Illustrator Peter Strain's Dutch Tilts

Movie posters used to have punch – some still do. Watch video from an exhibition at Queen's Film Theatre

David Lynch’s psychodrama road film, Lost Highway had an iconic poster. It showed a midnight black highway bisected by yellow lines, the film’s title looming overhead. The road, split in two, hinted at the film’s themes of duality and divergence; the darkness of that space evoked the spiritual desolation of the protagonists. It was a simple image that perfectly captured the essence of the film.

Unfortunately, in today’s celebrity smitten society, poster art is sadly all too often reduced to a mere image of two movie stars grinning above the film title. In an exhibition in Queen's Film Theatre this month, award winning illustrator Peter Strain has created his own artworks inspired by cult and classic films. Striking, sparse imagery is blended with text to create work that is iconic, edgy and more than a little cool.

His print inspired by the movie American Beauty is one of the most striking pieces on display. A maudlin Kevin Spacey gazes forward, his white face against a black background, like a handsome Buster Keaton. Above him rose petals fall forlornly.

The desperation of the character is captured in that ashen visage. Also his ghostly presence, the disembodied voice from the film’s poignant final scene, is evoked by the fact that the artist has painted only a face, leaving Spacey’s body to be barely formed by the title of the film. The text forms a ghostly outline for a ghostly character.

Strain is fresh out of art college. Drawing on influences such as Paul Davis and David Shrigley, his work has been shown in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's, Ulster Hall and the Bankside Gallery in London. He has a won the admiration of the playwright and critic, Bonnie Greer, who compared an early work of his to the spirit of young Rimbaud after she gifted Strain the Critic's Choice Award at the Association of Illustrators Awards.

One would wonder if praise like that has gone to Strain’s head, but when I mention it he seems still flattered and stunned.

'Well the good thing about it is, because she said it, it holds a bit of weight,' he says with a modest laugh. 'It's a fact now! But it was amazing. That launch night over in the Bankside Gallery in London was fantastic. There was some really beautiful work there by people I’d been following. Artists like Stuart Whitton and Matthew Richardson, both really inspiring and to have my work up alongside theirs was a dream come true.'

The QFT exhibition, entitled Dutch Tilts, takes its name from a camera technique whereby the horizon appears to be not parallel with the bottom of the frame. This literally forces the viewer to look at the scene from a different angle. Similarly, Strain’s prints invite the viewer to see poster art from a new perspective.

'The idea is to hark back to when posters were illustrated,' says Strain. 'That doesn’t really happen anymore. The print media around film work isn’t terrible, but generally it’s saturated by photoshopped headshots and it’s generally quite bland and not at all creative. People who love film deserve more than that and the idea for this was to put the art back into poster art.'

Each image Strain has created uses text in an innovative way. It is more than simple lettering. Letters and words often form the bodies of the figures, such as the Kevin Spacey image in Strain’s American Beauty print, or the body of the dancer in his version of Black Swan.

The way letters become shapes, object becomes subject, suggests a fluidity of meaning and an instability that is at the heart of Strain’s work. This disconnect works perfectly with the subject matter of many of the films he is inspired by. Being John Malkovich, Black Swan, 28 Days Later each have at their core a world in crisis.

In many other ways the letters bring a playful aspect to the images. Take the way they make up the body of David Lynch’s dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks, or how they bubble and froth in an image of Bill Murray clad as Aquatic explorer, Steve Zissou. They capture the frivolity and absurdity at the heart of those films.

It is the skill of the illustrator to find a solitary image that encapsulates many themes and subjects. Sometimes it comes easily, but other times the subject necessitates a more layered approach. As Strain confesses, 'Most of the time I try to break something down into the simplest form possible because less is more.

'If you whittle something down to the simplest image then that‘s the best thing ever. Sometimes you have to be a little more complex. The 28 Days Later one I like because it’s just that image of wandering around London in isolation when its empty.'

That poster depicts Cillian Murphy, clad in a green hospital smock, set against a black void. His shadow is but a white faded line. It is a simple image but filled with layers of tiny details. The green smock is composed of the film’s title, but look a little closer and you notice hands amidst the fabric. They stretch out like the grasping, gnarled fingers of the ravenous dead.

'I like the idea that the zombie hands are hinted at,' says the artist. 'I hope that when you revisit things you’ll maybe get other bits and pieces that you didn’t notice before.'

In the way they explore how a piece of cinema can be evoked by a single image, Strains works deal with themes of representation, memory and emotion. They are the work of an artist in possession of a unique voice and enviable skill.

Dutch Tilts runs in the Jameson Bar at QFT until Thursday, November 24. Each piece is available to purchase as part of a set of limited edition Giclée prints from