Time Travel And Art Mediums- A Ramble

This article is a little bit different to my usual articles, since it’s more of a short account of an eerie experience I had whilst editing the final page of this year’s Halloween comic.

Still, it seemed like it was worth writing about (since I imagine that some of you may be able to have similar experiences, and because I felt like preserving an account of the experience ).

About two-thirds of the way through making the line art for the final page of this year’s Halloween comic, my drawing pen ran out of ink. So, I looked through my stash of drawing pens and picked out a new one. However, I soon realised that this was a fine-tipped one (rather than the medium ones I normally use). At the time, I thought that this was kind of cool, since the thinner nib allowed me to cram more stuff into one of the more detailed panels.

However, when I was digitally editing the line art for the page, I suddenly saw the line art I’d made with the fine-tipped pen and, in that instant, the comic page suddenly seemed like it could have come from my early experiments with comics during 2010. Back then I tended to use fountain pens and fine-tipped pens regularly.

Even though quite a few years had passed, it suddenly felt like I was back in 2010 again.

It felt like I’d come full circle. It felt like I’d suddenly picked up a comic I had left unfinished in 2010 and had kept making it, like no time had passed whatsoever. The past few years felt like they just hadn’t happened. It didn’t so much feel like I’d travelled back in time, but more like I just hadn’t travelled forward since 2010.

My mind was suddenly flooded with ultra-vivid memories of both that year and the “atmosphere” of that year (this is the only way I can describe it). This was an experience that is difficult to really put into words. But it totally caught me by surprise.

And it all came from using a pen with a slightly thinner nib to the one that I usually use.

It’s amazing how something as simple as this can evoke memories. But, if you’ve been making art for a while, then it’s very likely that you’ve experimented with several different art supplies and/or art mediums over time. So, there’s a very good chance that the art supplies you used to use are more connected with your memories than you might think.

Ok, this might just be me. But, it’s certainly something that can take you by surprise.

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Sorry for the ultra-short article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

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Four Reasons Why Creating Stuff With Older And/Or Low-Tech Tools Is Awesome

A few days before I wrote this article, I happened to read a really interesting BBC Future article about modern photographers who enjoy using primitive low-tech cameras that were originally designed to be affordable cameras for people in 1980s China.

This made me think about the subject of creating things with older and/or low-tech tools, since I usually tend to do a mild version of this sort of thing. For example, here’s a preview of one of my upcoming digitally-edited drawings.

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size picture will be posted here on the 8th October.

The line art was drawn with a pen and pencil, then it was scanned using a mid-’00s scanner connected to a mid-’00s computer. Then, the image editing and digital colouring was done using an old program from 1999 (“Jasc Paint Shop Pro 6” if anyone’s curious). The most modern element of the production process was some small corrections I made using a version of MS Paint from 2007 (but could have probably been done in even older versions of the program).

Although I often use watercolour pencils rather than digital tools to add colours, this is pretty much my “ordinary” routine for making art. Yes, all of this stuff isn’t exactly that old-fashioned, but it probably gives me some vague insight into why using older or low-tech tools to create things is so awesome 🙂 So, here are some of the reasons:

1) Simplicity: Old and low-tech tools can sometimes be a lot simpler and more user-friendly. For example, although I’ve dabbled with graphics tablets in the past, nothing is more intuitive than just using a pen and/or pencil when it comes to drawing complex things. You don’t have to worry about drivers, settings or anything like that – you just draw.

Likewise, older graphics programs contain all of the basic features that can be used for editing art. They aren’t filled with that much needlessly complicated stuff. Plus, because they’re designed for older computers, they tend to load ultra-quickly and apply image effects ultra-quickly when used on very slightly more modern computers. In other words, they don’t get in the way of what you’re trying to do with them.

2) Skills: Another great thing about old/low-tech tools is that they place much more emphasis on skill. Not only can this provide an interesting challenge (like making art with a mouse and MS Paint), but it also increases your creative confidence too. I mean, if you’re used to creating stuff using old/low-tech stuff, then you can create with pretty much anything.

If you use older and/or low-tech tools, you also need to think about ways to use them inventively. In other words, you need to be more willing to experiment and to have more of a knowledge of the underlying principles of your chosen field. After all, your tools won’t do everything for you. This can also put you in a more creative frame of mind too.

In other words, these things remind you that practice, creativity and skills matter more than the tools you use.

3) Egalitarianism: Simply put, there’s something wonderfully egalitarian about slightly older and/or low-tech tools. Usually, these types of tools are cheaper and/or more easily available than their more modern equivalents.

For example, compare a freeware open-source image editing program like “GIMP” to a certain well-known modern “software as a service” commercial image editing program with higher system requirements and a monthly subscription fee. Yes, the latter may be trendier and have more fancy features. But the former can be used by anyone on both older and newer computers that run a wide range of operating systems. One program is more democratic than the other.

There’s a beautiful egalitarianism to older and/or low-tech stuff that you just don’t get with “the latest thing”. And this is really cool 🙂 The tools for creating things shouldn’t be restricted to the wealthy (directly or indirectly) or controlled by a corporation or anything like that. They belong to everyone.

Or, to give another example, ordinary ballpoint pens have been around for a few decades and they are everywhere. You’re probably within a couple of metres of one right now. They are made by many different companies. They are compatible with both cheap and expensive paper. They cost pennies. They are sometimes given away for free. They can last for months or years. They are a great example of what all creative tools should be like.

4) Timelessness: Simply put, making things using older or low-tech tools makes your creative works feel more timeless. Going back to the digitally-edited drawing I showed you earlier, I love the fact that this picture could technically have been made as long ago as 1999. That it could, theoretically, have existed any time within about the past two decades.

By making things with tools that could have been used ten years ago or fifty years ago or whatever, you get to feel like you’re part of a much larger tradition. You get to feel like the things you create could potentially have existed in the past or that they could exist in the distant future. This is a really difficult feeling to describe, but it’s a really cool one to experience.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

What Can Computer Keyboards Teach Us About Creativity? – A Ramble

Well, one of the interesting side effects of transferring my computer’s hard drive into a different vintage computer (since the motherboard on the other one was dying) is that the other machine only accepts USB keyboards. So, I had to dust off an old keyboard of mine that I hadn’t used since about 2010 or so.

One of the things that really surprised me is that different keyboards can feel very different to use. It wasn’t something that I’d really thought about before, but the keys on my USB keyboard felt somewhat spongy when pressed, the “shift” key has to be pressed fairly hard and the “backspace” key is absolutely tiny when compared to the even older PS/2 keyboard I’d previously been using.

Yet, this USB keyboard was the keyboard that I’d learnt to really type quickly on. When I used it regularly between 2006-10, it felt perfectly normal to use. Yet, returning to it a few years later, it felt completely different to the keyboard I’d been using previously. Ok, I got used to it again fairly quickly, but it made me think about tools and creativity.

In short, it reminded me how branding doesn’t matter quite as much as you might think. As long as you are skilled at using one particular type of art or writing materials, then it’s usually fairly easy to get used to other variants of them.

For example, the main reason that I’m able to adapt to the quirks of this USB keyboard fairly quickly is because it is a QWERTY keyboard. I’ve had a lot of practice with this keyboard layout, so even using a different brand of QWERTY keyboard that is a slightly different size and whose keys “feel” slightly different when pressed isn’t that difficult.

Yet, if I was faced with a Dvorak keyboard, I probably wouldn’t be able to type anywhere near as quickly. All of the instinctive motions that I use when typing would be completely wrong. So, even a cheap or old QWERTY keyboard would be more useful to me than the fanciest and most expensive Dvorak keyboards out there.

So, what was the point of this? What can it teach us?

Well, simply put, branding doesn’t matter as much as you might think when it comes to art or writing supplies. As long as you are familiar with a general type of art or writing tool (eg: QWERTY keyboards, watercolour pencils, rollerball pens etc…), then adapting to different brands of it can be much faster than you might think.

At the end of the day, skills (gained through practice) matter more than the exact quirks or branding of any one product do.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Four Reasons To Use More Than One Art Medium

Unfortunately, Roman-style mosaics aren’t one of my art mediums.

As regular readers of this site know, most of my daily artwork consists of digitally-edited paintings (which are technically more like drawings than paintings, since I use watercolour pencils and waterproof ink pens). If you haven’t seen them before, they look a little bit like this:

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

The interesting thing is that the “digitally edited” part of my art is hardly a new thing. Although I’ve certainly learnt a lot since I started making basic brightness/contrast adjustments and adding blurring effects to scans of my art in 2012.

Still, most of my art technically consists of at least two mediums (eg: digital and traditional). So, I thought that I’d talk about some of the advantages of using multiple mediums. I’ve probably mentioned some of this stuff before, but it’s probably worth repeating.

1) It makes learning easier: Although I make relatively little digital-only art, I was able to make a digital painting recently using a free program that I’d only used very occasionally beforehand. And the main reason why I was able to do this was because, thanks to digitally editing paintings and/or drawings pretty much every day for the past 5-6 years, the basic features of image editing software (in general) aren’t really that unfamiliar to me.

So, one of the advantages of using multiple mediums is that it makes learning new mediums significantly easier. Since you’ll probably be combining a familiar medium with a less-familiar one, you already know how to do part of what you’re doing. This makes picking up a new art medium less intimidating.

It means that, in the early stages, you can rely more heavily on the medium that is familiar to you, whilst gradually learning and experimenting with the new one at the same time. This makes the learning process a bit slower, but it also makes a bit easier and more forgiving too.

2) It makes your art look unique: One of the cool things about combining two or more art mediums is that it can give your art a very unique “look”. With art that only uses one medium, you can usually tell what the artist used at a glance. After all, watercolour paintings look like watercolour paintings, digital art looks like digital art etc…

However, if you mix several mediums, then you can really make your art stand out from the crowd. It’ll look a bit different to most types of art, and people will be a bit more curious about how you made your artwork. And, if people are curious, then that means that they’re interested in your art.

It also means that you can use techniques that you can’t use in any one medium. For example, the characteristic “vivid” look of most of my paintings is something that requires both traditional and digital techniques.

On the traditional side of things, I try to make sure that 30-50% the surface area of each painting is covered with black paint (to make the colours stand out by contrast). I also mostly use a small palette of bright primary and secondary colours, which I make bolder by applying a fair amount of pressure when using watercolour pencils and then applying as little water as possible to the finished piece.

Once the painting has dried, I scan it and then I make adjustments to the brightness, contrast and colour saturation levels (amongst other things). By lowering the brightness, increasing the contrast and increasing the colour saturation, I’m able to make the picture look even bolder than an “ordinary” watercolour piece (whilst also making it look different to “digital art” too). The end result is something like this:

“The Abandoned Lobby” By C. A. Brown

3) It makes you more efficient: One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed over the past couple of months is that I’ve started relying slightly more heavily on the digital tools that I use. This is as much for time reasons as it is for creative reasons. For example, take a look at this digitally-edited painting of mine:

“Trendy 90s Cafe (II)” By C. A. Brown

At first glance, it just looks like an ordinary painting. But, here’s a scan of the parts of the painting that were made using ink and watercolour. As you can see, the sky is missing and the characters don’t have any skin tones:

This is a cropped, but otherwise unprocessed, scan of the original painting. As you can see, quite a few parts were added digitally afterwards.

By learning how to add elements to my pictures digitally, I’ve been able to make my art look better whilst also being able to make it more quickly too. Likewise, if I make a mistake in one of my paintings, then I can often salvage the picture by editing it digitally. So, this also means that the “failure rate” for my paintings is significantly lower too.

4) It makes you less obsessed with branding: One of the side-effects of using multiple art mediums is that you’ll need more art supplies. What this means is that you’ll probably have less to spend on each type of art supply than you would if you only focused on one medium. This means that you’ll often have to try to get the most “bang for your buck” when getting art supplies. This is a good thing.

Why? It allows you to dodge a lot of the pretentious commercial nonsense that surrounds art. If you look at a lot of art-related stuff online, you’ll often see people talking about certain well-known brands of marker pens, image editing software etc… Well, you can do all or most of the stuff that you can do with these things with cheaper brands of art supplies, older software, free open-source software etc..

The fact is, if a good artist can produce great art with expensive art supplies, they can probably do it with cheaper ones too. If you’re dazzled by an online art video, make sure that you’re dazzled by the artist’s skill rather than any sponsorship deals they happen to have. Focusing on multiple mediums means that you have to focus more on improving your artistic skills than on getting better art supplies.

So, using multiple art mediums can be another way to avoid brand-related hype. It also makes you more inventive too – since, if you have to work out how to make art made with cheaper materials look as good as art made with more expensive materials (eg: using older and/or open-source image editing programs to make a watercolour painting look a bit like a marker pen drawing etc..), you’re probably going to be thinking more creatively too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Another Thought About Why Art Supplies Don’t Matter – A Ramble

Whilst I was procrastinating by watching Youtube videos whilst trying to think of an idea for this article, my gaze drifted towards the pile of pens lying in front of my keyboard and I suddenly noticed that three pens, of different types, were roughly the same length (about 14cm, or 5 1/2 inches if you’re American).

These were three different types of pen – my usual waterproof ink rollerball pen, an ultra-cheap rollerball pen and a “0.1” inking pen. Yet, they were all roughly the same length.

For a second, I wondered how or why these three different pens were roughly the same length. Out of curiosity, I found a cheap old cartridge pen and… yes… it was also roughly the same length too. Even another inking pen (from a different manufacturer to the inking pen I mentioned earlier) only differed in length by about 0.5cm compared to the other pens.

It was then that it struck me, this was probably the most practical and/or ergonomic length for a pen. No matter whether a pen was ultra-cheap or slightly more mid-range, it was still roughly the same length. And, looking more closely, roughly the same diameter too. Through years of experimentation and practical use, most pen manufacturers have settled on a fairly standard length and width for their pens.

And, I’m sure that the same sort of thing is true for most other types of art supplies too. Since art supplies are designed for actually making art, even the cheapest art supplies will be designed with practicality in mind. The same is true with watercolour pencils too – they all look like, well, pencils. The basic design is pretty much the same, regardless of cost or brand.

So, this is yet another reason why getting fancy art supplies won’t instantly make you a “better artist” or anything like that. In practical physical terms, all art supplies of a given type (eg: pens, pencils etc…) will be fairly similar. The quality of the ink, the nib or the pigment may vary slightly – but the basic dimensions and they way you use it won’t be that different.

I guess that a good analogy would be how two people could play badminton with identical racquets. But, it wouldn’t be the racquets that would determine who would win, it would be the skill and experience of the people who were using them.

At the end of the day, art supplies are fairly similar – no matter how cheap or expensive they are. What really matters is how much practice the person holding them has had.

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Sorry for the ultra-short article, but I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Novelty Art Supplies Are Awesome – A Ramble

Ah, MS Paint & a mouse, we meet again…

Although this is a rambling article about art, I’m going to have to start by talking about music briefly. This is mostly because I got the idea for this article when I happened to find this really cool video of someone using two tesla coils to play the William Tell Overture which, surprisingly, was even more awe-inspiring than other videos I’ve seen of people using other random pieces of technology (like floppy disk drives etc..) as improvised instruments.

So, naturally, I wondered whether there was an artistic equivalent to this sort of thing… and there kind of is. I am, of course, talking about novelty art supplies. Although my own experiments with this have, at the time of writing, been limited to using MS Paint and a mouse to make “realistic” art (based on a photo, but without cheating) I have seen pictures and footage of things like people using coffee as a type of paint and things like that.

However, I am not talking about conceptual art here. Yes, this technically uses random objects to make things that are considered to be art by some people. But, for this article, I’ll be focusing only on drawings, etchings, paintings etc… made using unusual art supplies.

So, why are things made with novelty art supplies so awesome?

1) It’s a demonstration of skill: Generally speaking, novelty art supplies are considered novelties for a reason. If they were easy to work with, then they’d probably be “ordinary” art supplies instead. As such, producing even vaguely good art using novelty art supplies is a demonstration of skill.

It’s a demonstration that an artist knows enough about things like composition or shading to be able to make good art using awkward art supplies. It’s also a demonstration that an artist knows the basics of making art well enough to be able to adapt to using something unusual after a short amount of practice (and, yes, I’m somewhat set in my ways when it comes to art supplies, so it’s always astonishing to see other artists being more adaptable).

It’s also a good demonstration that being an artist is about practice and skill, rather than the tools that you use (something that can be easy to forget if you watch a few art videos where expert artists use expensive branded art supplies). Things made with novelty art supplies prove that a good artist will still be able to make art with even the strangest of materials.

2) It feels spontaneous: Ok, realistically speaking, if someone creates a cool piece of art using novelty art supplies, then they’ve probably done a lot of preparation and experimentation first.

They’ve probably made a few practice pieces and experimented with different variations of whatever they’re using until they feel a bit more confident with it. They’ve probably also looked at what other artists have done with the same (or similar) art supplies and taken a close look at the techniques they used.

But, seeing a video or a picture of this type of art being made gives the impression that the artist is spontaneously creating something with whatever random items happen to be nearby. It feels like they’re so highly inspired or have such a distinctive artistic vision that they just have to make art with whatever random things happen to be nearby.

In other words, it gives the impression that the world is filled with art supplies that no-one has thought of using yet. It gives the impression that everything and everywhere has the potential to be a studio of some kind.

3) It feels inventive: One of the things that I love about TV shows, films etc.. in the sci-fi genre is when the characters have to improvise gadgets, like they’re a futuristic version of “The A-Team”. Or when a character has to solve a crime (and, yes, many modern US forensic detective shows are basically sci-fi) or get some information by using some kind of strange technique that they’ve had to think up on the spot.

There’s just something… awe-inspiring about someone using something productively in a way it wasn’t originally intended to be used. After all, most inventions were originally created from things that weren’t originally made for the purpose they ended up being used for.

So, people using things that weren’t designed to be used as art supplies as art supplies feels inventive.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Is It Worth Knowing What Materials An Artist Uses?

This little picture was made using a rollerball pen, a scanner and several digital effects.

This little picture was made using a rollerball pen, a scanner and several digital effects.

Well, after mentioning two of the old image editing programs I use regularly in a recent article, I thought that I’d look at the whole subject of artists talking about the tools they use. I’ll mostly be looking at this from an artist’s perspective, since if you’re interested in an artist’s materials, then you’re probably interested in making art too.

It’s usually fairly common for artists to mention the tools that they use. This tends to happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is directly relevant to explaining how the artist achieved a particular effect, sometimes it’s because the audience are curious (or the artist thinks that they might be) and occasionally, it’s because an artist either has a favourite brand of art supplies or has possibly even been sponsored by the people who make said art supplies.

But, how useful is it for an artist to explain what art supplies that they use?

Generally, not as useful as you might think. In fact, knowing what art supplies your favourite artists use is often only ever useful in two circumstances. Yes, just two.

The first is that it tells you what general type of art supplies to look for if you want to make art that has a vaguely similar appearance to theirs. Notice how I said “type”, rather than “brand”.

If you learn that an artist’s pictures are created using a combination of, say, alcohol-based markers and India ink then, these are the two types of art supplies that you need to look for. Any art supplies of this type, regardless of brand, will do (and, if you’re new to making art, it’s worth going for cheaper art supplies that you feel comfortable experimenting with).

For example, my own daily artwork is usually made using watercolour pencils, a waterbrush, a black waterproof ink rollerball pen, cheap watercolour paper, a scanner and a couple of relatively basic image editing programs. But, if you get those particular things, then you probably won’t be able to make art that looks exactly like mine.

Why? Because knowledge and techniques are more important than tools. This brings me on to the second circumstance where knowing which materials an artist uses can be useful.

If there’s a very specific technique that requires you to use a certain art medium, then knowing what to use is obviously fairly important. For example, if your favourite artist uses “wet in wet” watercolour painting techniques and you want to try this yourself, then it’s probably important to know that you’ll need a slightly thicker/heavier type of watercolour paper (with a decent amount of surface sizing!), that powder/pan-based paints work better than watercolour pencils, that you’ll probably need a selection of different size brushes etc..

Of course, in order to illustrate the actual techniques involved in, say, “wet in wet” painting – the artist obviously has to explain what tools they are using.

After all, if you tried to drench a specific area of a painting with water whilst using very thin, cheap watercolour paper then it’s possibly going to ruin the paper. Likewise, some types of watercolour paper are more absorbent than others due to having less surface sizing (generally, I tend to use very absorbent watercolour paper – which helps to speed up drying times, but it makes “wet in wet” painting next to impossible). So, knowing which type of art supplies to get in order to practice the technique you are trying to learn is important.

But, apart from this, knowing what art supplies other artists use is fairly useless information in practical terms. Merely buying the same art supplies as your favourite artists won’t suddenly allow you to make art that looks like their art. Sure, your art will use the same materials (and look vaguely similar because of this) but the thing that makes a painting, drawing etc… look distinctive is the artist who made it. Their knowledge, their techniques and the many hours of practice that they have put into these things.

So, if you want to make art that looks more like the stuff that your favourite artists make, then it’s often far more useful to study the drawing or painting techniques that they use. It’s more useful to study things like the colour schemes they use in their art. It’s more useful to study how they handle things like composition and perspective etc…

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that getting new art supplies won’t turn you into your favourite artist. Art supplies are just tools. What matters is how you use them.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂