Want More Originality? Try Some Emotional Variation – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing fiction, making comics and/or making art, I’m going to have to start by talking about music for quite a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Shortly before writing this article, I found myself listening to a song called “Land Of The Free” by Gamma Ray for the hundredth time and I realised something about my own musical tastes – I prefer optimistic heavy metal music. And, yes, contrary to popular belief, optimistic heavy metal actually exists. And it feels great to listen to!

Not only does it encompass pretty much everything within the Power Metal sub-genre, but optimism also can be found in individual songs by bands in many other sub-genres of metal. I mean, there are even optimistic death metal songs out there (like this one [WARNING: The video contains FLICKERING LIGHTS] ).

Yet, when you think of heavy metal, “optimism” isn’t usually the first word that springs to mind. And, yet, this is what makes these songs so intriguing and appealing. They do something slightly different with a familiar genre, leveraging the strengths of the genre in order to achieve a slightly different emotional effect. They take the intense emotional catharsis that the genre is famous for and imbue it with a sense of joy, fun and/or hope that is often missing from more traditional heavy metal. And it is really something to listen to!

It also prompts all sorts of other interesting creative flourishes too. For example, the theme of optimism means that these songs have something in common with songs from other genres – which is why, for example, a metal band like Alestorm can make an awesome cover version of a (not entirely radio-friendly) rap song called “Hangover” by Taio Cruz. Many of Alestorm’s songs are about drinking, partying and having fun. Taio Cruz’s song is about this too. So, the cover is absolutely perfect.

Likewise, it can also lead to some unexpected thematic matter too. For example, although I’m not a Christian, I was quite surprised to realise that the “epic fantasy” story told in a heavy metal song called “Keeper Of The Seven Keys” by Helloween is, thematically at least, surprisingly Christian. It’s this story about someone who goes on an epic quest to defeat Satan by destroying things related to seveal negative qualities (eg: hate, fear, senselessness, greed and ignorance).

So, why have I spent several paragraphs talking about heavy metal music?

Well, simply put, one of the easiest ways to make something “orignal” within a familiar genre (aside from taking influence from things outside of the genre) is simply to look at the general emotional tone of the genre and then try to create something that evokes a slightly different emotional tone.

For example, one of the things that I’ve noticed whenever I’ve made cyberpunk art is that I’ll sometimes try to make it bright and cheerful, rather than gloomy and dystopian. Although this was initially because I absolutely love this genre and want to celebrate it, it does result in a slightly different “style” of cyberpunk to many things in the genre.

“Market Seven” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

Adding a different emotional tone to a familiar genre not only makes your creative works more original, but it also allows you to explore themes that you might not be able to if you stuck to a more traditional version of the genre. I mean, part of the creative process behind some of my “optimistic” cyberpunk paintings was just curiosity about what everyday life in a 1980s-style cyberpunk future would actually look like. And, well, it’s probably not all doom and gloom.

So, yes, adding a different emotional tone to a familiar genre can be a really interesting thing to do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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Brutalist Architecture And Creative Inspiration – A Ramble

Although I’ve written about Brutalist architecture before, I was reminded of it again after seeing this fascinating gallery of photos.

If you’ve never heard of Brutalist architecture before and don’t have time to look at the gallery, then it’s an absolutely awesome style of architecture from the 1950s-70s which consists of large, imposing, angular concrete buildings.

Even though some philistines loathe it with a passion (to the point of actively trying to get it demolished, like with the much-missed Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth), there’s nothing quite like this wonderfully unique architectural style for firing the imagination and making the world a bit more of an interesting place.

But, what’s so interesting and inspirational about Brutalist architecture? Simply put, it looks like a piece of futuristic sci-fi in real life. When the Tricorn Centre still existed during my early-mid teenage years, it was like a little piece of the dystopian sci-fi novels I was so fascinated by at the time. It was like a real-life piece of J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise” or Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that I could actually look at in real life.

Photo via Wikipedia, by Foofy (original image from this site). CC-BY 2.5

Not to mention that, even though the Tricorn was disused long before I really noticed it, it still spawned it’s own mythology. It was nearly impossible to go to school anywhere near Portsmouth during the early 2000s without hearing at least one secondhand tale of someone’s friend of a friend who had supposedly sneaked into the centre’s abandoned Laser Quest arena.

When I went to university in Aberystwyth, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the university campus has a large Brutalist area – consisting of a central courtyard that is surrounded by the Hugh Owen building, the Arts Centre and the Student Union. All of these buildings are giant, imposing, angular concrete things which look like they could have come from “Blade Runner” or something like that. Seriously, this whole location is an absolute joy to paint.

“Aberystwyth – Campus Corridor” By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Taxi Ride” By C. A. Brown

In fact, talking of “Blade Runner”, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw “Blade Runner 2049” at the cinema last year. During about two parts of the film, there are some wonderful exterior shots of a snow-covered Brutalist building. It fits into the world of the film absolutely perfectly, with little to no exterior changes.

So, why are Brutalist buildings so wonderfully inspirational? Simply put, they’re unique. No two are exactly identical. They look very different from the vast majority of other buildings surrounding them. Not only that, they somehow manage to look both intriguingly old and fascinatingly futuristic at the same time. They’re creative buildings.

Their bare, dystopian future- like exterior design is also inherently mysterious too. If you see a Brutalist building, then you’ll probably wonder what it looks like inside or what it was built for. This sense of mystery is one of the reasons why these buildings can really fire the imagination.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Creativity And Learning Random Factoids – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about how learning random amusing factoids can be good for your creativity. I was reminded of this topic when I happened to discover that the background music for the American national anthem was taken from none other than the official song of an Ancient Greece-inspired 18th century drinking society.

But, what does learning random factoids have to do with creativity?

First of all, even if you don’t remember all of the hundreds of random factoids that you’ve found over the years, they can still spur your creativity.

This is because the reason why most of these factoids are interesting is because they either show that things are different to what we would expect (eg: like how archaeologists in Sweden during the 1950s found a small Buddha statue in a Viking-era site ) or they show that familiar things have more of a strange history than we might think (eg: the standard keyboard layout on most computers was originally designed to stop typewriter keys jamming.). In other words, they are irreverent things that make us think about everything slightly differently.

So, coming up with interesting pieces of backstory or interesting fictional background details is a lot more easier if you have the vague memory of hundreds of amusing factoids for the simple reason that they put you in the right frame of mind to come up with intriguing details for your story or comic.

Plus, random factoids can be used to make stories more memorable or interesting too. For example, although it’s an incredibly boring book that I had to read when I was in sixth form, one of the few surprising things about John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was the staggering statistic that something like 1 in 50 houses in Victorian London were brothels. Then again, thanks to it’s stuffy and uptight reputation, Victorian Britain is fertile ground for surprising factoids.

For example, drug use was surprisingly common back then. If you don’t believe me then read Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater”, read about Laudanum, read the first chapter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign Of Four” and/or read about how Queen Victoria apparently took “tincture of hemp” for monthly cramps etc.. Most surprisingly of all, it was all perfectly legal back then too.

Of course, if random factoids contain an element of mystery or horror then they can also be the starting point for stories or comics in their own right.

Finally, knowing lots of random factoids will also improve any dialogue that you write since, as long as they are relevant to the story and/or your characters, you can liven up the dialogue in your comic or story by including some of the amusing factoids that you know.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Two Very Basic Ways To Create A New Sub-Genre

Well, although this is a short article about creativity in general, I’m going to have to start by talking about music briefly. This is mostly because I seem to be listening to slightly more heavy metal than usual at the time of writing.

Anyway, one of the defining features of the heavy metal genre is how many different sub-genres of heavy metal there are.

There’s symphonic metal, classic metal, power metal, thrash metal, speed metal, black metal, death metal, pirate metal, folk metal, trance metal etc…

Yet, all of these sub-genres are still very recognisable as heavy metal. So, although I’ve probably mentioned all of this stuff before, here are two very basic tips for how to make your own sub-genre (of art, fiction, music etc…).

1) Have a wide range of influences: Generally speaking, many new sub-genres are created when someone takes inspiration from something outside of their chosen genre.

For example, the Symphonic Metal sub-genre probably began when someone thought “what this opera really needs is some electric guitars“. Likewise, the Folk Metal sub-genre probably also began when someone thought the same thing about folk music.

Likewise, the Zomcom genre of films probably began with a brilliantly hilarious film called “Shaun Of The Dead”, which is a mixture of a romantic comedy and a zombie movie. If the creator of this film had only taken inspiration from one genre, the film wouldn’t be the distinctive, genre-defining classic that it is.

So, having a slightly wider range of influences will make it much easier for you to find new things to blend with your favourite genre. And, this is how you make a new sub-genre.

2) Know your tastes: Another way that new sub-genres can be created is when a person realises exactly what they really love about their favourite genre and then decides to turn it “up to eleven”.

A good example of this would probably be Splatterpunk fiction – this is a sub-genre of horror fiction that was popular during the 1980s/90s and it probably just stemmed from several horror writers thinking “why can’t horror novels include more blood and guts? Horror movies can include this stuff, why can’t we? Best of all, we don’t have to deal with film censors either….“.

So, if you’re a massive fan of a particular genre, then look carefully at which elements of the genre you really love, and then emphasise them more. I mean, you’re probably going to do this anyway (it’s a part of taking inspiration) – but if you do it prominently and distinctively enough, then you can end up creating a new sub-genre.

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Sorry for another short article, but I hope that it was useful πŸ™‚

Finding The Right Artform For You – A Ramble

[Note: This article was originally prepared quite a few months ago, when I was going through a phase where I was less interested in writing (and was a little out of practice). As such, it doesn’t quite reflect my current views about writing or my writing process.]

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Although this is an article about how to find the right artform (eg: art, writing, music, photography etc..) for you, I’m going to have to spend quite a while talking about my own experiences with making art and writing fiction. But, if you’re only interested in the instructional part of the article, then just skip to the final two paragraphs.

A while before writing this article, I ended up randomly reading parts of a series of articles from The Guardian where various authors talk about their writing routines. In addition to lots of wonderfully cosy descriptions of writing rooms, I suddenly noticed that many of them talked about writing in the same way that I’d probably talk about daydreaming or making art.

This then made me wonder “why don’t I feel this when writing fiction?” After all, I’d spent at least the first two decades of my life thinking of myself as a writer. I’ve even studied creative writing formally. I still dabble with writing short stories on special occasions. But, whenever I’ve written fiction, there’s often been a certain distance. A certain formality to the process.

Yes, having a highly inspired moment or having one those times where you write for the sake of writing (throwing quality to the wind, because no-one else is going to read it) can feel immersive and exhilarating. But, often, the process of writing fiction seems a little bit.. formal.

Yet, with art (which I’ve had no proper formal training in), it’s often the complete opposite. Now that I’ve had a bit of experience and built up my confidence, it often feels like I’m daydreaming on paper when I paint or draw. Like I don’t have to bother with the formality of translating the vague mixture of images, feelings, inspirations and moods I experience into words and then trying to cram them into something resembling a coherent story.

With art, you literally just have to create an interesting moment. You just have to come up with one interesting frame, rather than an entire feature film. It’s incredibly liberating and spontaneous if you’ve spent quite a bit of your life trying to write short stories etc…

Even on uninspired days, when making art feels like an arduous chore, it still feels more intuitive than writing fiction does. Yes, the passion and the feeling of meaning might not be there, but I seem to have picked up more tricks and techniques for dealing with this in 5-6 years of making art regularly than I did during the (much longer) time that I primarily thought of myself as a writer.

Even editing art feels a lot more enjoyable than editing fiction does. Even when I’m using a mouse in my non-dominant hand (because it somehow feels more intuitive than dusting off the graphics tablet) to edit scanned copies of my art, the editing process feels vivid and alive. I can see the progress happening in front of me. Even if the editing process doesn’t result in a perfect picture, it doesn’t matter as much because it still usually looks better than the physical painting that I scanned several minutes earlier.

With fiction, editing often feels a lot more tedious and abstract. It’s something I usually try to keep to a minimum because it can often feel like an endless process of re-arranging things and constantly worrying about whether it is “good enough”, like in that old Greek myth about pushing a boulder up a hill.

I could go on, but the general theme of all of this is that there’s a vivid emotional difference between the two things. One feels very different to the other.

So, the best way to find the artform that is right for you is just to experiment with a few of them and see which one really feels “natural” for you. See which one really fills you with enthusiasm and/or feels the most natural and intuitive. If you haven’t had any experience in any artform, then do a bit of practice with each one until you start to notice which one fills you with enthusiasm and makes you want to do it even more.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Creativity, Subcultures And Fandoms – A Ramble

Although this is an article about making art, writing fiction etc… I’m going to have to start by talking about music and fashion/clothing for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. But, if you don’t have time for this, then just skip the next five paragraphs or so.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up reading some online articles about something that I’d seen a few times at concerts/festivals but didn’t know the exact word for. I am, of course, talking about heavy metal “battle jackets”/”battle vests”, which are covered in band patches. No two are the same, and each one is a reflection of the wearer’s musical tastes.

Even though this made me curious enough to make a fan art painting of what my ideal battle vest would probably look like, it also made me think about my relationship with the heavy metal subculture too. But, first, here’s a preview of the fan art painting I mentioned:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 12th October.

Although I had a lot of fun making this painting, I suddenly found myself wondering if a battle vest was “too metal” for me. I mean, I wouldn’t think twice about wearing an Iron Maiden/Judas Priest/Cradle Of Filth etc.. T-shirt, but a battle vest seemed like a totally different thing.

Even though heavy metal is one of my favourite genres of music (and has been for over fifteen years), I felt strangely uneasy about the idea of ever making or wearing something that distinctively showed me to be the most absolutely dedicated of metalheads.

Why? Because metal is one of several genres that I absolutely love. I’m also a fan of songs by several punk bands, several gothic rock bands, a couple of electronic musicians, a couple of rappers, an indie band or two, a few acoustic musicians and even (dare I say it?) a few pop musicians. In other words – if I like a song, musician or band, then I like it. If the music is good enough, genre doesn’t matter.

But what does any of this have to do with creativity?

Simply put, having a wider range of interests (simply by following your own instincts about whether something is good or not) is essential for both creativity and originality. If you only take inspiration from things in one particular genre, then your creative works won’t be as distinctive as the things that you really love. Why? Because true originality comes from taking inspiration from lots of different things.

Following your own instincts about what you enjoy, rather than rigidly sticking to just one genre, also means that you have to think more critically about your own sensibilities. In other words, you have to look at what all of your favourite things have in common. Once you’ve learnt this, you can use this knowledge to improve your own creative works and make them distinctively “yours”.

To use an artistic example that I’ve used many times before, almost all of my paintings from the past couple of years feature high-contrast lighting and/or chiaroscuro lighting. My usual rule is that at least 30-50% of the surface area of each painting should be covered with black paint. It results in art that looks like this:

“The Lost Room” By C. A. Brown

“Launch” By C. A. Brown

But, how did I learn this rule? Simply put, I noticed that a lot of things that I thought were cool followed it.

These included things as diverse as heavy metal album covers, various computer and video games, old horror novel covers, the film noir and cyberpunk genres, 1980s/90s films (in several genres), historical paintings, various comics etc.. So, looking at a range of different “cool” things can help you to refine your own style and make your creative works more original.

To use a musical example, one of the qualities that I love in music is lyrical sophistication (eg: clever rhymes, good metaphors, interesting vocabulary, humour etc..).

This is why I really love various songs by Cradle Of Filth (heavy metal), Tinie Tempah (rap), Suzanne Vega (acoustic) and Bad Religion (punk). All of these musicians share this one quality, even though their music sounds extremely different. So, if I ever had the musical skill to write a song, then it would probably include this quality.

As cool as subcultures are and as cool as it might be to just focus on one genre, don’t let this restrict you! Following your own instincts and understanding your own sensibilities is much more important for your creativity than fitting into any one subculture, genre or fandom.

Of course, because the universe loves irony, one of the main themes in many subcultures is rebelling against conformity. Seriously, it’s something that metalheads, punks, goths, retro/indie gamers, hipsters, horror movie fans etc… all have in common. So, try to actually take it seriously.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚