Writing: Creativity Via Limitations – A Ramble

Although I’d planned to write a different article for today, I saw something shortly before writing this article [Edit: Which was several months before I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer] which made me think about creativity and the limitations of the written word.

It was a trailer for an upcoming computer game (called “Cyberpunk 2077”), of all things. For a few seconds, I really wanted to play the game until I suddenly realised “The system requirements will be sky-high. It would melt my vintage computer if I even tried.” This then morphed into the forlorn thought “If this was a novel instead of a game, I could actually enjoy it“.

After all, in English at least, writers only have 26 letters that they can use. Pretty much everyone is trained to read from a young age. Books don’t really have system requirements. And, whilst this means that we can do things like read books from literally over a century ago, it also has a lot of limitations too. After all, there are only 26 letters to work with.

Yet, these limitations are one of the main things that makes prose fiction such a creative thing. After all, writers can’t rely on fancy new computer graphics or anything like that in order to impress their readers. They have 26 letters and a pre-made system of grammar to work with. As such, writers have to get creative in order to make something astonishing within these old limitations.

And this produces some truly spectacular results. For example, when I was watching the modern game trailer I mentioned earlier, one of my first thoughts was “Oooh! A cyberpunk city during the daytime. This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash“. Now, for comparison, “Snow Crash” was published in 1992. On the other hand, the best computer game graphics from 1992 looked a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992).

So, yes, novels have been using spectacular “graphics” for much longer than computer games have. Using just 26 letters.

This limitation has spurred writers to do things like find their own unique “style”, to think of interesting locations, to come up with brilliant characters, to tell new types of stories, to use things like grammar and chapter length to achieve particular effects (eg: short sentences and short chapters in a fast-paced thriller novel) etc….

In other words, it has forced writers to be creative. After all, every other writer will be using the same letters, words etc… so, what matters is how a writer uses them.

Interestingly, there is a little bit of a parallel with computer games here. After all, there’s a lot of nostalgia for games from the 1990s – and with good reason! Back then, computer technology was a lot more limited. So, like writers, game designers had to be creative within these limitations. Since they couldn’t rely on flashy photo-realistic graphics, they had to set their games apart from the crowd through the use of things like imagination, clever design, innovative ideas etc…

But, I digress. The point of all of this is that if you want to see a perfect example of how limitations can actually make people more creative, then pick up a book.


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

One Benefit Of Creative Limitations

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one interesting benefit of creative limitations. Whether these are self-imposed limitations, external limitations or a mixture of the two – one interesting thing about creative limitations is that they can help you to become more efficient at creating things.

At first, a limitation can be a puzzle-like challenge but, after a while, you’ll solve the puzzle and you will probably become more efficient at writing, creating art etc… as a result.

For example, here’s a preview of one of my upcoming digitally-edited paintings:

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

For at least a year before I made this painting, I’ve been using a pre-defined limited palette of watercolour pencils (eg: yellow, red, blue, light green, purple and grey/black pencils) for the non-digital component of my paintings.

Although it took me a little while to get used to this palette, I’d already had a bit of a headstart since I’d experimented with monochrome art occasionally since late 2014 or so.

Monochrome art is a bit of a challenge, since it forces you to look at the picture as a whole and to not only get a good balance of dark, light and shaded areas – but also to make sure that no two dark, light or shaded areas are next to each other (so that everything stands out more).

“Aberystwyth – Haunted Hill” By C. A. Brown [2015]

“Berlin Noir” By C. A. Brown [2014]

Once you’ve learnt these principles through practice, failure and observing how things like manga etc.. use monochrome art – then using a limited palette is a lot easier. But, one of the interesting things about making monochrome art for a while and then switching back to colour art is that suddenly the process of choosing colours seems complicated and/or time-consuming.

Once you’ve got used to it, having a limited range of colours (even just black & white) available means that you devote all of the time and energy you’d usually spend choosing colours to working out where to place those colours. In other words, you’ll have more time and energy available to work out how to use colour in an interesting and visually-appealing way. So, your creative process is more efficient as a result.

Likewise, the painting I showed you at the beginning of the article had something of a time limit too. One of the things about making daily art is that you obviously can’t spend weeks or months on a single picture. In fact, you might only have a couple of hours at most. But, having this time limit can force you to be creative in all sorts of subtle ways.

For example, to save time, I have a standard size for most of my paintings (18x 18cm, with 1.5cm black “letterboxing” bars at the top and bottom). This is a size that I developed through several years of trial and error, since it is the best balance between making a painting that is large enough to be detailed – but small enough to make quickly. Plus, not having to worry about choosing a size or format for my paintings means that I can devote more time to actually drawing and painting.

The 1.5cm black “letterboxing” bars at the top and bottom of each painting were originally a stylistic thing (since it makes my paintings look like a frame from a film) but I also realised that they saved time too(since I only had to fill a 15×18 cm area with art).

Plus, the black “letterboxing” bars also helped to add more visual contrast to my art too – by making any colours in the art seem bolder by comparison. Again, this limitation has made my art more efficient because…

…It also helps me to follow my “ at least 30-50% of the total surface area of each painting must be covered with black paint” rule too.

Again, following this rule was a little bit of a challenge at first. But, once I got used to it, it allowed me to create visually striking pictures relatively easily and to still make art when I was rushed/uninspired (by increasing the amount of darkness). Plus, if I want a challenge, I can try to apply the rule to paintings of non-gloomy locations too:

“Death Takes A Holiday” By C. A. Brown

In addition to all of this, the painting near the beginning of this article is part of a series of paintings set in abandoned shopping centres. Although finding inspiring ideas for art series can be a bit of a challenge, I’ve often found that the limitation of a themed series actually makes me feel more inspired.

Why? Because I already know what type of painting I have to make, which makes me feel more confident. The only challenge is working out how to do something new and different with a pre-chosen theme. But, since I know what the theme is, then I can devote more time thinking about how to do interesting things with it.

A good example of this was the “gothic Aberystywyth” art series I posted here in June. Although I only posted one painting per day, I was often actually making two of them every day. Since I usually have a rule about only making one painting per day, then the fact that I was feeling inspired enough to break this rule really surprised me. And it all happened because I limited what I could paint:

“Aberystwyth – Halloween ’08” By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Arts Centre” By C. A. Brown

For example, I made these two paintings on the same day. Both of them were highly-inspired paintings that were really fun to make. Even though I was very tired when I made the second one, I worked around that limitation through clever use of lighting and colours.

I knew how to do this because I’ve used similar techniques before when I’d been feeling uninspired, rushed and/or tired. Like in this digital piece I made when I was feeling uninspired and had also been dealing with computer problems (seriously, the picture below was a quick 15 minute remake of a better picture that I’d lost because of a mild computer crash halfway through making it):

“Shrouded In Static” By C. A. Brown

So, in conclusion, limitations can be either a frustrating challenge or an exciting puzzle at first. But, once you’ve worked out how to get around them, then this will improve your art in general and make it slightly more efficient too.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When Your Art Style Gets In The Way – A Ramble

The night before I prepared this article, I had a sudden moment of artistic inspiration. This was mostly because I’d been watching eerily fascinating Youtube videos about derelict and semi-abandoned shopping centres in America. And, well, I wanted to make an original painting set in this type of location.

However, as you can see from this preview, the final painting really doesn’t look that much like an actual realistic shopping centre:

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

The main reasons for this were because of my art style. Simply put, my approach to both colours and lighting is about as far as you can get from the bright lighting and blandly muted colour palettes found in the average shopping centre. So, my art style isn’t directly suited to making art based on these types of locations but I don’t really want to use a radically different style because, well, I really like my art style (plus, I’ve spent several years developing it).

So, what can you do when you find yourself in a situation like this?

Simply put, work around it. If you’ve developed your own art style, then it is probably best suited to a particular “type” of art. This will probably be based on the things that have inspired your art style and the type of art that you make most of the time.

For example, the gloomily gothic high-contrast lighting that I use is best suited to melodramatic gothic art, 1990s-style art, heavy metal-themed art and cyberpunk art. The relatively limited colour palette I use is best suited to things like cyberpunk art, 1990s-style art and webcomics.

My slightly cartoonish drawing style is best suited to webcomics and to art with a high level of visual storytelling. My style is also best suited to “close up” pictures, since it is designed for making smaller works of art (that have more emphasis on the foreground than the background).

Once you’ve worked out what “type” of art your art style is best suited to, see if you can change your initial idea for a painting so that it fits into this type. This could involve changing the composition, changing the perspective, making a painting of something else similar, adding or removing visual storytelling, using artistic licence etc…

For example, if I made another painting of a semi-abandoned shopping centre, then I’d probably be better off adding a cartoon character or two, including gloomier lighting and focusing on a relatively small segment of the shopping centre (rather than a large landscape). I’d also be better off emphasising any creepy, futuristic-looking or 1990s-style elements of the location more prominently too.

So, a painting set in this type of location that is at least a mildly better “fit” with my art style would probably look a bit like this:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 13th August.

Yes, it took me a while to work out the composition of this painting and, yes, there should probably be more foreground detail. But, by focusing more on including visual storytelling, a slightly more gothic atmosphere and 1990s-style elements, I was able to create a much better-looking painting set in this type of location.

So, knowing the limits of your art style and working around them can be a great way to make art that seems like it might not be a good fit for your art style.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Limitations And Nostalgia – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about nostalgia in general, I’m going to have to start by talking about musical nostalgia for a couple of paragraphs. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I was going through a bit of a musical nostalgia phase and, whilst listening to the first track of Sum 41’s “Half Hour Of Power” album, I suddenly remembered that they were one of the few punk bands that I knew about when I was a teenager. And how they seemed even cooler as a result of this.

A while earlier, I had also found myself listening to “Virus” by Iron Maiden. This is a bonus track that was included on one of the first Iron Maiden albums I ever bought (the “Best Of The Beast” compilation) and it reminded me of when I first discovered the band and how I knew relatively little about them at the time, but was eager to learn.

So, what was the point of this brief trip down memory lane? Well, it’s all to do with how limitations can affect and provoke nostalgia.

One of the interesting things about growing up at a time when the internet was a little bit less common is that information was harder to find. These days, if I see or listen to something interesting, then it’s a simple matter of searching for more info about it online. Likewise, finding information about other things that are like it isn’t too difficult either. Yes, this is really cool – but it means that anything you find probably won’t provoke quite the same type of nostalgia when you remember it in the future.

If you found something really cool 15-20 years ago, then it was a much more significant event. Chances are, you probably even have some kind of convoluted story about how you first found it.

For example, I discovered Iron Maiden (in about 2000/2001) by accident because they were on the soundtrack to “Carmageddon II” – which was a game I only got by accident because it happened to be included in a multipack with the PC port of “Resident Evil 2”.

Finding something cool 15-20 years ago was also a much more significant event for the simple reason that it was a bit more difficult to tell whether there were other things like it out there. As such, finding something really brilliant was like finding a rare treasure. Instead of eagerly researching it on the internet, you tended to savour it whilst also hoping that you might possibly chance upon something similar in the future.

Finding something cool 15-20 years ago also relied on chance, luck and serendipity a lot more than it does now. It involved noticing things in magazines, hearing recommendations from people, happening to watch things on TV, happening to hear something good on the radio or finding random things in shops. As such, discovering cool things tended to feel like more of a matter of luck or fate than it does now.

Then, of course, there’s all of the nostalgia that you didn’t actively seek out. In the days before the internet was truly mainstream, mass culture used to be much more prominent. I mean, if you asked me to name ten songs by current pop bands, I’d probably look at you like you’d asked me to translate this article into hieroglyphics.

But, during my childhood in the mid-late 1990s, I could probably reel off twenty song names without even thinking about it. Why? Because it was the main type of music (aside from the occasional pop-punk or rap song) that I was exposed to back then. The only real variation was the fact that the local radio station I listened to regularly at the time also used to play 1980s pop music too. So, a lot of my musical nostalgia is from genres that I don’t really listen to much these days.

Of course, limitations also provoke nostalgia in other ways too. Whether it is the graphics in older computer/video games (that force the player to use their imagination more and which place more emphasis on the actual gameplay, story etc..) or the fact that special effects in movies looked cooler in the past because there was no modern photo-realistic CGI to compare them to, the limitations involved in creating things in the past often tends to evoke a lot of nostalgia.

So, yes, a lot of what makes nostalgia “special” can often be due to the limitations of the past.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Learning To Love The Limitations Of Your Art Style – A Ramble


Although none of the paintings that I’ll be talking about will be posted here in full for a month or two, I thought that I’d talk about a time when I tried to make a type of art that was incompatible with my own art style.

Basically, after watching quite a few episodes of the ITV adaptation of “Poirot” on DVD, I wanted to make some art that was set in similar kinds of locations. I wanted to make 1920s/30s-style art, with Art Deco architecture, vintage fashions and a slightly decadent atmosphere.

After all, I knew how to make new types of art inspired by cool things that I’ve seen. But, despite two attempts at this, I failed.

It was only a while later that I realised why, everything about my own art style was the opposite of the type of art that I was trying to make. The type of art that I wanted to make was bright, highly minimalist and almost modern/timeless in style.

However, my own art style and aesthetic preferences include things like giving the impression of lots of detail, gloomy locations , a focus on the more recent past (eg: the 1980s and 1990s) etc…. Although I probably could make the type of “art deco” art that I’d wanted to make, I’d probably feel like it wasn’t really “my” kind of art.

My kind of art looks a bit more like this:

 This is a reduced-size preview of a painting that is slightly more typical of my style, the full painting will be posted here on the 11th June.

This is a reduced-size preview of a digitally-edited painting that is slightly more typical of my style, the full painting will be posted here on the 11th June.

The only way I could even try to make the 1920s/30s style art that I wanted to make was to add a lot of my own style to it, to change the lighting and to change the detail levels to something more in line with the type of art that I usually enjoy making.

Here is a reduced-size preview of the best of the two paintings in this style that I attempted to make. It looks more like something from the 1990s than the 1920s, and it looks considerably gloomier than the things that inspired it:

The full-size painting will be posted here in late May. The other one will be posted here on the 9th June, and doesn't really look as good.

The full-size painting will be posted here in late May. The other one will be posted here on the 9th June, and doesn’t really look as good.

One of the problems with developing a unique art style (eg: how you draw people, buildings etc..) and/or a unique aesthetic (eg: how you use colours, lighting, patterns etc..) is that it’s going to limit what you can and cannot make. For example, if your art style/aesthetic is very bright and whimsical, then you’re probably not going to be great at making gloomy gothic art and vice versa.

But, this isn’t the giant problem that you might think it is. Your limitations can actually improve your art. After all, trying to make another type of art fit into your own “style” will make your art look more unique. It’ll make it stand out from the things that have inspired you.

Plus, finding a type of art that you can’t make because of your art style may possible also be a sign that you’ve actually found your own style. Of course, it could also be a sign that you need more practice but, if you feel like you could technically make the kind of art that has inspired you but would feel like it wouldn’t quite be “right”, then it’s probably a sign that you’ve found your own style.


Sorry for the rambling article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Self-Imposed Rules

2014 Artwork Self imposed rules sketch

Ever since I got back into creating art on a daily basis in 2012 and got into writing non-fiction on a daily basis in 2013, I’ve set myself a lot more rules than I used to.

Whilst, back in 2009, my only real “rule” for myself was something like “Don’t post any nude art on DeviantART” (which was just as well, given how terrible my art looked back then). I seem to have picked up a lot more “rules” since then. Although I’ve thankfully got rid of the “no nude art on DeviantART” rule though…..

Some of my new “rules” emerged out of fear of external censorship or controversy, but many of them were things that I imposed on myself for various random reasons.

I’m not going to list them all here, but they include things like not directly using my favourite four-letter word on this blog (which can be really f—-ing annoying sometimes!), setting myself limits on how often I can produce some of my favourite types of art (eg: zombie art, art featuring various eccentric fashions etc…), trying to avoid politics as much as possible etc…..

Anyway, since I’ve already written more than a few articles about the downsides of these self-imposed limitations, I thought that I’d turn things around and look at the positive side of self-imposed rules.

At first glance, it might seem like making up self-imposed “rules” for your own writing or art practice would do nothing but stifle your creativity. More to the point, you might wonder, why would anyone bother to do this?

After all, creativity is supposed to be about expression and freedom, right? Many people (including myself) would, quite rightly, oppose any kind of externally-imposed “rules” being placed on creative people. I mean, censorship and regulation is the enemy of creativity.

So, why would anyone do this to themselves?

Well, one of the advantages of coming up with rules and limitations for your own work is the fact that it can actually make you a lot more creative. It can prompt you to make more varied types of art or writing and it can also be a good way of finding your personal art or writing “style” fairly quickly too.

After all, if all or most of your work has to fit within a set of rules that you’ve come up with before you started, then it’s going to have a fairly consistent and distinctive “look” to it after a while.

Not only that, if you’re the kind of rebellious soul who is driven to create things for yourself (rather than just looking at things that other people have created), then you probably hate pointless rules. So, the idea of being able to “break the rules” occasionally or of finding sneaky ways to “bend the rules” can be a very powerful driving force for creativity.

So, if you make up some self-imposed rules that you can break and/or circumvent later, then this can be a good way of keeping things interesting when you’re writing, drawing, painting etc….

Yes, the idea of rebelling against yourself might sound kind of bizarre, but it can be a good way to feel like a rebel quickly when you’re uninspired. And, let’s face it, many people do their best creative work when they feel like they’re rebelling against someone or something.

In addition to this, if you set limits on how many of your favourite types of stories, drawings and/or paintings that you can produce within a given time (eg: only allowing yourself to write one horror story a month), then this makes these things seem a lot more “special” than they might otherwise do.

If, for example, you can only produce one thing that you really love every week- then you’re going to put a lot more enthusiasm and energy into it than if you produce it every day.

The other great thing about setting rules for yourself is that the only person you have to answer to is yourself. In other words, if one of your self-imposed rules is actually hindering your creativity rather than helping it, then you can drop it. Likewise, if you want more of a creative challenge, then you can come up with a few more rules to follow. It’s totally up to you.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Limitations Can Spark The Imagination

2014 Artwork Creaitve Limitations Sketch

Even though I’m an artist and a writer, I’ll start this article by talking about computer games for a few paragraphs because they contain some of the best examples of how limitations can be useful for creative people and creativity in general…. and it gives me yet another chance to talk about how old games are better than new ones too 🙂

As regular readers of this blog probably know by now, I’m a massive fan of old sprite-based 1990s FPS games like “Doom II”, “Heretic”, “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Shadow Warrior”, and “Exhumed” (although I still haven’t played or got a copy of “Blood” yet).

In case you’ve never played one of these games before, here’s some gameplay footage from “Doom” to give you an impression of what these games look like.

Although I love these old games for nostalgia value and the cartoonish pixel art that they use, one of the main reasons I love them so much is because they’re just so much more fun and imaginative than modern FPS games.

These days, most FPS games have flashy ultra-realistic graphics and the storylines are often boringly “realistic” too (I’ve never quite seen the appeal of realistic military-based FPS games – give me a wildly unrealistic sci-fi/horror FPS game any day!). But, they don’t usually really seem to have the same level of atmosphere, humour and imagination as the old games do.

Yes, games that are getting close to twenty years old and which use cartoonish 256 colour graphics can be better than much more sophisticated modern games. Why?

I would argue that it is because of these limitations. Because game developers couldn’t really wow their audience with flashy realistic graphics twenty years ago, they had to focus on making their games look distinctive and they had to focus on making their games fun and innovative too. I mean, it’s no coincidence that at least some of the “modern” games made for the “7 Day FPS” challenge bear a striking resemblance to the classics from the 1990s.

Yes, this is all something of an oversimplification (and both FPS games increasingly being designed for consoles rather than PC and the rise of some FPS franchises like “Call Of Duty” have had a part in ruining the modern FPS genre too) but it raises a really interesting point about creativity.

As strange and counter-intuitive as it might sound, limitations can really spark the imagination in all sorts of unexpected ways. Whether it’s a limit to the length of a story (eg: in writing competitions and writing courses), a limit to the number of colours an artist can use in a piece of art, trying to sneak something past the censors or even following a strict schedule for a webcomic – limitations can make us focus on what is really important about the thing that we’re creating.

Not only that, limitations also help to spark the imagination by turning what would just be an “ordinary” act of creativity into an exciting challenge. Yes, it’s easy to make fairly good art if you have a wide variety of art supplies, options and digital editing tools at your disposal.

But if, say, you only had a ballpoint pen and there was a limit to the number of lines that you could use in your drawing – then, making something that will impress people becomes a lot more of a challenge. Almost a puzzle even.

Puzzles and problem-solving are two things that humanity does best. In fact, it’s part of who we all are – I mean, if it wasn’t for people solving complex problems and seemingly impossible challenges, I wouldn’t be able to write this article on a computer and you wouldn’t be able to use the internet to read it. Inventiveness is, and always has been, a crucial part of humanity as a whole.

And, well, putting some kinds of limitations on a piece of creative work can often tap into this innate drive towards puzzle-solving that we all have.

Not only that, limitations can also “separate the wheat from the chaff”, so to speak. If you’ve had quite a bit of practice at making art or telling stories, then one of the ways that you can really show off your skills is by producing something that is still great despite a lot of limitations.

As well as for obvious practical reasons (since contest judges can’t read 100+ novels in a couple of weeks), I personally think that this is one reason why most writing competitions set strict word limits on submissions.

So, yes, limitations aren’t an entirely bad thing.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂