Three Reasons Why Modern Creative Works Use Nostalgic Elements

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this topic before, but I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why modern creative works use nostalgic elements.

1) Inspirations: This is the most obvious one. In short, people usually become writers, artists, musicians, film-makers, game designers etc… because they see, hear, play or read something so impressive that it makes them think “I want to make something like that!

Of course, thanks to copyright law, we can’t just directly copy the things we love. So, we have to learn what makes these things so nostalgic and find ways to incorporate these general elements in new and original works. This is why, for example, some modern creative works will be stylistically similar to things from previous decades, even if they differ in detail.

Inspiration is an essential part of the creative process and finding ways to make original stuff that is evocative of the things that inspired you can be a really brilliant source of creative motivation. Hence why it happens in films, music, books, games etc…

2) An instant quality bump: One of the things that prompted this article was that, the day before I prepared this article , I happened to find a modern punk song (explicit lyrics) that not only sounds like something from the early-mid 2000s, but also protests about current US politics in the same way that punk bands used to do about G.W.Bush during the early-mid 2000s.

One of the interesting things about this song is that if I had actually heard it during the early-mid 2000s, my reaction would have probably been “It’s ok“. Yet, listening to it today, my reaction was more like “Cool! It’s an early 2000s-style punk song from last year. This is so awesome!“.

In other words, the nostalgic musical elements actually made the song seem better than it would have done in the time period it took inspiration from. But, why? There are several reasons.

First of all, there aren’t that many bands still using this style of punk music, so the rarity of the song instantly makes it more impressive. Secondly, it evokes memories of the time when this type of music was a bit more mainstream. Thirdly, there’s a really interesting contrast between the “old” musical style and the modern subject matter.

So, using nostalgic elements can be a way to make your current creative works seem better in comparison to more “modern” stuff.

3) Audience connection: Including nostalgic elements can be a good way to connect with members of your audience who either remember the time period that you’re taking inspiration from and/or are fans of things made during that period of history. When done right, this evokes warmly nostalgic memories in older audience members and makes younger members of your audience think “Cool! People are still making stuff like this these days!

This is especially effective if you’re taking inspiration from a part of history that isn’t covered by popular nostalgia. For example, the reason why the modern early-mid 2000s style punk song surprised and delighted me so much is because this period of history currently falls slightly outside of the usual 20-30 year nostalgia gap.

It’s a period of history that I remember really well, yet it hasn’t quite passed into popular nostalgia yet. So, it stands out more and has more of an emotional impact than it probably will in 5-10 years time when there are lots of early-mid 2000s style movies in the cinema, lots of TV shows about this part of history, lots of computer games set in this time period etc…

So, if you want to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience, then nostalgic elements can be really useful.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Two Basic Differences Between Modern And Older Novels

Ever since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, one of the things that has surprised me so much are the differences between older and modern fiction. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define “modern fiction” as stories first published in the 21st century and “older fiction” as anything published before then (with a focus on the 20th century).

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is to read a mixture of older and more modern fiction. This is mostly to give modern fiction a chance. After all, during previous times when I’ve read regularly for enjoyment (eg: during most of the 2000s and the early-mid 2010s), I’ve often tended to focus slightly more on older 20th century novels than on 21st century ones.

So, let’s look two of the most basic differences between older and modern fiction. However, I should point out that these are generalisations and there will be exceptions to everything I mention here. Likewise, I’ve probably mentioned all of these things before too, but they’re always interesting to look at.

1) Complexity: At the time of writing this article, I’m reading a novel from 1962 called “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury. One of the surprising things about this novel is that, technically speaking, it would probably fit into the modern “young adult” (YA) category if it was published today.

It bears all of the hallmarks of this genre – the protagonists are teenagers, it is a novel about being a teenager and it seems to be a fairly “PG-13” kind of story (to use an American phrase). Yet, it contains something that the modern novels (in a variety of genres) I’ve read over the past decade or so often don’t contain – linguistic complexity.

To give you an example, here’s a spectacular sentence from “Something Wicked This Way Comes”: ‘Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries, and Mr Cooger, spinning, ran and leaped on the back-whirling universe of animals who, tail first, head last, pursued an endless circling night towards unfound and never to be discovered destinations.

This is a long, complex, formal, poetic and descriptive sentence. It has been carefully designed to make the reader feel like they’re watching the endless spinning of a merry-go-round in a mysterious old circus. It is meant to be vivid and disorientating. Yet, unless you’ve had a fair amount of practice reading older novels, it may confuse you. In a modern novel ( whether general fiction or YA), the language would probably be less formal and it would be broken up into several shorter sentences in order to achieve the same effect.

So, older novels are often written in a more complex and formal way. Yes, there are exceptions to this but, even if you look at that most high-brow of genres – paperback action-thriller novels – you’ll also notice that examples from the 1970s-90s often tend to be written in a slightly slower paced and more descriptive way than modern action-thriller novels are. The sentences are often longer and there are more descriptions.

This is kind of a double-edged sword though. Since, although all of this extra complexity really helps to give older novels a sense of uniqueness, personality, depth and atmosphere that modern novels sometimes lack, modern novels can often be a lot more gripping and readable. Because they have to compete with videogames, boxsets, smartphones and the internet, modern novels are often a lot more streamlined, efficient and readable than older novels.

2) Length: Whilst longer novels are nothing new (just look at the Victorians!), one of the really interesting differences between 20th and 21st century fiction is how longer novels have gone from being the exception to being the rule.

When you look at paperback books from the 20th century, the average length often tends to be somewhere in the region of 200-300 pages. This is a length that helps to keep the story focused and helps to ensure that the reader can finish the book without getting bored by it.

In contrast, modern 21st century novels will often be about 300-400 pages in length at the least. Yes, I have found shorter modern novels (in fact, I usually try to seek them out), but they tend to be less common than they used to be.

As with all of these things, there are advantages and…. Oh, who am I kidding? Older fiction has all of the advantages here. Because shorter novels were more acceptable in the 20th century, these stories tend to cram more storytelling into a shorter length – which resulted in better fiction. When an older 20th century novel is long, it usually has to justify this length by telling a story that cannot be crammed into a smaller number of pages.

Still, I find it ironic that, for all of the moaning about how people’s attention spans are getting shorter – books keep getting longer. Still, this increase in novel length seems to be part of a more general trend these days. I mean, just look at films. Back in the 1980s/90s, a film usually tended to be a fairly efficient 90-110 minutes in length. These days, even superhero movies can easily pass the two-hour mark.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Tips For Bringing Old Genres Up To Date

Whilst reading the book I reviewed a couple of days ago, I realised something. It was a book from 2013 that was basically a 1990s-style action movie in disguise 🙂 It surprised me that the type of films that I really wish Hollywood still made still existed… but in book form.

Not only that, the novel had also brought this old genre (eg: 1990s-style action movies) into the present day in a way that didn’t really seem too nostalgic or old-fashioned. It felt totally fresh and new, yet it was undeniably a 1990s action movie in book form.

So, this made me think about how to bring old genres up to date – and I thought that I’d offer a few tips:

1) Timeless elements: The best way to bring an old genre up to date is to look at the basic underlying elements that make the genre so distinctive. The qualities that can be quickly summed up in ten words or less. In other words, the timeless parts of the genre.

For example, with 1990s-style action movies, this would include things like: Ludicrous villain plots, non-topical drama, teams of main characters (instead of a lone hero), an optimistic attitude, interesting location choices, a friendly atmosphere, light-hearted romance, a sense of humour, making mundane things thrilling etc…

With 1980s-style cyberpunk novels, this would include things like: Information overload, jargon-heavy narration, gloomy weather, morally-ambiguous protagonists, alternative worlds (eg: cyberspace), cynicism, hyper-capitalist dystopias, fast-paced storytelling etc…

With 1980s-style splatterpunk horror novels, this would include things like: Poetic descriptions of ugly things, gory violence, the mundane mixed with the horrific, a dark sense of humour, a grim sense of poetic justice, complex background characters who die soon after they appear, lurid titillation etc..

Once you’ve found the timeless elements of an old genre (by studying it), then it’s just a simple case of writing a modern story that includes these elements. Even if your story is set in the present day and has a few differences, if you include lots of the timeless elements from an old genre, then your story will remind people of it.

2) Nostalgia: This is a bit of a complicated one. On the one hand, nostalgia is absolutely amazing. On the other hand, it can get in the way of what makes updated modern versions of old genres so fascinating – namely the feeling of discovering something new in a genre that you thought was long since gone.

After all, many of the original works in an old or forgotten genre weren’t made for nostalgia. They were made to tell stories, to entertain people and as a form of creative expression. All of the nostalgia was added later by fans. So, even if you don’t include any nostalgia, then your audience will add it anyway.

As such, don’t go overboard with nostalgia when updating an old genre if you can help it. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, too much obvious nostalgia can remind the audience that they’re looking at something based on something old – rather than getting to experience the joy of discovering a totally new work in a forgotten genre. So, be subtle about including nostalgia and don’t include too much of it.

3) Streamlining: Simply put, get rid of whatever doesn’t work whenever you’re updating an old genre. Be ruthless.

But, be sure that you have a good understanding of how an old genre works before you decide what is worth keeping. To use a videogame-based example, a lot of “awkward” design choices in old survival horror games (eg: strange camera angles, limited inventory, clumsy movement/combat controls etc..) are deliberately there to make the player feel vulnerable, and therefore even more scared.

But, if you find something that used to work in a genre (but which doesn’t work these days), then get rid of it and replace it with something that does work. One example of this that I briefly mentioned in an article a couple of days ago is how older and newer thriller novels handle things like sentence length and linguistic complexity differently.

One of the main differences between a thriller novel from the 1970s and one from the 2010s is that the old one only had to compete with films/TV, but the new one also has to compete with boxsets, smartphones, the internet, videogames etc… too. So, things like more matter-of-fact descriptions, shorter sentences and shorter chapters might mean that new thrillers aren’t the same as classic thrillers. But, they work!

These changes mean that they’re efficient and readable enough to hold their own against boxsets, games etc.. They still evoke the same emotions as older thriller novels do, but they’ve had to cut out the excess in order to keep doing this in the 21st century.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Reasons Why (Even Fairly Good) Modern Print Comics Can Seem A Little Bit “Generic”

A few hours before I prepared this article, I ended up reading an actual honest-to-god paper comic (since it was included with a music magazine as a free gift). Not a trade paperback or a manga paperback or a webcomic, but an actual comic book (issue one of “Legacy Of The Beast” to be precise).

The surprising thing was that, although the premise of the comic is really really cool (it’s a comic from 2017 featuring Iron Maiden‘s mascot Eddie), my first thought was something along the lines of “this is a standard modern comic“. Since Iron Maiden are my favourite heavy metal band, I really, really wanted to love the comic but my reaction was just a muted “this is a good, but standard, comic“.

Yes, some elements of the comic’s premise were absolutely brilliant (eg: the hilariously subversive decision to make the comic’s devil-like villain use bland, conservative mainstream conformity as a weapon), there are some cool song references and some of the art looks really cool. But, so much of the comic just seemed… well… generic.

This is something that I’ve noticed often in what few modern print comics (from the past 15 years or so) I’ve read. So, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why modern print comics can sometimes be a little bit on the generic side of things.

1) Lettering: This is a really small thing, but it makes a big difference. Simply put, it often seems like lettering in modern comics is a little bit too “perfect” – almost like it has been done using a computer font rather than by hand.

With lettering, the handwritten imperfections are what really gives it character. The occasional illegibility or “non-standard” characteristics of “imperfect” handwritten lettering show the audience that someone actually wrote the dialogue.

To show you what I mean, here’s a comparison of the “imperfect” lettering from a ‘Tank Girl‘ trade paperback from 1996 and the lettering in part of the “Legacy Of The Beast” comic I mentioned earlier.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] A comparison of the lettering in Hewlett & Martin’s “Tank Girl” with the lettering in “Legacy Of The Beast” by Leon (et al).

When lettering is too good, it often just looks like it has been typed quickly on a computer rather than written by hand. Yes, it’s possible that the lettering has been painstakingly written by someone who has spent years honing their craft, but lettering that is too good will often look like a standard computer font of some kind.

2) Humour/Attitude: What few modern comics I’ve read seem to have a fairly similar “attitude” to them. It’s kind of like they’re trying to be “cool” or “edgy”, but not too much. It’s like a sort of “PG-13” edginess. It adds a bit of attitude to the comics, but it often means that the emotional tone of many comics is at least mildly similar.

I understand why mainstream western comics do this. They need to be suitable for a general audience, not to mention that the legacy of the American comics code probably also plays a role too. Likewise, as similar as the sarcastic humour can often be, it does at least stop the comics from becoming too “grim” or “depressing” or anything like that.

But, at the same time, it also means that mainstream episodic print comics don’t really get as much of a chance to express their own personality in the way that things like webcomics do.

For example, take a look at a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. The writing style and emotional tone of this comic are fairly unique – Rowntree writes dialogue in a way that seems both realistic and novelistic at the same time, with the dialogue often being slightly more slow-paced and conversational than the average mainstream comic:

This is a panel from “muZeM” by Winston Rowntree (2015) which contains slower-paced and more realistic dialogue.

The comic’s emotional tone is also a strange mixture of serious introspective drama, quirky eccentricity and occasionally hilariously subversive rapid-fire sarcasm.

Even a more “PG-13” version of Rowntree’s narrative style would still stand out from the crowd. Just because a comic has to be suitable for a general audience without being blandly inoffensive doesn’t mean that personality has to go out of the window too!

3) Tools and style: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with digital art. It’s an art form like any other. I mean, most of my own art includes digital elements. Digital tools are quick, versatile and practical. There is nothing wrong with digital art.

But, if it isn’t combined with a highly distinctive and unique art style, digital art can look a little bit too “perfect”. A lot of what makes traditional art so distinctive and unique are the small imperfections inherent in things like paints, inks etc..

When comics feature digital art that doesn’t really contain imperfections, then this has to be compensated for by adding uniqueness and personality in other ways.

This brings me on to the fact that a lot of the (relatively few) modern mainstream comics I’ve seen often use a vaguely similar “realistic” art style.

Yes, this allows for movie-style “immersion” and it allows for visual consistency in comics that may feature several artists. But, one of the things that really makes a comic stand out from the crowd is a more unique (and stylised and/or “unrealistic”) art style.

4) Heroic characters: I think that one of the reasons why I had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the Iron Maiden comic was because it was basically a superhero comic in disguise. Yes, the comic contained a lot of fantasy elements and a few mild horror elements…. but it was still a comic about one powerful character fighting villains.

This style of story is popular because it’s relatively easy to write. Likewise, if you buy a comic in this genre, then you know what you’re going to see. So, there’s a certain level of reassuring standardisation. But, at the same time, this gets boring.

Many of the best comics I’ve read aren’t about one powerful hero saving the world or anything like that. For example, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics may revolve around seven ancient deities – but they’re often background characters who appear in more novelistic stories about an assortment of other characters. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics may focus on one character (and his assistants) trying to stop a corrupt politician, but he’s a hilarious drug-addled cyberpunk gonzo journalist who is at least slightly more likely to use words, gadgets or ingenuity than generic mindless violence to solve problems.

So, yes “heroic character fights the bad guys” storylines are probably one reason why many modern comics can seem a little bit generic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Does Current Art Often Look Slightly “Old”? – A Ramble

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy preparing a series of gothic paintings set in Aberystwyth. One of the interesting things about this art series is that each painting seems to be set in a slightly different time period.

There are some set in the mid-late ’00s, there’s one set in the early 2010s, there are some set in the 1980s/1990s and there are even a couple of paintings set in a cyberpunk-style future. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview of a cyberpunk-style painting of a corridor behind the Hugh Owen building on the town’s university campus. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 11th June.

This naturally made me think about art and time. This is mostly because, although artists often don’t explicitly state when their paintings are set, they’ve usually got a fairly good idea. And, with the exception of obvious historical pieces and sci-fi/fantasy art, you might be wondering why current artists wouldn’t set all of their art in an accurate version of the present day.

There are a lot of reasons for this. The first one is that art isn’t meant to be accurate or realistic. If you want an accurate realistic picture of the modern world, take a photograph. Art is about the blending of imagination and reality. It’s about seeing the world filtered through someone’s imagination. So, many artists might use artistic licence (such as adding slightly old or unrealistic elements to their art) in order to create a more distinctive and interesting picture.

For example, in this other painting of Aberystwyth from earlier this month, I deliberately used a rather unrealistic 1980s-style colour scheme, mostly to reflect the old music I was listening to during the time period (eg: the late 2000s) that this painting is set in. Which brings me on to…

The second reason why artists don’t always set their work in a realistic version of the present day is because art allows us to re-visit interesting memories and to depict the world based on rose-tinted versions of parts of history that we get nostalgic about and/or are interested in. It allows us to paint or draw a more stylised version of the world that seems better, more reassuring and/or more visually interesting than a more “realistic” one would be.

For example, here’s a painting from life (a first-person scene showing me drawing a small sculpture of a tortoise) that I made last year. Although it is technically set in 2017, I’ve deliberately added some slightly 1980s/1990s-style lighting and colour combinations to it in order to make it look more dramatic and visually-appealing than a starkly “realistic” depiction of the scene in question would be.

“Drawing A Tortoise Still Life” By C. A. Brown

The third reason why artists don’t always set their art in an “accurate” version of the present day is because of artistic inspirations and influences. Generally, the things that have inspired or influenced an artist are probably going to be slightly older things.

They’re probably going to be things that, say, an artist first discovered when they were younger and then studied in more depth when they got a bit older. Even if an artist is somehow only inspired by “modern” things, then those modern things are probably going to be inspired or influenced by older things in some way or another. So, artistic influences usually come from the past in some way or another.

Finally, it’s an interesting artistic challenge. There’s something enjoyably challenging about making something in the present day that looks like it could have come from the past. In order to do this well, you need to have done a fair amount of research and have a good understanding of what made the recent past (and art from back then) look the way it did. For example, here’s a digitally-edited painting of mine that was inspired by the old early 1990s computer games I played during my childhood:

“Marina” By C. A. Brown

Although this painting includes some elements of early 20th century Art Nouveau and 19th century Japanese Ukiyo-e art, I also tried to replicate the more garish and limited colour palettes used in some old computer games. I used bold high-contrast lighting (which gives anything an instant 1980s/90s-style look) and I also tried to make sure that the fashion designs and hairstyles in the picture looked like something from the early 1990s. Likewise, I made sure that the background design was as random and eccentric as the location designs in old computer games often were.

So, yes, making current art that looks like it could have come from the recent past usually involves a fair amount of research and thought, so it can be an interesting artistic challenge.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Awesome Things That Artists And Writers Can Learn From The Modern Games Industry

Well, I thought that I would start off April’s roster of articles by throwing all of my dusty old “retro” games into the dustbin and talking about the exciting world of modern gaming. In particular, I’ll be talking about what my research into this thriving, scrupulous and reputable industry can teach artists and writers when it comes to presenting their works to the public.

After all, the modern mainstream gaming industry is absolutely adored by their millions of customers, so they must be doing something right. Right?

1) DLC: “DLC” stands for “Downloadable Content” and it is all the rage these days! Whilst gamers of the past had to suffer through full-size official expansion packs and a bewildering plethora of extra fan-made levels for their games, modern gamers have none of these problems!

No, they can just buy small, low-calorie portions of extra content directly from the games companies for a reasonable fee. Not only that, this downloadable content can sometimes also help to provide an extra sense of closure to fans by telling them how the stories of their favourite games actually end. Recent advancements in this exciting new field include randomised “loot boxes” that allow players to experience all the thrills of the casino from the comfort of their living rooms. It is truly an exciting time to be a gamer 🙂

So, how does this popular and well-loved business practice relate to fiction? Well, the simplest way to add some trendy new “DLC” to your latest novel is simply to remove the final two to four chapters and sell them separately. Yes, some miserable old fogies might accuse you of “fraud” or bang on about the days when novels used to be “complete” self-contained things. But, your hip young fans will be eager to enjoy the experience of buying the same book twice. After all, where’s the fairness in only allowing people to enjoy that “new book” feeling once?

But, what about you artists out there? Well, the process is a little bit more complicated. But, I imagine that it would probably look a little bit like this:

Your audience will love you! They’ll be queuing up in the streets! Look, some of them are even carrying pitchforks to help with your gardening too!

2) Standardised content ratings: One of the greatest success stories in the European gaming industry was the introduction of standardised PEGI content ratings across almost all of Europe.

By applying a single ultra-strict “one size fits all” set of censorship rules across more than thirty countries, Europe is leading the way in protecting younger gamers from the corrupting evils of “mild bad language” and “Non realistic looking violence towards human characters”.

But, why stop at games? Surely, we writers and/or artists have a moral responsibility to introduce something similar in our own fields? After all, think back to your own youth and how seeing or reading age-inappropriate creative works hindered and stifled your own creativity. How, far from making you feel like a “rebel” or making you feel like making art and/or writing fiction were “cool” activities, it left you filled with shocked moral indignation!

Well, a standardised world-wide age rating system for all creative works would soon solve all of those problems. All of the next generation of writers and artists would only be inspired by wholesome, age-appropriate things. Just imagine how much better all of the books, paintings, comics etc.. that come out within the next couple of decades will be.

3) System requirements: If there’s one word that defines the exciting world of the modern computer games industry, it is “progress”! Game companies are always pushing the limits of new hardware, and real gamers are eager to upgrade their systems as much as twice weekly just to keep up.

When a PC gamer looks at the “system requirements” segment of a game’s website, they don’t think that it’s some kind of discriminatory system of exclusion designed to favour the wealthiest and/or trendiest of gamers. No, such silly thoughts do not enter their minds for one second.

Instead, smiling with glee, they eagerly rush out to buy a new £450 liquid nitrogen cooling system for the £700 graphics card that they need in order to use the latest £1200 virtual reality headset. Progress! An example to us all!

Alas, both art and fiction are stuck in a rut by comparison! We live in a world where any literate peasant can pick up a book and read it, or a world where anyone with functioning un-modified eyeballs can gaze upon any work of art. We’re stuck in the past!

As such, I propose a radical upgrade to the English language. English 2.0! If you can’t take the time to spend an extra five years in school to learn it, then s8BB@~## t%8 (“sod off, old fogey!”).

Likewise, artists have been constrained by the fact that their works must appear within the visible light spectrum. It is only the stubborn consumer’s backwards unwillingness to try new experimental ocular surgery that prevents exciting new art made using the infra-red and ultra-violet light spectrums from gaining the mainstream popularity that it deserves. Honestly, these so-called art connoisseurs could learn a lot from the humble PC gamer!

4) Day one patches: Modern games companies are eager to get their games out to players as soon as possible! Who cares if a game is technically “finished” or not? The modern gamer will have pre-ordered the game two years ago and will expect something, even just a collection of glitches and error messages, at the appointed time!

Back in the bad old days of cartridges and discs, gamers were forced to languish for months whilst they waited for companies to “finish” making their games. But, in this modern connected age, any small oversights from game developers can easily be corrected via small downloadable “patches” (which are only mere gigabytes in size) that can be released soon after the game goes on sale.

We artists and writers can learn a lot from this! Don’t have time to finish that novel? Well, you can always put out that rough draft of the first three chapters at full price and correct the rest later in an “updated” version. Likewise, the laughably old-fashioned days when an artist actually had to complete a painting before showing it to the public have thankfully long since passed:

Isn’t this watercolour painting awesome? What? I’ll patch it in about a week or so. You DID pre-order, didn’t you?

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Happy April Fool’s Day everyone 🙂 Normal articles/reviews will resume tomorrow 🙂