Creativity And Forgotten Places – A Ramble

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up reading a nostalgic online opinion article about video rental shops. This of course, made me think of all of the memories I had about these places.

For starters, there was the local video rental shop (sadly defunct since some time during the mid-2000s) which was the inspiration for the background of this retro horror movie-style painting I made a couple of years ago.

“Late Return (II)” By C. A. Brown (2016/17)

I also used this now-defunct shop (albeit with some artistic licence with regard to layout, size etc..) as the basis for this stylised gothic 1980s/1990s-style painting that will appear here in about a week and a half’s time:

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

I also have nostalgic memories about the ex-rental DVDs and VHS tapes I’d sometimes find in rental shops when I was a teenager. There was the time I watched “Shooting Fish” on rental VHS during my childhood (which was the first “12” certificate film I ever saw).

Then there was seeing the first “Saw” movie on a rental DVD (which was probably the last time I saw a rented film). I could go on but, although video rental shops weren’t really a major part of my life, they certainly seem to evoke a lot of nostalgia.

This, of course, made me think about why the best forms of nostalgia-based inspiration seem to come from places. The other classic example is the humble shopping centre. Even though, when I actually visited these places, they were just ordinary generic places which often only had 1-3 shops that were actually worth visiting, they’ve become more nostalgic these days.

This is probably due to their decline (especially over in America), which has been documented in things like Dan Bell’s “Dead Mall Series“. This has turned these humdrum places (which were often just slightly too up-market to house really interesting shops) into the modern equivalent of old gothic ruins or monuments to the memory of the 1990s/2000s.

So, of course, they’ve also been a source of literary inspiration and artistic inspiration for me during the past couple of years:

“The Forgotten Food Court” By C. A. Brown

“And Once A Palace” By C. A. Brown

But, why are forgotten places such brilliant sources of creative inspiration?

Simply put, they are almost a blank canvas. They can be the setting for almost any type of story and they can also be re-imagined and reconfigured in all sorts of interesting ways too.

In other words, taking inspiration from one of these types of places gives you enough of an idea of what to draw or write about so that you don’t feel blocked or uninspired, but it also gives you enough creative freedom to really let your imagination run wild.

In addition to this, it also allows you to express feelings of rose-tinted nostalgia in a really vivid way too. Not to mention that it also allows you to celebrate places which were just “mundane” once, but have become a lot more mysterious and mythologised after they began to disappear.

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

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Two Basic Tips For Adding Some Nostalgia To Your Stories

Well, since some of the short stories that I begun posting here last February were nostalgia-based stories, I thought that I’d offer a couple of fairly basic tips about how to add nostalgia to your stories.

1) Small details: One of the best ways to add nostalgia to your stories is through small details. In other words, include items and things that are strongly associated with the time period you are nostalgic about.

For example, this “2000s nostalgia” story briefly includes a description of an old early-mid 2000s mobile phone. This other “2000s nostalgia” story briefly includes a reference to a defunct chain of video shops that were popular in early-mid 2000s Britain. Likewise, this 1990s nostalgia-based story briefly includes a segment about POGs.

However, you need to remember that not all of your readers will have memories of the things that make you feel nostalgic. So, it is often best to include a brief physcial description of the nostalgic items in question.

For example, here’s the segment about POGs in the “1990s nostalgia”-themed short story I mentioned earlier: ‘ “‘Oh my god, is that a tube of POGs? No way!” Since the next student loan instalment didn’t arrive for three days, she knew that she’d have to ration herself. Even so, the translucent green tube of cardboard discs was only 25p. It even included a couple of gnarly-looking slammers too.

As you can see, this passage also includes a brief physical description of what POGs are. Since it’s possible that many readers didn’t grow up in the 1990s, they may not have had the nostalgic connection to them that I have. They may not even have heard of them. So, it’s always a good idea to include a brief physical description of more random, ephemeral or obscure nostalgic things.

2) Rules, commonalities and differences: If you’re going to include nostalgia about a particular time period in your story, then you need to understand what made that time period so distinctive.

In other words, you have to examine your memories and/or lots of things (eg: TV shows, books, pop culture etc..) from that time in order to see what they all have in common – and how this contrasts with the present day.

Not only will learning this allow you to subtly add the “flavour” of a particular time period to your story (eg: stuff involving the 1990s will often be a bit more optimistic), but it also allows you to make the kind of pithy observations that can really add some emotional and/or intellectual depth to your story too.

For example, in one of my “2000s Nostalgia” stories, there’s a segment where the two characters are talking about silly rumours that they heard during the (early-mid) 2000s. Finally, one of the characters comments: ‘These days, it’d be pics or GTFO. I miss folklore.

This is the kind of detail that comes from thinking about what made the early-mid 2000s different to the present day. Back then, smartphones/camera phones weren’t as common and social media was very much in it’s infancy. Likewise, the whole “fake news” thing hadn’t happened. So, there was less of an impulse for people to document and/or question literally everything. As such, things like silly rumours were more likely to be spread and believed by more naive people. It’s a small difference, but a noticeable one.

So, yes, study the time period that your story revolves around and see what everything in it had in common, and how it differs from the present day.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Cool Benefits Of Reading More In The Past Than You Do Now

Note: I write these articles fairly far in advance of publication and, at the time I originally prepared this article, I wasn’t reading much. However, I’ve got back into reading regularly since then 🙂 So, expect regular book reviews to appear here every 2-6 days from late November onwards 🙂

Still, for the sake of posterity, I’ll post the article here (even though it makes me cringe a bit when I look at it now. Seriously, why was I so cynical about books? They’re awesome 🙂).

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A while before I wrote this article, I ended up reading a few online news article about books and literature. This, of course, reminded me of the days when I used to read a lot more novels than I do now.

But, surprisingly, rather than being filled with regret or guilt about the fact that the number of novels I read per year these days is in the low single figures (at most) rather than double figures, I just found myself feeling glad that I used to read more during the previous decade than I do during this decade.

So, as an antidote to all of the “I wish I read more these days” regrets that are circulating on the internet, I thought that I’d list a few of the benefits of reading more in the past than you do now.

1) Books were cooler when you were younger (because you were younger): One of the many reasons that I used to read so much when I was a young teenager was because of film censorship. Basically, since I didn’t look old enough to buy most of the cool horror films I wanted to see on video or DVD, I quickly realised that books had no such issues.

Best of all, the old second-hand 1970s-90s splatterpunk novels that I used to find in charity shops and second-hand shops were cheaper and considerably more gruesome than the average horror movie. Although I still felt a burning sense of injustice about the fact that some stuffy old censors didn’t think I was old enough to see “Zombie Flesh Eaters” or whatever, it didn’t matter quite as much because I had a decent collection of Shaun Hutson and James Herbert novels. I felt like some kind of badass rebel who had found a way to get around the censors.

As I grew slightly older, I had more of these kinds of “cool rebel” moments with other types of books. Whether it was reading Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” when I was fourteen, or reading J.G.Ballard’s “Crash” when I was fifteen, reading beat literature when I was seventeen etc.. books were a cool and rebellious thing when I was a teenager. Or, rather, they were cool and rebellious because I was a teenager and reading books was one of the easiest ways to rebel.

The last truly “cool” moment that I really had with books was when I turned twenty and finally got round to reading several gothic novels and short story collections by Billy Martin (writing under the name of “Poppy Z. Brite”). I’d seen these books on the horror shelves of bookshops for longer than I could remember, but the time finally felt right for me to read them. They seemed like exactly the right books at exactly the right time. The mixture of hedonism, nihilism, lush prose and the feeling of finding refuge from the world in alternative subcultures was absolutely perfect for my twenty-year old self. They felt like they had been written just for me.

So, why have I mentioned all of this stuff? Simply put, reading a lot can really enrich the earlier parts of your life. But, a lot of this is also because you were younger then. So, a lot of the “I wish I read more these days” regrets that people have are often “I wish I was younger” regrets in disguise. So, be thankful of the contributions that books made to your life then, but remember that this was also because of the context that you read them in.

2) It actually makes you less pretentious: If you haven’t been reading for quite a while, it can be easy to look back at the times when you did read with rose-tinted spectacles.

But, when you end up picking up a book again, you might be surprised to feel something along the lines of “Oh, this again? Meh. It’s pretty ordinary, in a good way“.

Although reading is often presented as some kind of highly-intellectual way to spend time, if you read a lot in the past then you’ll know that it’s just an “ordinary” thing. The stories you read can be relaxing, thrilling, amusing, terrifying, fascinating, profound etc.. but the actual experience of reading itself is just ordinary (in the best sense of the word). It’s just a mundane and warmly familiar everyday activity.

So, reading a lot in the past means that you are familiar with books. It means that you don’t consider reading books for the sake of reading books to be some kind of virtuous act.

It also means that a book actually has to interest you in order to make you want to read it. After all, if you want to impress people by talking about books, you can just talk about the books you read when you used to read more. As such, the motivations for reading things now tend to be a lot less pretentious (eg: because you like the author or because the blurb intrigued you enough to make you want to break your book-fast etc..).

3) You’re probably still a “book person”: A lot of the “I wish I read more these days” regrets that you might feel are probably at least slightly identity-based. Chances are, when you read more, reading was a part of your identity. You probably considered yourself to be a “book person”. Well, you probably still are a book person.

For example, even though I can probably count the number of novels I read every year these days on the digits of one hand, my bedroom is filled with piles of books. In fact, having lots of books lying around is a prerequisite for somewhere feeling “cosy” or “home”. This is the sort of attitude that only comes from being a “book person”, even if I don’t read that much any more.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re worrying about whether or not you are still a “book person”, then this probably means that you are a “book person”. After all, if you weren’t a “book person” any more, why would the question even bother you?

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Reasons Why Things From The 1990s Can Seem More Creative

Whether it’s games, films, (non-superhero) comics or TV shows, it can be easy to think that the 1990s was a more creative decade than this one. As a fan of the 1990s, I often tend to think this way. At a glance, the 1990s just seems more creative. But, I thought that I’d take a deeper look at this today.

Since, in boringly practical terms, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. These days, mainstream films are often less creative because TV now fills the role that films once used to. Likewise, modern indie games often contain the creativity that used to be an integral part of large-budget mainstream games.

So, on the whole, the 1990s was probably no more or less creative than the present day is. But, I thought that I’d look at a few possible reasons why the 1990s seems more creative than the present day.

1) The internet: I’ve talked about this before, but the internet was a lot less mainstream during the 1990s than it is now. Whilst this certainly had negative effects on creativity, such as making traditional publishers, large film studios etc.. the sole gatekeepers of which creative works were available to the public- it also had several positive effects too.

The first is that the lack of online video, online game shops, e-books etc… meant that the mainstream had to serve a wider role. What this meant is that things like mid-budget films and mid-list authors would often enjoy more popularity. There was more of an incentive for larger publishers, TV stations and film studios to cater to a wider audience, since they were pretty much the only game in town. Again, this was also a barrier to creativity – but it did lead to a better range of stuff being published formally during the 1990s.

The second was the lack of social media. Although critics obviously existed during the 1990s and are necessary (so that audience members can make informed decisions, uninfluenced by advertising), the lack of a way to instantly respond to a creative work often meant that public criticism was a lot more considered, professional and based on the quality of a work.

The third was that it meant that detailed data was a lot harder to obtain. This meant that studios, publishers etc… were forced to take more risks since they didn’t know literally everything about the audience. This probably meant that marketing departments, accountants etc… had very slightly less influence over major creative works. And this resulted in more creativity.

2) Another time: When we look at things from the 1990s today, we probably don’t see them in quite the same way that people from the 1990s did. This can be because they give us a glimpse at a world that is both similar to and different to our own. This can be because they evoke lots of wonderful nostalgia. This can be because we are comparing them to stuff from the present day.

In short, we’re seeing things from the 1990s through the lens of the present day. But, during the 1990s, these things were just ordinary films, games, books etc.. and were probably viewed in the same way that we think of modern games, books etc.. today.

For example, the innocent optimism that makes many creative works from the 1990s so wonderfully reassuring, inspirational and enjoyable wouldn’t have been a big deal at the time. After all, the reeason why things from the 1990s can often seem a lot more optimistic and light-hearted than modern stuff is because they were made during the brief time between the end of the cold war and before things like 9/11 happened.

In other words, people had a reason to be optimistic about the future – so, it seemed perfectly normal back then. But, when compared to the modern world, it seems a lot more noteworthy.

3) People knew less: In short, the sum total of humanity’s knowledge was less during the 1990s than it is today. As such, there was more reason to “explore” and try new things, because they hadn’t really been done before.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in computer and video games. Large-budget games from the 1990s are often considered to be much more innovative and creative than their modern counterparts. Because they almost certainly are! The main reason for this is that gaming was much more of a “new” medium during the 1990s. It hadn’t been carefully studied and many of the tropes of the medium were only really beginning to emerge.

As such, game developers had to try new stuff – if only to see whether it worked or not. They had to experiment with different genres, gameplay mechanics and graphical techniques. Because, if they didn’t, then who would?

4) We remember the good stuff: This is the obvious one, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. The best and most creative things from any period of history tend to be remembered more than less creative things do. This gives the impression that the past was more creative than the present.

Again, games spring to mind here. Although some people decry the fact that first-person shooter games are pretty much ubiquitous these days, it is important to remember that 2D platform games filled this role during the 1990s.

Although 2D platformers are something of a niche genre these days, they were everywhere during the early-mid 1990s. They were the generic “standard” genre of action game back then. When early FPS games like “Wolfenstein 3D”, “Doom”, “Rise Of The Triad”, “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Quake” etc.. emerged, they were a breath of fresh air compared to the glut of 2D platform games at the time. As such, they are (rightly) remembered as classics.

So, yes, people tend to remember the best and most creative things a lot more easily than everything else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What A CD Single Insert From 1997 Can Teach Us About Worldbuilding And Historical Fiction – A Ramble

Although this is an article about worldbuilding and/or writing historical fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about stuff from the 1990s for the next eight paragraphs or so. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become relevant later.

Anyway, whilst looking for something in my CD collection, I stumbled across an old CD single of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” from 1997 that I’d forgotten that I even had.

Musical nostalgia aside, one of the interesting things about the CD single was that it contained a cardboard insert that initially just seemed like a silly piece of ephemera. But, the more I looked at it, the more I realised that it couldn’t have come from any time after the 1990s.

The insert is a form that allows the record company to send (what would probably be considered) junk mail to anyone who fills it in. Not only that, there’s a box at the bottom of the form that contains a hilariously transparent exhortation to send in the form even if you’ve already signed up to their list, just so that they can collect record sales data.

For a second, I wondered “who the hell would actually sign up for this?

Then I remembered that the internet was a lot less widely-used during the 1990s. So, getting advertising brochures in the post was actually a valid way of keeping up to date with things like concerts, release dates etc…. if you didn’t want to buy music magazines every month.

I also realised that the fact that the internet was less common back then meant that there was much less awareness about things like spam, advertising tactics, giving out your details etc… So, companies could do this sort of thing and actually expect large numbers of people to respond.

Then I remembered that music was only sold on physical media during the 1990s, so there was less musical variety easily available to the public. This is noticeable by the fact that, although the limited list of genres on the form thankfully includes heavy metal, it doesn’t include genres like punk or gothic rock. Likewise, CD singles were popular enough back then for companies to actually add advertising to them too.

I could go on, but it’s amazing how much you can deduce about 1997 from a simple piece of ephemera.

But, why did I spend the last few paragraphs dissecting a piece of advertising? What does any of this have to do with worldbuilding and historical fiction?

Well, a lot actually. The CD single insert I’ve been talking about is a perfect example of how the general conditions of a time or place can shape even the smallest things. It is the sort of thing that could only have existed during the 1990s (or earlier). It only exists because the internet was a lot less common back then.

If you’re creating a fictional world, then it is small details like this that really make your “world” feel authentic. These are small details that can easily be ignored but which allow attentive members of the audience to deduce more about your fictional world by looking at them closely.

So, think about how your fictional world would shape “everyday” things. For example, if you were writing a story set in a world where television and film never existed, then your story should contain small details about things like radio, theatre, literature etc.. instead. But, these things should be presented in the same way as TV/film-related stuff is these days – since they would be a lot more mainstream in that particular world.

If you’re writing historical fiction, then things like this are what can really make your historical fiction feel authentic. Small, everyday details that couldn’t exist in any other period of history are one of the quickest ways to immerse your readers in the world of your story.

Even if it’s something as simple as showing a character from the 1990s picking up some blank VHS tapes or audio cassettes when shopping, small details are incredibly important when writing historical fiction.

So, yes, a single piece of junk mail-related ephemera can say a lot about an entire decade.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When Nostalgia Isn’t Defined – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about nostalgia, creativity and gaps in popular culture, I’m going to have to spend the next 3-4 paragraphs talking about music. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A day or two before I wrote this article, I was clearing part of my room when I happened to find a CD that I’d forgotten that I even had. It was a free music CD that had been attached to the March 2006 issue of “Metal Hammer” magazine.

Although I was initially pleasantly surprised to discover that it contained “Cyanide” by Deathstars (a song that really reminds me a lot of 2008/9), I listened to a few of the other tracks out of curiosity and, although I didn’t know or remember any of them, one of them stood out in particular.

It was a song called “The Last Sunrise” by Aiden and it was the absolute epitome of mid-2000s heavy metal. With a mixture of clean vocals, emo-style vocals (that almost have a whiny early 2000s-style pop-punk quality to them) and shouty vocals, it couldn’t have come from any other era in history.

Even the intense, but sharp, guitar parts of the song sound very much like something from this part of history. Likewise, the emotional angst-filled lyrics are also very mid-2000s. I suddenly found myself feeling incredibly nostalgic about the mid-2000s (of all times) just by listening to a song I didn’t remember.

But, as you can probably tell from the convoluted description in the previous paragraph, the vocabulary for describing and defining mid-2000s nostalgia doesn’t really exist yet.

I mean, if I was to talk about – say- 1990s Hollywood movies, then I could talk at length about the chiaroscuro lighting that was popular back then. Or I could talk about how being made between the end of the cold war and before 9/11 gave these films an optimistic emotional tone that can’t be replicated today.

I could probably talk about how the fact that the internet was less widely-used back then affected the stories films told. I could probably talk about how the larger number of mid-budget films back then was beneficial to popular culture (and how smaller-scale stories can often be more dramatic than larger-scale ones). I could probably go on for a while.

But, when talking about something as simple as a song from 2006, I’m forced to use convoluted descriptions that may or may not make sense. Yes, I know what sets heavy metal music from the mid-2000s apart from heavy metal from other parts of history. But, finding a way to express that knowledge is somewhat more challenging because popular nostalgia hasn’t really caught up to this time period yet (eg: there’s usually at least a 20 year gap when it comes to nostalgia becoming popular).

So, what is the best thing to do if you’re a creative person who wants to express a type of nostalgia that hasn’t really been explored in popular culture?

Well, the first thing to do is to try to work out which qualities make something from a non-nostalgic period of the past so distinctive. Use your memories, do some online research, look at examples of things from that time etc.. and try to work out what they have in common. Or, failing that, find some creative works from the time period in question and take inspiration from them.

Even if you can’t concisely express what makes things from a particular time period unique, gaining a greater knowledge of it (through research and thought) will help you to find less direct ways to express this particular quality (eg: the way you describe locations, your characters’ personalities etc..).

If you’re an artist, then you have an advantage here, since you can try to replicate the “look” of a particular period of history, even if you can’t quite find the words to articulate what makes it do distinctive. For example, here are two paintings of mine that are based on a stylised version of the early-mid 2000s:

“Future 2004” By C. A. Brown

“Like 2005” By C. A. Brown

Finding ways to turn nostalgia that isn’t widely shared into art, fiction etc.. can be a bit of a challenge. And, you probably aren’t going to get it right the first time. Still, it’s certainly worth trying nonetheless.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Reasons Why Nostalgia Turns Up In Creative Works A Lot

Well, a while before I wrote this article, I happened to read this opinon article about nostalgia. Since I was also still busy preparing last year’s “retro sci-fi” Halloween stories at the time, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why nostalgia tends to turn up in a lot of creative works.

And, more importantly, why it isn’t such a bad thing. However, I seem to be feeling a very strange sense of deja vu whilst writing this article – so, apologies if it’s similar to a previous article.

1) Formative influences: Simply put, most people’s sensibilities and aesthetic preferences are shaped by the creative works that really made an impression on them when they were younger. In other words, everyone is inspired by things from the past in some way or another. This also includes things that were already “old” when writers, artists etc.. were young.

For example, one of the many influences (in addition to things like “Blade Runner“, “Silent Hill 3” etc..) on the “retro sci-fi” short stories I posted last Halloween were American sci-fi novels from the 1950s/60s. However, I wasn’t even alive in the 1950s or the 1960s. I’ve also never been to America either.

But, between about the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I went through a phase of reading cheap second-hand vintage sci-fi novels that I’d found in charity shops and second-hand bookshops. So, these were an influence on my “retro sci-fi” stories from last Halloween, even though they were already “old” when I first discovered them.

The fact of the matter is that, even if you’ve rigourously kept up with “current” culture throughout your life, then things you’ve seen in the past are still going to influence you (because they’ve shaped your preferences and sensibilities). Not only that, even if you somehow manage the unrealistic feat of only taking inspiration from the absolute latest things – then, many of those things have probably also been influenced by stuff from the past.

To quote a very famous old saying, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.

2) Emotions: Over the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by the 1990s. I’ve been looking at old TV shows and playing old computer games from the 1990s slightly more than usual. A month or two ago, I spent about a fortnight watching one film from the 1990s every evening. I’ve been doing random research into the fashions of the 1990s. I’ve been watching Youtube videos about 1990s technology. I could go on for a while.

But, why? One of the reasons why the 1990s is so fascinating – and why it’s been such a creative influence on me in recent years – is because of the fact that the stylised, rose-tinted (and somewhat Americanised) version of “the 1990s” that I’ve cobbled together from my research, my vague memories of 1990s Britain and all of the old creative works I’ve encountered is such fun to experience – and to express in a variety of creative ways, like this:

“From The 1990s” By C. A. Brown

“Retro Stage” By C. A. Brown

“1990s Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

“The Ghost Night” By C. A. Brown

If there’s one theme that runs through a lot of creative works from the 1990s, it is optimism about the future. Films back then tended to have a very slightly more “stylised” and “innocent” tone (and really cool lighting too). Creative works could have a bit more personality since internet-based mass culture wasn’t really a thing. I could go on for a while, but this rose-tinted version of the 1990s is somewhere that I want to explore and spend time in. And, well, creating and viewing/reading/playing/listening to creative works is one way of doing this.

In short, nostalgia feels good. And the desire to feel good and/or explore places that don’t exist can be an absolutely brilliant source of creative motivation.

3) Making more of the things we love: One reason why nostalgia can be a major part of many creative works is as a reaction to modern culture. Nostalgic creative works can appear because someone has looked at something from the past and thought “They don’t make things like this any more. I guess that I’ll have to do it myself!”.

For example, although 1980s/90s-style cyberpunk sci-fi and noir sci-fi has made a little bit of a comeback in recent years (eg: the “Ghost In The Shell” remake, the “Blade Runner” sequel, “Technobablyon“, the first couple of episodes of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” etc..) , finding examples of it used to be a little bit more challenging even a few years ago.

So, once I worked out how to make art in this style, it tends to be something that I return to on at least a semi-regular basis. For example, here’s a preview of a digitally-edited painting that will appear here in a couple of days (which also took a bit of inspiration from 1920s/30s architecture, fashion etc.. too).

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th August.

Being able to make things that are a little bit like creative works from the past that you really love, but which don’t seem to be common any more, can be an incredibly strong source of creative motivation.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂