Today’s Art (26th January 2021)

Well, I was feeling mildly inspired and ended up making this digitally-edited gothic cyberpunk painting. Although it was originally meant to be a partial remake of both this old painting and this old piece of digital art, it sort of ended up going in it’s own direction.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Static City” by C. A. Brown

Creative “Golden Ages” Can Still Happen – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about creative “golden ages” again because I ended up thinking about a surprisingly recent one after I watched the 2017 sci-fi thriller film “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”.

Yes, this isn’t quite a “perfect” film (eg: corny characters, some cliched plot elements etc…) but it is a damn sight more imaginative and creative than most large-budget CGI-filled modern films. In addition to a quirky sense of humour and a wide variety of cool-looking location designs that create something between a neon-lit cyberpunk atmosphere and the feelings of awe and wonder you’ll get when you watch the very first “Star Wars” film, the film is also a comic book adaptation that doesn’t contain superheroes. It is a film that lets other comics have a shot at the silver screen 🙂 On a side-note, another good non-superhero comic film from 2017 is the spy thriller “Atomic Blonde”.

Anyway, the reason that I mention “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” is because there were at least a couple of other “really good, but not quite perfect” sci-fi films that were also released in the same year too. Whether it was the US remake of “Ghost In The Shell” or “Blade Runner 2049“, 2017 saw a brief resurgence in the type of cool cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi films that used to be a lot more common in the 1980s and 1990s.

In other words, whilst it wasn’t a full “golden age” for sci-fi cinema, it was at least a partial one. And it only happened four years ago. Just let that sink in for a moment.

It’s easy to think of the “golden age” of a creative medium as being a distant past thing that cannot happen again. For example, if you’re a fan of horror fiction, then you’ll probably look back fondly at how much more popular, “edgy” and emphatic the genre was during the 1980s. If you were a teenager in the early-mid 2000s, you’ll probably miss how horror movies seemed to appear in cinemas a lot more often back then. If you’re a gamer, you might look back fondly on the 1990s or possibly the early-mid 2000s as the “golden age” of gaming.

And, yes, there are a lot of valid criticisms to be made of “mainstream” media these days. Modern “AAA” games are often designed around – and filled with – greedy micro-transactions. The superhero genre has been massively over-played and over-saturated during the 2010s. There’s less variety in terms of musical genres in modern “popular” music compared to, say, the 1990s or the early-mid 2000s (where, for example, genres like pop-punk and nu metal also got some radio airtime etc…). I could go on for a while….

Still, the modern world can still surprise you if you are willing to look a bit more closely and not expect a “full” golden age or something completely identical to previous ones. For example, whilst the mainstream “AAA” game industry stopped making proper classic-style survival horror games sometime during the mid-2000s, there was a surprising resurgence in horror games on the indie scene during the 2010s.

Yes, most of these used a first-person perspective and relied much more heavily on suspense, stealth and/or player vulnerability (almost to the point of being a different genre of horror games), but some games reminiscent of the old survival horror games finally began to appear again in the late 2010s and early 2020s 🙂

Although Capcom’s remakes of the second and third “Resident Evil” games are the obvious examples (and, alas, not games I have played due to things like system requirements and DRM), it is important not to overlook other games too – whether it is ones I’ve actually played, like “Remothered: Tormented Fathers“, the demo of “Alisa” and “Simulacrum: Chapter One” or games I’ve heard of but haven’t played yet like “Daymare 1998” and “Them And Us” too.

The same sort of thing is also very much true if you are a fan of “point and click” adventure games too. Although the genre was abandoned by the mainstream “AAA” game industry in about the late 1990s, there has definitely been a large resurgence amongst indie and medium-size studios within the past decade or so. Even though “point and click” games may not have the mainstream popularity they used to, there is no shortage of modern classic-style games in this genre for fans to enjoy these days.

Plus, as hinted earlier, when a genre isn’t in a “golden age”, it will still exist – albeit in a changed form. Whether it is how a lot of 1980s horror authors wrote more “realistic” psychological thriller novels in the 1990s or how the urban fantasy and gothic vampire genres stepped in to help out monster genre fans back then. Whether it is how first-person indie stealth horror games filled the void left by the decline of classic survival horror games. Whether it is how simplified and streamlined “hidden object” puzzle games gained some mainstream popularity during the 2000s.

I could go on for a while, but not only do these altered replacements help to keep fans going until the next “golden age” but they often end up having their own “golden ages” too (for example, seen another way, the 2010s was a “golden age” for first-person horror games – with many classics like “Outlast”, “Monstrum” etc..). So, maybe this is all just an issue of perspective? Maybe “golden ages” don’t exactly go away, but just change into something that isn’t instantly recognisable?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Tone Of A Series – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about when series make subtle or major changes in style, emotional tone etc… today and how this can be done well. I ended up thinking about this after watching a sci-fi horror/action movie called “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem” (2007). As sci-fi horror fans will know, this is the second film in a series featuring the monsters from both the “Alien” and “Predator” films.

Anyway, whilst “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem” is an… ok… film that gets better as it goes along, it is at least an absolute masterpiece when compared to the original “Alien Vs. Predator” (2004). I remember being really excited about that film when it came out and going to the cinema to watch it – only to emerge bitterly disappointed by it. And, aside from a few bizarre plot elements (why would archaeologists be armed?), a lot of that is due to the changes it made to what makes both the “Alien” and “Predator” films what they are.

Both of these series are classic sci-fi horror thriller series that are squarely aimed at an older teen/adult audience. On the other hand, the original “Alien vs Predator” film was apparently designed to get a “PG-13” rating in the US. What this meant is that a lot of the gritty elements and gruesome horror that makes these two series so distinctive were heavily toned down. Yet, the film still tried to push itself as a sci-fi horror film that was in the tradition of these two franchises – but without most of the gore and grittiness that fans of these series usually expect.

Luckily, by the time that they decided to make a sequel to this film, they realised their mistake- and the sequel is thankfully a lot more in keeping with the style and tone of both series. Yes, it isn’t quite as good as either but it at least tries – and is a much better film for doing so.

On a side-note, all of this is especially confusing in the UK because – thanks to the over-protective way that British Board Of Film Classification treats anything in the horror genre – both “Alien Vs. Predator” films had exactly the same rating (“15”), despite the fact that the first one was clearly watered-down for a 13+ audience. Seriously, horror films are a bit of a gamble in the UK in terms of classification. A fair number of “R-rated” horror films get a “15” rating here, but virtually all “PG-13” horror films also get this rating too. It’s really bizarre.

Anyway, let’s look at a better example of a creative change to the style of a series. And, keeping with the theme of this article, let’s compare “Alien” (1979) and “Aliens” (1986). The first of these two films is a suspenseful sci-fi horror classic about the crew of a civilian spaceship trying to survive when a dangerous alien creature gets on board. The sequel to it is a thrilling sci-fi action film about a group of space marines fighting these creatures on another planet.

The two films are very different in style and tone, but both are still absolutely excellent films. But, why does this change work? Well, this is probably because it was mostly done for creative reasons and still stays reasonably “true” to the underlying spirit of the series. After all, they both take a “gritty” and “realistic” approach to the sci-fi genre, the main character from “Alien” is in “Aliens” too, and the two films share some story elements too.

Plus, many of the changes in “Aliens” work well on a creative level too. After the first film, the audience knows what the alien creature looks like – so the “fear of the unknown” can’t really be used again. So, instead of building suspense and thrilling drama via mystery – the sequel goes in the opposite direction and overwhelms the main characters with a formidable army of these creatures. Although this makes the film much more action-packed, it still keeps the frantic “scrabble for survival against a more powerful foe” theme that works so well in the first film.

Likewise, “Aliens” also takes the chance to expand a bit on the “world” of the series, adding some subtle large-scale elements to the story whilst still staying fairly true to the suspenseful “trapped in outer space” element that made the original film such a classic.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that there are good creative reasons for these changes and they still stay reasonably close to the spirit of the series. On the other hand, when changes are made for non-creative reasons such as trying to make more money by appealing to a larger audience – either by “watering down” central elements of what makes a series distinctive or by chasing current trends – then this will usually alienate fans of a series.

So, yes, make sure that any changes to a series are primarily done for creative – rather than commercial – reasons.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Advantage Of Using Multiple Types Of Art Supplies – A Ramble (Plus Bonus Art)

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about one of the advantages of having multiple types of art supplies today. This is because, although there are a lot of good reasons to have a range of tools at your disposal, one of the main reasons is that you can still keep up your art practice if one of them malfunctions.

I ended up thinking about this after having some issues with the “Paintbrush” and “Airbrush” tools in an open-source image editing program called “GIMP 2.10”. When I dragged the brushes across the screen, they didn’t create a smooth and soft line any more but instead resulted in a line of harsher individual brush marks. Reinstalling the program twice, resetting some tool options and even shouting at the computer didn’t seem to fully solve this.

Still, I wanted to keep up my art practice. Since my original plans to make some digital art based on a photo of a sunset seemed to be scuppered, I eventually decided to make an ink drawing, scan it and then edit it using another – much older – program called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6” (1999) that I also had. Although it meant that my art looked like something I’d made in the mid-late 2010s, I was at least able to make a “backup” piece of art. Namely this:

Enjoy this extra piece of “bonus art”, which I eventually didn’t need to use.

Although using this old program as my primary editing tool (rather than as a secondary one for a few basic things) was a bit of an interesting challenge, I was actually able to improvise a few more things than I’d expected. For example, I was able to add a smooth gradient to the character’s hair by using the program’s “motion blur” feature.

Surprisingly, this extra creative thinking led to me taking another look at “GIMP 2.10” and eventually finding a way to heavily reduce – but not fully solve – the issues that I was having with the brushes (by lowering the “hardness” and/or “force” levels for the brushes, and also using blurring effects to smooth everything out a bit). This then allowed me to make a version of the digital art I’d originally planned to make – which didn’t really look as good as what I’d hoped to make, but still looked ok. Here’s a preview:

This is a detail from a digital art piece that should be posted here on the 13th October.

Anyway, the point of this is that having multiple art supplies and practicing with them can really come in handy if there is ever an issue with one of them. If a pen runs out of ink, if an image editing program malfunctions etc… then having a slightly larger repertoire of art supplies can allow you to carry on making art. Not only that, as hinted earlier, it can also make you think a little bit more creatively too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Way To Handle Time And/ Or Inspiration Problems During Art Practice

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about one way to handle problems with time and/or inspiration if you are practicing art regularly. Although this is the sort of thing that you’ll probably work out for yourself anyway – and something that differs slightly from artist to artist – having a “priority list” can be really useful.

This is where you list the types of art you can make in order of how much time or inspiration they require. Although, again, this will vary from artist to artist and it is something that can only really be learnt from experience, it is a useful thing to have when you’re in a rush and/or feeling uninspired.

This is because it helps you to choose the best type of art you can make for the amount of time or inspiration that you’ve got at the moment. This can help you to avoid skipping art practice and/or to end up doing something too over-ambitious or under-ambitious for your current situation.

To give you an example, here’s my current list. It begins with the quickest and/or lowest-inspiration things and gradually increases.

-Small digital landscapes
-Medium-large digital landscapes
-Monochrome or greyscale ink & digital landscapes
-Colour ink & digital landscapes
-Watercolour, ink & digital landscapes
-Small digitally-edited ink single-character drawings with 100% digital backgrounds
-Digitally-edited paintings that use silhouetted or undetailed distant characters instead of detailed characters
-Small digitally-edited watercolour and ink single-character drawings with “100% digital” backgrounds
-Large digital art featuring re-used character art from earlier pictures.
-Small digitally-edited watercolour and ink single-character drawings with semi-digital backgrounds
-Studies of historical paintings, remakes of my older art and/or “fan art” pictures.
-Small-medium size monochrome digitally-edited ink drawings featuring multiple characters
-Small digitally-edited watercolour and ink multi-character drawings with “100% digital” backgrounds
-Small digitally-edited watercolour and ink multi-character drawings with semi-digital backgrounds
-Large semi-digital art featuring characters.
-Large digital art featuring new characters (as opposed to re-using older character art)
-Making small “photo-realistic” digital landscapes, from reference, using MS Paint 5.1
-Comics!

Although some parts of this list may seem a bit counter-intuitive at first glance, it is based on my own experience. For example, digital art is quicker to make than anything involving watercolour because I don’t have to wait for paint to dry.

Making studies of historical paintings, remaking my older paintings and/or making “fan art” is quicker and requires less inspiration because I don’t have to think of a “100% new” idea for a painting. Landscapes without people are much quicker and easier than designing and drawing characters. And comics take more time and inspiration than anything else, because they also involve a significant amount of writing/planning too.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned several times earlier, your own “priority list” may be different depending on your strengths and weaknesses. And, the more experience you have, the more detailed your list will be too.

Anyway, the point of making one of these lists is to give you a quick and intuitive guide to what type of art will be best to make right now. For example, on the day that I prepared this article, I was making some art for October’s daily art posts. Because I’d been in a little bit of a rush earlier and was running slightly late but wasn’t in a complete panic, I chose to make a medium-large digital sci-fi landscape picture. This was one of the quicker and easier things on the list, but slightly more time-consuming and inspiration-intensive than a small landscape.

So, yes, having one of these lists (even if you don’t write it down) can help you to make the most of whatever time or inspiration you have during each practice session.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Realism And Contrivance

Well, I thought that I’d talk about realism and contrivance today. I ended up thinking about this after watching a heist thriller film from 2013 called “Now You See Me” (mild SPOILERS ahead). One of the interesting things about this film was that it took me a while before I really began to like it and a lot of that was to do with the fact that it was a large-budget film. Allow me to explain.

One of the main themes in this film is stage magic, with the story following a group of four magicians who carry out seemingly “impossible” heists using illusions. Although these parts of the film are really cool, some of the other magic-based scenes earlier in the film fall flat because the audience knows they are watching a Hollywood movie rather than an actual magic trick. In other words, it’s easy to suspect that CGI special effects were used in some scenes and that many of the scenes of “hypnotism” etc… were scripted.

This lessens the “How did they do that?” astonishment of these scenes and the sense of realism that is needed for any kind of stage illusion to really be impressive. Yet, although these scenes feel contrived and fake, the film as a whole is still surprisingly compelling and a lot of this has to do with the plot and the themes.

Heist thrillers are a fascinating genre for several reasons – the intricate schemes, the suspense and the fact that they are basically the polar opposite of a detective story (whilst still retaining the genre’s puzzle-like elements, albeit from the criminals’ perspective). Likewise, although a lot of the magic itself is obviously pre-scripted and filled with special effects, the theme of stage magic is still an absolutely fascinating one that doesn’t really turn up in movies often enough.

So, what is the point of all of this?

It is that things like theme, plot and style can often matter more than realism or verisimilitude. The audience are more likely to forgive obviously contrived or “unrealistic” parts of a story’s plot if the story itself is still really compelling. If these other things are interesting enough, then the audience won’t mind contivances that help to improve the story.

The key words here are “improve the story”. If a contrived element helps to make a story funnier, more thrilling, more streamlined, more interesting, more dramatic etc… then it can sometimes be a lot better than it’s “realistic” equivalent would be. Whilst stories should still follow some kind of internal logic that the audience can understand, a certain level of “unrealistic” contrivance can actually improve a story.

For example, going back to “Now You See Me” – one scene involves an explanation of how the magicians carried out an elaborate heist. One segment of this shows them using a large angled mirror to make a room appear empty. This fools several detectives who are chasing the magicians. Yet, if you think about it realistically, it would be something they would notice. Still, this “unrealistic” detail doesn’t matter as much as you might think because the scene as a whole is a thrillingly dramatic explanation of an audacious heist. The purpose of this scene is to emphasise the skill and cunning of the magicians, and it works really well in this regard.

Another example of this can often be found in the thriller and action genres, where the main characters will often have “unrealistically” easy and quick access to a wide variety of weapons, vehicles and gadgets. Even though this is slightly “silly” when you think about it, it often helps to streamline the plots of these stories whilst also making the main character seem “glamourous” or “well-connected” too. These stories trade realism for a greater level of dramatic effect and faster pacing.

Likewise, when a story is designed around a “contrived” situation, then this can work really well. For example, the 2000 sci-fi horror film “The Cell” has a ridiculously contrived plot involving mind-reading technology and a serial killer who just happens to fall into a coma before the police catch him. Add to this an even more contrived forty-hour time limit involving a deadly machine and the film’s premise sounds utterly contrived. Yet, because the film is designed around these contrivances, includes a lot of visual creativity, has well-written characters and takes the story seriously enough, this contrivance isn’t really as much of an issue as you might think.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck here. Whilst the audience are willing to forgive contrived elements when they are handled well and have a valid dramatic purpose that improves the story, don’t rely on them as a substitute for things like good storytelling, plotting or characterisation. “Unrealistic” story elements only really “work” when they are better – in dramatic terms – than a more realistic story would be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂