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Key Art – The Art of The Process

Older famous key art.

Lately, I hear more and more about how print and the art of key art are dying, but I beg to differ and I hope I am right. After all, where would we be without professionally created movie posters, billboards and ads? The movie poster is the packaging of the entire film. It's what the audience usually remembers about the film when they think of it later. I hope the art of key art is not dying. It would be such a shame. There are many mediums that are used to create good key art and lots of money paid to get it, use it, and have it to help package a film. I hope the art of "key art" is around for a long while.


Key art is the main image of a campaign that conveys the story and gets you to want to see the film in 3 seconds or less. Usually, there are several final images of key art used for a campaign, depending on the size of the film and marketing budget. Key art is used for many things – ads, billboards, guerilla postings, dvd covers, displays – you name it. Once final key art is created and approved, that artwork is then passed along from agency to agency so that they can fulfill their project obligations for the studio (e.g., newspaper ads, trade ads, outdoor, other key art, marketing collateral, etc.). In other words, if you are an artist who gets to create the key art for a large campaign, you are at the head of the pack. For a graphic designer/illustrator, creating key art for the studios is a major accomplishment, in its own right.


Throughout my career, I've learned there are different ways agencies and and their artists create key art, depending on the agency, the project size and overall budget.

The right way. The right way to create key art is the way they do it at the top – at the studio level. And, if you're working with the "big guns," you're involved during production of the film or show so that a photographer like Mr. Ockenfels, can go to the set and get you (the artist) the shots you need based on sketches you provide.

I have only had one experience in my entertainment career where I got the chance to flush out my ideas from the start and that was when I worked at The NBC Agency. It's a complete collaborative effort and that's thanks to the creative directors that are in charge over there. It's great place to work for an artist. Long before a show airs, they meet as a group to brainstorm and make sure everyone is on the same page. The CDs are prepared and ready with a creative brief – again, so everyone is on the same page. When they meet again, it's with "scrap" and rough sketches of artists ideas. ("Scrap" is what they call samples of ideas, lighting, composition, etc. to support your sketches.) Then, a sketch artists comes in to sketch things out to look like the actors and the sketches the artists provide, and when he or she is finished, the sketches are composited as key art – with shadows, light and title treatments. Voila! Their comps are ready to go to the executives for feedback and approval.

Once comps are approved, you make your shot list based on the approved comps and you're ready to let your photographer get creative. And, hopefully, you get what you need and more. When the photographs from the photographer arrive, it's time to piece it all together, with backgrounds, colors, textures and light, in Photoshop and After Effects. It isn't as easy as it sounds, but that's the basic idea. If you're lucky.

The hard way. The hard way to create key art is having no assets, or bad assets, and no time or money to shoot what you need. Artists are left trying to piece shots together from stock photos and head shots to create key art. This is hard for many reasons, the least of it being finding the right photos with the right light and positions for your comp. Oh, and let's not forget costumes, backgrounds and props. Piece it all together, make it look amazing, and do ten comps in one day.

Unfortunately, the "hard way" seems to be the norm is entertainment these days. Budgets are way smaller and studios want to get the most bang for their marketing dollar. Along with budgets, salaries for artists are coming down, too. If you still dare venture out to become one, I would suggest making your contacts early, never show up late, always do an amazing job (even when you feel like you can't) and you must have "skills."


There are many aspects to what makes a good key artist and "skills"are the name of the game. But, having "skills" means more than just being a good artist or knowing techniques. It means thinking on your toes – from getting it done fast and right, to making it beautiful no matter what, to staying calm and in control – if you have "skills" and all those other traits I just mentioned, then you're at a good place to start.

The three posters above are samples of my work - Dan In Real Life, Shred and Dead Silence.

A creative brain. First, you have to have great ideas and be easy to work with – no one likes a Diva. The only Diva allowed is the client because they're paying the millions of dollars it costs to create the artwork and place the ads. Next, you have to be able to think like a movie director – what angle is your shot from? What is the overall theme? What's the composition? What do you want it to say to the audience?

A sketch artist. If you are going to work as an artist, these days it is vital to have drawing skills. I don't mean, professional sketch artist skills, but you have to be able to draw your ideas in a thumbnail that reads, at least. What good are great ideas if you can't support them with a vision?

A Photoshop wizard. One thing is for sure, you've got to know Photoshop like it's an extension of yourself. Once you get your images, there's no one around to cut your masks, composite your images and make them "sparkle and shine," but you. Sure, you had a great idea, but do you have what it takes to put it all together?

A 3D artist. Design programs and apps are more powerful and flexible than ever and none compares to Cinema 3 and 4D. If you can create your own artwork in 3D, and make it great with Photoshop and After Effects, then you're a God!

A Venice beach surfer-dude mentality. Don't let this confuse you with being stoned or stupid. What I am referring to is their laid-back attitude and approach to life – on the outside. On the inside, you have to be that pro-surfer dude who knows what they are doing out there in the ocean with all those sharks and big, giant waves crashing down on you. Working in entertainment is no "walk on the beach." Everybody wants it yesterday, with no budget, no time, no assets and no pity. Dude, you're on your own.

Latest trends. Knowing what's compelling and what people are looking for in terms of style is extremely important. For example, severe angles has become a trend in the last couple of years (2010-Present). From a sharp angle looking straight up or straight down, severe angles are always welcomed as long as the entire idea is flushed out and solid.

Take it from someone who always knew he would be a working artist no matter what. It was all I could do that other people could not. As difficult as it can be to work in an agency or a major film studio, it is also the most rewarding. Arriving on a studio lot every morning is exciting. Or walking into a cool agency everyday where you work with other people who do what you do and understand the way you think. The tough part is making sure the people you work with like you and your work, equally, and that's not always the easiest thing to do. Everyone has their own personalities. However, if you get one person in an important position to like you and want to help you with your career, you'll be in like Flynn. The same could be said if you get on someone's bad side, too, so be sure you stay on everyone's good side.

Lastly, please remember that it is still a job. Meaning, you have to arrive early, stay late and do whatever it is you have to do to get the job done. Even if no one else is. The best experiences I have had is where everyone works as a team to be one large machine. This is your dream so you'd better show up for it when it comes.


Thank you for taking the time to read what I know about key art and the art of the process. It's a beautiful thing and there is some impressive work out there. Most of the best is never shown because they don't make it past comp stage, for whatever the reasons, but they're out there.

The industry web site that designers like to visit for ideas and reference is called International Movie Posters Awards (IMPAwards.com where you can see some of the latest posters and artwork up to a year in advance, mostly created from agencies and studios right here in Los Angeles.


  1. Wow, I found this post incredibly informative. I have been interested in poster design since early high school, playing around with creating posters of my favorite movies and making some of my friends. One of my favorite things is masking out people in photos, especially their hair! It's so tricky! But I love it. I am a senior graphic design and photography major at Michigan State, and I'm trying to learn as much as I can about the industry of poster design, or key art (I just learned that term today).
    I don't think key art is a dying artform, but my reasoning is that it can't possibly be dying - it's just too much fun! Not a very strong argument, I know, but that's the way I feel.
    Do you have any tips about entering the key art design industry?

  2. @Kim B. - I just noticed your comment. Forgive me for getting back to you so late. I hope you are having/had a good holiday?

    You're right when you say designing key art is fun. I've been a graphic designer for more than twenty years and key art is my favorite type of artwork to create/design. It is the perfect marriage of design, photography and illustration, all in one main piece of artwork.

    As far as 'tips for entering the design industry,' it is not a cliché to when someone says it's who you know because it's who you know. But, then you have to show up and have the talent to back it all up. Don't show a piece in your portfolio that you couldn't sit down and create in less than half a day. When it comes to entertainment, agencies don't mess around. Especially, now that there are no budgets.

    Things will change and design will continue to evolve. But, if you can create and execute gorgeous key art, on top of being a strong designer, you could go far in your design career. Just keep your focus and know that we all have to pay our dues until we retire. There is no such thing as 'taking it easy' when it comes to design and real projects for clients so you have to love what you do.

    Thanks for reading my blog and for posting your comment. I hope I was able to answer your question without discouraging you too much. I LOVE graphic design and I support young designers in my field. I am just waiting for clients to tire of 'bad' artwork and start hiring the pro's again. It's time to raise the bar a notch or two.

    Thanks, again!
    Joseph Rey

  3. I second Kim's comment on finding this post extremely informative. I just got hired at a design studio that specializes in key art. I'm responsible for getting new clients but slightly confused on who my focus should be. Is it the distributers, studios, or production houses that I should be getting in touch with? As you so wisely said, it's who you know. Who is it that I should be meeting?

    Not to give away any trade secrets but any feedback is helpful.

    Thanks so much,

  4. @Chaya – thank you for the props on my blog and I am sorry it has taken me this long to respond. The people you should be targeting for new business are all the businesses you mentioned: distributors, studios and production houses. Anyone who will pay your agency to develop creative is a potential new client, so make sure you look everywhere!

    As a freelancer, I know this from experience. As someone who has worked at a few entertainment agencies and studios, all I can say is to leave no stone unturned and hopefully the business will come. I'm always available to freelance, if you guys ever need help.

    I hope this helps, if even just a little bit, Chaya? Good luck with your new job!

    Thanks for reading L.A. Link.
    Joseph Rey

  5. I am so frustrated! Why can't agencies see the forest through the trees. I have the skills. I'm a thinker (by nature because I am a woman). I'm inventive. I have a sense humor. But what do agencies look for to hire you as a key artist? I've worked in the magazine industry but produced every single layout as if it was a poster when I needed to draw in the reader. I just need one chance and Im certain I have the abilities to "WoW" them.

  6. @cristela - Wow...first of all, don't be so frustrated. I've said it before and I'll say it again, when it comes to knowing what people like about your book or not, our jobs are a lot like models - you almost never know exactly why you fit or don't fit. It's just part of the 'cattle call' process. Get use to it.

    Secondly, drop the feminist comments - no one likes a diva or a know-it-all. That is the quickest way to alienate yourself from the rest of the group and you won't learn anything, let alone work on fun projects.

    Lastly, never give up. If you knew how many times people said 'no' to me and still do, you might not want to be a key artist. It's a tough business to break into and even tougher to stay. Once you're in, you're constantly performing or you're out, as Heidi Klum would say.

    Hang in there. If it's meant to be, you'll find a way.

  7. So glad I found this article! I actually just landed my dream internship as a key art designer for a major agency in LA!

  8. Congratulations, Casey! Have fun, but clear your schedule. Thanks for checking out my blog. I hope you will 'follow'.

    1. Haha yeah I'm deff. ready to put in long hours for those 3 months to prove myself! Feel free to check out my work! I deff. have a ways to go but I really think this internship will hopefully get me to the next level and my foot in the door! or

  9. This is a good article for me as a graphic artist student. I got some points and guidelines to become a good key artist.


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