Interdisciplinary Practice Project: The Intersection of Film and Painting

Aims and Objectives

In this project I wanted to look at various aspects of film making to see how film and painting intersect. I wanted to consider how my own work could develop from learning about film, particularly cinematographic techniques.

My current work is mainly made using ink on paper. Figures are set into slightly abstracted surroundings and layers of coloured ink are applied then washed or wiped away. The resulting picture looks like a screen with an impression of three dimensions. I also use lighting to add drama and tension to the painting. This sometimes includes setting a scene with a model and light source angled to create shadows for dramatic effect. This is then used as a reference for painting.

I asked the following questions:

  • How do the materiality, medium or processes of painting and film influence each other?
  • What are the possibilities, challenges and limitations of trying to bring together ideas from painting and cinema?


I interviewed Jack Perry a graduate in Set Design for Screen from Wimbledon College of Art. Jack is a writer and director and has recently been commissioned to make a film in conjunction with the BFI.  We discussed film-making/ cinematography, its intersection with painting and cinematographic techniques used to generate tension, atmosphere and drama. Jack suggested several films to watch, including, Stalker by Andre Tarkovsky, The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, Mommy by Xavier Dolan and Let the Right One In by Tomas Alfredson (cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema).

I then interviewed artist Sal Jones whose work is influenced by film and TV. I also visited the Reuben Library at the British Film Institute on several occasions to speak to the librarians and review relevant literature.

The influence of painting on film

The word cinema comes from the Greek, kinema, meaning both emotion and motion (Bruno, 2002). The first films were made in the 1890s. Painting has been around much longer than film of course and it’s easy to see how paintings have influenced cinema, the chiaroscuro lighting effects of artists such as Caravaggio, for example.

Scorsese states that seeing a beam of light hitting St Paul in Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St Paul was a defining moment for him (Manghani, 2015). Film Noir was strongly influenced by Hopper (Ryall, 2013). More recently David Lynch stated that he wanted to “make films which looked like moving paintings” (McTaggart, 2010. p12)

The Conversion of St Paul – Caravaggio, 1600/1601

In the film Let the Right One In, Van Hoytema explains that he and director Alfredson used the paintings of Hans Holbein as a reference. Holbein’s eyelines are often unexpected, almost in profile, at the bottom of the frame or even outside it. To increase suspense in the film, they ensured that the two main characters’ eyes meet only very gradually.


Portrait of Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee – Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540

The influence of film on painting

Many painters are influenced by film. This topic was explored in a 2013 exhibition at Victoria Miro gallery. Cinematic Visions included work by Peter Doig, Yayoi Kusama and Chris Ofili. Other contemporary painters who reference film are Cathy Lomax, Ali Sharma, Kaye Donachie, Dan Hayes and Sal Jones.

Film Diary
Film Diary #51 (16/07/2013 – 04/08/2013) – Cathy Lomax, 2016

Cathy Lomax keeps a film diary and paints an image from every film she watches. Sal Jones paints studies of characters taken mainly from European crime dramas. Influenced by Almodovar she captures images from film or TV and crops and cuts them before painting. The title, taken from the character’s spoken dialogue, becomes part of the work.

I Stayed Behind – Sal Jones, 2016

Findings and areas for development

In relation to my work a particularly interesting finding is a lighting technique invented by Van Hoytema and Alfredson called spray light. Giving the impression of dull light captured in a can and sprayed across the scene it creates a mysterious, diffused effect (Hemphill, 2008).

Still image from ‘Let the right one in’, Tomas Alfredson (director), 2008

As well as lighting, other areas for development are scene setting and composition. Both are used to add drama in films. Polanski famously uses psycho-geography. This involves manipulating a scene to generate a psychological state. Setting characters into a confined space to evoke feelings of being hemmed in for example (Orr and Ostrowska, 2006). Camera work is also important and some directors use the Dutch Tilt, where the horizon is angled to create an atmosphere of unease, as in Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. In the film 28 Days Later the horizon is angled at 28 degrees. Symbols, tropes and props are often used. In The Shining for example various Native American patterns and symbols recur as a reference to colonization. Kubrick also uses juxtaposition and symmetry (the Grady twins for instance) to represent the duality of good and evil. The uncanny and unexpected, are also used to add dramatic tension.

Still image from ‘Twelve Monkeys’, Terry Gilliam (director), 1995

Outcomes and conclusions

There is significant crossover between painting and film. Painters are influenced by film and cinematography continues to draw on painting. As van Hoytema, quoted in Hemphil (2008), states “I see cinematography as a great blend of music, painting, poetry and technique”. The obvious difference between them is that painting is motionless and film is moving. Arguably, it is partly because of this that painting can present a more complex puzzle for the viewer. It is the viewer who has to move his eyes around the painting rather than passively watching a series of moving images as in a film. Khan (2013) claims that painting can actually do much more than film, citing surrealism as an example.

As Denise Green, quoted in Manghani (2015), says, emotional depth in cinema is conveyed mainly through the actors whereas in painting “the expression of subjectivity, by which I mean the artist’s state of mind, emotions, imagination and unconscious images, is conveyed through mark-making, as well as through the medium, colour, form and images”. David Salle, also quoted in Manghani (2015), notes the potential of the materiality of paint as narrative. Salle says, painting tells its story all at once. It does not demand to be read sequentially in a particular order, but there can still be layers and levels of meaning in its “all over-ness”.

As a painter it’s exciting to explore cinematographic techniques, to see how they can be used to develop my work, manipulating horizons for example, or experimenting with framing techniques and psycho-geography.  Interestingly, when we look at one thing (film) it can throw other things (painting) into sharp relief, and we see them more clearly. Looking at film we notice the uniqueness of painting and its potential, its immediacy, its stillness, its complex language of mark-making. It’s possible that I will develop my work outside painting, perhaps in the area of film itself, but it’s important to remember that there are some things that only painting can do.


28 days later (2002), Directed By Danny Boyle (Film), UK, DNA Films.

Bruno, G. (2002) Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film New York: Verso.

Christie, and Dodd, (1996) Spellbound: Art and Film in Britain London: BFI Publishing.

Hemphill, J (2008) ‘An Unusual Romance’ The American Society of Cinematographers December, p2.

Jones, S. (2016) Interview by author, 15 April.

Khan, T. (2013) ‘Cinematic Visions: Explore How Film Has Influenced Painters’, Londonist, 11 June [Online]. Available from: (Accessed: 5th May 2016).

Lebeau, V. (2001) Psychanalysis and Cinema The Play of Shadows London: Wallflower Press.

Let the Right One In (2008) Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Film) Sweden

Mactaggart, A. (2010) The Film Paintings of David Lynch Bristol: Intellect.

Manghani, S. (2015) ‘The influence of cinema on painting’, Journal of Contemporary Painting Vol 1 Number 1.

Mazierska, E. (2007) Roman Polanski The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller London: Tauris.

Mommy (2014), Directed by Xavier Dolan (Film), Canada, Metafilms.

Orr, J. and Ostrowska, E. (2006) The Cinema of Roman Polanski: Dark Spaces of the World London: Wallflower Press.

Perry, J. (2016) Interview by author 25 February.

Ryall, T. in Spicer, A and Hanson, H. (2013) A Companion to Film Noir London: Blackwell.

Stalker (1979), Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Film), Soviet Union, Mosfilm.

The Shining (1980), Directed by Stanley Kubrick (Film), UK/USA, Warner Bros.

Twelve Monkeys (1995), Directed by Terry Gilliam (Film), USA, Atlas Entertainment.


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