In Art, Style Matters As Much As (Or More Than) Substance – A Ramble

Although this is an article about making art, I’m going to have to start by talking briefly about watching a review of a modern computer game (of all things). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become relevant later.

A short while before I wrote this article, I ended up watching a cynical game review on Youtube (viewer discretion is advised). Although the game in the review is too modern to run on my computer, the footage of it looks like the coolest thing in the world (eg: a “Blade Runner“-style cyberpunk horror game). But, the reviewer is heavily critical of the experience of actually playing the game since it aparently includes relatively few game-like elements.

This made me think about the subject of “style vs substance”, and – since this is supposed to be an article about making art – I thought that I’d look at how this relates to art.

Unlike games, films or novels – style can often be as important or possibly more important than substance in art.

For a great example of this, just look at a genre of art called “Conceptual Art“. This is a genre of art/sculpture that prioritises meaning over aesthetic concerns…. and it’s terrible! Seriously, the average work of conceptual art often just looks like a pile of random bric-a-brac that has been lazily thrown together in about five minutes.

So, yes, style matters a lot in art. This is why, for example, historical paintings from the middle ages to the 20th century are still revered as great works of art even though the vast majority of people couldn’t care less about the religious stories, historical events and/or people from the past who are depicted in these old paintings. The style of these paintings is appealing, even though most people don’t pay much attention to the substance.

Likewise, another way to prove the value of style in art is to look at a comic written in a language that you don’t speak. Since you can’t understand the dialogue, the only way you can judge the quality of the comic is by looking at the actual art. And, if you keep reading it despite not understanding the dialogue, then that’s usually a sign that the art is of a suitably high quality.

Yet, despite this, substance does matter in art. But, not for the reasons you might expect. Going back to the comic-based example, one of the reasons why a comic can still be compelling even if you don’t understand the dialogue is because the art contains a high level of visual storytelling. So, visual storytelling can be one way to add some “substance” to your art.

Likewise, substance can be a useful thing when it comes to being inspired. Often, when an artist is feeling highly-inspired, it is usually because they have a very interesting idea they want to turn into a painting or a drawing. So, having some “substance” behind your art can be a great way to feel inspired. But, even if you’ve got a good idea, you still have to express it in a visually-appealing way.

For example, the night before I wrote this article, I prepared a digitally-edited painting that will appear here later this month. The painting had a good idea behind it, but it didn’t end up looking as good as I had hoped. Here’s a preview of it:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 29th.

In this painting, I’d planned to paint a 1980s-style rural pub. Although I’d originally planned to depict it in a rather romantic and rose-tinted way, I suddenly realised that it would be a lot more interesting to make a painting that was both warmly reassuring and eerily ominous at the same time. A painting that evoked both the friendly coziness and the dreary, heavy traditionalism of an old-fashioned pub. A painting that showed how these two elements interact with each other and how they are both equally important parts of what makes old pubs so interesting.

But, although I sort of achieved this, I didn’t really do it that well. The emptiness and gloomy lighting ended up tipping the picture slightly more towards the “ominous” side of things than I’d expected. Likewise, I messed up the composition, perspective and shadows slightly too. Whilst it certainly isn’t the worst painting I’ve ever made, the stylistic elements certainly don’t live up to the original idea that I’d had.

Although my painting had an interesting meaning behind it, I messed up how I expressed that meaning. And, as such, the painting suffered as a result.

So, yes, style matters as much as – or more than – substance in art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Finding And Telling The Stories That Feel Meaningful To You ( In Comics Or Prose)

2016 Artwork Things That Feel Meaningful Article sketch

[Note: Since I write these articles (and make my comics) quite far in advance of publication, some of my attitudes towards making comics have changed slightly. For example, expect to see some 6-12 “episode” narrative webcomic mini series next year.]
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Although this is an article that is intended to help you become more motivated about making webcomics and/or writing fiction, I’m going to have to spend the next seven paragraphs talking about the contrast between my own attitude towards storytelling/comic-making and the attitude of one of my favourite webcomic authors. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A couple of hours before I started writing this article, I read this fascinating online interview with Winston Rowntree, the creator of one of my favourite webcomics ( a comic called “Subnormality” which I rediscovered again a couple of weeks ago and have already re-read at least once).

The parts of the interview that really stood out to me were when he talked about how webcomics should be taken more seriously as a medium, how they should be more complex and how they should move away from their roots in traditional three-panel newspaper comics. This made me think about my own attitude towards making webcomics.

Of course, all of my own occasional webcomic mini series (like this one) are the exact opposite of this lofty ideal. I’ve taken inspiration from newspaper cartoons (Lise Mhyre’s “Nemi” springs to mind for starters) and I use a similar four-panel format to newspaper cartoons, albeit with some alterations to take account of the fact that my comics will be read on a square computer screen.

I absolutely love the idea of a short, self-contained comic that only takes a few seconds to read and 1-2 hours to make. After a bit of experimentation over the years, I’ve found that this is the format that really works for me. The rhythm and pacing of a four-panel comic is something that just feels right for me.

But, not only that, it also made me think about the subject of “seriousness” and how little of it there has been in anything I’ve produced over the past few years. Although I can make a few private guesses as to why my comics, art, fiction etc.. has gradually become less “serious”, it’s a development that still surprises me to this day.

These days, whenever I even think about telling a “serious” story, it just seems to ring hollow. It just seems like empty melodrama, or it seems drearily depressing. However, as soon as I add some comedy, any comic or fiction idea I have just seems to come alive in a way that I can’t quite describe. Although it seems frivolous, it also seems to gain more meaning by virtue of being something that will make me (and hopefully other people too) laugh.

I mean, even when I made a ten page zombie comic for Halloween, it had to be a comedy zombie comic. As soon as comedy was added to it, the comic pretty much made itself. The same was true with the interactive story I wrote last Halloween. I’d thought about writing a proper horror story but, it was only when I thought that it would be a good idea to parody about three different things that this idea turned into something that had to be made.

I guess that it all comes down to motivation and to meaning.

If you want to make comics, art and fiction that you are proud of and that other people will enjoy, then it has to be something that means something to you. But, much more than that, it has to be something that feels meaningful to make. This is a subtle distinction, but it is one that is worth learning about.

We all have topics, ideas and subjects that we consider “meaningful”. Most of these are “serious” things – they’re political opinions, philosophical beliefs, life experiences etc… The combination of these things are one of the things that make us all unique individuals. This is the realm of opinion, belief, memory and thought.

However, the things that feel meaningful can be slightly different. This is what really motivates you on an emotional level. These are the things that appear in your daydreams on a regular basis. These are the things that feel “special” or “awesome” to you on a visceral level.

If you can find a way to include one of these things in your creative works, then you will have an unstoppable source of intrinsic motivation that will help you to make some of your best stories or comics. This is the realm of ambition, imagination, emotion and passion.

Although there can be a lot of overlap between the two things, they are different. One is who you are and the other is what propels you to create things.

The latter of these two things is the most important one if you want to make comics or write fiction. Even if it’s the polar opposite of the things you consider to be “meaningful”, it’s the things that feel meaningful that will motivate you and make you produce some of your best works.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What Does “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” Actually Mean?

2015 Artwork Good artists borrow great artists steal sketch

There’s a famous quote that has been attributed to quite a few people (including T.S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso) and it goes something along the lines of “Good artists borrow, great artists steal“.

But what does this actually mean, and how can it be useful to us as artists?

Firstly, it shouldn’t be interpreted as permission to plagiarise things outright. I’m not a lawyer, but making an exact copy of an entire piece of art and passing it off as entirely your own work isn’t a very good idea – especially in the age of Google Image search and other tools like that.

The only times you should exactly copy entire works of art by other artists is when you’re practicing or when you’re making a study of an old out-of-copyright painting (even then, if you’re planning to sell your studies of old paintings, you need to make it fairly clear to your buyer that it’s a copy before you sell it – otherwise you could end up in trouble for art forgery.)

No, the “good artists borrow…” quote is about something a lot more subtle and clever than that. It’s about taking everything which made something else great and finding a way to create something even better with it. It’s about making something totally new, using ideas and elements from something else.

Rather than a quote that encourages theft and plagiarism, it’s actually a lot closer to Isaac Newton’s famous quote about “standing on the shoulders of giants”. In case you’ve never heard that quote before, it’s basically about how all new things (eg: scientific discoveries, in Newton’s case) build upon everything that has come before.

In other words, the “good artists borrow…” quote is a quote about the importance of being inspired by other things. And, yes, all artists are inspired by things that they’ve seen – even if they don’t realise it.

If you don’t believe me, then take a look at some of your most recent art – I can almost guarantee that something in it will be at least slightly based on either something you’ve seen in real life, on television, in a comic, in another painting, in a videogame, in a movie etc….

However, smart artists will use this fact to their advantage and actively be on the look out for things to be inspired by. But, this doesn’t mean that they do nothing but plagiarise other artists. No, what it means is that they’ll see something and they’ll think “that looks cool – how can I improve upon it or use it an interesting way?

If they spot a drawing technique that they really like, then they’ll study it closely and experiment with it until they can use it to make totally new things that look at least slightly different from what they originally saw the technique in (although, if it’s a fairly small or simple technique, then they might just incorporate it into their art). In other words, they will take something they see and try to find a way to put their own unique spin on it.

To give you an example from my own work, I’ve often started using concentric squares in tiled backgrounds in a lot of my recent work. They look really cool and they’re simple enough that you can fill an entire background with them in a few minutes. See what I mean:

They can be seen in the background of this panel from my "Dead Sector" comic.

They can be seen in the background of this panel from my “Dead Sector” comic.

But, where did I get this idea from? Well, I originally got the idea from seeing footage of parts of the Ennis House – specifically these wall tiles – in the movie “Blade Runner”. Of course, the actual tiles from the Ennis House have a much more complicated design which is also almost certainly copyrighted. So, copying it verbatim was out of the question.

But, by thinking about it for a bit, I was able to think of another – slightly more generic- design that was both reminiscent of these tiles, but also simple enough to be used in my daily comics and paintings. Although this isn’t really a visual improvement on the Ennis House tiles, it’s certainly a practical improvement from my own artistic perspective.

This kind of thing also extends to things that people might not initially recognise as part of a piece of art – such as colour schemes or compositions (eg: the layout of an image). Smart artists will spot these things and try to find a way to make them their own and add them to their own work.

Even when it comes to small details (eg: clothing designs, hairstyles etc..), a smart artist will usually take note of something that they see (either by memorising it or making a quick sketch) and then they’ll see what they can improve or change about it in order to make it look even better, before adding it to their own art.

In conclusion, the quote that “Good artists borrow and great artists steal” doesn’t mean that you can plagiarise things or break copyright rules. It means that it’s ok to be inspired – even heavily inspired- by other things, as long as you find a way to turn them into something new and interesting.

It means that you can’t just copy something verbatim and claim that it’s your own work, you have to study something and work out a way to take everything that makes this thing great and turn it into something different.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Does Accuracy Or Self- Expression Matter More In Drawings?

2015 Artwork Self expression or accuracy article sketch

Although this article will start with what will probably sound like pretentious art criticism, there’s a reason for this – which I hope will become obvious later in the article – and I’m not just doing it to be snobbish, critical or pretentious just for the sake of it. Honest.

Anyway, I was randomly looking at stuff on the internet a few weeks ago, when I happened to stumble across this fascinating (and slightly NSFW) article by Tracey Emin about drawing.

Although I’ve often been kind of cynical about Tracey Emin’s conceptual art – because it’s conceptual art – I still absolutely love how she was able to make art “cool” again back in the 1990s.

So, to see examples of one of the coolest artists in British history working in one of the art forms that I do sounded like an interesting idea.

I’d seen a few Tracey Emin drawings on the internet before, but I was still kind of curious about her drawing style- so I read the article and looked at the drawings in it. And I have to admit that I only really liked half of them.

In the last three drawings in the article I linked to earlier, Emin draws in a fairly similar style to Egon Schiele (a really cool artist from the 1910s, who would have probably made a drawing like Emin’s “Suffer Love II” himself if he could have got away with it back then) and these are technically accurate – but economical – drawings of the human body.

Emin is obviously a hell of a lot better at figure drawing than I am. Plus, she’s able to convey a lot of meaning using a relatively small amount of lines – again, a skill that I deeply respect and am trying to develop myself.

But I really didn’t like the first three drawings in the article (“More Caves, More Tombs”, “Ripped Up” and “Fish Woman”). To be brutally honest, I thought that they were barely comprehensible scribbles that look like they were made by a child. But, when you read the text below each one – you can see that there was obviously a hell of a lot of emotional meaning behind each of these drawings – far more than there is behind most of my own drawings.

These three drawings were obviously a powerful form of self-expression for Emin. But, without the explanatory text underneath them and her famous name beside them – you probably wouldn’t know this. You wouldn’t know the meaning of these works of art – in fact, with a couple of them, you probably couldn’t even make an accurate guess about it. I could understand this if Emin wanted to keep the meaning of these drawings private, but she obviously doesn’t.

And, well, this made me think about self-expression, accuracy and meaning in art.

There’s no denying that art is one of the most powerful forms of self-expression out there. One cathartic emotional drawing is worth ten hastily scribbled diary pages, one deeply personal drawing can show more about yourself than an hour of deeply intimate conversation can. One angry political cartoon can express far more rage than a two-hour speech can. Art is one of the purest and most powerful forms of self-expression in the world.

But, all of that expression is lost if the meaning of your art isn’t immediately obvious (or easily guessable) to the complete strangers who will see your work if you choose to publish it online or in a gallery.

Your audience will not have had the same experiences as you and they may not even have the same opinions you do – so, they are not likely to understand your art unless they can work out it’s meaning just from looking at it.

No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make deeply personal art that only you can understand. In fact, what would be the point of being an artist if you didn’t do this every once in a while? But, if you’re going to show it to other people, then you have to understand that they probably won’t understand it.

So, at the very least, you have to make sure that your art looks good enough to be appreciated on a purely visual level – so that they don’t leave feeling completely empty-handed. If you do this, then you can publish all of the cathartic and emotional art that you like and people will still like it.

In fact, if your cathartic “self-expression” art looks good enough on a visual level – then people might even put a lot of effort into guessing what it means. Why? Because they actually like it and want to learn more about it.

But, if your cathartic art doesn’t look good enough to be appreciated on a purely visual level, then you’re probably best keeping it safely inside your diary.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂