Well, I was re-watching a few of the guitar videos I mentioned a couple of days ago and I was starting to wonder how Eric Calderone was able to work out how to play heavy metal cover versions all of these different songs so easily. From my limited experience of playing the guitar when I was a teenager, I knew that you can find guitar tabs for most things on the internet fairly easily.
But, then I realised that some of the stuff he was playing wasn’t originally written for the guitar and it made me realise that he was probably playing by ear.
In other words, he knew enough about music and how to play the guitar that he was able to reverse-engineer everything he heard. He’s (probably) able to listen to a song and, within a relatively short amount of time, know how to play it. How cool is that?
I’ve mentioned this in a few articles before, but one of the best ways to learn new techniques and to improve either your art and/or writing skills is to reverse-engineer the things which you really like. If you’ve never heard this term before, “Reverse-engineering” just refers to taking something apart in order to see how it works and/or to modify it in some way or another.
However, unlike people who are trying to reverse-engineer a piece of electronics or a computer program, we creative people have one major advantage – everything is already in front of us. There’s no hidden code or complex circuits in the background – pretty much everything that makes what we’re reading or looking at so great is right in front of us.
Before I go any further, I should probably point out that the goal of reverse-engineering things isn’t just to learn how to copy things accurately. Copying is a useful skill and an excellent form of practice – but if you’re going to publish anything you’ve made that is just a direct copy of something else (without a substantial amount of changes and your own imagination added to it at the very least), then you might run into copyright problems.
Unfortunately, the concept of a “cover version” doesn’t seem to have crossed over that much from music into other genres of creativity (about the closest thing to it is probably fan art and fan fiction).
No, the goal of reverse-engineering is to learn how to make the things that your favourite writers and artists make. And, once you’ve learnt how they do the things that they do, you can use these techniques to create unique and imaginative works of your own.
So, how do you do it?
1) Immersion: If you’re going to reverse-engineer something, then you need to know a lot about it. In other words, try to look at everything you can that the artist or writer has made. Look at it closely until you’ve practically memorised it. This is why it’s usually only a good idea to reverse-engineer the things that you absolutely love because you’ll probably already be fascinated by them and immersed in them.
Plus, if it’s something you really love, then you’re probably going to pick up a few things subconsciously anyway, whether you want to or not. I mean, after I read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”, most of my fiction began to take on a slightly more jargon-laden, streetwise, geeky and irreverent tone.
Although these two novels, along with a few books by Billy Martin/Poppy Z. Brite, were probably the main influences on my narrative voice in any stories I write from a first-person perspective, I didn’t really consciously set out to sound like them. It just kind of happened because I loved their stories so much.
Likewise, there have been a whole range of influences on my art style over the years too, although the thing which helped me to develop the very basics of what would eventually become my art style was when I watched a short segment on TV about the making of an animated show that I liked when I was a kid (it was either “Recess” or “Pepper Ann” on CITV, if I remember rightly). This impressed me and inspired me so much that I ended up drawing a few small cartoons and, lo and behold, the beginnings of my art style started to emerge….
2) General knowledge: One of the reasons why some musicians can play new things by ear (rather than from sheet music or tablature) is because they have a good knowledge of the mechanics of music in general – in other words, they can tell exactly which note or chord is being played just by listening to it and they have the knowledge to find that note on their instrument.
Well, the same is true for art and writing. If you have a good general knowledge of the mechanics of art and/or writing, then you’ll be a lot more able to spot the techniques which your favourite artist and/or writer has used.
3) Copying: If you want to learn how an artist drew or painted something, then the best way is to just choose a small part of one of their pictures and to copy it a few times until you can re-create it accurately on your own. Yes, you might end up using a slightly different process when you create it, but the result will be the same. If you can’t copy things by eye (and this is a seriously useful skill which you should practice until you learn it), then try to trace them instead.
Not only that, you’ll now have the physical memory of the actions needed to create it too. All you’ve got to do now is to work out how to use that technique to create something different.
Likewise, if you want to sound like a particular author, then try writing something using their narrative voice. It will never be an exact copy (unless you literally copy what they’ve written) but, with enough practice, it’ll probably sound fairly close to their narrative voice.
Copying narrative voices is slightly complicated though, since you will inevitably create your own version of it rather than an exact copy for the simple reason that your mind, experiences and thought processes will inevitably be slightly different to those of the person you’re trying to copy.
But, with both of these things, just copy until you know how to do it. Then use that knowledge to create new things.
4) Research: Usually most artists and writers like to talk about what they do. If an artist or writer is at least vaguely famous, then there are probably interviews with them somewhere on the internet which can provide you with a few useful tips about how they made the things that they made. Even if they’re not famous, then they’ll probably blog about what they do or make Youtube videos about it or whatever. I don’t know, there’s just something satisfying about explaining how you make things.
So, if you want to learn how an artist or writer that you like makes things, then do a bit of online research and you’ll find out a lot. This is especially useful for artists who create art digitally, since knowing what programs and tools they used just from looking at their art can be slightly difficult from just glancing at it.
For example, in order to give my art it’s distinctive “vivid” look – I usually scan it into my computer and edit it in MS Paint (since there’s a fair amount of dust in my scanner and it’s kind of impractical to clean it). After this, I copy it into my absolutely ancient version of Paint Shop Pro – version 6.00 from 1999, to be precise. After this, I crop the image and add a “blur” filter to it.
Once I’ve done this, I usually adjust the brightness and contrast quite heavily. I don’t use the same levels for each drawing (although -45 to -60 brightness and +74 contrast works fairly well a lot of the time) but I usually keep the brightness fairly low and the contrast fairly high until my art looks “vivid” rather than distorted, over-saturated etc….
If anyone is curious, I ended up using this technique because my scanner has a habit of just making everything look slightly pale and kind of “flat” if I just scan it in without editing it. In fact, you can actually see this in some of my earlier drawings, like this one from 2011:
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂 Just remember that the whole point of reverse-engineering things is to learn how people do things rather than just learning how to copy things.