What Can Old Computer Games Teach Us About Painting And Drawing From Imagination? – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about the differences between painting from imagination and painting from photographs/life etc.. This is mostly because I’ve found a brilliant computer game-related analogy for it that I want to share.

If you’ve played computer games from the 1990s/early-mid 2000s, you probably already know the difference between FMV and in-game cutscenes. If you don’t, then I should probably explain. Older games generally tended to get story information across to the player through animated video segments. However, these came in two very different varieties.

FMV (full motion video) was often created using high-end graphics software, then recorded and inserted into the game. This allowed games to include CGI footage that looked years ahead of the graphics in other contemporary games. Since these scenes required a lot of resources and preparation to make (and took up a lot of memory), they usually tended to be restricted to short introductory and ending movies. They look a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from a FMV sequence in “Deus Ex: Invisible War” (2003). Even though this footage is from about fifteen years ago, it could almost pass for something from a modern game. Almost.

In-game cutscenes on the other hand, are animated scenes that are created using the same technology as the rest of the game. As such, they are considerably easier, quicker and cheaper for game developers to make. They take up less memory and they generally appear a lot more frequently than FMV in old games. However, they don’t really look as realistic or as good. Compare this example from “Deus Ex: Invisible War” to the FMV screenshot above:

This is a screenshot from an in-game cutscene in “Deus Ex: Invisible War” (2003). As you can see, the graphics look a lot less realistic than the FMV sequences.

So, why am I mentioning this? Well, one of the endearing things about old games is that they’ll often dazzle the player with an almost-realistic introductory FMV video, only to then show the player the actual game (which looks nowhere near as realistic). If you’ve played a lot of old games, you’ll be used to this. If you haven’t, then it will probably be at least somewhat disconcerting.

But, what does it have to do with art? Well, painting from imagination is much more like an in-game cutscene and painting from life/photos etc… is more like a FMV sequence. After all, if you’re painting from life or a photo, it’s easy to make your art look realistic since you can just copy what you see. Like this:

“Random Desk Still Life” By C. A. Brown

You also don’t have to worry about finding inspiration, since you have an “inspiration” directly in front of you when you’re painting. There’s a reason why a lot of famous artists tend to do this whilst making art.

However, painting from imagination takes a lot more work. You have to come up with an idea and then you have to work out how to paint it. Chances are, even with a few years of practice, it won’t look as realistic as a still life or a painting from a photo. And this can be somewhat dispiriting. But, it shouldn’t be.

“From The 1990s” By C. A. Brown

If you paint from imagination, then you can do so much more! Yes, it might not look as “realistic” but you aren’t limited by what exists in real life. Like how a FMV video is often less interactive than an in-game cutscene, paintings from photos and/or life are limited by the source materials you can find.

Not only that, if you can paint even vaguely well from imagination then you’ll find making paintings from life/photos fairly easy. However, if you only make art from photos/life, then you’re probably going to find painting from imagination to be extremely challenging.

It’s kind of like how even the worst computer and/or video games of the past could include cool-looking FMV sequences, but a really great game could include few to no cutscenes whatsoever. Anyone in the games industry could make cool-looking FMVs, but it took real talent to make an enjoyable game and/or compelling in-game cutscenes.

What I’m trying to say here is that the underlying imagination behind making art matters more than how “realistic” your paintings or drawings look. Yes, you should strive to improve (just like how in-game cutscenes have gradually got more realistic over the years), but if you have to focus on either painting from imagination or painting from life/photos, choose imagination. Your art might not look as good, but it will make you a better and more creative artist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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The One Skill That Writing, Art etc.. Courses Don’t Always Teach Directly – A Ramble

Although this is an article about perhaps the most important skill that any artist or writer should have, I’m going to have to start by talking about old technology for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become apparent later in the article.

A while before I wrote this article, I watched this wonderfully nostalgic Youtube video about indestructible old mobile phones.

Although I could easily get side-tracked and talk about how – in 2004/5- I once saw someone quite literally hurl a 3310 into a wall (it bounced off and the only damage was a slight crack to the screen covering). Or I could talk about how – back when I still liked mobile phones- I once owned what was once the most popular phone in the world (the 1100), and how it survived getting lost once and being used for over five years. But, that would be a distraction.

No, the reason, I mentioned old phones from the early-mid ’00s is because they had a reputation for durability, simplicity, reliablity and practicality. They were, like a lot of old technology, built to work and built to last.

I mean, a DVD doesn’t stop working when the internet slows down. Windows XP crashes extremely rarely compared to Windows 98 (and what I’ve seen of Windows 7 computers too!). My Playstation 2 seems to have died from disuse (the last time it worked was in 2011, but I bought it in early 2002!). My Game Boy Advance and original Game Boy still work though. My old MP3 players use easily-replacable batteries. The computer I wrote this article on is a low-end machine – even by the standards of 2006 (which was when I got it). Old technology isn’t fancy, but it was made to work and made to last!

This is something that has shaped my own philosophy towards technology… and creativity too.

Back before I used to practice art daily, I used to consider myself to be more of a writer (in fact, I actually studed creative writing). But, one skill that never seemed to be explicitly taught was how to deal with uninspired times. When I had weekly writing assignments, I used to spend hours or days frantically racking my brain for story ideas and, although I always eventually found one, my imagination didn’t always seem like the most reliable thing in the world.

But, now that I make art instead, I know that I’ll always make something – even on my most uninspired days. How did I learn this? Simple, I started practicing art daily and – a bit later – writing these daily articles. This tight schedule changed my attitude towards creativity, even after I’d built up a fairly decent “buffer” of things that I’d made in advance.

Gone are the days when I thought of coming up with creative ideas as nervously “waiting for inspiration” and now I see uninspiration as more of a puzzle to solve – but a puzzle that I know that I will always solve. These days, my overriding attitude is a confident “make something! Something is better than nothing!” or “I’m going to make something, I wonder what it will be?

Best of all, this constant daily practice has given me so many backup strategies to use when I can’t find an idea or the enthusiasm to make something. Whether it’s making still life paintings, looking for something to take inspiration from, remaking my old art, making studies of 19th century paintings, using a focused distration (eg: playing old computer games) that allows me to daydream etc… I’ve gained a vast toolbox of techniques to use whenever my imagination throws up an error message.

For example, the day before I wrote this article – I’d just woken up and realised that I was about to be behind on my art practice schedule. I had maybe an hour or two to make some art. When I started sketching, my imagination quickly failed me. I felt like making art was a chore. But, I still made some art! Yes, I eventually had to quite literally doodle randomly in my sketchbook and then scan it and try to turn it into art using an image editing program. But, I managed it! Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size picture will be posted here on the 10th April.

No matter how great you are at writing, drawing, painting etc… all of that skill means nothing if you don’t have a reliable way to keep creating. Even if you can only create crappy stuff when you aren’t feeling inspired, the fact that you’re still creating makes you better than a genius who gives up in frustration.

So, yes, the most important skill that any artist or writer can learn is how to make their imagination more reliable. Because, if you’re able to make something any time you want to, they you’re still in a better position than more “skilled” people who can’t do this.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Letting Your Imagination Assert Itself – A Ramble

Although I’m sure I’ve written about this subject at least once before, I thought that I’d talk about how your art can sometimes end up looking totally different to the original idea/plan that you had before you started making the drawing or painting. This tends to happen most often when you draw or paint from imagination (rather than from life, from photographs etc..) with relatively little pre-planning.

This is when it feels like something else was involved with the painting or drawing you’ve just made. Like how, on the journey from the initial idea to the final painting, something has changed a few details and made several alterations. It can be a really strange experience sometimes.

So, what actually happens here?

Simply put, many of the creative influences/inspirations that you’ve (knowingly or unknowingly) encountered in the past can end up having an effect on the painting in some unexpected way or another – for the simple reason that they’ve shaped your imagination and/or your aesthetic sensibilities (eg: the set of “rules” you believe that good/interesting art should follow).

This is a good thing. After all, one of the best ways to make more distinctive art is to learn how to take inspiration properly and to look for things that fire your imagination. Likewise, the more influences and inspirations you have, the more stuff your imagination has to work with. So, the more likely you are to surprise yourself in interesting ways.

Since our imaginations aren’t computers, influences and inspirations don’t tend to stay separated in neat little folders. They blur and blend together to produce slightly new things. This is the foundation of pretty much all types of creativity. It is also why the more inspirations you have, the more original your creative works will be. After all, originality comes from having a unique mixture of inspirations (since it is literally impossible for anyone to create anything that isn’t inspired by something else in some way or another. Even humanity’s earliest cave paintings were inspired by things that the artists saw in real life.).

What this means is that virtually every idea you have for a piece of art will be filtered through your existing mixture of inspirations at some stage in the creative process, and this is one of the main reasons why your final painting or drawing can look somewhat different from your original idea.

After all, if you’ve seen and studied a lot of cool and interesting things that have made you think “I want to make something like that“, then your imagination is going to remember this. It will have probably devised a set of “rules” that it learnt from all of these things, so it will probably feel more right to follow those rules than it is to ignore them. This is where the “something else” I mentioned earlier comes from.

So, if you’ve been practicing for a while (and the differences aren’t down to a difference in artistic skill), then it’s usually a good thing when your final artwork ends up looking somewhat different to your original idea. It means that your imagination is working properly. It means that you are beginning to discover your own unique type or style of art.

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

Three Creative Advantages Of Not Being Totally Up To Date With Current Culture

Whilst it wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that I’m totally out of date when it comes to modern culture (eg: films, games, books etc..), I’m probably at least slightly out of date with large parts of it. Sometimes, this has been for financial or practical reasons but, over time, it’s also kind of turned into something of a choice too.

But, I’m also something of a creative person. So, you might ask, why aren’t you up to date with current culture and interacting with it? Why aren’t you keeping up with developments in comics, art, film, fiction etc..?

Well, here are some of the advantages of not being totally up to date with current culture if you’re a creative person:

1) Imagination: Simply put, being slightly out of date with current culture is good for your imagination in all sorts of ways. First of all, it means that you have to actively search for inspirations rather than just being inspired by whatever is “in” at the moment. If a topic or a genre interests you, then you have to actually go looking for things in that genre that will inspire you. This generally means that you have to have a better understanding of how your imagination works, how to take inspiration properly, your own creative sensibilities etc..

It also means that, if you are an artist or a writer, there probably won’t be as many tutorials out there for how to make things inspired by the older things that inspire you. As such, you’re going to have to work out how to do it yourself. You’re actually going to have to study the things that inspire you to see how they “work”, rather than just reading a pre-made tutorial. As such, you’ll become better at learning how to do new things – which is an essential skill for any artist, writer etc…

Secondly, hearing about things that you probably won’t watch, read, play etc.. for ages can really fire your imagination too. And, well, using your imagination regularly is great for creativity.

Thirdly, if you take most of your inspiration from slightly older things, then you either have to work out how to bring them “up to date” or how to make something original that seems like it could have come from that time period. Either way, your imagination will get more of a workout than if you just take imagination from more modern things.

2) Originality: Whilst not being totally up to date with current culture might seem like it would make your work less original (because you’re being inspired by things that lots of people have already been inspired by), the opposite is true.

Being out of date with current culture generally means that you’re more likely to have a more interesting mixture of inspirations. The more different inspirations you have, the more original your work will be. If you buy most of your DVDs, books, comics etc.. second-hand or you have a computer which can only play retro games and retro-style indie games, then these limitations will usually push you towards looking at a slightly more diverse range of things.

For example, here’s a digitally-edited painting of mine that was posted here about 1-2 weeks ago:

“The Lost Room” By C. A. Brown

The initial inspiration for this painting was a second-hand DVD of old “Jonathan Creek” episodes from the late 1990s/early 2000s. But, that wasn’t the only inspiration. Other inspirations for it probably include old episodes of “Poirot” from the 1980s/90s, “Blade Runner” , various comics from the 1980s/90s, old heavy metal album covers, this set of modern fan-made levels for a game from 1994 called “Doom II” etc..

Because there’s only a finite amount of old stuff out there (or old things within your price range), being out of date usually means that you have to look for a slightly wider range of inspirations. Which translates to more originality.

3) A different perspective: Not being 100% up to date with current culture can help to give your creative works a more unique perspective and outlook on the world. Because you aren’t being swept along with what everyone tells you that you should watch, read or play then you’re likely to look at things in a slightly different way.

A good example of this is probably the approach that an American TV show called “The West Wing” takes to political drama. During the late 1990s when it began, it was a modern, optimistic show for a more optimistic age. But, if you look at it today, it seems poignantly naive in so many ways. It’s about a million miles away from current politics on either side of the Atlantic. Yet, a modern political novel or comic inspired by this show would be absolutely hilarious. But, it’s an idea you wouldn’t have if you only watched modern political dramas.

Seeing how people viewed the world during the past can have an interesting influence on things that you create in the present. Whether it’s the bizarre mixture of optimism and cynicism that the 1990s had. Whether it’s how science fiction writers and film-makers etc.. in the 1980s viewed the future etc… Being slightly out of date with current culture can allow you to see the present day from a slightly different perspective.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Ways To Keep Your Imagination Strong

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If you are an artist or a writer, then your imagination is one of the most important things that you own.

Whilst you obviously still need to put the effort into practicing the skills needed for making good art or writing good fiction, you also need a strong imagination to get the most out of those skills. Having a strong imagination means that you’ll feel inspired more often, you can come up with better creative ideas and that you’ll enjoy creating things even more.

But, how can you strengthen your imagination? Here are three (of many) ways to do this:

1) Be influenced regularly: People who are new to making art and writing fiction can sometimes have the false impression that imagination should work on it’s own. That to allow anything to influence or inspire you somehow “dilutes” your imagination. This is something that I used to think a long time ago, and it is absolute nonsense! Your imagination won’t get stronger if you starve it and/or don’t let it do it’s job properly.

Although you need to know how to take inspiration properly, regularly looking at other creative works is one of the best ways to strengthen your own imagination. Not only does it show you what sorts of things are possible, but it also gives your imagination the building blocks that it needs to build new things.

It’s a bit like how learning new words can help you to express ideas that you couldn’t express before. Seeing (and thinking about) how other people have done things, seeing how different people have come up with different interpretations of the same types of stories etc… gives you a lot more ideas about how to do things your own way.

Not only that, the more influences and inspirations that you have, the more “original” your work will be. If you’re only inspired by one thing, then the things you make will probably be a second-rate imitation of that thing. However, if you’re inspired by lots of different things, then your work will be a unique mixture of many different influences.

2) Daydream: Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you probably daydream a lot anyway. Daydreaming is an essential part of creativity (and of everyday life too). But, if you really want to keep your imagination well-fed, then you need to daydream in a very specific way every now and then.

In other words, you need to find things that provoke new, complex and interesting daydreams. Generally speaking, novels, films, games, comics, pictures etc… that give you a glimpse of an interesting fictional world are probably the best things to choose.

Because these things only show you a few parts of a fascinating “world”, your imagination has to create the rest of it for you. It then has to work out what it’s like to live in that world, what sorts of things happen there etc… But, unless you’re making fan art or writing fan fiction, then you need to take this one step further.

Daydreaming about other people’s fictional worlds helps to teach your imagination how to come up with it’s own fictional worlds. It’s good practice for coming up with more original ideas. After all, once you’ve built a few “universes” from hints and glimpses that you’ve seen in films, novels etc… then building one or your own (even if it’s just for the background of a painting) won’t seem quite as daunting.

3) Ask questions: When you see something that inspires you and really fires up your imagination, then ask yourself why. Ask yourself why this one thing has inspired you so much.

If you’re not sure why, then look at the emotions it provokes in you. Look at the types of characters, settings etc… that it contains. If it’s a work of visual art, then try to work out what colour combinations it uses, what types of lighting it uses, what type of costume designs are used, what artistic techniques are used etc…

Although ‘dissecting’ the things that really get your imagination going might seem like it’s taking the “magic” out of them, this isn’t true. Knowing how and why these things are good for your imagination can help you to improve your imagination even more. But, how?

Now that you’ve worked out why something really invigorates your imagination, then try to look for other things that also contain those qualities. Eventually, try to make something that contains these qualities.

This might take a bit of research, but you’ll probably feel excited about doing the research (because, who doesn’t want to find more cool things?). But more importantly – whilst doing the research, you’ll probably begin to imagine what other things that contain these qualities look like. Needless to say, this feeling of anticipation (and all of the daydreams it provokes) are very good for your imagination.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Leaving Room To Imagine – A Ramble

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Although this is an article about creativity in general, I’m probably going to have to start by talking about computer games for a while. This is mainly because, as regular readers of this site know, I mostly play old games and/or low-budget indie games these days.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about old and low-budget games is the fact that they often don’t include “realistic” graphics. Likewise, really old-school/low-budget games sometimes don’t even include voice acting – choosing instead to use text for the dialogue. Here are some examples of the types of games I’m talking about:

This is a screenshot from "The Last Door: Season 2" (2016).

This is a screenshot from “The Last Door: Season 2” (2016). Note the use of text-based dialogue and the impressionistic graphics.

This is a screenshot from "Zombie Shooter" (2007)

This is a screenshot from “Zombie Shooter” (2007). Note the “unrealistic” graphics.

This is a screenshot from "Eradicator" (1996). Surprisingly, it is the only game of these three that actually includes voice-acting.

This is a screenshot from “Eradicator” (1996). Surprisingly, it is the only game of these three that actually includes voice-acting.

Yet, surprisingly, these games are often a lot more engrossing than more “realistic” games would be. For the most part, this is because these games don’t try to look ultra-realistic. In fact, they often leave a lot of visual details purposely or accidentally vague.

This, of course, means that not only does the player focus more on the events of the game than on the graphics, but it means that the player also has to actually use their imagination to work out what the locations are supposed to look like. These games give the player enough visual details to give them an idea of what the setting is meant to be, but it is left up to them to fill in the fine details with their own imaginations.

Likewise, the lack of voice-acting in some of these games means that it is left to the player to work out what the characters’ voices sound like. Like with reading a novel or a comic, the audience’s imaginations are probably going to come up with better voice acting than most voice-actors could probably do. After all, your own imagination is better at coming up with things that are well-suited to you than anyone else is.

In fact, comics are probably another good example of this sort of thing.

The artwork in many comics is deliberately unrealistic (for both time reasons and creative reasons). They don’t include voice-acting either. Likewise, they only show still “frames” from a movie-like series of events. And, yet, a good comic can often be more immersive and interesting than a film for the simple reason that the audience is left to imagine things like the fine details of the world, the sound of the characters’ voices etc… And, well, imagination is usually better than expensive special effects or A-list actors.

The best way to see how important leaving room for the audience to imagine things is to start by watching a film adaptation of a novel you haven’t read. Then read the original novel. I can almost guarantee that you’ll probably imagine the characters, voices, locations and events of the novel in a pretty similar way to how they looked in the film.

Now try the same thing in reverse. Read a popular novel that you enjoy, then watch the film adaptation of it (that you’ve never seen before). Chances are, the film will look at least slightly different to what you imagined when you were reading the novel. In fact, there are actually a few film adaptations that I absolutely refuse to watch, lest they ruin my imagined ideas about what the characters and/or settings of several novels look like.

So, what was the point of all of this? Well, the point is that – if you are creating something – then you need to leave room for your audience to use their imaginations. You need to give them the space to come up with their own custom interpretation of the story you are telling.

In other words, you don’t have to make the art in your comics hyper-detailed, you shouldn’t worry if your fiction never gets adapted into a film etc… The more room that your audience has to imagine things, the better.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Getting Artistically Inspired Using Places You’ve Never Visited – A Ramble

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Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about how you can use places that you’ve never actually visited as a potent source of artistic inspiration. This is probably because, the day before I wrote this article, I found myself inspired by 1990s Los Angeles/California once again.

Although the next webcomic mini series to be posted here (which will start appearing here tomorrow night) will be set there, I also made a sci-fi painting inspired by 1990s Los Angeles that will be posted here in mid-late June. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

 The full-size painting will appear here on the 22nd June.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 22nd June.

And, yet, I’ve never been to America. Although I’m not really a fan of travelling these days, when I used to travel more, I never actually travelled outside of Europe. Likewise, although I was around during the 1990s and can remember a fair amount of it, I was only a young child at the time.

Plus, I’m not a fan of hot weather or large, crowded cities in real life – so, the idea of ever actually visiting a city like Los Angeles doesn’t appeal to me. Especially considering that I can probably count the number of times that I’ve visited central London (which is apparently tiny, spacious, affordable and quaint when compared to Los Angeles) on the fingers of both hands, and I still consider that to be too many times LOL!

But, I still consider 1990s Los Angeles (and 1990s California) to be highly inspirational. Why?

Well, it probably has to do with the fact that I’ve never actually been there. It probably has to do with the fact that I’ve only ever seen imaginatively stylised depictions of 1990s Los Angeles. In fact, most of the “cool” things from when I was a kid either came from or were set in 1990s California and/or Los Angeles (eg: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, “Duke Nukem II”/”Duke Nukem 3D”, A punk band called “The Offspring” etc..).

Likewise, although it didn’t become my favourite film until I was seventeen (despite seeing it for the first time when I was fourteen), the futuristic version of 1980s Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is probably one of my largest artistic inspirations too.

A good portion of the earliest, largest and/or most nostalgic parts of my imagination belong in 1980s/1990s Los Angeles and/or California. Because I’ve never actually been there (and don’t have a time machine), a lot of this place is still an absolute mystery to me. As such, there are a lot of gaps which my imagination has to fill whenever I make anything that is set there.

If you’ve only seen a few stylised glimpses of somewhere else, then this is fertile ground for your imagination. You can take those few glimpses and use them as the basis to build something new, interesting and imaginative. The mystery will make you wonder what the rest of the place you’re thinking about looks like, and it’ll be up to you to work it out.

Yes, some people might moan about “inaccurate” or “unrealistic” depictions of real places (rather than seeing them as imaginative creative works and/or great sources of unintentional comedy), but the whole point of imagination is that it allows us to build new versions of existing things and/or to use existing things as the basis for interesting fictional things. It allows us to escape from the boring confines of our own lives.

Imagination works by taking pre-existing things and turning them into something new and interesting. And, the more “mysterious” those things are, the more room your imagination has to work it’s magic. This is why the things that you make that are set in places that you’ve never been to often end up being more fantastical and imaginative than the things set in places that you have actually been to.

Plus, of course, it’s always amusing to see when this happens in reverse and Britain (or, more commonly, just London) is depicted in things made abroad.

Amusingly, it’s often a version of London that seems to take an American attitude towards guns (eg: in a realistic version of ’24: Live Another Day’, Jack Bauer would probably quickly get arrested for even owning a pistol, let alone carrying it in public) or it’s a version of London that sometimes looks a lot like rural or urban America/Canada ( the first and second seasons of “Nikita” have a couple of great examples of this – even if they get the ridiculous number of CCTV cameras in London absolutely right).

It’s hilarious, it’s silly, but it’s a testament to the power of imagination. It’s a testament to the fact that many different versions of real places can exist in people’s imaginations. It’s an interesting example of two cultures mixing. It’s creativity!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂