The Type Of Art Supplies You Use Matters, The Brand Doesn’t – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Art supplies types and brands article

A while before I wrote this article, I was reading the news online when I happened to find this interesting art-related video on BBC News. The video is about an artist called Max Zorn, who creates these amazingly cool pictures of film noir-style cityscapes using nothing more than layered packing tape.

This, of course, made me think about the role that art supplies play in being an artist. Of course, every artist needs materials to work with, but a good artist can create interesting art regardless of the materials that they use.

This isn’t to say that you should work in mediums that you aren’t comfortable with, but that – unless you’re using unusual materials (like packing tape) – your art supplies shouldn’t define you as an artist. In other words, you shouldn’t get too obsessed with art supplies. You should focus more on the skills that you can use with those art supplies. After all, most types of skills are independent of any specific brand (but not type) of art material.

For example, virtually all of my art skills are drawing-based. What this meant is that, before I seriously got into making art, I’d mostly make art using ballpoint pens and/or HB pencils. When I got more interested in making art, I moved on to using inking pens/ rollerball pens, 4H pencils and coloured pencils (and digital tools). When I discovered watercolour pencils in late 2013/early 2014, I now make art using waterproof ink pens, 4H pencils [for planning], watercolour pencils and digital tools.

If the only art supplies I had to work with were a cheap ballpoint pen, an eraser and a generic HB pencil, I could probably still make a vaguely decent drawing. Likewise, if I moved on to using fancy expensive marker pens, then I’d still be able to produce similar-looking art by using my pre-existing drawing skills. Regardless of the quality of my art supplies, as long as they are pens and/or pencils of some kind, then I can use them to make art.

If you look at a lot of art-related videos on the internet, you’ll probably notice that at least a few of them have had donations from art supply companies. Either they’ve been given free materials to review (which are later added to their general art supplies), or they’ve been given free materials with the hope that they’ll be shown off in one of their videos. If not, then they’ll probably have a favourite brand (every artist does) and they’ll probably mention or show it a lot in their videos.

If you’re relatively new to making art, then it can be tempting to think that you’ll be a better artist if you, say, buy one particular brand of markers or use one particular brand of pens or paints. You won’t be. The only way to become a better artist is through practice and learning.

Yes, particular types of art supplies will make your art look different (eg: I now vastly prefer the look of watercolour pencils to that of coloured pencils), but particular brands won’t have that much of an effect. So, if you see a cool-looking art video online that prominently features a particular brand of art material, then ask yourself “what generic type of art material is this?

For example, if you see a cool-looking art video that shows off one brand of watercolour pencil, then the thing you need to look for is “watercolour pencils” – regardless of brand.

For every type of art material, there are many different companies that make the same thing. For example, I can think of at least seven companies that make watercolour pencils. Although the precise nature of the pencils’ colours and quality may vary very slightly, they are all still pencils that turn into watercolour paint when exposed to water.

The important thing is that all of the many brands of watercolour pencils (or any other type of art supply) all require exactly the same skills to use. So, try not to care too much about branding and focus more on building up the skills that will allow you to create great art regardless of what brand of art supplies you happen to be using.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Can Art Skills Atrophy? – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Can Art skills atrophy article sketch

Although this is an article about artistic skills and art practice, I’m going to have to start by talking about my webcomics and about computer games for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Even though my “Damania Reappears” webcomic mini series will be appearing here every night for another week or so, I’ve already got started on the next comic – this will be a horror comedy comic (featuring the characters from my mini series) called “Zombies Again!”. Expect to see it begin about a week and a half before Halloween.

Anyway, when I was making the second page of this comic, I included a call-back to one of my other comics from 2015. This was one of the comics that I made when I got back into making comics occasionally after a long comic hiatus in 2014.

The shocking thing was that when I compared my comic page from 2015 to my one from this year, I noticed that the old comic had much better shading. I took a look at the other B&W comics I’d made this year, and the same was true for them too. I had actually got worse at drawing in black and white, even though most of my art starts out as a B&W drawing before I add paint.

Although, I could explain it by saying that I took more time with the comics I made in 2015 – this didn’t discount the fact that my upcoming Halloween comic contained some fairly basic contrast errors (which I later had to correct in MS Paint after I scanned the relevant pages). These were the kinds of basic mistakes that I just wouldn’t have made in 2015 – since I’d have paid much closer attention to the number and position of blank, shaded and dark areas in each panel.

Of course, back in late 2014 and early-mid 2015, I was absolutely fascinated by black & white drawing. I practiced a lot and considered it to be one of the “coolest” ways to make art.

Then, in late 2015, I discovered the joys of limited palette painting – this had all of the advantages of B&W drawing, but it resulted in even cooler-looking paintings. So, naturally, I started focusing on this instead – in fact, the majority of my more recent paintings use a limited palette of just four watercolour pencils.

I guess that returning to black and white drawing again is sort of like returning to the “basic” version of a computer game after you’ve got completely used to playing a particular fan-made modification for it.

Presciently, I actually had this exact experience shortly before starting my upcoming Halloween comic. I’d been using a mod called “Brutal Doom” for “Doom II” quite often for the past few weeks, only to play a fan-made level that was designed for the original un-modified version of “Doom II”. Suddenly, I found that I wasn’t quite as good at playing a game that I usually consider myself to be fairly good at.

So, have I lost these skills? Is it even possible to lose skills through a lack of practice?

Personally, I’d say probably not. Whilst it is true that skills tend to recede into the background if they aren’t practiced regularly, I’d hardly say that these skills are lost. They might temporarily degrade slightly, but you just need to take some time to re-acquaint yourself with them.

Not to mention that, although you might not instantly be as good as you were – you will still probably be much better than someone who has never practised these skills. After all, you’ll probably still remember something.

To use yet another personal example, I produced relatively little art in 2011. When I finally decided to practice every day in 2012, my art looked fairly similar to my art from 2011. I hadn’t exactly got better, but I didn’t really get any worse either.

Of course, this probably all depends on how long you have spent away from a particular skill – and your reasons for not practicing it. One thing that probably helps with skill retention is to keep practicing related skills whenever possible.

For example, although I’m not as good at black & white drawing as I was last year – my practice at painting and other types of drawing have meant that my actual drawing skills haven’t stagnated or degraded, even though I’m not as good at the techical aspects of creating striking black & white images as I used to be.

Likewise, although I seem to be less eager to write fiction than I was five or six years ago, I was still able to write an interactive story last Halloween within the space of about five days. Although my writing style hadn’t really improved much, the fact that I practice non-fiction writing (eg: these articles) every day, meant that writing large amounts of fiction in a relatively short time didn’t seem like the large task that it might have done if I’d given up writing altogether for the past few years.

Even with other skills, I haven’t lost everything. Whenever I’ve picked up a guitar after years of not practicing, I’ve found that I can still actually remember and play a few of the many things I learnt when I was a teenager (eg: the intro to both Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” and Iron Maiden’s “Fear Of The Dark” seem to be permanantly imprinted onto my brain).

So, if you’re going to be abandoning a particular skill for a while – then it can be a good idea to practice related skills wherever possible. But, even if you don’t, you probably won’t forget everything.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Don’t Make Your Characters Too Good At What They Do

2015 Artwork Don't make your characters too good sketch

Even though this is an article about writing and character design, I’m going to have to spend most of it talking about TV shows. This is mainly because the best example of what I want to talk about here can be found in a particular TV show.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I finished watching the final season of a TV show called “Stargate: Atlantis“. But, this isn’t a review of it (after all, I’ve already posted way more reviews than usual this month), the reason that I’m mentioning it is because of what it can teach us about writing. Or, rather, what one small recurring flaw in an otherwise flawless show can teach us about writing good characters.

In case you’ve never even heard of “Stargate: Atlantis” before, it revolves around a team of soldiers and scientists who live in an island city on another planet in a distant galaxy. They usually end up either exploring the galaxy, fighting villains and/or solving various problems in each episode. It’s a really fun sci-fi show that doesn’t always take itself too seriously. But, again, this isn’t a review of it.

Anyway, if you watch enough episodes of it, you’ll probably start to notice one slight flaw with the characters – they’re slightly too good at what they do. Whenever anything malfunctions, the scientist characters can usually work out a solution in a matter of hours or minutes (when it would probably actually take months or years…) and, regardless of whatever dangerous situation they find themselves in, the military characters can usually fight their way out of it fairly easily.

Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the things that makes the show such a joy to watch (compared to a lot of other, more depressing, TV shows). But, at the same time, it can also ruin any sense of drama or suspense in various scenes.

After all, if you know that the characters will be able to do something impossible without even breaking a sweat, then you don’t really feel that they’re really in any danger.

But, at the same time, there are plenty of other TV shows that feature characters who are extremely skilled at one thing or another and this problem never really seems to affect these shows.

For example, if you watch “Sherlock” then you know that Sherlock is going to solve whatever mystery he encounters, by using his extreme intellect. Likewise, if you watch “Hustle“, then you know that the main characters will almost always succeed at tricking their target- because they’re all excellent con artists.

So, what’s so different about “Stargate: Atlantis” and what can we learn from it?

Well, I think that it has to do with pacing and frequency. It’s perfectly ok to show highly skilled characters doing “impossible” things occasionally, but when it happens repeatedly in a relatively short space of time, then this ruins any sense of drama that can come from this. Why? Because your audience is less surprised by it every time that it happens.

It’s kind of like the old rule about using profanity in fiction. If you include just a few four-letter words in your story, then it will have a lot more of a dramatic impact – for the simple reason that it’s something “out of the ordinary”. But, if literally every other word in your story begins with the letter “F”, then your audience will quickly get bored of it. The same thing applies when it comes to showing your characters doing “impossible” things.

Likewise, it’s usually a good idea to make sure that you show your characters failing at least occasionally. And I mean really failing, not just failing at one thing and then just quickly solving the problem another way. Why? Because this can be one of the best ways to add some suspense to later parts of your story.

After all, if you’ve established the fact that your character won’t always succeed, then your audience will be genuinely curious and/or anxious about whether your character will succeed at solving the next problem that he or she encounters. But if your audience knows in advance that your characters will always succeed, then there’s no suspense whatsoever.

So, remember, don’t make your characters too good at whatever they do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Skills That Artists ( Sort Of ) Learn Without Noticing

2015 Artwork Tangential Skills article sketch

Whilst learning the basics of drawing, shading, painting etc… are all essential things for any artist to learn, there are also a lot of skills that artists just kind of pick up after they’ve been making art regularly for quite a while.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that these are probably things that you’ve noticed before in your own work, so I apologise in advance if I end up stating the obvious a lot in this article.

So, without any further ado, here are a few of the skills that you might have picked up without realising it if you’ve been making art for a while.

1) Fashion design: Generally, if you draw or paint people, then there’s a good chance that they will be wearing clothes.

Ok, we’re talking about art here, so this isn’t always the case. But, most of the time, you’ll probably be drawing or painting clothed people.

And, well, if you draw or paint from your imagination (rather than from life) – then you’ll be the one who has to work out what the people in your art are wearing. You’ll be the one who has to work out which outfits would look best in your art, which colour combinations would suit the picture etc….

Even if you’re totally clueless about fashion and you mostly end up using generic clothing designs in your artwork (or designs inspired by real outfits), then you’ll still subconsciously pick up a lot of knowledge about what does and doesn’t look good just from making a lot of art.

2) Architecture and interior design: Yes, making art regularly won’t teach you how to make precise architectural blueprints or anything like that, but it will teach you how to think of interesting ideas and designs for buildings.

After all, unless you’re drawing or painting nothing but natural landscapes, buildings are going to appear in your art from time to time. And, whilst most of these might just be “realistic” buildings, there’s a good chance that you’ll probably get bored of this after a while and start coming up with more interesting building designs every now and then – like this one:

"Balcony Of The Undead" By C. A. Brown

“Balcony Of The Undead” By C. A. Brown

But, why stop at the exterior of a building? After all, there’s a good chance that at least some of your drawings or paintings are of indoor areas. And, unless you’re painting from life, then you’ll have probably had to think of interesting indoor backgrounds for your art. And, well, this is a way of practicing interior design without really noticing.

3) Photography: Again, you won’t really learn the technical details of photography (eg: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, lighting etc…) purely from making art – and, since the last time I owned a functioning camera was in 2009, I can’t really tell you that much about photography itself.

But, if there’s one thing that making and looking at a lot of art will teach you, it’s what does and doesn’t work in an image.

For example, if you’ve made a reasonable amount of art, then you probably have a fairly intuitive understanding of good composition (eg: the layout of a picture) that will probably come in handy when you’re trying to take a photo.

So, whilst making art probably won’t teach you the technical details of how to take a photo properly, it will at least mean that you’re more likely to take interesting photos.

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Sorry for such a basic and badly-written article, but I hope that it was interesting nonethless 🙂

An Artist’s Impression Of Our Imaginations

2015  Artwork Artists Impression Imagination article

If you’re new to making art, one of the things that can be slightly discouraging when you’re starting out is the huge gap between the picture you want to make and the picture that actually ends up on the page, canvas and/or screen when you’ve finished.

The interesting thing is that this never really goes away. Regardless of how good you get at making art and regardless of how much practice you have – your imagination will always come up with better-looking pictures than you can actually draw or paint. If you don’t believe me, here’s one of many examples of when it happened to me…

Recently, I’d thought about painting a picture of a cool-looking old train station in the rain. But, when I sketched this, it looked kind of boring.

So, I decided to start again and make a painting of a couple of trainspotters in the rain. I’d imagined that they’d both look very slightly gothic and kind of cool and/or cute in a nerd chic kind of way. I had a very clear idea of what they would look like, then I made this painting:

"Trainspotters" By C. A. Brown

“Trainspotters” By C. A. Brown

It looked nothing like the image in my mind! For starters, the train station was a lot further in the background than I’d imagined and, worst of all, the trainspotters looked like a down-and-out hippy and a 1970s librarian rather than the cute nerdy couple I’d originally imagined, who would have probably looked more like this:

(An artist's impression of my original idea for the people in the painting.)

(An artist’s impression of my original idea for the people in the painting).

So, if our art rarely looks exactly like what we imagine it to do, then how do we deal with this?

Well, there are several ways of dealing with it. Firstly, you can make your art almost completely spontaneously – without only the vaguest idea (at most) of what you’re going to draw and/or paint before you start drawing or painting.

I do this quite a lot of the time and this is an absolutely great way to avoid the disappointment of inevitably painting something crappier than the picture you’d originally imagined for the simple reason that there’s very little to compare your finished picture to.

Another way of dealing with it is to either acknowledge the difference between your art and your imagination and start making your next picture with low expectations. Or, even better, start making your next picture with a feeling of curiosity about exactly how different it will look from the image in your mind.

The latter of these two things is much better for the simple reason that a feeling of fascinated curiosity feels a lot better than a resigned feeling of low expectations does.

But, if you want to get really philosophical, then a good way to deal with the gap between your imagination and your finished artwork is to think of yourself as a journalist of sorts. After all, news shows and newspapers often feature “artists’ impressions” of scenes that cannot be photographed.

Sometimes, like with images of court cases in the UK, this is for legal reasons and sometimes, like with proposed building developments, this is for purely practical reasons.

Anyway, the “artists’ impressions” of scenes that cannot be photographed often look at least slightly different from what the scene in question either actually looked like or will look like. But, most people accept this fact for the simple reason that it’s an approximate visual representation of something that they otherwise wouldn’t get to see.

And maybe we should think about our own art in the same way? We may never have the skills to create completely accurate pictures of whatever is in our imaginations, but we can at least create an approximate “artist’s impression” of our own imaginations to show other people.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

On Keeping Your Sword Sharp – A Ramble About Writing Fiction

2014 Artwork Rusty sword metaphor sketch

To describe my fiction writing skills as “rusty” would be an understatement, although I didn’t really realise quite how rusty they were until I came up with a secret idea for a short fiction project a few days ago.

Anyway, when I tried this new idea out for the first time, writing each paragraph felt like a Herculean labour. It felt like wading through water, rather than running across a field (in the way that, say, making a painting or writing one of these articles does). It’d been about a year until I’d tried to write any “serious” kind of fiction and, well, it showed.

My descriptions were old-fashioned and over-written, my sentences were long and boring and – worst of all – I couldn’t quite use my “signature” writing style for this project.

Luckily, due to the way I’ve structured this secret project, writer’s block wasn’t too much of an issue (eg: I could write 500-600 words before grinding to a halt, rather than grinding to a halt after just one sentence). But, I dread to think how much more I’d fail if I had to come up with a complicated and multi-layered storyline too.

And, well, this made me think about skills in general. Whilst some skills (like riding a bicycle or swimming) only have to be learnt once and then you’ll know how to do them for the rest of your life, other skills – especially creative ones – sometimes tend to fade away slightly if you don’t use them on a regular basis.

I guess, to some extent or another, this is why I produce art on a daily basis and write these articles every day – because I’m terrified that my skills will end up atrophying if I don’t.

But, strangely, this doesn’t seem to happen to anywhere near the same extent with my art as it does with my writing – I mean, there was about year or two when I didn’t make much art before I decided to make at least one picture per day and, surprisingly, my art style and level of artistic knowledge didn’t suffer too much in the process.

To show you what I mean, here’s one of my pictures from 2011 (when I didn’t make much art) and one from 2012 (where I made a lot more art)

"Punk Lounge" By C. A. Brown [2nd February 2011]

“Punk Lounge” By C. A. Brown [2nd February 2011]

"Tea In The Caverns" By C. A. Brown [18th April 2012]

“Tea In The Caverns” By C. A. Brown [18th April 2012]

So, in a way, I guess it probably comes down to intuition more than anything else. I find creating art a much more vivid and intuitive process than writing fiction.

With art, you just sit down and draw or paint, you don’t have to come up with character backstories, plots and things like that. Not only that, you also don’t have to worry about little things like avoiding repetitive sentence openings too. It’s a much purer form of creativity in some ways.

But, for a while in 2008 – 2010, writing fiction almost felt intuitive to me. Back then, I was on a writing course and I’d finally discovered my own “style. Not only that, I had to produce at least one short story every week or so, as well as work on slightly longer projects too. I was surrounded by writers and I could easily call myself a “writer” without adding the prefix “non-fiction” to it.

So, I guess that, to some level or another, whether something feels “intuitive” or not is all down to how much and how often you practice it. It’s also probably down to how you perceive yourself too.

I don’t know, I guess that the whole point of this ramble is to point out how important it is to practice regularly, even when you think that you’ve got good at something or another. Not only is regular practice a good way to learn cool new things and improve your skills, but it’s also a good way to make sure that you keep the skills that you’ve got.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

What Are The Most Important Skills An Artist Can Learn?

2014 Artwork five basic skills sketch

First of all, this is another article for absolute beginners. So, if you’ve been making art for a while – then you’ll probably know all of this stuff already and it’s probably not worth reading this article.

Still, if you’re new to making art (and, like me, are self-taught)- then there are a few basic skills which you should try to practice as much as possible because they will come in handy throughout your artistic career.

I should also probably point out that different artists think that different skills are more important than others, so this is only really my personal opinion about which skills are the most important to learn. Plus, since I started out by making drawings, most of these skills will be drawing-related and may or may not be applicable if you’re planning to work in other art mediums.

Anyway, let’s get started 🙂

1) Copying by sight: Whilst it’s ok to start out by learning how to draw things by tracing them, it’s very important that you learn (through practice) how to copy things just by looking at them.

The best way to learn how to do this is to start out by copying photographs rather than painting or drawing from life because a photo is a single static image which can be studied closely and will not change depending on which angle you view it from. Plus, the hard work of transforming a 3D object and/or 3D scene into a two-dimensional image has already been done for you if you look at a photo.

The important thing to remember when copying a photo is that, because it is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene, the exact shapes and outlines of things will probably look very slightly different to what you might expect them to look like. So, pay very close attention to the photo you’re copying and remember that it is, essentially, a 2D image like the drawing and/or painting that you are making.

2) 3D Shapes and perspective: I wrote a much more detailed instructional article about this a while ago, but it’s very important to learn how to draw basic 3D shapes and to have a very basic understanding of how to use perspective if you want to draw anything even vaguely realistically.

This isn’t really as daunting as it sounds – I mean, I mostly learnt how to draw basic 3D shapes and objects from just doodling randomly over the years. Plus, you can create good perspective in your pictures by just drawing an “X”-shaped guideline on your page (before you start drawing) and making sure that all lines in your drawing run parallel with the nearest line of the “X”.

3) Mixing colours: Whilst I only have a very basic understanding of colour theory and I only really started to learn how to mix colours late last year (when I finally started using watercolours), it’s a very useful skill for any artist to learn.

If you know how to mix or blend colours even vaguely well, then the number of colours available for you to use will be almost infinite. So, don’t be afraid to experiment with different colour combinations until you find the ones which are perfect for your next picture.

4) Basic light and shadows: Although I only have a fairly basic understanding of this and only remember to use it in my art some of the time, knowing the basics of how (and where) to add shadows to your picture will automatically give your art a sense of depth and realism. Not only that, it also makes your work look slightly more “professional” too.

Basic shadows are fairly easy to add – all you need to do is to be aware of where any light sources (eg: the sun, lightbulbs windows etc…) in your picture are and make sure that your shadows are on the side of anything that is facing away from the light source.

5) Trickery: There are loads of ways you can fool your audience into thinking that they’re looking at something that is more detailed (or even just technically better) than it actually is. Most of these are things that you’ll either learn just from looking at comics or through practice and experimentation.

But, the most important thing to remember is never to underestimate your audience’s ability to “fill in the gaps” when they’re faced with just a few essential details of something (eg: you can create the illusion of detail using a few basic rectangles that represent a city in the distance, or a few squiggly lines to represent trees).

Not only that, it’s also important to learn what the “focal points” of a picture are because you can either focus most of your energy on just making these few parts of your picture look good or you can use them to distract from badly-drawn parts of your picture.

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Sorry that this article was very basic and didn’t really say anything new, but I hope it was useful 🙂