Why Making “Tech Demo” Paintings Can Make You Feel Inspired Again – A Ramble

Well, it’s been ages since I last wrote an article about making art. And, after having an unusual moment of artistic inspiration recently, I thought that I’d talk about one way to get inspired and/or motivated again if you’ve fallen into a bit of an artistic funk.

A few days before writing this article, I’d been relaxing by watching random online videos about computers when I saw a demonstration of one of the latest graphics cards (which used real time ray tracing and cost several times as much as my entire computer did) and finally understood why some gamers are so obsessed about graphics. The game footage in the demonstration was almost photo-realistic – especially the reflections. Naturally, this made me fascinated about the topic of realistic reflections.

So, I thought “I’ll try to focus on this in my next painting” and to my susprise, focusing on something as boringly technical as this resulted in a much better and more inspired painting than I’d expected. Seeing the painting as a “tech demo” for my own artistic knowledge gave me a reason to make the painting good (including using some digital painting techniques for the sky that I haven’t used in a while and some cloud shading techniques I’d learnt from making a landscape painting a couple of days earlier). It made the painting matter to me. Here’s a detail from the upcoming painting:

A digital and watercolour image showing a cartoon man standing next to a river, with buildings and lights reflected in it.

The full painting will be posted here on the 19th April.

Likewise, after seeing another almost photo-realistic demonstration of two modern game engines running on powerful systems that can use them to their full potential, I became interested in the topic of realistic lighting. Since I had a little bit more time than I’d expected that evening, I decided to put everything I’ve learnt over the past few years about painting light and shadow, about digital image editing etc… into just one painting. To make a painting with the most realistic lighting that I could. To make another “tech demo” painting.

And, because I had a purpose for painting (rather than it just being a part of my daily practice routine), I found that I felt a lot more inspired. The painting not only ended up being a stylised piece of mid-late 2000s nostalgia, but it also led me to experiment with things like using different contrast levels whilst editing the painting and using softer chiaroscuro lighting rather than the more vivid tenebrist lighting that I usually use. Here’s a reduced-size preview of the painting:

An image of a cartoon woman standing in a closed video shop and holding a DVD boxset. Soft light streams through the windows and the back of the shop is shrouded in darkness.

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 22nd April.

So, how can any of this help you feel inspired?

Well, as boring as “tech demo” paintings – where the focus is on technique and/or using everything you’ve already learnt – might sound, they are really useful for feeling inspired and motivated again for at least two reasons.

The first is that it gives you something to focus on and this will automatically give you some instant ideas. For example, if you want to practice or show off everything you’ve learnt about painting reflections, then you’ll need to include a reflective surface (eg: water, a mirror etc..) in your painting. After all, how can you practice painting reflections if there’s nothing reflective? So, you’ve already got part of an idea for your next painting.

Likewise, since the focus is on making one aspect of the painting look good, the rest doesn’t matter as much. For example, in the two paintings I showed you, the backgrounds are actually just generic towns and buildings. They are about the most uninspired and uncreative backgrounds in the world. Yet, I still felt motived and inspired whilst making these paintings because I was focusing a lot more on the reflections and lighting than on interesting backgrounds.

Secondly, it gives your art a purpose and makes you take pride in your work. If you’re feeling uninspired, it can often be because making art either feels like a chore or because it feels meaningless. So, making a painting where the goal is to impress yourself (or possibly other people too) with everything that you’ve learnt about things like lighting, reflections etc… can solve both of these problems. It also pushes you to experiment with new and interesting techniques and ideas (or combinations of stuff you already know) which makes the painting feel more like actual learning and practice rather than just “practice”.

So, if you’re feeling uninspired and you’ve already been practicing art for a while, try making a “tech demo” painting to show off what you already know about one aspect of making art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Difficult Computer Games Are Good For Your Creativity

Although I’ve almost certainly talked about this before, I thought that I’d look at why difficult computer games are good for your creativity – since, although I’m not sure when or if I’ll review either of these games, I’ve occasionally been playing two games that – whilst very different from each other – have one important thing in common.

I am, of course, talking about “Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure” (1992) and “Devil Daggers” (2016). And, yes, these two games have more in common than you might think – even if it might not seem like it at first glance:

Two images beside each other. One is from a bright, cartoonish 2D platform game showing an adorable alien creature in a forest. The other is from a first person shooter game, showing a hand pointing towards darkness, skulls and blood. The text below them reads "And, yes, these games have more in common than you might think. Let's talk about difficulty, practice and failure"

Screenshots from “Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure” (1992) and “Devil Daggers” (2016), two surprisingly similar games.

Even though both game look very different from each other and are in different genres, they handle difficulty in the same way 🙂 In both games, there is no “easy” mode and you can expect to fail very very often. But, far from being a flaw, this is actually part of the fun.

In order to make any progress, you have to practice playing them. You have to persevere. When you start a new game or a new level, there is an extremely high chance that you won’t make it to the other end. But, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting a little bit further than you did last time and then doing this enough times that it becomes second-nature to you, allowing you to gradually make more and more progress. These games are hard. And this is really good for your creativity.

But, why?

Well, you’ve probably guessed already, but it is because they not only teach the importance of practice (which is essential for making art, writing fiction etc…) but – even more importantly – they make you more comfortable with failure. Although failure might sound like the last thing that you should be comfortable with if you want to be an artist, a writer etc… It is an essential part of being these things.

Take a look at your favourite novels, comics, albums, movies etc.. They all exist because of failure. They all exist because, at some point in the past, someone with very little experience or practice wanted to be an artist, writer, musician, film-maker, actor etc… And, the very first time they tried this, they failed. They probably failed the second, third, fourth etc.. I’m sure you get the idea. The important thing was that, after every failure, they picked themselves up and gave it another try. They knew that it might take a lot of failures but, eventually, they would get it right.

All creativity requires determination. It requires failing and then trying again. Not only that, it requires being ok with failing and being willing to experiment. And this is another thing that difficult computer games can teach us. After all, if you fail several times in a row at a computer game, then you’ll usually want to try a slightly different strategy. Even in a game like “Devil Daggers” – where there is no way to “win” – you’ll still want to try different tactics in order to survive for a few seconds longer or get a few more points.

Needless to say, this attitude is also one that you’ll want to take when you’re creating stuff. For example, if your novel seems to have stalled or is going nowhere, then you need to take action and do something different. Whether this involves changing your plans for the story, rewriting part of it or even starting a different novel project, the important thing is to think about what to improve, to do it and – above all- to keep writing.

But, more than all of this, difficult computer games are good for your creativity because they teach you the importance of the process, rather than the goal. Although “winning” is a side-effect of lots of practice, the real fun of a difficult computer game is getting there. It is those many nights where, knowing that you probably won’t win, you play anyway because you want to see how far you will get and because you enjoy the experience of the game itself. And if you take this attitude towards your writing practice, art practice etc… then it’ll be a lot less of a chore.

Of course, the massive irony of all of this is that time spent getting better at playing challenging computer games is probably time you could be spending practicing your writing, art etc… Still, if you want to develop a better attitude towards learning a creative skill, then try playing some fiendishly difficult computer games. Just not for too long though.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why First Novels Aren’t Publishable – A Ramble

Well, although I’d planned to write about the horror genre, I thought that I’d talk about first novels today.

This is mostly because, during the 2-3 months before preparing this article, I tried to write my first proper full-length novel ( apart from this old thing. Although that was technically a novella, still it felt like a novel at the time. But, I digress…).

And, yes, the full-length novel project was a horror novel. Well, technically, it was a post-apocalyptic alternate history dark comedy heavy metal zombie thriller with romance elements. But, “horror novel” is shorter.

Anyway, I ended up with a finished 63-chapter, 54,800-word second draft. But, after trying to improve the first draft for a couple of weeks, I realised that it wasn’t even close to publishable quality.

It was a hell of a lot of fun to write, but after looking over it for a couple of weeks, I noticed so many faults and flaws (eg: unresolved plot points, crappy pacing, cardboard characters, bland dialogue, a confusingly non-linear timeline, very bland/repetitive narration in some parts etc..) that even the most extensive editing probably wouldn’t salvage the thing.

Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t something I thought was worth splashing out on a proper editor for or spending time trying to get published. Yes, I was amazed that I actually wrote the thing, but I didn’t have the confidence in it that I’d expected.

This, of course, made me think of the classic writing advice about first novels. You know, the one about how they are never publishable. Of course, like I did, you’ll think that you’re the exception to the rule. That the manuscript that you’ve spent months on will break this gloomy, miserable rule. Well, after testing this rule out for myself, I thought that I’d offer some explanation for why people say this about first novels.

But, let me say this right now, your first novel isn’t a “waste of time”. Even if you are the only person to ever read the whole thing, it isn’t a waste of time!

Your first novel is a way to practice writing a full-length novel. It is there to show you that you can write a novel (seriously, actually finishing it is a real confidence boost 🙂 ) and, more importantly, to show you what you need to improve for your second novel.

I cannot stress the importance of this second point enough! Your first novel is a way of revealing things about your writing that you might not have known before you wrote it. It is there to teach you what you need to do differently in your second novel. It is a dry run, a test, a practice project. When it fails, that failure shows you how not to fail the next time.

After all, if you were trying to learn any other skill, then you wouldn’t expect instant perfection. You wouldn’t expect your first cookery project, musical performance, online multiplayer match, craft project etc… to be the pinnacle of perfection. So, why is it any different with novels? With all of these things, you need to fail and learn from it before you become good at it.

You also need to do your research in order to know how and why you’ve failed. In the case of writing, this mostly involves reading lots of other novels. When you read a lot, you’ll compare your first novel to the books you’re reading and, chances are, you’ll think “It isn’t as good as them“. The trick is to ask yourself why. Is it the characterisation? The writing style? The pacing? The structure?

If you do this, rather than just thinking “I’ll never be as good as these other writers“, then your unpublishable first novel won’t be a waste of time. It will be an important step on the path towards your second novel. After all, you can’t write a better second novel without writing a bad first novel beforehand.

So, yes, your first novel is important. It is very, very important. Because it won’t be good enough to publish, not despite it. If you’ve actually finished your first novel, you are already better at writing novels than most so-called writers. If you think “I can do better next time”, then you probably will.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Art Practice Works! – A Ramble

If you’re new to making art, then it can be easy to feel discouraged. After all, even if you practice regularly, then it can sometimes be difficult to see improvements on a day-to-day basis. But, even though your improvements might be very gradual, you will get better at making art if you keep practicing.

When preparing a remake of an old painting of mine the night before I wrote this article, I was reminded of an amazing quote (from this page) by the webcomic creator Winston Rowntree. Rowntree’s quote is: “Practice is weird: pyhsically, you just do what you’ve always done, except one day you notice it’s resulting in far better artwork.

Never have truer words been spoken!

Anyway, the painting that I had decided to remake was an old painting of mine from 2016. It’s one of my favourite paintings from that year and I’d finally got the push to remake it after realising that I felt too uninspired to think of a good idea for a new painting.

Still, as I began to sketch out my new version of it, I initally started to worry that it wouldn’t look as good as the original. But, as the painting progressed, I suddenly realised how much I’d learnt over the past 1-2 years of daily practice.

I realised how my experiments with limited colour palettes (red, yellow, green, blue and black in this case) in late 2015/early 2016 had – along with some other inspirations – led to the eventual discovery of my current colour palette.

I realised that, 1-2 years ago, I didn’t know some of the digital image editing techniques (eg: for adding rain effects, realistic shading etc..) I use regularly these days. I realised how much the lighting in my art had improved over the past 1-2 years. Here’s a reduced-size preview of the new version of the painting:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] This is the result of 1-2 years of daily art practice.

So, yes, art practice works. You won’t actually notice improvements happening literally every day, but every extra piece of art that you make will make you a slightly confident and better. And this builds up over time!

One way to think of art practice is that it is like a stalagmite in an underground cave. Whilst an individual droplet of water might not look like it is doing anything to the stalagmite – over time, the mineral deposits from lots of water droplets can result in a really impressive-looking stalagmite.

Yes, art practice can feel more like a marathon than a sprint, but it is important to keep going. Once you’ve been practicing for a while, then even an uninspired painting that you make on a bad day will still look better than the “good” paintings that you made a few months or years ago.

Likewise, your art can also improve in slightly strange ways too. For example, the bulk of the improvements in the comparison I showed you earlier weren’t to the actual drawing itself but to surrounding things like the lighting, colours and shading. So, if it looks like regular practice isn’t improving one part of your art much, then it usually means that another part of your art is improving instead.

But, in summary, regular practice works! It might not work quickly, but it certainly works!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why The Old Adage About “It’s Not The Winning That Matters” Applies To Regular Art Practice

2017-artwork-regular-art-practice-taking-part

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably heard the saying “it’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part that counts” whenever you did anything vaguely competitive. Although some hyper-competitive people might question the wisdom of this saying, it’s actually a surprisingly good thing to remember when you are doing art practice.

If you are practicing art regularly, then you probably aren’t going to produce masterpieces every day or every week or whenever. You’re going to have days when you feel uninspired, days when you aren’t in a great mood and days when you are tired.

If at all possible, you should still do art practice on these days – even if the end result looks like this digitally-edited painting of mine that will be posted here in late July:

 This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 31st July.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 31st July.

But, even though this “failed” painting is kind of random – it was more than just a waste of time. Whilst making it, I decided to experiment with a technique called “foreshortening“, which is why the woman’s right arm looks so tiny. This is a perspective trick where, when someone reaches towards the audience, their arms look shorter and wider in order to mimic how this looks in real life.

If I’d actually bothered to look at some reference pictures, I might have done a better job at using the technique. But, although it wasn’t perfect, it looked at least mildly better than I had expected it to. And it looked a hundred times better than if I’d never done any practice that day at all.

The thing to remember about regular art practice is that it’s more about getting used to making art and about learning how to make art even when you aren’t feeling “inspired”. It’s more about being able to fail, to move on from that failure and learn from it. It’s more about trying out any of your ideas that begin with “I wonder if I can draw this…” or “I wonder if I can paint this…“.

Regular art practice is more about learning techniques you can use to make your art look better, even when you aren’t having a good day (eg: the ‘terrible’ picture I showed you earlier is probably still better than any ‘good’ picture I could make 3-5 years ago). Regular art practice is about building up the confidence to be able to make art “whatever the weather”. It’s about building up the confidence to call yourself an “artist”.

It’s also more about learning to avoid perfectionism and to actually finish paintings. Regular art practice is about learning how to make your art more efficiently, in order to get it done within the time you’ve set aside for art practice.

Regular art practice It isn’t about producing masterpieces every day.

Yes, this is something to aim towards and – when you’ve been practicing for a while – your current “mediocre” artwork will probably look amazing when compared to your old artwork. But, if you go into your daily practice expecting to “win” every time – then you’re probably not going to practice very often. You’ll either be too overwhelmed with disappointment or too frozen by perfectionism to actually do the practice you need to do in order to make good art.

In other words, regular art practice is more about the “taking part” than it is about the “winning”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Starting A Webcomic? Remember, No-One Starts Out Good At It

2017 Artwork Even the best webcomics started out badly

If you’re new to making webcomics, then it can be very easy to look at the webcomics that have inspired you to start making your own and feel discouraged. After all, you might think that the art looks ten times better than anything you can make and the writing makes yours look terrible.

Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal! In fact, the people who made the very webcomics that inspired you probably thought exactly the same thing when they were starting out. Being terrible at making webcomics is a phase that literally every webcomic creator has to go through.

I’m hardly the first person to point this fact out, but you can see evidence of this yourself by comparing the both the very first and the very latest updates from your favourite long-running webcomic.

One will look terrible (and will probably be badly-written too), the other will look and read significantly better. If both look good, then all this means is that the comic creator in question is hiding their really early stuff.

The best way to think about making a webcomic is that it’s a bit like playing an old-school RPG game. When you start playing, your character is at level one and has no experience or skills, but through repeated, regular activity – you’ll gain experience and your character’s skill level will increase. Like in an old RPG game, you might start out as a weak character – but, after playing the game regularly for a while, you’ll become an absolute badass.

However, if you give up early because you don’t think that your webcomic is very good, then you’ll never gain the practice, knowledge or experience that you need in order to make better webcomics. The format itself will help you with this for the simple reason that webcomics are traditionally meant to be updated regularly (but, beware of comics burnout – it’s why I only make comics occasionally these days, even though I still do daily art practice), so it’s a good incentive to get lots of comic-making practice

Likewise, don’t expect instant improvement. Webcomic improvements are the kind of subtle, gradual things that you’ll probably only notice when you look back on your comics from several years earlier.

To use a personal example, here’s what my occasional long-running webcomic series looked like in 2012 (I technically started posting webcomics online in 2010, but only started my current occasional comic in 2011/ 2012):

"Damania - Haunted" By C. A. Brown [16th October 2012]

“Damania – Haunted” By C. A. Brown [16th October 2012]

And here’s another comic update from a mini series that I posted here earlier this year ( as the first part of a trilogy that also includes this mini series and this one). This is after 4-5 years of daily art practice and occasional comic practice:

“Damania Retrofuturistic – Time Police” By C. A. Brown

So, how do you keep going even when your webcomics look terrible and are badly-written? Well, if you actually need to ask, then you’re possibly not quite ready to start making webcomics yet.

You keep going even when your webcomic looks like crap because you’re actually making webcomics. Because the idea of actually posting a webcomic (however bad) online seems ten times cooler than the idea of not posting a webcomic online.

In other words, the thing that will carry you through the crappy earlier phases of your webcomic is your enthusiasm for the medium itself. If you don’t have this enthusiasm, then wait until you do before you start making webcomics.

This enthusiasm will also carry you through days when you are feeling uninspired or dispirited. It will also carry you through the inevitable times when making comics feels more like a chore than anything else. It’ll help you to fight uninspiration, rather than give in to it. And, most importantly of all, it will make you keep making comics even when they look crappy.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Simple Ways To Chart Your Artistic Progress – Past And Future.

2017 Artwork Artistic Progress article sketch

If you’re practicing making art on a regular basis, then it can be very easy to lose track of time and/or to feel like you aren’t progressing. After all, when you’re practicing regularly, you’ll rarely see day-to-day improvements or even have a clue how good your art might be in the future if you keep practicing.

So, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to chart both your past and future artistic progress.

1) Regular remakes: One of the easiest ways to chart your past artistic progress is to choose one significant painting or drawing (either due to it’s quality or when it was made) and to make a new version of it every year or so.

Like this little gallery of all of the versions of the first picture I made when I decided to practice making art regularly. I’ve posted one of these online on the 17th April every year since I started getting into art again (and, yes, the gallery contains a preview of this year’s one):

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Since I make my art quite far in advance of publication, the annual schedule has been messed up slightly in recent years

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Since I make my art quite far in advance of publication, the annual schedule has been messed up slightly in recent years

Even if you’re having a bad day when you make the new version of this picture, then it will probably still look better than the old versions for the simple reason that you’ve had an extra year of experience and knowledge. This, incidentally, will also show you what you’ve learnt and how your art style has changed over the past few years.

This is extra noticeable if you, say, remake a picture once every two years or so. The only problem with this approach is that, when you see how terrible your old pictures look when compared to your new ones – you might be worried that your new painting won’t look good in the future. It won’t, but this won’t matter, because you’ll be an even better artist!

2) The art that inspires you: One easy way to see what your art might look like in the future (if you keep practicing) is to take a look at the things that really inspire you. If you aren’t sure what these are, then either take a look at your own art and see if it’s been influenced by anything or just ask yourself “what types of art, movies, comics etc.. do I think are really cool 🙂

Generally, if you see something cool, then it’s probably going to have an effect on your art. You’re probably going to try to learn from it, or use similar techniques in your own art. It’s probably going to shape what you choose to learn and what you choose to practice.

As such, it can be a great way to get a sneak peek at parts of your artistic future and/or a way to consciously shape that future.

3) Intervals: If you’re making drawings or paintings regularly, then it can be very easy to feel like it’s one long, endless, continuous thing. This can get fairly dispiriting and it can reduce any sense of progression or accomplishment you might feel. So, split your practice up into longer segments that can be “finished” at similar intervals.

If you’re making art traditionally, then this is fairly easy to do. After all, if you fill one or two sketchbook pages with art every day then – for example- you’re going to get through a 48-page sketchbook in about a month or so. You’ll have a completed sketchbook, which you can mark with the time and date that you finished it.

If you’re making or editing art digitally, then doing something similar can be a bit more complicated – but you can do things like putting time and date information in the file names of your artwork (eg: with mine, I usually put the date it’ll be posted here in the file name) , starting a new art folder every month etc…

If you split your collection of practice artwork up into time-based segments, then this will help you to avoid the feeling of just adding to a continuous, never-ending collection of art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂