Simplification And Storytelling – A Ramble

Although this is an article about simplicity and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows for quite a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up watching an episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles” on TV. Although I’m more of a fan of both the original “NCIS” and the “NCIS:New Orleans” spin-off, seeing yet another version of this long-running American detective series reminded me of one rather interesting storytelling technique that all versions of the show use.

In short, the series deliberately simplifies a lot of things. Each version of “NCIS” usually only has about five or six detectives. There’s a leader, 2-3 computer/science experts and 2-3 “ordinary” detectives. Of course, this is somewhat unrealistic.

Given the sheer number of complex cases that they often find themselves solving, the idea that a small team of detectives could actually do all of this stuff (let alone solve each case within a day or two) is absolutely preposterous. Yet, in dramatic terms, it works.

In fact, a more “realistic” version of the show (featuring a larger team of detectives spending weeks or months on each case) would probably be somewhat boring to watch. By narrowing the focus to just a small group of detectives, the show allows for deeper characterisation. In addition to this, it also allows the detectives to be more like a (hilariously dysfunctional) family – which makes the show more compelling to watch.

Likewise, by simplifying the process of solving crimes (eg: through coincidences, dystopian levels of surveillance, a borderline disregard for proper legal procedures and the use of forensic technology that borders on science fiction), the show is able to make each case a lot more thrillingly dramatic.

After all, showing the characters spending days filling out paperwork, applying for warrants, waiting for lab results etc.. is much less dramatic than lots of thrilling chases, futuristic lab montages and melodramatic interrogations.

In addition to all of this, the show rarely shows the consequences of solving each case. Once the detectives have worked out who is guilty, the episode swiftly ends. There’s no focus on how well their evidence would actually stand up in court, or even what the verdict or sentence is. But, by just focusing on the detection itself, the show is able to be a lot more compelling – even if it presents a somewhat simplified version of what I imagine the job of a detective actually involves.

Plus, in the original “NCIS”, the set-up for virtually every episode is usually the same. Basically, almost every episode starts with a random passer-by discovering a dead body and NCIS being called in to solve the case.

Although this simplified introduction should get boringly repetitive, it never does. Why? Because it merely serves as quick way to give the characters a reason to solve a bewildering case. This simplicity allows the repetitious nature of these scenes to be ignored or overlooked easily, in favour of the rest of the episode’s story.

So, what was the point of all of this?

Simply put, simplicity isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to storytelling. Audiences are willing to overlook a certain level of simplification if it makes the story more interesting, compelling and/or dramatic. In other words, there’s often such a thing as too much realism.

In addition to this, choosing what to simplify can have a huge effect on the tone and style of your story. For example, “NCIS” is a thrilling detective show because it simplifies other elements of the detectives’ jobs in order to focus more on comedic dialogue, likeable characters, thrilling chases, dramatic discoveries and melodramatic interrogations. If it didn’t do this, it would be a very different show.

Likewise, a certain level of simplification can also help new members of the audience too. After all, despite only having watched a few random episodes of “NCIS: Los Angeles” in the past, I was still able to enjoy the one I watched before writing this article because it told a self-contained story featuring a small number of main characters (each of whom had a distinctive personality). If the show was more nuanced, complex or realistic – then it would be a lot harder for a new viewer to just enjoy a random episode.

So, yes, “simple” isn’t always a bad word when it comes to storytelling.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Artistic Sophistication Isn’t Everything – A Ramble

For today, I thought that I’d talk about artistic sophistication (eg: realism, detail etc…) and why it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of being an artist. But, first, I thought that I’d illustrate what I’m talking about with a technology-based metaphor. If you aren’t interested in this, then skip the next two paragraphs.

A couple of days before writing this article, I ended up watching some Youtube videos about the history of handheld video game consoles, which contained an interesting fact (that anyone who grew up in the 1990s will know already). The Nintendo Game Boy vastly outsold the Sega Game Gear. If you had a handheld console in 1990s Britian, it was almost certainly a Game Boy. Yet, the Game Boy was considerably less sophisticated than the Game Gear.

The Game Gear had all sorts of impressive features like a full-colour screen, a cool-looking ergonomic design etc.. and the original Game Boy was a grey brick with a puke green low-resolution monochrome screen. Yet, the Game Boy was king. Why? It was cheaper, it was there first, it was incredibly reliable, the batteries lasted for ages and it was probably easier for companies to program games for it.

So, what does any of this have to do with art?

Well, everything.

For starters, one way to build an audience for your art is to produce it regularly and post it online regularly. Making art on a regular basis usually means that your art will be less detailed than it might be if you, say, spend several days or weeks on a single painting. For example, here’s a preview of one of the digitally-edited paintings for next month’s daily art posts:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 20th May.

It certainly isn’t my best or most inspired painting, but it isn’t my worst either. Yes, the background looks undetailed and it isn’t as good as paintings that I’ve made on more inspired days – like this one:

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

But, this doesn’t matter because it’s a daily painting. If I have a mediocre day, then there’s a chance that the next day’s painting will be better. Likewise, making art every day means that you have to learn how to get over feeling uninspired as quickly as possible (which increases your artistic confidence). It means that you have to learn how to make interesting-looking art efficiently. It also means that your audience has a good reason to look at your site or blog on a regular basis too.

A good example of this sort of thing can be seen in regularly-updated webcomics and syndicated newspaper cartoons. Most of the time, these cartoons don’t include hyper-detailed art. Compared to the comic books and graphic novels you might see in a bookshop, they look incredibly primitive. Yet, they have a much larger audience for the simple reason that they can be made quickly, published very regularly and read quickly.

Moving on to another subject, the “sophistication isn’t everything” rule also applies to the art supplies that you use. If you buy expensive art supplies, then you’re probably going to be more hesitant about using them (which means that you’ll practice and experiment less). If you buy expensive art supplies, then you’ll probably have less of them. If you buy expensive art supplies, then you might set yourself up for disappointment by forgetting that practice and skill are the really important factors behind making good art.

This even applies to digital tools too. For example, the program that I use for a fair amount of my image editing is an old one from 1999 called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6”. Many of the useful features in this program can also be found in a free open-source program called “GIMP” (GNU Image Manipulation Program). These programs are easier to learn and use for the simple reason that they contain fewer ultra-complex features. This means that it’s easier to feel confident when using them, and it means that doing what you want to do with them is often a lot quicker too.

So, yes, sophistication isn’t everything. If anything, too much sophistication and complexity can actually be a hinderance.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why “Modern Art” Paintings Aren’t As Easy As They Look – A Ramble

2017-artwork-why-are-modern-art-paintings-more-difficult-than-they-look

Although I’m busy preparing this year’s Christmas comics at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about “modern art” today.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that I’m only talking about paintings and not about things like *ugh* conceptual art. In particular, I’m talking about the kind of early-mid 20th century paintings that usually get labelled as “modern art”, despite being slightly on the older side.

These are paintings from genres and movements like expressionism, the abstract genre, fauvism, cubism etc… One thing that many of these paintings have in common is that they’re often slightly on the minimalist side and this can often lead people to think that they’re “lazy” paintings that anyone could make in five minutes. I used to think something similar, until I put it to the test.

The day before I wrote this article, I wanted to make a quick painting to fill a gap in my art schedule before I could start my Christmas comics.

Since I’d seen a rather cool-looking expressionist painting from 1912 called “The Tiger” by Franz Marc a while earlier and had noticed that the painting was out of copyright (under both European and American copyright law), I thought that it would be a rather interesting thing to make a quick study of.

Franz Marc’s painting looked like it should be an easy painting to recreate. After all, the whole thing is a collection of geometric shapes. It’s like a low-resolution 3D model from a computer game made during the early 1990s. Seriously, it wouldn’t look out of place in “Alone In The Dark“. So, it should be pretty easy to create a study of it, right?

Wrong. It probably took me slightly longer to recreate a second-rate copy of this picture than it would have taken me to make a good original painting. If you don’t believe me about the “second-rate” thing, here’s a reduced-size preview of my recreation (which really doesn’t look as good as Franz Marc’s original):

This is a reduced-size preview of my recreation of Franz Marc’s “The Tiger” (1912). The full-size painting will appear here on the 18th December.

Although it probably took me less time to make my study than it took for Franz Marc to make the original, I still had to carefully judge the size, proportion and relative position of each “polygon” whilst sketching the picture (which is something I got wrong a few times). Compared to copying a more realistic historical painting (where there’s a lot more room for slight errors etc..), it was far more complex than it appeared to be at first!

Likewise, I had to “decipher” the painting whilst I was copying it and work out why various shapes ended up in the position that they did. For example, the two things sticking out of the lower half of the tiger are (probably) supposed to be it’s tail and one of it’s legs. Once you’ve noticed this, it seems really obvious – but it can take a while to figure out what these parts of the painting actually are.

No doubt that when Franz Marc was actually making this painting, this process was probably ten times more complicated. I mean, he had to work out a way to paint something as complex as a tiger using relatively few cleverly-placed lines, colours and shapes. This painting probably took longer to make than a more “realistic” painting of a tiger (which could just be painted from life if there was a museum or a zoo nearby) would.

Like with pixel art in old computer/video games, a lot of classic “modern art” paintings were probably more difficult to make than than they look for the simple reason that the audience rarely sees the complex process of distilling something complex and realistic into a relatively small number of shapes. Or, the imagination and skill required to turn a realistic image into an interestingly unrealistic one. Or, in the case of abstract art, making a combination of random shapes etc… that still look visually interesting, despite having no obvious meaning.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Simplicity, Efficiency And Creativity – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Simplicity and efficiency article sketch

Although this is an article about creating art, comics, fiction etc… I’m going to have to start by talking about old computer games for three paragraphs. As usual, there’s (sort of) a reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

The day before I wrote this article, I started playing a set of new fan-made levels (called “Death Wish”) for an old computer game called “Blood“. Although I’ll probably post a review of these levels when I’ve played more of them, I had a rather strange experience when installing the levels.

Many old games by certain developers have had their underlying source code released to the public, so that people can create free programs that allow them to run on modern computers. One of these games is ID Software’s “Doom”/ “Doom II”, which now has a plethora of programs (called “source ports”) that both enhance the game and allow it to run on 2000s and 2010s-era computers. These source ports also make installing and playing fan-made levels for “Doom”, “Doom II” etc.. really easy too.

But, even though other games with similar underlying code to “Blood” (eg: “Build Engine” games like “Duke Nukem 3D”) have had source ports released, the exact source code for “Blood” was never released, which made installing the fan made levels about ten times more difficult than it should be. It took a lot of online research, experimentation and trial and error to get this set of levels to run properly.

This, naturally, made me wonder if my experience with installing these computer game levels could teach us anything about creating art, comics etc… I’ll start by looking at it from the side of the person who creates these things and then I’ll look at it from the audience’s side.

If you create art, make comics or write fiction regularly, then you probably have your own set of routines that you follow. Your art style probably follows certain “rules”, you probably make preliminary pencil sketches in a particular way, your story or comic planning is usually done in a particular format etc…

Most of the time, these ‘routines’ and ‘rules’ evolve of their own accord because they make the process of writing, making art etc.. easier and quicker. They might also evolve because they allow you to produce better things with less effort. But, if you do anything creative regularly, you will probably find that you’ll fall into a routine and, gradually, your routine will make things easier for you.

Despite what people might say, these routines are a good thing- provided that you’re willing to let them evolve over time. To give you an example, the current standard size for most of my digtally-edited paintings is about 18×18 cm these days, with 1.5 cm black borders at the top and the bottom of each picture. Like this:

"Duty Free 1996" By C. A. Brown

“Duty Free 1996” By C. A. Brown

The borders help me to make a “landscape” picture in a square-like area (which displays at a larger size when the image size is automatically-adjusted on websites), they give the painting a “cinematic” look and they also give the impression that I’ve made a larger painting than I actually have (which saves time, since I only have to fill an 18 x 15 cm area with detailed artwork).

But, when I started making art regularly in 2012, my pictures didn’t use this format. In fact, it wasn’t until early this year that I eventually settled on this particular format. If I’d have stuck rigidly with my original format, rather than letting it evolve, all my pictures would still be small rectangular Tarot-card sized things. My current format may well end up changing again in the future, but it’s a good illustration of the fact that you should let your routines and ‘rules’ evolve over time.

This evolutionary procress can also be seen in the computer game “source ports” that I mentioned earlier. Because the people developing these programs are making them non-commercially, they will only usually alter or change the program when there is a good practical reason for doing so (eg: allowing higher screen resolutions, making fan-made levels easier to load, allowing modern control schemes to be used etc…).

As such, a newer version of a ‘Doom II’ source port like “ZDoom” is considerably more user-friendly and efficient than one from 10-15 years ago. This is a great example of creative evolution in action.

From the audience’s perspective, stories, comics and artwork that are “easily accessible” are generally a lot more enjoyable. If you can just jump right into a novel or a comic, then it’s a lot more fun and a lot more inviting. However, if you have to read several other things first, or study a particular type of art first etc… then this can be very off-putting to many people.

This is one reason why webcomics, graphic novels and manga are often a lot more popular than traditional American superhero comics. With many webcomics, you can just start reading them from any point in the comic’s run. Many graphic novels are also self-contained things that tell a single story. Likewise, with the relatively few manga paperbacks I’ve read, each book in a series is clearly numbered, so you know where to start and where to finish.

Manga paperbacks also always include a clear instruction page for how to read comics that have a Japanese-style layout. This is usually placed in the part of the book that new readers will instinctively look at first (eg: the front of the book), which helps to reduce confusion for new readers.

However, one thing that has always seemed a bit off-putting about superhero comics is the fact that you apparently have to have memorised a lot of history, characters and/or “mythology” in order to enjoy a particular comic. Likewise, many superhero comics are often sequels to other comics which can, in turn, be sequels to even older comics. Given that some of the major superhero franchises began decades ago, getting into superhero comics obviously isn’t really practical, cheap or easy for most new readers. No wonder their readership is declining!

Another good example is Lee Child’s series of “Jack Reacher” novels. Although there must be over twenty of these novels, one of the reasons why they have such a huge readership is because each novel can be read on it’s own. In other words, they’re written in a way that doesn’t require you to read them in order (even if one novel might take place after the events of another novel). This allows new readers to jump in at any point in the series, without having to worry about finding the previous novels first.

So, whenever you’re creating something, simplicity and efficiency are two words that you should always think about. Not only should your creative works be as efficient to make as possible, but they should also be as simple as possible for your audience to get into.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Is Simple Art Better Than Complex Art?

Yay! It's a retro 1990s "Game Boy"-style drawing :)

Yay! It’s a retro 1990s “Game Boy”-style drawing 🙂

For today, I thought that I’d look at whether simple art is better to make than complex art. This is one of those subjects where there aren’t really any “right” or “wrong” answers, just lots of different opinions.

But, that said, I make a lot of simple art and I think that it’s pretty awesome – so, I guess I should probably explain why……

For starters, simple art can be made fairly quickly and spontaneously. I’ve written about this whole topic in a lot more detail before but it only usually takes me between 30-120 minutes to finish a painting or a drawing because, amongst other things, I keep my art fairly simple.

What this means is that I can produce a lot of art in a relatively short amount of time, which – amongst other things – also means that I get to practice a lot more too.

Another reason why simple art is so awesome is because it focuses almost entirely on what is important about a picture or a scene. Yes, you can spend days adding lots of fine detail to a single picture, but most of your audience is probably only going to notice the most prominent parts of your picture when they look at it.

Ok, a few of them might take a closer look at all of the detail you’ve put into it, but most of them will probably just look at the entire picture for a few seconds and only notice the important parts.

As such, making simpler art that pretty much only includes the important parts of a picture and gives the illusion of detail in the rest of the picture (eg: using a lot of jagged lines in the background to represent a forest in the distance) means that you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and effort.

Yes, a small portion of your audience may find the lack of genuine detail to be annoying, but most people who look at your picture probably won’t even notice. In other words, it’s easy to fool people into thinking that you’re a better artist than you actually are if you make simpler art.

Yet another reason why simpler art is so brilliant is because it’s absolutely perfect for things like comics and webcomics. Although I don’t make nearly as many of these as I used to, they were one of the things which made me keep my art style relatively simple. Why?

Well, it all comes down to time and consistency. For starters, drawing a comic page will take you longer than making a “normal” drawing or “painting” for the simple reason that you’ll usually be drawing about 2-12 small pictures per page rather than one large one.

As such, keeping your art relatively simple means that you will still be able to produce your comic at a reasonable rate – which is important if you’re working to a schedule (eg: you’ve got a webcomic that is updated 3-7 times per week).

Not only that, using simpler art in your comic helps you to keep your art fairly consistent too. Because you will probably be re-drawing the same characters and settings again and again in your comic, keeping your art fairly simple means that it’s easier to make sure that everything and everyone looks like they’re supposed to in every panel.

One of the only downsides of making simple art is that you’ll probably get some criticism if you become successful. I mean, we’ve all seen at least one famous book series (like the “Purple Ronnie” books or those books by Edward Monkton) which has ridiculously simple art – and I can guess that your first reaction to them was almost certainly something like: “How the hell is this so famous? I could make better art than that when I was seven!

However, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think. If you’re making a webcomic, then your audience will have lower expectations about your art than you might think (so it’s easier to impress them). But, if you’re making a book or anything like that and you’re using really simple art, then make sure that the writing is good! If the writing is good and interesting enough, it’ll distract people from your simple illustrations.

The only reason that you’ll probably get “I could have done better than that!” comments is if the main focus of your book or comic is on the simple art. But if your simple art is just there to accompany, illustrate or enhance the writing then people are much less likely to criticise it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Simple Word Processors Are Awesome

2014 Artwork Simple Word Processors Are Amazing sketch

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading BBC News when I stumbled across an article about my current favourite writer (yes, G. R. R. Martin again). Anyway, the article pointed out that whenever he writes, he uses a separate offline computer which runs an old DOS-based Word Processor from the 1980s/1990s. Wow! Yet again, I stand in awe of him 🙂

Although I’m something of a retro traditionalist when it comes to computer games and computer technology and I usually like to stay at least a few years behind the times, I’m unfortunately more of a Windows user than a DOS user (although I remember loading games in DOS when I was a kid). Even so, this article got me thinking about simplicity and word processing software in general.

In fact, until I was about twenty (back when I used to write more fiction than non-fiction), I always used to handwrite my stories before I typed them.

Trust me, an old-fashioned notepad is the ultimate portable word-processor and it can probably even put most of these newfangled tablet computers to shame in terms of ease of use and reliability – however, it’s more trouble than it’s worth when it comes to writing anything longer than about 2000 words.

Unless you have an assistant or a secretary who can type up your handwritten drafts for you, it more than doubles the length of the writing process. This is something I learnt when I wrote my first longer short story (a 6000-word sci-fi/thriller story I wrote in late 2008/early 2009 called “Trentport West”), which was also coincidentally the last time I wrote out my stories by hand.

But, there are three good things that I miss from writing everything by hand. First of all, it forces you to edit everything when you type it up – back when I was handwriting my stories, I’d do all of my editing during typing up my stories. So, once it was typed, it was done. This is probably still why I’m reluctant to edit things.

Secondly, there weren’t really any distractions. Yes, I could still procrastinate when I got to a difficult part of whatever I was writing – but this was an active effort, I had to put down my notebook and walk a few paces over to my computer. With any kind of word processing software, procrastination is just a click away.

But, on the flip side, the easy access to a billion wonderful forms of internet procrastination and various computer games means that I have to restrict myself to writing things that are interesting enough to stop me procrastination. So, procrastination isn’t an entirely bad thing.

Thirdly, it gave me an instant backup copy of whatever I was writing. Yes, these days, I tend to make backups every couple of days at the least and posting things to the internet is also another backup of sorts. But, in 2010, I experienced a rather severe computer crash and lost most of my data. Whilst this meant that I only have a few scant printouts of many of the stories I typed in 2008-2010, it also means that I don’t have to worry about anything I wrote from 2000-2008, since I’ve still got the original notebooks that I wrote these stories in.

Anyway, these days, I do almost all of my (mostly non-fiction) writing on a computer and I’ve discovered the joy of using simple word processing programs. You see, until I started this blog, I almost always used to use either an old version of MS Word (on the computer I owned from 2001 (?) to 2006) and either Star Office or Open Office on this computer. But, for some reason, something always felt slightly off about these programs.

However, when I started writing something literally every day for this blog, I quickly switched over to using WordPad version 5.1 and I’ve never looked back since.

In case you’ve never used it before, WordPad 5.1 is a bare-bones word processor that comes with Windows XP. You can change the fonts and font sizes that you use (although I mostly just use 10-point Arial, because it’s easier to read and doesn’t look as “writerly” as Times New Roman), you can even use bullet points and create bold, italic and underlined text. But that’s about it.

There’s no spell-checker or grammar checker (and I usually just copy my articles into Star Office for things like spell-checking and word counting) and you can’t even save your files as “.doc” or “.docx” files either (the best you can hope for is to save your work as a “.rtf”, which is compatible with almost every computer program imaginable – unlike these other two formats…).

And it’s amazing! I can’t imagine using a better program than WordPad 5.1 for writing in.

Why? Well, it’s just easier to write with for a whole host of reasons – when I click on the “WordPad” icon, it loads up instantly (as opposed to having to wait 30 seconds for Open Office or Star Office to load). There’s also no spell-checker, so I don’t find myself interrupting my writing to right-click on a word literally every time I spell “themselves” or “weird” incorrectly.

But, best of all, WordPad isn’t intimidating.

The “page” that I write on when I type something in a simple program like WordPad is just a white screen which hasn’t been squashed to resemble a piece of A4 paper. As such, when I sit down to write something on WordPad it feels like I’m just scribbling something in an old notepad, writing an e-mail or using a typewriter (and yes, I went through an old-fashioned typewriter phase when I was 19/20).

Without the intimidating feeling of looking at something that looks like a computer printout when I’m typing, I don’t feel any kind of pressure to produce something “perfect”. I can just get on with actually writing what I want to write.

So, if you feel a slight hesitation before you type anything or sitting down to type out a story or a non-fiction piece feels like this intimidatingly large and momentous task, then try using a simpler word-processing program like WordPad instead (you can probably find loads of free/open source simple word processors on the internet, if you don’t use Windows too). Trust me, the results might surprise you….

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂