Today’s Art (24th May 2017)

Well, I was feeling more uninspired than I expected before I made today’s digitally-edited painting. After several failed pencil sketches, I eventually decided to go for something a bit easier and make a painting of some Brutalist-style buildings.

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

"Concrete City Confidential" By C. A. Brown

“Concrete City Confidential” By C. A. Brown

Using Fake Subcultures To Make Your Comic Or Story More Interesting

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Although this is an article about a really interesting storytelling technique that can help you to make your audience more interested in your comics and/or fiction, I’m going to have to spend pretty much all of this article discussing and dissecting a single TV show because it contains the best example of this one technique that I’ve ever seen.

During the week or two before I originally wrote this article, I’d started rewatching some DVDs of the first few series of a TV show called “Hustle“. If you’ve never heard of this show before, it’s a BBC comedy/drama show that focuses on a group of con artists who live in London.

In every episode of “Hustle”, the main characters pull off some kind of large con, heist and/or scam which usually involves an almost Sherlock Holmes-like level of complex thought, a large number of magic trick-like plot twists and a lot of comedy.

Anyway, the reason why I’m mentioning this show is because of the way that these characters are presented. Whilst the show quickly gets the audience on side by showing that they rigidly follow a rule of “you can’t cheat an honest man” (eg: they only steal large amounts of money from worse criminals, corrupt people, arrogant aristocrats etc..), it also does something much more interesting too.

It presents con artistry as a kind of subculture. The characters all have their own slang (eg: they refer to themselves as “grifters” etc..), there are occasional references to the “traditions” and “superstitions” of being a con artist, they seem to know a network of other “good” criminals who are all fairly similar to them, they have a strong attitude that “it isn’t about the money” and often seem to treat their activities more like a sport than anything else etc..

Of course, even a cursory glance at a newspaper or news site will show you that this is clearly artistic licence. Most real con artists either seem to be located in countries with more lenient internet fraud laws/extradition laws, or they seem to be sneaky and unprincipled opportunists who prey on the vulnerable, or they just seem to be ordinary people who happened to find a dubious way to make some quick cash, or they are members of vicious organised crime gangs, or they are motivated by unglamourous things like poverty rather than by “the sport of it”.

And, yet, if “Hustle” had more ‘realistic’ main characters, it wouldn’t be a very entertaining show. It would be an extremely depressing one. The show works because it creates a fictional subculture surrounding a slightly “mysterious” part of real life.

The show isn’t actually a show about scams, heists and con tricks, it’s actually a show about friendship, teamwork and the power of the intellect. If all of the main characters were stage magicians or private detectives instead of con artists, it would still be just as entertaining to watch.

One of the reasons why obviously fake subcultures work so well in TV shows is because they tap into several basic parts of our minds. For starters, they help us to feel a sense of belonging by showing us an interesting group of people who we’d probably like to join. Since we get to see a lot of their adventures, their conversations and their history, we get to feel a vicarious sense of belonging. In some small way, we temporarily feel like we’re associated with a group of people who have been designed to be likeable.

Likewise, many of these “fake subculture” TV shows (“Supernatural” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” spring to mind too) often hint that the main characters are only a small part of a much larger subculture. This is designed to provoke the audience’s imaginations and to make them wonder what the rest of the “world” of the show is like. This is the sort of thing that prompts people to write fan fiction or, even better, to come up with actual original things inspired by the shows in question.

Plus, by hinting at a larger subculture, it also briefly makes the audience what the real world would be like if such a subculture actually existed. After all, subcultures are a thing that actually exists – and the best ones usually aren’t “mainstream”. So, by showing something similar to the real way that subcultures work, it makes the audience wonder if the fictional subculture could actually ever exist in the real world.

Yes, fake subcultures can be unintentionally hilarious/ laughably stupid when they’re done badly. But, when they’re done well, they can be an extremely useful tool for making your audience more interested in the story that you’re telling.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Nostalgia Itself Can Sometimes Be More Inspirational Than The Things That Provoke It- A Ramble

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Although I’m going to start this article by talking about a time when I revisited a game that I felt nostalgic about, there’s a good reason for this. But, if you’re interested in some ideas about nostalgia and creative inspiration, then it might be worth skipping the next four paragraphs or so.

The afternoon before I originally wrote this article, I was in a vaguely nostalgic mood and decided to take another look at a computer game from 2006 called “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” that I played for the first time in late 2011 (after playing the original “The Longest Journey” game during summer 2011).

Although I didn’t feel like replaying the whole thing, I wanted to quickly relive some of the good memories that I had of this game. So, I loaded up one of my old save files from near the beginning of the game – ready to jump back into the complex immersive fictional world that I remembered so fondly.

But, it didn’t seem right. Dialogue that seemed significant and emotionally powerful just a few years ago just came across as needlessly melodramatic or “depressing for the sake of depressing”. Likewise, the large explorable futuristic version of Casablanca that I remembered from the beginning of the game actually just seemed to be a few linear streets. Previously interesting characters just seemed to be more annoying than anything else. There were also more loading screens than I remembered.

After a few minutes, I stopped playing. This wasn’t the game that I remembered! Sure, it looked vaguely similar. Sure, the characters looked the same. But, it just seemed less enchanting, immersive and dramatic than it was a few years ago.

This, naturally, made me think about the nature of nostalgia.

It took me a while to remember that nostalgia is as much about the difference between the person you were in the past and the person you are now as it is about any specific game, movie, book, TV show, song, comic etc…

Generally, we become nostalgic about things for one of two reasons. Something either seems to sum up a particular time period perfectly (eg: floppy disks, audio cassettes and POGs sum up the 1990s quite well), or it has a strong emotional impact on us when we first encountered it. It was exactly the right thing that we needed to play, watch, hear or read at a particular time in our lives. It was something that either fired our imaginations, helped us to understand ourselves and/or provided something good during a gloomy time.

If nostalgia falls into the latter category, then it is often best to avoid revisiting it. After all, even though it was a small- but essential – thing that helped to make you the person you are today, you are almost certainly at least a slightly different person to the one you were in the past.

So, if you try to revisit something that used to have an emotional resonance with you, then it probably won’t have exactly the same resonance any more. You’ll probably end up looking at it in a more dispassionate and disconnected kind of way. Needless to say, it won’t live up to the vital and important memories that you have of it.

However, if you don’t look at it again, it’ll still be the amazing thing that it once was. You’ll remember it as being much better, much more dramatic, much more significant, much more detailed etc… than it actually is. And, if you’re a creative person, then this is exactly the sort of thing that you need in order to get inspired.

After all, inspiration comes from using your imagination to turn pre-existing things into new things. It comes from seeing something and thinking “I want to make my own version of that!” and/or “I wonder what something like that would be like if I added something else to it?

Since nostalgia tends to do some this for you automatically, you’ll be in a much more advantageous position to start coming up with creative ideas if you take inspiration from the nostalgia itself, rather than the thing that actually made you feel nostalgic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Editorial: Manchester

A little earlier this morning, I looked at a news site and found myself face to face with a shocking account of the kind of events that seem like they belong in a much worse part of the past, rather than the present day. The worst terror attack on British soil since 2005. An attack on a concert hall in Manchester. For a while, I was completely lost for words. But then I felt that I had to say something.

Although I’ve only ever been to Manchester maybe once or twice and have never seen a concert there, I’ve been to concerts in other parts of the UK during my mid-late teens and early twenties. Concerts are wonderful things. They’re a space of pure excitement, fun and joy.

They’re somewhere where you can lose yourself in music and daydreams for an hour or two. They’re the kind of intense experience where you sing along until your throat is hoarse and listen until your ears ring. They’re somewhere where the songs that you listen to in the background during everyday life literally come to life in a way that is difficult to describe unless you’ve experienced it.

Concerts are concerts. Most people who have been to concerts by their favourite bands will probably have a similar joyous story to tell. Concerts are the kind of places where, even if you’re normally shy around crowds, it doesn’t matter because everyone around you is enjoying the music too and has something in common with you.

There is nothing else quite like a concert. They’re truly brilliant things. So, the idea that anyone would want to destroy or attack them is almost unimaginably horrific. The idea that anyone’s soul or personality could be so evil and twisted to see a place that exists purely for the purposes of bringing some joy and happiness into this drearily miserable world and then decide that they want to destroy it almost seems impossible to comprehend.

As well as being a disgustingly barbaric attack on innocent people (including children!), this latest atrocity (like the Bataclan attack in France) is also a disturbing attack on everything that concerts represent. Joy. Community. Happiness. Fun. Enthusiasm. Friendship. Imagination. Creativity.

Regardless of who the murderer turns out to be or what ideology he followed, one thing is certain. He hated these things. He saw somewhere where people went to have fun and feel happy and it disgusted him so much that he wanted to replace it with pain, fear, misery and death.

So, the only thing to do in this situation is not to let him win. To defy him. Even if you don’t feel like going to a concert or can’t go to a concert, get your favourite CD or click on your favourite playlist and turn the volume up as loud as you can – and make this vile murderer spin in his grave! Show him the utter contempt and disgust that he deserves!

Because, as shocking and horrific as the events of yesterday evening were, we can either cower in fear or we can stand up against the terrifying idea that there should be no place for joy, fun, happiness or creativity in the world. And, if there’s anything that the world needs at the moment, it is these things!

[Edit: 1:24pm, I’ve just made a very slight change to the phrasing of one part of this article since, in my haste, I got an expression slightly wrong. Still, the sentiment remains the same.]

Today’s Art (22nd May 2017)

Well, although today’s digitally-edited painting ended up being much more minimalist than I’d expected (due to tiredness), I still quite like how it turned out.

I’d originally planned to use a very limited palette (eg: just green and black) for time/energy reasons, but I ended up adding subtle hints of other colours to numerous parts of the painting – but I don’t know how noticeable it is.

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

"Green Light At Midnight" By C. A. Brown

“Green Light At Midnight” By C. A. Brown

Three Ways To Make Better “Uninspired” Art

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If you practice making art regularly, then you are going to have off days. You are going to have days where you either can’t think of a good idea for a painting/drawing or days when the enthusiasm for making art just isn’t there. It happens to all of us and it’s perfectly normal.

Still, the true test of any aspiring artist is whether they can still practice making art when they are feeling uninspired. And, yes, it is possible to do this! In fact, sticking to a rigid practice schedule pretty much makes you learn how to do this.

At the time of writing this article, I found myself making a run of mildly uninspired digitally-edited paintings over several days (which will be posted here in early July). However, the thing that surprised me is that – even though I seemed to be lacking my usual enthusiasm for making art – I was still able to produce vaguely ok-looking, but mediocre, paintings. Here’s a reduced-size preview of one of them:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 4th July.

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 4th July.

As you can see, the perspective is slightly off, some of the people are badly-drawn and there’s less detail than there should be. Not to mention that it’s also kind of vaguely similar to at least one better painting that I’ll be posting here in June. Yet, I was feeling slightly uninspired and I still made a painting which doesn’t look entirely terrible.

So, to use a popular phrase, how can you “fail better” at making art when you’re feeling uninspired? Here are three ways:

1) Know yourself and play to your strengths: If you have a particular art technique, colour palette, lighting technique etc… that you really like to use, then this is the time to use it!

Since it’s something you enjoy, there’s a good chance that you’ve practiced it a lot and it’s the kind of thing that you can almost do in your sleep. In other words, even a mediocre and uninspired example of it will probably look mildly impressive to non-artists.

For example, one of the things that I absolutely love is high-contrast lighting. I love how lighting stands out in dark locations. Since painting even vaguely realistic lighting requires a fair amount of practice (to the point where the thought processes involved are almost automatic), it’s something I’ve done a lot when I’ve felt inspired. So, when I’m uninspired, using this technique is almost second-nature and, as a result, it instantly gives even my mediocre and uninspired art a more distinctive “look”.

Likewise, if there’s a particular genre of art that you really enjoy making – then make something in it, no matter how dull or similar to your previous paintings it is – when you are uninspired.

Since this is a genre that you’ve probably practiced a lot, you’ll probably find it easier to come up with ideas for paintings in this one genre – even if they’re a bit mediocre. So, make something in this genre – it’ll look better than an uninspired painting in any other genre!

For example, the cyberpunk genre is one of the genres that I really love. It’s one of the genres that I tend to make art in when I’m feeling really inspired. As such, I’ve got a fair amount of practice at making cyberpunk art. So, when I’m uninspired, it’s one of the genres that I’ll instantly reach for because I can use all of that prior experience to come up with a better, but mediocre, idea for a painting.

2) Keep up your practice!: One of the good things about regular art practice is that you’ll improve without even knowing it. If you want to “fail better” when you are uninspired, then this is something that is worth bearing in mind. Every painting that you make, even the failed ones (especially the failed ones!) will make you very slightly better at making art. You won’t notice it at the time, but it all adds up eventually.

Although knowing this won’t directly improve your uninspired art, reminding yourself of it will help you to keep up your enthusiasm for making art. To do this, look at a “good” drawing or painting that you made a long time ago. Look at something that made you feel really proud when you made it, then compare it to your current “uninspired” art. Believe it or not, your current “uninspired” art will probably look better than your old “good” art does!

To give you an example, here’s a digitally-edited drawing that I made in late 2012 after about a year and a half of regular art practice. I was really proud of it at the time:

"Lot 89 (II)" By C. A. Brown  [ OCTOBER 2012 ]

“Lot 89 (II)” By C. A. Brown [ OCTOBER 2012 ]

Now, here’s another copy of the “uninspired” art preview that I showed you earlier.

And this is something a bit more modern...

And this is something a bit more modern…

Even though the perspective isn’t perfect, it still looks better than the perspective in the “good” drawing from 2012. Likewise, the lighting is significantly better, there are realistic reflections, I’ve used more sophisticated digital editing techniques etc…

So, if you keep practicing, then even a “bad” painting that you make will look better than the “good” art that you used to make in the past.

3) See it as a challenge: Your attitude matters a lot when you are feeling uninspired. Back when I saw myself as a writer (rather than an artist), I used to react badly to writer’s block – I’d spend ages staring miserably at an empty page in frustration. This is the last thing that you want to do when you are uninspired!

These days, having an uninspired day might still involve me staring at a blank piece of watercolour paper for a few minutes, but I’ll usually end up trying something fairly quickly. I’ll challenge myself to make something, no matter how good or bad it is. Or, I’ll start randomly sketching some shapes in pencil and challenge myself to turn them into a painting – for example, the “uninspired” painting that I showed you earlier started out with a random doodle that looked a bit like this:

This is a reconstruction (made in MS Paint) of the aimless doodle that ended up turning into a painting.

This is a reconstruction (made in MS Paint) of the aimless doodle that ended up turning into a painting.

If you think of being uninspired as a challenge (rather than bad luck or something annoying), then it can really help you to think more creatively.

After all, a challenge is an opportunity to test and/or prove your skills as an artist. It’s more exciting than “bad luck” and it will help to spur you into action, rather than leaving you staring at an empty page. All of these things will result in better “uninspired” art.

A good way to form an attitude like this is to find a computer game that you really enjoy, and then to play it on the hardest difficulty setting. Yes, you’ll fail a lot, but you’ll already know that the game is winnable (after all, you’ve probably already “won” on the lower difficulty settings) and you’ll want to see if – or, rather, how– you can still win.

It can take a while to get into this mindset, but it will usually improve any uninspired artwork that you make.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂