It is a truly impressive feat to craft a single image that can instil a sense of terror into anyone who sees it – to play on people’s fears with the kind of imagery that gives abstract concepts physical form in a way that makes their skin crawl.
A master of shadows and looming monsters, David Romero has captured the essense of horror in his art. Taking inspiration from everything from the latest horror movies to children’s television, David gives his own chilling twist to everything he draws.
We talked to David about how he infuses his work with such vividly haunting tones.
Kirstie: How did you get into art?
David: I always loved movies as a kid, especially genre films. Anything with ghosts, monsters, aliens and robots was fuel for my imagination and really inspired me to come up with my own characters and stories. I initially wanted to major in both film and animation (and almost did) but in the end, I chose to focus my efforts on animation, as the medium allows for unlimited possibilities compared to film.
Kirstie: Who were your earliest influences?
David: Guillermo del Toro was a big one for me, especially with his films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. I also loved the works of Chet Zar, who depicted beautifully grotesque monsters and Stan Winston, who gave us the Alien Queen, Predator and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park.
Kirstie: Who are your predominant influences now?
David: There are so many, but I’m a big fan of world builders like Wayne Barlowe and Keith Thompson. They really know how to imbue the macabre with beauty and elegance.
Kirstie: What is your favourite material to work with?
David: I mostly work digitally these days, but I always enjoy working with clay and paper. There’s just such a tangible charm about these materials that I really like and I try to mix it into my digital media whenever I can.
Kirstie: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?
David: I think I’m most proud of my senior animation piece, Midnight Snack. I set out to create a terrifying experience through animation and watching it with an audience was an absolute blast! These days, I’m probably most known for my illustration work. But seeing something I made come to life is still very exciting to me.
Kirstie: How have you changed as an artist since then?
David: After making Midnight Snack, I knew that I wanted to explore the potential animation can offer to the horror genre. I still have a long way to go before I can make something more ambitious, so I took up freelancing in order to refine my techniques and to get in contact with some creative people who are just as passionate about horror as I am. And I’ve learned so much since then.
Kirstie: If you could design the poster for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?
David: Ooh, that’s an interesting question! There is a 2009 film called Ink, which I really love but felt that it was sorely underrated. I would love to design an alternate cover for that film. It has a very dream-like quality, so perhaps it could be stylized in a way similar to a Dave McKean cover, with collage and mixed media.
Kirstie: You’ve recently created art inspired by the 2017 movie The Ritual. What about this movie made you want to give your own twist to it?
David: I love that film so much! And it’s funny, because I was immediately interested in The Ritual once I heard that Keith Thompson was in charge of designing the monster. I have been a big fan of his work and I love his design sensibilities, so I knew that it would be something truly special. Then I heard a lot of early positive buzz about the film and was even more excited to check it out.
And in my eyes, it did not disappoint. It took me back to the kind of dread I felt from watching something like John Carpenter’s The Thing or The Descent. I wanted to pay homage to the film as soon as I could.
Kirstie: How did you decide which elements of the film would make it into your final piece?
David: It was tricky, because they do a great job of revealing the monster a little at a time, either through silhouette, or by hiding most of its body outside the frame. I just took screenshots from certain parts of the film and roughly designed it to what I thought it looked like.
In hindsight, I would have liked to have found a way to insert the characters into the piece, because they’re the main driving force of the film. But I wanted to showcase the creature in all of its glory.
Kirstie: You’ve also created a series inspired by the Universal monsters. Are you excited about seeing these classic horror characters reinvented?
David: I am! But at the same time, I’m very skeptical when it comes to Universal’s approach in reinventing the most memorable monsters put to film. The moment I read that they were more interested in making an action-adventure franchise out of their ‘Dark Universe’ instead of focusing on the horror aspect of those stories, I was a bit disheartened.
In terms of creature design, I have no doubt that Universal can get ahold of some amazing artists who are passionate about these monsters (it’s what I appreciated most about The Wolf Man from 2010, with Rick Baker’s fantastic creature designs). But in terms of directing, writing and characters, I have yet to see anything that felt truly inspired.
Kirstie: What drew you to this drawing dark creatures?
David: I love monsters and have always wanted to be a creature designer for monster movies. There’s also a power to monsters as a storytelling tool, because they can represent the fears and desires we keep at bay in our daily lives. This was something that I came to realize when I played the Silent Hill series for the first time. Monsters could be metaphorical, philosophical and can give audiences a deeper meaning to the story, not just serve as a cool visual.
Kirstie: How do you make well-known mythological creatures your own?
David: I start with going back to the original descriptions of the creatures and add my own personal take on them.
As an example, the vampire has been used in all of media and has been around for ages. But the description changes throughout every culture, from the Penanggalan in Southeast Asia, to the Strigoi in Romania. Part of the design process is simply just trying to make something feel familiar, yet new at the same time.
It also helps if you tie mythological creatures with nature. Getting a lot of references from the real world, such as plants and animals, can help ground a design into something more realistic and visually pleasing.
Kirstie: Some of your pieces give a horror twist to popular culture characters. How do you decide which characters to play with?
David: My approach to twisting pop culture characters usually comes from an absurd idea presented in a realistic way. And usually those dark themes are already hinted at from the initial conception.
For instance, I read a crazy blog post someone dreamt up about their interactions with fully grown Teletubbies. It sounds absolutely absurd, but the concept itself leads to some creative visual explorations. How big would they be? what would they look like in our environment? Do their antennas act like horns on an elk, extending into elaborate geometric shapes with age? These explorations hold a lot of potential when thinking up ways to illustrate them.
Kirstie: What techniques do you use to bring out their darker side?
David: I always find myself going back to the candid camera look. Like someone is capturing these horrific beings in the dark with just a flashlight. I use a lot of shadows and try to reference anything that captures the atmosphere I’m looking for. Sometimes, I just end up throwing in everything I’ve learned, like force perspective, smoke, dust particles, gooey surfaces and blood. If all else fails, at least give them blood.
Kirstie: What drew you to horror-themed art?
David: Horror always had a way of repelling me and at the same time, inviting me to know more. I was actually a huge wimp when it came to watching horror movies from an early age and I’m a sucker for jump scares. Films like The Fly and The Ring were terrifying to me, but once I looked past the initial horror of these films, I began to understand the themes and storytelling devices that these creators were using. I wanted to replicate the emotions that those films instilled onto me and share them with everyone. Horror is quite subjective, so not everyone shares the same fears as me, but I also believe that you can make anything scary.
Kirstie: How did you get involved with The Simply Scary Podcast?
David: They literally just called me up! I was initially nervous, as I was a big fan of their work and was listening to their podcast the moment I got the call from them. They told me that they wanted some thumbnail art for their channel and that’s how I got onboard designing for The Simply Scary Podcast.
I learned a lot from working on their channel and got to draw a lot of monsters. After that, I got offers to make art for other up-and-coming YouTube horror channels, as well as authors and musicians.
Kirstie: What do you like about creating art for stories written by emerging writers?
David: It has been a dream come true for me. I have always loved horror and wanted to make my mark within the genre, but I am also incredibly shy and I still have many things to learn for myself and about the business. I also love getting notes to draw the craziest concepts for other people’s stories.
Kirstie: What’s the most chilling piece you’ve created work for? Are there any writers you think we should keep an eye out for?
David: The work that seems to get the most reaction from people is fan art that I made for the SCP series and my Courage the Cowardly Dog series. I think people love to see gritty re-interpretations of their favourite stories and I find it to be a good way to get ideas.
As for writers, I’ve recently discovered Eric Heisserer, who wrote the chilling online short story, The Dionaea House and has been making a name for himself writing for films. Most notably Lights Out and Arrival.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
David: There is so much fantastic advice out there from creators who are way more qualified when it comes to giving inspirational advice. But I will say this;
In a globally connected environment like the internet, you will be judged by the same standards as everyone else. But that’s okay. You don’t need to be better than all of the other artists out there, you just need to share yourself to the world and create the kind of art only you can make. Your approach to the things you love is what’s going to set you apart from everyone else. Nobody can make the kind of art you want to make. Some people say ‘fake it till you make it,’ but I think artists should love unconditionally and un-ironically. That love will come through in your work and that passion will be what affects people. Even if it’s drawing monsters and horror.
Also, it’s okay to make mistakes and you should make as many as you can and as soon as you can. There is always this expectation, starting out, that our earliest works need to be the absolute best. But mistakes are the lifeblood of improvement and will help you gain the confidence to try out new things.
Learn from the best, but learn to break their rules.
We’d like to thank David for sharing his expertise with us! To see his full portfolio and keep up with his latest work, you can check out his profiles on Deviantart and ArtStation, and you can follow him on Facebook and Tumblr.