Three Tips For Making Art Set In Late 1980s/ Early-Mid 1990s America

Although I’ve never actually been to America, I’m absolutely fascinated by late 1980s and early-mid 1990s America (I’m going to define this time period as 1987-1996, even though 1988-1995 would probably be a better definition). From everything that I’ve seen and read about it, it seems like a really fascinating period of history in cultural terms.

Naturally, it’s also a setting that I’ve used in several paintings and one comic. But, it took me a while to work out how to make art that is set in this time and place. Although I’ve already shown off the line art for this painting, here’s a reduced size preview of a painting that I made that is set in this location/time:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 29th December.

So, I thought that I’d share a few tips for how to make art set in late 1980s/ early-mid 1990s America:

1) Research materials: One of the best ways to get a sense of what this time period was like is to watch and listen to as many things from back then as possible. Whilst you obviously shouldn’t directly copy anything from them, they can be incredibly useful if you know how to take inspiration properly.

Unfortunately, every TV show, film, album etc.. from that time period is still copyrighted. But, due to their age, second-hand copies of things from this time period can usually be found fairly cheaply. But, if you don’t have a large budget or you just want a quick general sense of the aesthetic of the time, then do a few image searches about the time period (but, of course, remember not to directly copy any of the images you see in your art). Likewise, check out this uncannily modern-looking HD footage of New York in 1993.

In terms of films and TV shows, I’d recommend checking out any of the following: “Twin Peaks” (Seasons 1&2), “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (Seasons 1&2 ), “The X-Files” (Seasons 1-3), “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air” (Seasons 1-6), “The Simpsons” (Seasons 1-7), “Drop Dead Fred”, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”, “Heathers”, “Trancers”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Tremors” and “Robocop 1-3”.

In terms of albums, I’d recommend any of the following: “Stranger Than Fiction” by Bad Religion (punk), “Smash” by The Offspring (punk), “Metallica” by Metallica (thrash metal), “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A (rap), “Days Of Open Hand” by Suzanne Vega (acoustic), and literally anything by Nirvana (grunge).

2) Fashions: From my (relatively limited) research, American fashion in this time period was kind of like a slightly stranger and/or mildly more formal version of modern fashion.

Generally, it tends to include things like trench coats/ biker jackets, plaid shirts, floral dresses, boxy sunglasses, sweaters worn like belts, white T-shirts paired with jeans, sleeveless dresses layered over T-shirts, longer sweaters with belts, pencil skirts, garish tracksuits etc…

Likewise, American goth fashions of the time tended to be a lot more understated (eg: black T-shirts, leather trench coats etc..) when compared to 1980s Britain (eg: large hairdos, fishnets etc..). American punk fashions of the early-mid 1990s were also fairly understated (eg: T-shirts, jeans etc..) when compared to traditional British punk fashion (eg: mohawks, safety pins etc..). Heavy metal fashion, on the other hand, is pretty much timeless.

This was also the age of grunge fashion, 1980s middle America and the whole “no logo” trend. So, there tended to be a preference for clothes without obvious branding back then. But, saying that, I’ve learnt most of what I know about the history of American fashion in this time period from looking at films and TV shows (where for advertising/copyright reasons, obvious branding was often avoided if it wasn’t part of a product placement deal).

3) Location design: Although many places in late 1980s/early-mid 1990s America probably looked fairly “ordinary”, locations in media from the time often tended to look interesting in all sorts of cool ways.

For example, offices tended to have much more of an art deco kind of look to them (eg: lots of marble, minimalist office furniture, abstract art etc..). Likewise, cosy wooden buildings tended to be a lot more popular too. Likewise, city streets often tended to have more of a “film noir” kind of look to them too.

Another way to make a location in a painting or a comic from this time period look more “historical” is simply to include technology from the time. Technology back then tended to be a lot bulkier than it is now – so, include things like CRT televisions/computer monitors, boomboxes, floppy disks, audio cassettes etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Nostalgia vs. Memory – A Ramble

2017-artwork-nostalgia-vs-memory

Although this was supposed to be an article about creating things (art, fiction etc..) that are inspired by the past, I ended up spending all the article talking about my own experiences with the difference between nostalgia and memory. Likewise, I wrote the first draft of this article before I wrote these short stories. Still, this might help you to think about the differences between the two things more clearly.

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I went through a bit of a musical nostalgia phase. Whilst I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, I ended up looking through my collection of old CD singles again (anyone remember those?) for songs that made me feel nostalgic about the 1990s.

Whilst I bought relatively few CD singles during the 1990s (since I was a kid then, and I tended to listen to the radio and to audio cassettes more), I later went through a phase of buying every interesting old CD single I could find in charity shops when I was about seventeen. So, this wasn’t exactly my first musical nostalgia phase.

The interesting thing was that the songs that made me think about the 1990s the most were pretty much the last ones I expected. Whether it was Geri Halliwell’s surprisingly good cover of “It’s Raining Men”, “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna or “Brimful Of Asha” By Cornershop, most of the songs that instantly made me vividly remember the 1990s weren’t exactly the kind of “retro” music I usually listen to these days.

In fact, the only songs that genuinely remind me of the 1990s that are close to my current tastes in music are probably a couple of punk songs from The Offspring’s “Americana” album. This, of course, makes perfect sense given that, although I discovered the punk genre in the late 1990s, I didn’t discover the heavy metal genre until about 2001 or the gothic rock genre until 2008. When I was a kid during the 1990s, the only music I listened to was what was easily available in the charts and/or on the radio.

Yet, if you were to ask me to think of “nostalgic 90s music”, I’d probably think of all sorts of cool bands that – to me now – seem very “1990s” but which I hadn’t actually heard during the 1990s. This, of course, is the difference between nostalgia and memory.

But, it’s not just music, it’s lots of other things too. Whenever I try to imagine a 1990s setting for a short story, comic or painting – my first thought is often about old American TV shows from the 1990s. Yet, I’ve never actually been to America. When I want to make something “look 90s”, I think of movies and music videos from the era that I never actually saw back then. When making “1990s style” art, I also tend to think of fashion designs that were a lot more common across the pond than over here.

I think that part of this is due to the fact that my nostalgia about the 1990s is a relatively recent thing. Even up until about 2008 or 2009, I was much more fascinated with the 1980s than the 1990s. So, I’ve had to do a lot of research into a decade that hadn’t quite fully entered mainstream nostalgia. Of course, American TV shows, movies, journalism, fashions etc.. tend to be a lot more well-documented online. So, they tended to turn up a lot more during my research.

Yes, in some ways, this is a little bit annoying. Because, from what I can remember and from everything I’ve seen later, the culture of 1990s Britain was really cool. It had more of a punkish rebelliousness to it than ’90s America did.

Whether it was ‘edgy’ TV shows like “Bits” or “Queer As Folk“, whether it was the cynically humourous attitude of (print) game journalism back then, whether it was the watered-down punk attitude of the Spice Girls (compared to modern pop bands, they were practically punk! One of their music videos from 1997 is also cyberpunk too!) or whether it was gleefully rebellious celebrities like Tracey Emin (I may not be a fan of conceptual art, but she was one of the coolest artists of the 90s) the 90s was a much more edgy, hedonistic, rebellious, creatively free and generally cool decade in Britain than in America. It’s just a shame I wasn’t old enough to truly enjoy or appreciate it back then!

But, is this disconnect between nostalgia and memory an entirely bad thing? No. I really like the stylised “nostalgic” version of 1990s America that I’ve built within my own imagination. It’s excitingly different to the more mundane everyday memories of 1990s Britain that I have. It’s really fun to make things (like this comic) that are based on this imagined version of another decade in another country.

But, at the same time, it doesn’t really have the same level of personal intensity as things that are actually based on memories. Making things that are based on memories, rather than nostalgia tends to have a level of vividness that doesn’t come from trying to conjure up an imagined version of the past. It feels like you are revisiting the formative parts of your imagination.

So, yes – like fantasies and reality, nostalgia and memories can be two vastly different things. But, they can both be good sources of creative inspiration.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (12th August 2017)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting was a fairly interesting one. Originally, I’d planned to make a more “realistic” painting of 1990s New York, which would have been inspired by this stunning HD Video from 1993!

Yet, probably due to the fact that I’d been watching a DVD of the first season of ‘Twin Peaks’ (it was broadcast in 1990, but probably filmed in the late 1980s – For example, many of the fashions/hairstyles in it look a bit like something from “Heathers), this painting soon went in more of a 1980s-style direction.

Then, the painting gradually ended up becoming more stylised too (eg: the American city in the background ended up being a wierd mixture of what I imagine New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans to look like).

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

"1980s American Street Scene" By C. A. Brown

“1980s American Street Scene” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art ( 13th May 2017)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the first comic in “Damania Relocated” – a new sci-fi/comedy webcomic mini series [in the tradition of my “Time Travel Trilogy” that can be read here, here and here] that follows on from the events of my previous mini series. Links to lots more comics featuring these characters can be found on this page.

The truth is out there!…. But it’s kind of silly!

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

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Relocated - Long Gone" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Relocated – Long Gone” By C. A. Brown

Culture, Creativity And Traditions – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Culture and influences article sketch

Although this is a very rambling article about how much (if any) influence our cultural backgrounds have on our creative work, I’m going to have to start by talking about chocolate and beer (of all things) for a while. So, if you aren’t interested in either of these things, you might want to skip the next six paragraphs or so.

A few months back, I ended up watching a documentary about chocolate. As I sort of already knew, the documentary pointed out that milk chocolate is made to different recipes in different parts of the world (the chocolates featured on the show were from Britain, Germany, Switzerland [?] and America) and most people’s preferred type of milk chocolate is the one that they ate when they were younger.

In other words, you generally tend to prefer milk chocolate from the country which you grew up in. In my case, this would be Britain. Southern England, if you want to get specific.

Anyway, having had the chance to sample some American milk chocolate (the US version of our Dairy Milk bars, no less) a few months ago – I fully understand this.

To me, the American milk chocolate tasted flat. It tasted bitter (and not in a delicious dark chocolate kind of way). It had a slightly powdery texture. Not only that, it also left an absolutely disgusting vomit-like aftertaste in my mouth for about half an hour afterwards.

On the other hand, a while before I wrote this article, I ate some German milk chocolate (from Aldi’s). This was actually really nice, it had a slightly creamier texture and sweeter/ lighter taste than British chocolate does. I don’t know how clearly I’d have been able to tell the difference if I hadn’t looked at the label, but – if you pay attention – it tastes slightly different to British milk chocolate.

The same thing probably holds true for beer too. Although I like both bitter and lager, I know that bitter is a lot less popular in both mainland Europe and the US than it is over here. Personally, I think that this is kind of a shame – but bitter is something of an acquired taste, I guess (and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t served “warm”).

Anyway, why am I talking about this stuff? Well, it’s because I wondered if the same thing held true for the things that influence our creative work. After all, no-one creates art, poetry, fiction etc… in a vacuum. We all have books, artists, TV shows, computer games, movies, music, places etc… that influence our creative work.

I’d argue that our cultural backgrounds do influence our creative work, albeit in more subtle ways than our cultures influence our tastes in things like chocolate and beer.

Because most creative works are essentially idea-based things, they travel across the globe more quickly than physical products do. Yes, things like books and TV shows may have to be translated into different languages, but visual art is essentially a universal thing. A great painting from any part of the world is still a great painting in any other part of the world.

Likewise, music is a fairly universal thing too. For example, even though I have a fairly limited understanding of German (I know a few German words and phrases, but I don’t quite understand the grammar well enough to speak it), this doesn’t stop me from enjoying songs by bands and musicians like Eisbrecher, Nena, Equilibrium, Rammstein, Blutengel etc… Seriously, this song rocks, regardless of which language it is being sung in.

Of course, here in Britian, we obviously share a common language with the US. This means that I’ve watched more brilliant American movies and TV shows than I can remember. It means that many of my favourite novels are by American authors. In fact, the narrative voice I used in my early twenties (back when I wrote much more fiction than I do now) was slightly more influenced by American writers than British writers.

But, I always notice something strange when I watch a British TV series after watching American shows. Although I love the fact that each series of a show from the US is usually 2-6 times longer than TV series over here are, I often tend to find that British shows (eg: Hustle, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Red Dwarf, Bugs, Urban Gothic, Ultraviolet etc…) often have a lot more of a personality and a lot more “realism” than US shows do.

Although the “realism” thing is probably because some of these shows are set in locations that I’ve actually visited (although it’s kind of annoying how at least 90% of popular scripted UK TV shows are set in London – seriously, we have other cities too, you know) and because the characters speak with accents that are more similar to mine, it’s also because of differing attitudes towards television censorship in the two countries. For example, even in gruesome horror shows and violent action shows from the US, all of the characters usually speak in an unrealistically polite way because of stricter American television censorship rules.

Likewise, because British shows are often written by only one or two people – rather than a large team- even mainstream British TV shows tend to be quirkier and have more of a personality than mainstream American shows often do (albeit at the cost of fewer episodes). In other words, they tend to be more like comics or novels in this respect. So, if I was ever to make a TV show – it’d probably be more like a British show than an American show.

Plus, although it’s no longer the case (as proved by modern American authors like Chuck Wendig), mid-late 20th century British horror fiction was historically more intense than most US horror fiction was at the time.

A few decades ago, popular British horror authors like Shaun Hutson, Clive Barker and James Herbert wrote wonderfully gruesome splatterpunk novels on a regular basis, which were often significantly more gruesome than many classic Stephen King novels (or at least the ones that I’ve read).

Then again, the first person shooter genre of computer and video games was invented in America. Likewise, the survival horror genre was pretty much invented (or at least perfected) in Japan back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But, in Britian, we seem to have less of a gaming tradition – sure, lots of classic 80s indie games were invented in Britain and we originally invented a couple of classic game franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” and the “Tomb Raider” games. But there isn’t really a defining British genre of computer game in the way that there is in America or Japan. Hell, even mainland Europe has a really good reputation for both point-and-click adventure games and hidden object games these days.

So, if I was somehow ever actually able to make a computer game- it’d probably be a lot more influenced by American, mainland European and/or Japanese games than British ones. Because America and Japan have dominated the gaming industry since it’s inception, they’ve had a huge influence on computer and video games made across the world.

On the other hand, the kinds of art that we create are probably influenced by both the locations we’ve seen throughout our lives and the art that we’ve seen over the years. There are a lot of subtle details about things like architecture, everyday items etc.. that differ from country to country and these are probably going to come out in your own art. Even if you set a painting in a different part of the world, these subtle details from your own country can creep into your work without you even noticing.

So, yes, in my view – our backgrounds and cultures can have a subtle influence on our creative work. But, because ideas travel a lot faster than physical goods do, our cultures have much less of an influence on our creative work than they do with things like the type of chocolate, beer etc… that we prefer.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂