes from movies, books, writers, painters, singers, all of life is inspiring. Flowers. Animals. Cloudy skies. Everything around me is inspiring.
What does a typical day for you look like?
Like everybody else’s – 24 hours. I’m not a routine kind of guy. When I have work, I work like crazy. When I’m not working, I paint. When I’m not doing that I go out and play with the grandchildren or go on vacation with my wife. I’m not run by the clock.
What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?
Loved Dragon 2. Ender’s Game. Django Unchained. They aren’t movies, but Penny Dreadful and Daredevil.