Movie Poster Artist: The Work of Drew Struzan

You’ll know the work of Drew Struzan even if you don’t know the name. He’s the master artist behind such iconic movies posters as Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Back To The Future. Top 10 Films celebrates his work…

When I think about my favourite movie posters of all time I notice that I delight in one sheets for films from all genres, from different decades, and various countries. But when I start to pick out just a few that simply have to be placed proudly on the wall, there is one notable commonality. Of those picked to be framed and mounted, all are the work of ace poster maker Drew Struzan.

You’ll know Drew Struzan’s work even if the name is not familiar

Undoubtedly, you would have come across Struzan’s work even if you don’t recognise the name. He’s the man who designed the iconic posters for such celebrated and widely loved films as Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Back To The Future. His unmistakable style mastered the use of the airbrush to create film imagery that was realistic and detailed but had a distinctive painted look. This style was perfect for the genres he began to work frequently in. After Star Wars he was regularly involved with action-adventure, fantasy, science-fiction, comedy, and horror movies. These were the type of Hollywood productions, especially throughout the 1980s, that relied on the audience’s suspension of disbelief. They were tales of magic, heroes, far away planets and battles between good and evil both on earth and off it. Struzan’s wonderfully imaginative creations, that felt drawn from fantasy and a sense of adventure, were the perfect marketing tool to these exceptionally popular films.

Back To The Future by Drew Struzan

Drew Struzan’s wonderfull depiction of Marty Mcfly and Doc Brown for Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future

Struzan was born in Oregon City, Oregon in 1947. He went to the Art Center College of Design after relocating to Los Angeles at age 18 where he decided to major in illustration. Throughout school he sold his artwork to make extra money and accepted a few commissions, graduating with honours and a Bachelor of Arts degree.

“Amongst all the difficulty and turmoil of the business it was the place that dreams were made and it was a beautiful life for me.”Drew Struzan

Struzan says, “After achieving an education I tried to go to work but me and my family went years under the poverty level. I was working but it made little to no income. Eventually I landed a studio position as an illustrator. It proved to be just the thing. I worked every day making pictures but the difference was that my work was being seen, printed and distributed. The movie studios somehow caught wind of my work and when they began to call for me was when I began to get into the movie poster field.

Drew Struzan's iconic imagery for Star Wars

Struzan says it wasn’t quite the big break he was looking for. That came seven years later when George Lucas began working on Star Wars. “That proved to be the landing of a big job. Not in pay, not in recognition, but a step up to quality work and opportunity to keep going, doing more,” says Struzan. “For me it’s another day’s work, another day with food on the table, another day grateful to get to do what I love…make art.”

After college Struzan’s first job was with Pacific Eye and Ear, a design firm. It was here that he began designing 12×12 inch album covers, forming a long list of notable clients in the process including The Beach Boys, Black Sabbath, Liberace and the Bee Gees.

His cover art for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare was voted as one of the top 100 album posters of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

A talent waiting to break out

Despite his success, Struzan was still earning very little for his considerable talent. He formed a small company called Pencil Pushers where he began to hone his craft for the airbrush. He would become so proficient at the process he was widely considered the master of the art. The way Struzan worked was to use airbrushed acrylics on a board with finer details completed in coloured pencil. This allowed him the flexibility to make changes if the client so wished. Preferring to work on a 1 to 1 scale, Struzan would complete movie posters on boards 27 x 40 inches, the size of a printed movie poster. For films, he would work from photographs and live models to recreate scenes in his distinctive style.

Struzan’s first film posters appeared in 1975 for trashy B-movies but as his work became more well known it was these types of B-movies, albeit with A-movie budgets later on, that would be forever remembered.

Drew Struzan, police academy, film poster, airbrush, painter

Drew Struzan paints the cast of Police Academy.

The Star Wars commission came about after fellow artist Charles White III was tasked by Lucas to design posters for the 1978 re-release of Star Wars. White was uncomfortable with portraiture so asked Struzan for some assistance. Struzan painted the human characters in oil paints while White focussed on the ships and mechanical details such as the robot character C-3PO and mechanised Darth Vader.

Struzan told Echo Station, “The first one I did was the re-release poster for the original film back in 1978. Actually, it wasn’t my job. The way it works is, you know, you get hired to do these things and Charlie White III got hired to do the poster. Charlie’s a pretty well-known airbrush artist, but he doesn’t do portraiture. So once he got the job, he knew he needed to have portraits done so he called me and asked if I wanted to share doing a painting with him. He’d do all the robots and the spaceships and stuff, and I’d do the people, because he couldn’t do people. I said, “Sure, that’d be fun.” At the time I didn’t know what would come of it. So, I did all the people in the painting and he did the airbrushing and the robots and stuff. Some people refer to it as the “Circus poster”. I don’t know why they call it that.”

This led to Struzan working on such films as Blade Runner, The Cannonball Run, Back To The Future, Coming To America, Risky Business, The Goonies, and the Police Academy series. Throughout the 1980s Struzan was completing around 10 posters per year.

Following his work with George Lucas for Star Wars, Struzan continued his relationship with the writer-producer, working on all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, as well as associated re-releases, merchandising, video and DVD covers, theme-park rides and video games. Struzan’s work became the defining images of all these films and remains his most well known work.

Struzan speaks jovially about the creative process saying that any film poster is a collaborative effort between a whole host of people from producers, directors, writers, actors, marketing firms, and design studios.

“I love the texture of paint made of colored earth, of oil from the trees and of canvas and paper. I love the expression of paint from a brush or a hand smearing charcoal, the dripping of paint and moisture of water, the smell of the materials.”Drew Struzan

He mentions his artwork for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner amongst his favourite pieces. “Sometimes it’s the art – Blade Runner was a successful piece, for example,” he says. “Sometimes it was the situation – working with my dear fiends like Frank Darabont or Guillermo del Toro. Sometimes it was the freedom afforded me with Star Wars by George Lucas. Other times it was because it was a cool project like Hook because of Steven Spielberg. Amongst all the difficulty and turmoil of the business it was the place that dreams were made and it was a beautiful life for me.”

As the 1990s arrived and digital animation began to dominate, Struzan’s hand-drawn artwork was in less demand. He still created posters for such blockbuster movies as Hook, Hellboy and Harry Potter, but he began to find other outlets for his work including comic books, limited edition art, and the collectible market. As such his art can be found on such items as Franklin Mint pieces, a twelve plate collectable set commemorating Princess Diana, the 1996 edition of the board game Clue, and various U.S postage stamps.

drew struzan, blade runner, coming to america, big trouble in little china, movie posters, batteries not included

Drew Struzan’s painted poster art for Blade Runner (top left), Big Trouble In Little China (top right), Coming To America (bottom left), and Batteries Not Included (bottom right).

Of the decline of traditional art Struzan said, “I love the texture of paint made of colored earth, of oil from the trees and of canvas and paper. I love the expression of paint from a brush or a hand smearing charcoal, the dripping of paint and moisture of water, the smell of the materials. I delight in the changeable nature of a painting with new morning light or in the afternoon when the sun turns a painting orange or by firelight at night. I love to see it, hold it, touch it, smell it, and create it. My gift is to share my life by allowing others to see into my heart and spirit through such tangible, comprehensible and familiar means. The paint is part of the expression.”

Struzan returned to the Star Wars franchise with artwork for Episodes 1, 2, and 3. And most recently he worked on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull before announcing his retirement in 2008.

Erik Sharkey directed a documentary in 2010 entitled Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, looking back at Struzan’s life and work. The film features interviews with those involved in the films Struzan has worked on including George Lucas, Michael J. Fox, Harrison Ford, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Steven Spielberg.

Written by Daniel Stephens

Discover more:
Check out more of Drew Struzan’s paintings at his website here

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. JasonW Reply

    Love this guy’s work yet never knew who he was. Thanks for the article.

  2. Eileen Reply

    In interview he always comes across as quite arrogant. But that doesn’t take anything away from his considerable talent. Shame he’s retired now.

  3. sundryandco Reply

    I love the An American Tail ones on his website, and Back to the Future IV, as well as Batteries Not Included above. When I win the National Lottery jackpot, I’ll wallpaper my room with his work.

  4. Dan Reply

    @Jason: It’s nice to put a personality to the work. I too didn’t know who designed these posters before looking into them. Even though I saw a resemblance in style I wasn’t aware these posters were created by one person (even though Struzan would stress it is a collaborative effort).

    @Eileen: I wouldn’t call it arrogance but I can understand what you mean. I think he’s just very passionate about what he does and didn’t always get the credit in his early career.

    @sundryandco: That would be my wish too! The Batteries not Included poster is superb, I totally agree.

  5. Rodney Reply

    Man, that Blade Runner poster is awesome. Thanks for the great article Dan, in bringing the work of this artist to the masses!!!

  6. Ross McG Reply

    man that Batteries not Included one is creepy!

  7. Dan Reply

    @Ross: …but they’re ‘good’ alien spaceships. 😉

  8. Luke Reply

    Great idea for an article, my friend. These are wonderful – I really do miss the drawn posters of pre-1990s cinema. I definitely would take them over all these floating head photoshop nightmares of the past 10 years…

  9. Fitz Reply

    Great work and really makes you wish that there weren’t so many photoshop posters out there.

  10. Richard Reply

    I love Struzan’s work! Movie posters like his are sadly an extinct breed. I wrote a blog about Struzan and his peers during their 80s heyday. Check it out. http://celluloidzombie.com/2010/07/12/my-golden-age-of-movie-posters/

  11. Mike Reply

    You must check out the movie mentioned in the article: Erik Sharkey directed a documentary in 2010 entitled Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, looking back at Struzan’s life and work. The film features interviews with those involved in the films Struzan has worked on including George Lucas, Michael J. Fox, Harrison Ford, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and Steven Spielberg.
    Great insight into things you never knew for all movie lovers!

  12. Jamie Mathers Reply

    He’s a genius and should paint more of the posters for new films. Most posters using photography suck at the moment. It’s nice that so many independent movies are using hand drawn art though. Here’s hoping it will eventually make a comeback in Hollywood!

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