Dabbling And Learning New Stuff – A Ramble

Although this is supposed to be an article about learning creative skills (eg: art, writing etc.. techniques), I’m going to have to spend most of the article talking about computer stuff.

As usual, there’s (sort of) a good reason for this (eg: the approach I took to the computer stuff in the article reminded me a bit of learning a new creative skill). But, I’ll try not to get too technical.

Basically, the day before I prepared the first draft of this article, I finally got round to installing a version of a non-commercial, open-source (eg: programmers can freely study and modify the program) operating system called Linux on my other computer.

Installing Linux on a computer was something that I’d been meaning to do for a while – but Linux has something of a reputation for being an ultra-geeky, ultra-technical thing. Not only that, getting programs to run with Linux is somewhat different to doing the same thing in, say, Windows. Still, one of the cool things about Linux is that it provides several different ways for people to dabble with it without permanently switching over to only using Linux.

The one I’d used in the past was using something called a “Live DVD“. Basically, some versions of Linux can be run directly from a DVD, a USB stick and/or your computer’s RAM (eg: the “short-term memory” of your computer), meaning that you can try out Linux without actually installing anything on your computer.

But, when I went a step further and actually installed Linux (on my other computer), I was still able to do this in a way that didn’t plunge me in at the deep end. Basically, I used a very user-friendly version of Linux called “Linux Mint MATE“. In practical everyday terms, it looks and works a bit like a modern version of Windows:

This is a screenshot of a slightly earlier, but extremely similar, version of Linux Mint MATE to the one I installed. This screenshot (by Clรฉment Lefรจbvre, released under a GNU GPL licence) is from Wikipedia, since I’m still working out how to take screenshots with Linux.

This version of Linux contains an easy-to-use installer that allows you to reserve (or “partition”) part of your computer’s hard drive for Linux – so that you can run both Linux and, say, Windows on the same computer (which is called “dual-booting”). There’s even a screen that allows you to choose which one you want to use every time you turn the computer on. So, if you get too confused by Linux, you can take a break from it and go back to your old operating system in a matter of minutes.

Yes, I’m still dabbling with Linux and getting used to how it works. I mean, it took me an hour or two to get Linux Mint to play MP3 files & DVDs, and to find a version of “Doom” that will run on it (Freedoom, with the PRBoom+ source port, if anyone’s curious). But, it has been a lot easier than I expected.

But, what was the point of all of this? What does it have to do with creativity?

Well, it’s all to do with learning new skills. Simply put, the best way to learn anything new is to dabble with it at a pace that seems right for you. If you’re nervous about making mistakes, then try to use things that minimise the amount of damage and/or wastage that mistakes cause (eg: use cheap art supplies, write short stories etc..). Likewise, don’t be afraid to use simplified versions of things at first.

Going back to the computer-related example, I’m still very much a “noob” when it comes to Linux stuff. For example, the only reason I was able to dual-boot Linux Mint is because the program itself did a lot of the hard work (eg: partitioning drives etc..) that other versions of Linux require people to do manually. Likewise, I’m still not using Linux on my main computer. Yet, I’m feeling a lot more confident than I probably would if I’d just jumped straight into the deep end.

Yes, dabbling might mean that it’ll take you longer to learn something. But, it has a major advantage. Your motivation will be better. Why? Simply put, dabbling is usually motivated by curiosity. And, curiosity is one of the best and strongest sources of motivation out there. So, although it might take you longer, you’ll feel more motivated and enthusiastic.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚


Art Practice Works! – A Ramble

If you’re new to making art, then it can be easy to feel discouraged. After all, even if you practice regularly, then it can sometimes be difficult to see improvements on a day-to-day basis. But, even though your improvements might be very gradual, you will get better at making art if you keep practicing.

When preparing a remake of an old painting of mine the night before I wrote this article, I was reminded of an amazing quote (from this page) by the webcomic creator Winston Rowntree. Rowntree’s quote is: “Practice is weird: pyhsically, you just do what you’ve always done, except one day you notice it’s resulting in far better artwork.

Never have truer words been spoken!

Anyway, the painting that I had decided to remake was an old painting of mine from 2016. It’s one of my favourite paintings from that year and I’d finally got the push to remake it after realising that I felt too uninspired to think of a good idea for a new painting.

Still, as I began to sketch out my new version of it, I initally started to worry that it wouldn’t look as good as the original. But, as the painting progressed, I suddenly realised how much I’d learnt over the past 1-2 years of daily practice.

I realised how my experiments with limited colour palettes (red, yellow, green, blue and black in this case) in late 2015/early 2016 had – along with some other inspirations – led to the eventual discovery of my current colour palette.

I realised that, 1-2 years ago, I didn’t know some of the digital image editing techniques (eg: for adding rain effects, realistic shading etc..) I use regularly these days. I realised how much the lighting in my art had improved over the past 1-2 years. Here’s a reduced-size preview of the new version of the painting:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] This is the result of 1-2 years of daily art practice.

So, yes, art practice works. You won’t actually notice improvements happening literally every day, but every extra piece of art that you make will make you a slightly confident and better. And this builds up over time!

One way to think of art practice is that it is like a stalagmite in an underground cave. Whilst an individual droplet of water might not look like it is doing anything to the stalagmite – over time, the mineral deposits from lots of water droplets can result in a really impressive-looking stalagmite.

Yes, art practice can feel more like a marathon than a sprint, but it is important to keep going. Once you’ve been practicing for a while, then even an uninspired painting that you make on a bad day will still look better than the “good” paintings that you made a few months or years ago.

Likewise, your art can also improve in slightly strange ways too. For example, the bulk of the improvements in the comparison I showed you earlier weren’t to the actual drawing itself but to surrounding things like the lighting, colours and shading. So, if it looks like regular practice isn’t improving one part of your art much, then it usually means that another part of your art is improving instead.

But, in summary, regular practice works! It might not work quickly, but it certainly works!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Why Creative People Should Be Critics Too – A Ramble

Although I’m more of an artist these days, most of my formal training is as a writer. However, a slightly strange thing about one of the creative writing courses that I took during my late teens/early twenties was that the course would often include more hours spent studying literature than actually practicing writing or even discussing writing techniques.

For quite a while, I thought that this was just “filler” or possibly a way to make the course seem more “prestigious” or something like that. At my most cynical, I concluded that the literature modules were included to make the writing-based parts of the course seem more interesting by comparison.

But, thinking about it more carefully, it was actually a much more essential part of the course than it first appeared to be. In fact, it has even been useful to me after I became an artist. But, why? Because studying literature makes you think like a critic.

There’s often something of an artificial divide between critics and creative people in popular culture. After all, there’s even the famous saying that “a critic is just a failed writer/artist/director/musician” But, thinking like a critic is one of the best ways to get good at writing or making art.

Why? Because, when you strip away all of the pretentiousness, the main job of a critic is to study and analyse other creative works. A critic takes a careful look at something and works out which parts of it “work” and which parts don’t. After this, they also have to work out why.

Once they’ve done this, a critic also has to look at how a creative work relates to other works in the same genre, how it takes inspiration from other things and what techniques the writer, artist etc.. used. A critic has to really “get to know” something and then describe it in a (relatively) concise review.

In other words, a critic has to “dissect” other things in order to see how they work and then distil that information into a small guide. A critic has to be able to look at creative works closely and think about them in a greater level of depth. Over time, a critic will also gain a good sense of both their own sensibilities and the sorts of things that appeal to audiences.

From there, it isn’t too much of a leap to “reverse engineering” other creative works in order to learn how to improve your own creative works.

And this is how you learn how to be a better artist, writer etc… You see what other people have done, you work out how they did it and then you use those techniques in a new and original way in your own works. In addition to this, if you have a basic knowledge of copyright law, you can even go a step further and take inspiration from any works that really impress you.

Part of taking inspiration properly includes being able to look at creative works in a fairly analytical “critic-like” way in order to break them down into the general, non-copyrightable elements that you can re-use in new and interesting ways.

Thinking like a critic means that you can focus on more than just the story that is being told or the image in a painting. It means that you also pay attention to things like story structure, emotional tone, narrative style, chapter length, art materials, colour palettes, lighting decisions, themes etc.. too.

Thinking like a critic also means that you can learn from more than just the things in your chosen field too.

For example, many of the art techniques that I’ve learnt over the past few years haven’t come from looking at other paintings and drawings, or even from reading art tutorials. They’ve come from looking closely at movies, TV shows, photographs and computer games. So, yes, thinking like a critic means that the range of “educational materials” available to you is much larger than you might think.

So, strange as it might sound, thinking like a critic is one of the best ways to become a better artist or a better writer.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Three Tips For Finding Artistic Knowledge (That Can’t Be Found Online)

During a rather long series of thoughts I had the day before I wrote this article, one intriguing phrase appeared in my mind quite often – “knowledge that cannot be found on the internet“. The phrase sounded mysterious enough to fascinate me – but, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it probably applies to most artists in some way or another.

After all, aside from more basic things, there isn’t usually a tutorial online for the exact specific thing that you want to draw or paint. Usually, if you want to learn how to do something new, the internet can only often help in the most indirect of ways. So how do you learn how to do something artistic if there isn’t a specific online guide for it?

Here are a few tips:

1) Learn the basics (then extrapolate): One of the best ways to work out how to do something on your own is to have a basic knowledge of the theory of art and to have some basic art skills. No, this doesn’t mean that you have to have gone to art school (I haven’t) or even have a particularly advanced level of artistic skill. But, the more theory you know and the more skills you have, the easier it will be to work out how to do things that aren’t explained in online guides.

Why? Because you’ll be able to see which “rules” the thing you want to make follows. For example, if you see a really cool-looking piece of art and you want to make something in a similar style, but can’t find any guides online, then knowing some basic theory and having some basic skills can help in a number of ways, including….

Knowledge of different art mediums will allow you to guess which tools the artist used. And to find the closest available thing to it that you have.

Knowledge of colour theory will allow you to work out that colour palette that the artist used, and why it “works” so well. Likewise, it’ll allow you to see the relationship between the colours in the picture too (eg: does the artist use one or more complementary colour pairs? etc..).

Knowing how to copy from sight alone will allow you to make private studies and reconstructions of the artwork in question, which might give you an insight into some of the techniques the artist used, and why they used them. You can then use those techniques in new and different ways for your own original art.

Knowledge about how lighting is often relative (eg: something can be dark, but still appear bright when placed next to something even darker) can help you to work out how the artist gave their picture a particular “look” (eg: vivid, muted etc..) and how to use similar techniques in your own original art.

I could go on for a while, but the more theory you know and the more skills that you have, the easier it is to work out how to do things that aren’t explicitly spelled out for you in an online guide.

2) Observation (and study): If there isn’t a specific online guide for how to draw something, then start by looking at as many pictures of it as you can (in books, online etc..).

However, unless you own the copyright to the images, then you shouldn’t directly copy any of the images that you see.

Instead, your goal is to see as many different pictures of the thing in question from as many different angles and perspectives as possible. To break the object in question down into it’s most basic shapes and outlines. To see what visual features all of the pictures have in common and to build up a “3D model” of the thing in question inside your mind.

The more different pictures of the same thing that you see, the easier it will be for you to work out the basic principles of how to draw or paint it. Then you can use the “3D model” as the basis for a new and original piece of art.

3) Trial and error: If you really want to learn how to draw or paint something that isn’t explained in any online guide, then sometimes the best way to do it is simply through good old fashioned trial and error. Even if the results aren’t perfect, then at least you’ll be closer to achieving what you want than if you didn’t try.

Genrally, if an impressive piece of art or an interesting style of art exists, then that means that it (and more importantly, art in a similar style/traditon as it) can be made. After all, someone has already made it. So, there has to be a solution to the puzzle of how to make it.

It’s kind of like how, in old first-person shooter computer games from the early-mid 1990s, the player would often end up “stuck” in challenging situations. Yet, because these games were often designed to be fair, there was almost always some way or another, some tactic or stratagem that the player could use to progress, even if it took a lot of thought and a lot of failed attempts. If you play enough of these games (modern fan-made levels for “Doom II” are probably a good place to start), then they can really improve your attitude towards trial and error in other areas, such as making art.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Three Tips For Getting To Know An Obscure Genre (If You Want To Make Stuff In It)

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this before but, for today, I thought that I’d look at how to learn more about fascinating (but slightly obscure) genres of fiction, comics, art, games etc.. This is mostly because, a few years ago, I knew relatively little about the cyberpunk genre. Yes, I’d seen and read a couple of famous things in the genre – but I was eager to learn a lot more about it.

But, whilst I’m not an expert on it now, I know significantly more about the genre than I used to (to the point where it turns up in a lot of my art, and some of my fiction). In fact, it’s probably one of my largest creative inspirations.

But, how can you do this with obscure genres that fascinate you? Here are a few tips:

1) Look at the main genre: Generally speaking, more obscure genres tend to be an offshoot of larger and more well-known genres. If an obscure genre is slightly old (and had a “heyday” in the past), then there’s a good chance that more of it can be found hiding in more modern stuff from the “main” version of the genre in question.

This is mostly because things that are obscure today are often only obscure for the simple reason that they’ve been absorbed into the mainstream version of the genre. Likewise, people can only take inspiration from things that have been made in the past.

To give you an example, “splatterpunk” fiction was a sub-genre of horror fiction that was very popular during the 1970s-90s. At the time, this sub-genre was groundbreaking due to it’s nihilistic attitude and willingness to describe horrific events in high levels of gory detail. This was a far cry from the more subtle horror fiction of past decades that left a lot to the audience’s imaginations. Yet, although some classic splatterpunk authors like Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker still return to the genre occasionally, there aren’t really that many “new” splatterpunk novels out there.

However, if you’ve read a few splatterpunk novels, then the mainstream horror genre might not be as unfamiliar as you think. Leaving aside stories about ghosts and modern vampire romances, one of the major effects of the splatterpunk genre (and one reason it doesn’t really exist any more) was to show horror authors that horror fiction can be gruesome.

These days, no fan of horror fiction bats an eyelid at highly-detailed gruesome descriptions, since such things can be found in “mainstream” horror fiction. Yet, a couple of decades earlier, they would be labelled “splatterpunk”.

In other words, one way to get to know a slightly old and obscure genre better is to look for things that were produced after it. Sometimes, these things will contain some elements of the genre that you are looking for (another good example is the film I reviewed yesterday. This is a modern sci-fi/action/comedy film from 2014, yet the set design is heavily influenced by old cyberpunk films like “Blade Runner” . Likewise, the modern TV series “Humans” has a lot of cyberpunk themes, even if the setting isn’t cyberpunk.).

2) Look at other mediums: Although I’ve only seen relatively few cyberpunk films and read relatively few cyberpunk novels, most of what I’ve learnt about the cyberpunk genre has come from other mediums. In particular, television, comics and computer games.

Often, if an obscure genre made a bit of an impact during it’s heyday, people working in other mediums will probably want to do stuff with it too. So, if you widen your search slightly, then you’ll find lots of extra stuff in this genre in places that you might not have expected.

To give you an example, the film noir genre was most popular in the 1930s-50s. These days, there aren’t many (if any) new classic noir-style films released by major film studios. Yet, the genre has had a fairly large influence on television, prose fiction, comics and computer/video games. So, if you’re looking for film noir these days, you probably won’t find it at the cinema.

3) Look for commonalities: Of course, if you want to learn more about an obscure genre, you’ve probably already done your fair share of internet research. You’ve probably, time and budget allowing, tried to track down as many things in this genre as you can. But, how do you learn from what you’ve found?

Simple, you look for what these things have in common. You study them carefully for general elements (eg: themes, visual elements, character types etc..) that appear often.

For example, one common visual element in many things in the cyberpunk genre is high-contrast lighting (using artificial light sources). This is where most of the lighting in a given location comes from things like computer monitors, neon lights etc.. and the rest of the background is kept slightly gloomy in order to allow the light to stand out more. This style of lighting can be found in numerous cyberpunk things – here are a few examples:

This is a screenshot from “Blade Runner” (1982).

This is a screenshot from the opening credits of “Ergo Proxy” (2006). However, not all of what I’ve seen of the series looks like this.

This is a screenshot from “Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams” (1999).

This is a screenshot from “Technobabylon” (2015).

As you can see, the lighting in all of these things comes from artificial light and the rest of the background is kept gloomy to make the lighting stand out more. This is one of the visual “rules” of the cyberpunk genre, and you can learn stuff like this by looking carefully at things in your favourite obscure genre and making comparisons.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Three Sneaky Ways To Show Off In Your Art

Well, it’s been a few days since I last wrote an instructional article (sorry about all of the writer’s block-induced rambles recently). So, I thought that I’d look at a few ways that you can really show off artistically. Although you’ll still need to have at least some level of artistic skill, these tips can make your art look a lot more impressive with relatively little extra effort (although some of these can take more time).

And, yes, I forgot to add still life painting to this list. If you know how to copy from sight, then you can use this skill to make still life paintings that look ten times better than anything painted from imagination (since you can just copy the shadows, lighting etc.. from whatever is in front of you rather than working out where they have to go).

Sorry for not including this in the article, but it seemed worth mentioning, especially when you can use the technique to create paintings like this old one of mine from 2015 (when most of my “ordinary” art looked nowhere near as good):

“Plush Rat And DVDs” By C. A. Brown [2015]

Anyway, that said, here are some other sneaky ways to show off whilst making art:

1) Want to make your art look more detailed? Make cyberpunk art: If you’ve never heard of the cyberpunk genre before, it’s a sub-genre of science fiction that was popular during the 1980s and 1990s (but is enjoying a slight resurgence these days).

Visually, this type of science fiction tends to focus a lot on high-contrast lighting (eg: most things in the cyberpunk genre are set at night, so that light sources like neon signs and computer monitors stand out more) and it also takes a few cues from things like the film noir genre and modern cities in Japan, China and South Korea.

Although there are lots of different ways to make cyberpunk art, one constant is that cyberpunk art is almost always detailed. Whether it’s the angular buildings of a futuristic city skyline, thousands of animated billboards competing for attention or the strangely-dressed crowds of a bustling mega-city – cyberpunk art needs detail because, like with cyberpunk fiction, it often relies on “overloading” the audience with information in order to create the impression of a futuristic world.

Because of this, people expect detail when looking at cyberpunk art. So, you can either use this as an excuse to cram as much detail as possible into a picture, like this:

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

Or, you can make a more undetailed and impressionistic painting which will look more detailed since the audience will expect it to contain detail (and will see detail where there is none). Like in this preview of a slightly rushed digitally-edited painting I made on an uninspired day:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 17th January.

Although there is some detail in the foreground, most of the background just consists of shapes, scribbles and silhouettes. Yet, it looks more detailed than it actually is because it’s in the cyberpunk genre, where detail is expected.

2) Want more interesting compositions? Computer games are your friend!: If you don’t know what “composition” is, it’s a fancy word for where everything in your painting is. It can also sometimes include things like perspective (eg: the “camera angle” in your painting or drawing) too.

One of the best ways to open your mind to more interesting ideas about composition is to play computer games. Not just any computer games, but games where the player can’t control the “camera”. In other words, games that still include significant two-dimensional elements. Old-style 2D “point and click” games, modern hidden object games and 1990s-style survival horror games (with pre-rendered backgrounds) are some of the best genres for this sort of thing.

Because the player can’t move the “camera”, these games have to find other ways to make each location look visually interesting. And they often do this by playing with things like composition and perspective. Here are some examples to show you what I mean:

This is a screenshot from the introductory segment of “Alone In The Dark” (1992) which shows a common composition used in old horror and/or adventure games, where something menacing would be placed in the very close foreground and would “frame” the rest of the picture.

This screenshot from the bonus content in “House Of 1000 Doors – Family Secrets (Collector’s Edition)” (2011-14?) uses a simple one-point perspective, but the artist makes the hallway seem larger and more ominous by using a slightly low camera angle, where the “camera” is near the floor.

Seriously, if you play computer games that used fixed camera angles, then you can pick up all sorts of cool-looking perspective and composition tips that can help your art to look more impressive with less effort.

For example, here’s another reduced-size preview of one of my upcoming digitally-edited paintings. This one uses a variant on the “dramatic stuff in the very close foreground” technique.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 14th January.

3) Want more precise paintings? Use watercolour pencils!: If you’ve never heard of watercolour pencils before, they’re coloured pencils where the “lead” is made from watercolour paint pigment. When you go over your drawing with a wet paintbrush, the pigment will turn into watercolour paint. This article of mine goes into more detail about how to start using them.

These pencils are made by most major art supply brands and, although they’re often slightly more expensive than coloured pencils, they’re often much cheaper than alcohol-based markers.

Although you’ll need to use these pencils in conjunction with watercolour paper (cheap, thin, flat and slightly absorbant watercolour paper is better for precision) and possibly waterproof ink (if you want to include drawings), these pencils allow you to make very precise-looking paintings when compared to traditional painting.

And, best of all, you only need basic drawing skills for this. So, if you want to give your drawings a bit more of an “artistic” look, or your want more precisions in your paintings, then these are the tools to use!

You can also do a few other painterly things with them, such as colour blending (just go over an area with two different pencils before using the wet paintbrush). But, you can’t really use them for “wet in wet” painting or anything like that. Even so, if you want an extra level of precision in your paintings or want fancier-looking drawings, then it might be worth experimenting with watercolour pencils.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚

Three Ways To Make Art In A Genre You Find Difficult

For quite a while, I found certain types of punk art (except for cyberpunk art) to be one of the most difficult genres of art to make.

Although the artwork surrounding American punk albums from the 90s/00s looked really cool, it was a genre of art that I just couldn’t “understand” (even if a few parts of my current art style were learnt from it). Yet, on the day that I wrote this article, I finally made some punk art. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 5th Janaury.

So, for today, I thought that I’d talk about how to make art in genres that you just can’t seem to make art in even if you really want to.

1) Try a different version: One of the things that surprised me about the punk painting that I made was that it was about a million miles away from the cartoonish (and mostly apolitical) type of American-style “punk album cover” art that I really wanted to make. It was punk art, but it was more like old-school British punk than anything from across the pond. It was a different version of the same genre, which I somehow found much easier to make.

Of course, this is probably because I’m British. Although I prefer American punk music, the political satire in classic British punk music has never felt more relevant in the modern age. Likewise, I also read quite a few reprints of old “Tank Girl” comics during my early 20s. Although I love one version of the genre, it turns out that I’m more familiar with another version. The same might be true for the genre you are trying to make art in.

So, trying a slightly different version of the genre you want to make art in can be a great way to make some art in the genre you love. The rule here is, of course, to go with whatever seems instinctively “right”, even if it’s a bit different to what you might expect.

To use a non-art example, when I wrote a series of cyberpunk short stories for Christmas 2016, I’d expected them to be written using a classic “rapid-fire” William Gibson-style narrative voice. But, for the most part, I ended up using fairly ‘ordinary’ narration, even if the content of the stories was cyberpunk-based. It just felt more “natural” and it allowed me to write fourteen cyberpunk stories in as many days.

So, try a different version of the same genre and you might find that things are a lot easier.

2) Try blending it with something familiar:
One easy way to make art in a genre that you really want to make art in (but find difficult) is simply to mix it with another genre that you are more confident with. By adding elements of your desired genre to a more familiar genre, you can rely on your experience and knowledge a lot more.

For example, most of the punk art that I’ve made in the past has been blended with the horror genre. Since I know how to paint skeletons, zombies etc.. then adding punk elements to this familiar genre of art meant that it was a lot easier to make…

“Punkocalypse” By C. A. Brown [2015]

So, if you find one genre of art difficult to make, then mix it with a genre that you find easy to make.

3) Have more influences: The more research you do into a genre of art, the easier you will find it to make. When you see how lots of different artists have interpreted the same genre, it can give you a few ideas of your own. For example, the idea to make a collage-style punk painting came from seeing the cover art for Green Day’s “Insomniac” album. This album used a traditional photo-montage and I thought “I could make a painting that looked a bit like it could be a photo-montage.”

Likewise, seeing lots of different works of art in the same genre can help you to see what they have in common with each other (eg: what the main features and themes of the genre are) and this can help to give you a greater understanding of how the genre “works”.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful ๐Ÿ™‚