Four Reasons Why The 1990s Are A Great Source Of Artistic Inspiration

2017 Artwork 1990s inspiration article sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’m a massive fan of the 1990s. I could spend several thousand words talking about that decade but, since this is an article about art, I thought that I’d look at why you should let the 1990s influence your art.

So, here are some examples of cool things from the 1990s that are also great sources of artistic inspiration:

1) Traditional mediums: Although digital art was a thing during the 1990s (and at least one of the image editing programs I currently use comes from the late 90s), the 1990s was the last decade where traditional art materials were king.

As such, illustrations, comics etc… from the 1990s have a very distinctive look to them. They instantly look like they’ve actually physically been drawn or painted. They look both old-fashioned and modern at the same time.

This particular “look” is obviously fairly easy to re-create. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t use any digital tools – just make sure that any digital effects that you add to the scanned versions of your artwork are slightly more basic (eg: brightness/contrast/hue/saturation adjustments, noise effects etc…), like this:

"Salvage" By C. A. Brown

“Salvage” By C. A. Brown

2) The lighting: If there’s one thing to be said about movies from the 1990s, it’s that the lighting in many of them was significantly more interesting than in many modern movies. During the 1990s, one thing that was popular in films was to use gloomy locations that made the lighting stand out even more (in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of old Tenebrist paintings).

As well as looking really atmospheric, it also allowed film-makers (and artists) to emphasise parts of the image through the careful use of lighting.

This gothic, shadowy, ambient style of lighting was surprisingly popular in the 1990s, and even classic computer games like “Doom” and “System Shock” tried to use a more primitive version of it to lend their locations a rich sense of atmosphere (although, from what footage I’ve seen, their modern re-makes seem to do this better).

So, yes, learning how to draw or paint realistic lighting and shadows is totally worth it just to be able to re-create this awesome type of lighting:

"At Midnight" By C. A. Brown

“At Midnight” By C. A. Brown

"And I Fell Into Yesterday" By C. A. Brown

“And I Fell Into Yesterday” By C. A. Brown

3) Imagination and freedom: Culturally speaking, the 1990s was a more imaginative decade than the 2010s. The world seemed more optimistic overall, Hollywood actually produced new and imaginative films more regularly, computer games tended to be less “realistic” (in terms of story, graphics etc..), comics were still an “alternative” medium etc…

I was also going to write about how the 1990s seemed like an age with more creative freedom (despite there being stricter official censorship and fewer ways for creative people to get their work to the public). But, every time I tried, this article got a bit too opinionated.

So, all I’ll say is that whilst there seems to have been more formal censorship during the 1990s, there seems to have been a lot less informal censorship. If someone disliked or disagreed with a creative work, then they either ignored it (and looked at something else that they actually liked). Or they grumbled to their friends about it in person. Or, at worst, they wrote to their local paper and/or MP. What they certainly didn’t have was something like Twitter….

As such, there was more of a gap between creative people and their critics. So, creative people didn’t have to worry as much about negative opinions, and could express themselves more freely as a result. Whilst this is no longer the case, it can at least be encouraging to think that there was a time when it was.

4) Stylisation: Since the internet was still very much in it’s infancy in the 1990s, the options for creative research and obscure cultural references were somewhat more limited.

Although I certainly wouldn’t like to be an artist in those days, one cool side-effect of the relative lack of instant research materials is that art, comics, movies etc.. were a lot more stylised than they are now. They tended to rely more on imaginative uses of well-known tropes than on meticulous research. This gives art from the 1990s more of a timeless and stylised kind of look.

And, even though doing a bit of research first (so you know what things are supposed to look like) is probably a good idea, it’s still a good idea to use slightly stylised versions of events, settings etc… in your art if you want to give it an imaginative 1990s-style look. Like this:

"1990s Tropical Paradise Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“1990s Tropical Paradise Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

"Sail Ahoy!" By C. A. Brown

“Sail Ahoy!” By C. A. Brown


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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