Three Basic Ways To Deal With The Transience Of Digital Art Tools

The day before I prepared the first draft of this article (last summer), Microsoft announced that MS Paint would be discontinued (luckily, a day later, they realised the error of their ways). But when the news of the long-running program’s cancellation was first announced, my reaction to the news looked a bit like this:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Editorial Cartoon – Microsoft To Discontinue MS Paint ?!?!?” By C. A. Brown

Anyway, this made me think about digital art in general. Although I don’t usually make entirely digital art (like the picture above), I often use a mixture of traditional and digital tools in my art and webcomics. Yet, in a world where even MS Paint could potentially be discontinued and where there’s always a push for people to use the “latest” stuff, I can’t help but think about the transient nature of digital art. How, a lot of it relies so heavily on program-specific knowledge etc…

So, here are a few basic ways to deal with this problem:

1) Open-source backups: A lot of the problems I’ll be talking about are inherent to commercial programs. Although some of these programs might be really good, they were primarily created to make money. As such, the companies behind them will always be trying to push the “latest” thing, if only to re-sell things that people already had in the old version of a program.

Well, open-source software doesn’t have this problem. Not only is most of it free, but older versions will often be archived online too (though, be careful with third-party archive sites!) which can be useful if you have an older machine. Not only that, but many of these programs will do the same basic things as commercial image editing software will do.

For example, a good backup/open-source substitute for classic MS Paint seems to be a free open-source program – originally designed for Linux- called “KolourPaint” (apparently, there’s a Windows version too but I couldn’t find it). From all I’ve read about it, it possibly seems to be one of the only programs out there that manages to capture some of the classic user-friendly simplicity of pre-Windows 7 versions of MS Paint.

Likewise, for slightly more advanced editing, there is always good old GIMP (GNU Manipulation Program). Yes, this one is a bit slow to load on older machines, but it can do quite a lot of basic things that most commercial editing software can do. Plus, since it’s so well-known, you can find a fair number of tutorials for it on the internet if you don’t know how to use it.

2) Similarities: The important thing to remember is that, since digital image editing programs often do the same thing, they will often have features in common. Yes, these features may have slightly different icons, names and/or locations. But, a lot of editing programs will have at least the same set of basic features.

So, take a look at a few different programs and see what they have in common with each other. For example, most programs will include a tool that allows you to change the brush colour by clicking on a part of the image you’re editing. This will then change the brush colour to the exact colour of the pixel you clicked on. It is perfect for correcting mistakes in a seamless way.

In most programs, the icon for this will look like a pipette or a dropper of some kind. It will often be called something like “Pick color”, “Color picker”, “Dropper” etc… Yet, this one feature does exactly the same thing in all of the programs that use it.

So, yes, even though a program might be different, the basics might be more familiar than you think.

3) Focus on skills, not tools: This is kind of an obvious one, but try to focus on learning general art skills rather than how to use one specific program.

For example, although I use MS Paint for small corrections etc.. all of the time, the image at the beginning of this article is the first time in quite a while that I’ve used it to create an entire picture. Here’s the picture again:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Editorial Cartoon – Microsoft To Discontinue MS Paint ?!?!?” By C. A. Brown

When making the picture, I used all of the skills that I use in both traditional drawing and the general principles I’ve learnt from other image editing programs. For example, when drawing myself in MS Paint, I started by sketching something similar to the preparatory pencil sketch that I’d use if I was drawing myself traditionally.

This re-creation of part of my initial “sketch” uses the same principles and knowledge as drawing with a pencil. Although MS Paint’s line and shape tools can speed it up a bit.

Likewise, my decision to use light purple for the shadows on my face was something I learnt through messing around in an old image editing program from 1999 called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6” (that I use fairly regularly). Likewise, the general principles behind this were something I initially learnt from making a study (with traditional and digital materials) of an old 19th century painting:

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

So, yes, general art skills aren’t specific to any one computer program. If you focus on general skills, then you’ll be at home in a surprisingly large variety of art mediums.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Stories About “Obsolete” Crimes

2017 Artwork The Joy Of Obsolete Crime Stories

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about one of my favourite elements of the detective/crime genre – I am, of course, talking about stories that deal with “obsolete” crimes. This is something that I was reminded of after I happened to find a cheap second-hand DVD of the first season of an amazing historical crime drama called “Boardwalk Empire“.

Although I’ve only seen about three episodes of it at the time of writing, it’s a drama series about prohibition-era America. The main character (played by the one and only Steve Buscemi) is a corrupt city official who is involved in several bootlegging operations, whilst trying to fend off the attentions of a fanatical revenue agent and to deal with the complex politics of various roaring twenties-era criminal gangs.

In a way, it’s very slightly similar to “Breaking Bad” but, as I’ve mentioned before, I absolutely couldn’t stand that show. Although both shows are about the grimy world of the trade in illegal substances within America – there’s one major difference between the two series. The shady world of bootleggers and prohibition-era gangsters in “Boardwalk Empire” doesn’t exist any more.

The idea that alcohol was ever criminalised is (especially to a British person like me) absolutely laughable. In other words, bootlegging is an “obsolete” crime. Depictions of it can’t be seriously depressing, scary or disturbing for the simple reason that it shows a “crime” that virtually no sensible person these days would consider to be immoral or terrible. It shows people gleefully breaking an unjust and irrational law (unlike, say, the sensible laws against the manufacture and sale of hard drugs that the main characters in “Breaking Bad” go against).

Stories that deal with “crimes” that society has long since rightly decided shouldn’t be criminal are absolutely fascinating, especially since historical LGBT stories also fit into this genre too (I mean, it’s only been 50 years since the old unjust laws regarding this even began to be repealed in the UK).

Stories about “obsolete” crimes are both rebellious and reassuring at the same time. Since, not only do they reassure us that both common sense and basic human nature will always win out against harsh political ideology, but they also allow us to think about our own lives in a slightly “rebellious” way.

They remind almost everyone that, at various points in history, the establishment saw virtually everyone as “dangerous” in some way or another.

After all, unless you’ve never enjoyed listening to any kind of rock or rap music, unless you aren’t LGBT, unless you’ve never voted (regardless of your gender, ethnicity, economic class, religion etc.. at some point in history, the establishment somewhere didn’t want you to vote!), unless you’ve never drank any booze, unless you’ve never played violent videogames, unless you are a devout follower of the dominant religion in your country, unless you’ve never disagreed with the government etc… then you’ll probably be able to see a little bit of yourself in the protagonists of these stories about “obsolete” crimes. You’ll feel like a little bit like a “rebel”, even if you lead the most non-rebellious life possible.

These types of stories are absolutely fascinating because they turn the crime genre completely on it’s head – the “criminals” are the good guys and the detectives are the villains.

So, these stories automatically set themselves apart from most other stories in the crime genre since, even in “traditional” crime stories where the criminal is the protagonist, there is still usually a large degree of moral ambiguity involved. This isn’t a bad thing, but it changes how the audience interprets and reacts to the story when compared to a story about an “obsolete” crime. The emotional dynamics of the story are totally different.

Another interesting thing about these stories is that they also make us think about the whole subject of just and unjust laws. In other words, they make us look at our own moral principles, because these stories often have parallels with the modern world. In other words, they make us think more critically about the legislative process and help us to refine our own moral opinions about the merits of current legislation.

They also show us how political ideology or vested interests can often go wildly against popular opinion. I could probably give a giant list of examples of how political or financial dogma has resulted in badly-made, unfair or unjust legislation, but some notable areas include things like copyright legislation, cannabis legislation etc…

These stories can obviously also be used to satirise present-day attitudes and politics too. I mean, the contrast between the wild spectacular parties and the dour, depressing temperance hall meetings near the beginning of the first episode of “Boardwalk Empire” are an absolutely brilliant send-up of a certain type of modern conservatives and/or “liberals” who just instinctively hate any kind of joy, laughter, relaxation or freedom – and want to see it all stamped out immediately.

In conclusion, these types of stories are an absolutely brilliant subversion of the crime genre, which also hold a mirror up to the audience and make us question our own moral and philosophical principles in a way that “traditional” crime stories just can’t do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (24th September 2014)

Well, since I was bereft of good artistic ideas yet again – I made the foolish decision to let my imagination atrophy further by going back through my old stuff and looking for things to re-make once again.

Eventually, I settled on some doodles that I made on my lecture notes for a particularly dull “information services” lecture at university back in 2006. For comparison, I’ll also include this part of the doodle in this post as well as my painting.

As usual, these two pictures are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Mainframe" By C. A. Brown

“Mainframe” By C. A. Brown

And here’s my doodle, made during a very boring lecture during 2006:

"Lecture Doodle From 2006" By C. A. Brown

“Lecture Doodle From 2006” By C. A. Brown

How To Avoid Making Your Sci-Fi Stories Sound Dated In The Future

2013 Artwork Dated Sci-Fi Sketch

Science fiction is supposedly a genre dedicated to predicting and exploring the future. However, as any fan of the genre knows, most science fiction is more about the present day than about the future. Sometimes, this is an intentional thing on the part of the author in order to comment about current society. However, there are plenty of unintentional examples of this where a sci-fi author has failed to predict some large or small social change which happens between the time they wrote the story and the time when the story is set.

I’m sure you can think of your own examples of this, and it’s certainly more common in films and TV than in fiction. For example, a few major examples can be seen in Ridley Scott’s excellent “Blade Runner”. Leaving aside the fact that this film is only set in 2019 (and we can only replicate some simple organs using stem cells these days, let alone replicate entire humans within the next six years) – one of the most surprising things for modern viewers is the complete absence of mobile phones in the film.

Yes, when Deckard drunkenly decides to call Rachel, he doesn’t use a mobile phone – he uses a “futuristic” payphone which can make video calls. In 1982, this was probably very futuristic, but now that we have devices more than twenty times smaller than a payphone which can make video calls, it seems hilariously dated.

Not to mention that, despite the fact that it actually predicted at least a few technological advancements, even “Star Trek” suffers from this from time to time. For example, although the futuristic PADDs which the characters in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” use may well have inspired modern tablet computers, they generally appear to be a lot less advanced than modern tablet computers are.

So, yes, this can even happen to great sci-fi stories. It’s the inevitable result of trying to predict an inherently uncertain future. Although there’s no certain way to write a sci-fi story which will still seem fresh and futuristic in a couple of decades, there are a few common mistakes that can be easily avoided.

1) Distant and near future technology: If you’re setting your sci-fi story in the distant future, then you can take a lot more creative liberties. After all, hundreds or thousands of years in the future, it’s very unlikely that anyone will still be reading your story, let alone checking it for accuracy. Even so, be careful about basing the technology in your story on current technology (since this will probably be the equivalent of medieval or prehistoric technology that far into the future).

In some ways, it can be best to use almost fantastical technology in stories set in the distant future (eg: faster than light travel, teleportation etc….) since people can invent a lot of things in a single century, let alone in a millennium or three. A good test when coming up with very futuristic technology is to think of things which would be considered impossible by modern standards. After all, to someone in 1913 or in 1013, most of our current technology would probably be considered impossible or fantastical.

If you’re setting your story in the near future (eg: within the next couple of decades at least), then don’t change too much. As fast as technology moves, it doesn’t move as fast as some sci-fi novelists have predicted. If you’re going to add technology to your story, then it can be an idea to come up with smaller, vastly more powerful and more complex versions of current technology.

Even then, it might be an idea to downplay the technology in your story or leave it slightly vague, since current technology can quickly become obsolete over the space of a single decade, let alone two or three.

For example, if you wanted to back up your data in the first half of the 1990s, you’d probably use a floppy disk. These days, you’d either use a USB stick (which would have been totally unimaginable even fifteen years ago) or you’d use cloud computing. Who knows what people will be using for backups in ten years’ time? My money is on cloud computing, but there’s no real way to tell.

Plus, in stories set in both the near and distant future, make sure to think about the social impact any new forms of technology will have. Most of the social changes caused by new technology can be fairly subtle and mundane (eg: people consulting Wikipedia rather than opening an old-fashioned encyclopaedia when they need to find out about something) but some changes can be fairly radical. For example, think about how different the world was before and after the invention of the World Wide Web, the internal combustion engine or the printing press etc…

2) Historical events: These are next to impossible to predict properly. For example, some older sci-fi stories were automatically rendered laughably dated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A more sombre example is that any sci-fi story or movie which was set in New York and was created before 9/11 (eg: “Escape From New York”) can look obviously dated to modern audiences.

Plus, the social, military and/or political changes which followed 9/11 (many of which would have been widely seen as unthinkably dystopic even twenty years earlier etc…) couldn’t have been predicted by that many authors who were writing before 2001.

There is no real way to account for major historical changes which occur after you’ve finished your sci-fi story. About the best way to guard against this kind of thing is to set your story either on another planet or in the very distant future.

3) Ye olde timelessness: Some sci-fi authors and directors try to do this as a way to make their stories appear “timeless” and it’s ridiculously contrived. I am, of course, talking about sci-fi stories where most of the major cultural works in the distant future are things which are already seen as ancient these days. Yes, using public domain stuff doesn’t cause copyright issues – but the idea that most people hundreds of years into the future will be enjoying stories which are already seen as dusty and old is absolutely laughable.

The fact is, at any point in time, there will be lowest-common-denominator “mainstream” entertainment ( eg: gladiatorial combat, public executions, cheesy action movies, music halls/vaudeville, celebrity talent shows etc….) , there will be a lot of old stuff (which relatively few people read or watch) and there will probably be lots of interesting non-mainstream media (eg: indie films or indie holo-recordings or whatever video format people use in the future) too. Almost all of this stuff will have been created at some point in the future and will probably have nothing to do with current culture and media.

So, if you’re going to have your characters read a story or watch a movie or play a game, then make it up yourself. Invent a fake title, fake actors, fake consoles etc… it’s the only way to stop your story from sounding ridiculously anachronistic.

After all, with the exception of religious texts, how many things written thousands of years ago do large numbers of people these days read on a regular basis?

4) Culture: Culture changes. That’s a fact. If you’re setting your story at any point in the distant future, then you can’t base it on the current culture in wherever you live. You might just about get away with it if your story is set ten years in the future, but any more than that and things start getting a bit more complicated.

Social norms and taboos can change drastically within decades, let alone centuries. Fashions can change even more quickly. New words come into existence and old words gradually fade into disuse (eg: the English that I’m using in this article would be very different to, say, the English that people used in the 17th century). Slang changes even more quickly (and writing good futuristic slang is notoriously difficult to do). Common attitudes can change significantly within decades.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, looking at history, society (in many parts of the world) gradually seems to be becoming more liberal, knowledgeable, informal and open-minded. Yes, there might be the occasional temporary setback and different countries change at different paces but, in general, society gradually tends to improve over time. So, if you’re setting your story between a couple of decades and a couple of centuries in the future, then this is worth bearing in mind.

Before anyone thinks that I’m being unrealistically utopic, I should also point out that war, poverty, greed, exploitation, injustices, cruelty etc… have obviously been pretty constant things throughout most of human history and they seem unlikely to go away any time in the near future (or even the distant future either).

However, if you’re setting your story on another planet and/or in the ridiculously distant future, then you have a lot more creative freedom when it comes to what kind of culture your characters will live in.

5) Understand history: As you’ve probably guessed from all of the previous points on this list, the best way to avoid making your sci-fi stories sound dated is to have at least a general understanding of history. We can’t predict the future with any degree of certainty, but we can look for patterns and trends in the past. Whilst history doesn’t always repeat itself, it tends to do this fairly often.

But, I’m not just talking about world history here, I’m talking about the history of the science fiction genre too. After all, how are you going to know what kind of mistakes to avoid if you don’t see any examples of them in older sci-fi stories?

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Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂