Less Is More: Holding Back Details to Create Suspense

I recently received some interesting feedback while receiving critique on my latest painting, “Initiation.” Regarding the zombies in the background of the piece, a fellow artist mentioned the following:

It’s tough to see that those are zombies. Although? That may be the right approach- giving space for titles etc, with an air of “what’s that creepy looking stuff in the background”

I found this comment intriguing. Is it more creepy to show something with more detail or less? How much does a viewer need to see to tell them “something is not right here”? I dealt with this question as I struggled to portray the zombies from behind as I wouldn’t be able to show the gruesome details we typically imagine when we hear the word Zombie. As it turns out, I had dealt with this exact same problem, 5 years ago when I worked on a project that never made it to press, one of my very first illustration jobs.

Ick Slick – 2014, oils on canvas, commissioned by Centipede Press

The brief called for skeletons covered in oil slick rising ominously from the ocean. Looking back I can see all kinds of issues with this painting, but at the time it was one of the strongest in my portfolio. Even the reference I shot for this was super creepy.

I borrowed a model skeleton from my studio mate, drizzled it with molasses, then lit it with a single incandescent bulb from the front to get the backlit sunset feeling. Ooh, that shiny skull is just eerie, it almost looks like raw melting flesh.

The interesting thing about Ick Slick is that it was one of the most minimal pieces in my portfolio. There’s really not much there other than the single skeleton but it still creeps me out despite all the painting’s flaws. I think this is what makes the best horror compelling – it’s what we don’t see that it what makes something truly creepy.

Five years later, I’m painting “Initiation” and I need a quick way to tell the viewer, “this man is not well, and he may be a zombie,” without resorting to overt details. Again, it’s a view from the back with a subtle atmosphere of horror. I thought the problem over and came up with the idea of the zombie holding a skull in his upturned hand. It’s just enough detail to get the message across, but not so much that the ominous feeling is ruined.

Once I figured that part out, I went and shot a lot of reference of myself skulking around the house, clutching a skull in various positions, looking for a zombie feeling that was just creepy enough. It’s interesting to think that I’ve been struggling to achieve this “just creepy enough” feeling for over five years since I painted Ick Slick, but that’s just how art goes.

In the end, I think the artist that gave me critique brought up the question that anyone trying to create an subtle feeling of horror and suspense asks themselves. How much to show? Well, the answer is: only show as much as you need to in order to create the mood, then hold back the rest. Think about all the great horror movies you’ve ever seen. There is a reason why the monster doesn’t appear until the story is almost over. That’s because the scariest thing out there is the unknown.

Even my reference photo tells this story. It isn’t creepy at all. In fact, it just looks like what it is: a man in jeans and a loose shirt walking around stooped with a skull in his right hand. It’s the obscuring of detail and the adding of atmosphere that creates a feeling of suspense and it’s what isn’t seen that makes people scared!

Maybe in another five years I’ll be able to paint even creepier pictures 🙂