We’ve all been there. You work really hard on something. It could be a piece of writing, or art or whatever it is that you make. It’s finally finished and you are pretty satisfied with it and glad to be done. You show it to some friends and family members and they are like, “Wow! That’s amazing! I could never make that.” You're feeling on top of the world. But then you show it to that one person in your life who always tells you the truth. We'll call them, "The Critic."Read More
Last year I took a watercolor class and ever since I have been trying to incorporate watercolor into my illustration process. I have always loved their transparency and I love watching them dry on the paper. Some beautiful textures and effects can happen when you just let the water and pigment do its thing and it's amazingly freeing to give up some control after spending years of working really hard to get texture in my digital paintings.
One thing I don't love about watercolor is that you really need to use nice paper. Nice, cotton rag paper is expensive. Like, shockingly expensive. And if you plan to erase on your nice, expensive paper, you are pretty much screwed unless you also like the look of gross pilly things all over your painting.
The problem of transferring lines has probably been the bane of every artist's existence since forever. One would be led to believe that if you want to paint your finished drawings with pretty watercolors (or whatever medium you are using), you have to be able to draw on watercolor paper without messing up. That's not me. I am a self-professed command-z and two-finger-tap addict (Procreate Users). I even try to two-finger-tap my sketchbook sometimes and then feel confused when nothing happens.
So, how do you get your best drawings onto watercolor paper?
1. Light Boxes
I do most of my finished drawings digitally, so my go-to process of transferring art has always been to print and trace onto watercolor paper with my 11 x 17 Light Pad. Maybe this is a good option for some people, but light boxes tend to suck the life out of my linework.
2. Art Projectors
You can buy art projectors that allow you to place a drawing inside and project it onto any surface to trace onto your paper or the wall or anywhere else. This seems to me like it could also suck the life out of drawings, but Cory Godbey this method and it clearly works for him. I haven't tried it yet. One thing to keep in mind is that the area where you place the drawing usually is very small (like 6" x 6"). So unless you like to draw small, you will have to scan it or photograph it and then adjust the size to fit the projector and print it out.
3. The Peter De Séve Method
There is an article on Muddy Colors where Justin Gerard talks about his method for traditional work. He follows the same process as Peter De Séve which is outlined in this article. I tried this a few times and the result is nice, but it is labor intensive. Once you get your drawing perfect on vellum tracing paper, you flip it over and draw it perfectly again on the back (you can skip this step if you don't mind your drawing being reversed in the final). Then you use a rubbing technique to transfer it to the final surface. At that point there is a lot of pressure not to mess up during the watercolor stage because if you need to start over you have to draw it twice AND do a rubbing transfer. You have to decide for yourself if the end result is worth it to you and if you have the time to do it. [Note: Peter De Séve mentions that he uses a soft brown pencil and doesn't want to tell us what it is, but I don't believe in secret recipes or secret art supplies. I am pretty sure it is a Derwent Drawing pencil in Chocolate 6600].
4. Inkjet Printers
My wonderful mentor Marsha Riti turned me onto the idea of using an inkjet printer to transfer linework directly onto watercolor paper. Both Epson and Canon make inkjet lines that are suitable for this. I was shocked to learn that you could even soak the paper after printing. This is an extremely convenient way of working because if you mess up in the watercolor stage, you can just print more copies of your drawing and try again. Convenience has a price of course. The machine itself is pricey and the ink is expensive. If you do not print regularly on it, the heads need to be cleaned before you can use it and this wastes ink and paper.
I am lucky enough to have a mother-in-law who is also pursuing children's book illustration and thanks to her, we are now sharing a brand new Epson P600 which makes amazing prints and will print on all types of art paper, canvas and CDs.
5. Transfer Paper
There is special transfer paper that you can get at art stores for this purpose. I imagine that this would get a similar result to the Peter De Séve method, but maybe would have more of a carbon copy look. It is another one that I have not tried yet.
How do you transfer your drawings for traditional work? I would love to hear what others do so please share in the comments!
About a year ago my sister-in-law sent me a story her husband’s brother had written based on bedtime tales their father used to tell. She wanted to make it into a book at some point, and said if I read it and was inspired to draw a few things she would love to include my art. Well, it turns out I was inspired, because how could you not want to draw tigers and wolves? Months later, she told me she was going to have the book printed for Christmas. I had been taking watercolor classes and thought that completing a project with short a deadline would be a great excuse for me to quickly create a body of work and gain experience in a new medium.
We talked about having one illustration per chapter, plus a cover, but with only a month to draw and paint 13 illustrations she told me to just do as many as I wanted during that time period. I finished 11 and it ended up being an ideal opportunity for me to deep practice my new watercolor skills (not to mention inking with a dip pen for the first time in my life). The first few illustrations I did using a monochromatic color scheme so I could focus on watercolor technique, without adding the confusion of color mixing. Then once I felt comfortable with technique, I painted the final illustrations in full color, resulting in a mix of color and monochromatic images throughout the book. Had this not been a personal project I wouldn't have had the freedom to experiment, but such is the benefit of having your sister-in-law as your art director :) :)
I have always been really happy with products printed with Blurb, and this book was no exception. If you want to flip through it or order a copy you can find it here (note: the creators of this book do not profit from these sales).
This project was a great reminder of the power of personal projects. Prior to this, I had never painted a full page watercolor illustration and without a deadline looming, I probably would have waited until I thought I could do it perfectly. If there is something you want to improve at, there is no better way to learn than to dive in and create a volume of work over a short period of time. Set a goal that makes you a little bit uncomfortable and then go for it. Having a deadline or someone to hold you accountable for finishing your goal is really helpful because it’s tempting to keep telling yourself that you’re not ready. Well, guess what? No one ever felt like they were ready. But you are ready now, so go forth and make stuff. :)
I've been on hiatus from this blog because I have been in a state of flux with my work. And guys, I've been doing something while I was gone that I never planned to do: I've been working with traditional media. (Eek!)
I guess it all started with Inktober. I wanted to learn to ink so I could use all of the different pens that have been sitting in my studio office (closet) under the stairs for almost a year. A YEAR. So I started making some drawings, and inking them. Then I would add some watercolor just for fun. They were messy and imperfect and I did everything wrong and I didn't care. I really enjoyed myself and found that I had no desire to make any finished art on my iPad (I'm still using my iPad for the sketching phase because it's just faster for me).
Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking digital art-making. I love the flexibility of it and I feel like there are situations where working digitally is the best choice. It seems like lots of people who work traditionally want to learn to work digitally and the people who work digitally want to switch to traditional. So maybe it's a grass is greener situation. Digital media has its benefits. There are like eleventy million brushes available so if you wake up one morning and decide you want to mimic ink or watercolor or gouache or grease pencil, the possibilities are endless and there are no supplies to buy. No paper is wasted when you mess up (I REALLY hate wasting things). You can choose from any color on the RGB spectrum. Working digitally is convenient – my iPad can go anywhere and there is never a mess or tubes of paint that a toddler might decide to eat or smear all over the house. And maybe the most appealing aspect of working digitally is that you can undo your mistakes.
As great as all of that sounds, lately I've found that the unlimited choices digital media offers are overwhelming to me. It's like when I go to the grocery store and am paralyzed by having to choose one box from an entire isle of different kinds of cereal. I don't want to sort through all of those brushes or choose from all of those colors. And even though a brush says it's a "watercolor" brush, I'm finding that using it to try to mimic the look of real natural media feels contrived. There are no happy accidents when you work digitally. Everything is very controlled. The first time I sat down with watercolor paints and paper and realized the water does most of the work for you, I understood why people love them.
And that all important undo feature? I'm realizing more that it's a crutch and is promoting a lot of bad habits in my work. When I draw, I tend to make lots and lots of marks over and over again to find forms rather than deciding to make a line and then putting that line on the paper. It's something I'm working on and cutting back on working digitally is helping.
My grandma and I used to paint with watercolors when I was a kid, back when there was no such thing as YouTube. I used one of those pan sets – you know the kind that comes with a tiny red or blue plastic brush with stiff bristles. I painted on cheap paper. I didn't know stretching watercolor paper was a thing and I didn't know what a wash was or how to do one. It was fun and I'm glad she encouraged me, but I remember being frustrated when the paint didn't go on smoothly and when the paper buckled and looked horrible. That impression of watercolor painting has stuck with me through my entire life, so when I was older I only wanted to paint in oils.
I have always loved the look and transparency of skillfully applied watercolor paint, but thought it was just really difficult to do. So actually learning to use them the way they are meant to be used has been eye opening. I started taking a class a few weeks ago with Sue Kemp at Laguna Gloria and it has been really helpful. I have also been getting expert advice from Marsha, who does really beautiful watercolor art. It's a steep learning curve and I'm starting from scratch, but already I'm feeling creatively recharged and inspired. I'm also finding that when I go back to working digitally, the knowledge of working with traditional media helps inform my digital art.
Stay tuned for more watercolor updates!
I have been wanting to read this book ever since I heard it mentioned by author Mike Sundy in an episode of Stories Unbound. It explores the question of what talent is and how we unlock it. Coyle says, "Greatness isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How."
It's All About the Myelin
On a microscopic level you can actually see where talent lies in the brain by examining the way nerve fibers are wrapped in myelin. All of our thoughts, feelings and movements are controlled by complex circuits of nerve fibers and the more we fire certain circuits, the more those particular nerves become wrapped in an insulating substance called Myelin. Over time, the more myelin we develop, the better we are able to perform certain tasks. This is the science behind what we often call “muscle memory.”
This little piece of brain science is important evidence supporting the idea that talent is not actually innate, but something that can be developed through what Coyle refers to as Deep Practice. This was the part of the book I found most interesting and most applicable to art and illustration.
The Rules of Deep Practice:
Absorb it as a whole.
This means you are extensively studying the desired skill whether it is baseball or art or music. Watch, listen and absorb what it looks like until you can imagine yourself doing it. We are wired for imitation.
- Chunk it up.
Find a way to break larger pieces of information into a nested series of progressively smaller chunks. Break a skill into its component pieces, learn them individually and then begin to link them together again.
- Slow down.
This allows you to focus on correcting errors resulting in more precision and a deeper understanding. Slow to learn = slow to forget.
- Rinse and Repeat. There is no substitute for daily practice and Coyle points out that it takes as little as one month for myelin to begin to break down. Coyle does buy into the 10,000 hours to mastery principle, but he says it’s not the length of time spent practicing that’s important. It’s the way you practice.
This brings me to one of the biggest takeaways from this book and the one I found most encouraging. It is the idea that if you are not struggling, you are not practicing effectively (and conversely, if you are struggling, you are doing it right). If you are trying to learn to play a song on the violin and you just glide through it, skipping over wrong notes, rhythm or poor tuning, you are not practicing in a way that maximizes myelin growth. You can spend six minutes “deep practicing” in the way that Coyle recommends and make the same progress that might take you month to achieve with a less focused approach.
Effective practice is done when you step up to your edge – the space between comfort and discomfort. It is uncomfortable to practice in a way that feels like a struggle. We don’t want to do it because struggling feels like failure. But, he likens it to staggering babies: the more time they spend firing the circuits, the faster they learn to walk. And there is no way around it – they all go through an awkward stage.
There is much more to this book than what I have outlined here. It’s full of real life examples, research and stories that help reinforce the ideas of what makes effective practice. It also explores how talent is ignited (i.e. What drives people to pursue certain talents) and what makes a master coach. It a relatively quick read and will leave you with plenty to think about. It’s applicable to all areas of your life, not just art. I definitely recommend requesting it at your library or picking it up at your local book store!
The “art life” can be emotionally taxing. It takes time to see improvement in your art and it's easy to get frustrated and discouraged. If you aren't getting the responses you want, you may begin to feel like no one cares or is noticing your work. The publishing industry is a slow-moving slog. In the time you spend waiting there is plenty of space for self-doubt to creep in and you may feel like nothing you are doing is working.
I am involved in several online art communities and all I have to do is scroll through a few posts to see that everyone at some point feels discouraged, no matter how good their work is. The good news is, these same communities can be valuable sources of support and encouragement. If you find yourself feeling down, reach out to others. I promise you are not alone! Here are some thoughts that I have found inspiring recently:
Don’t give up before you feel the wind in your sails.
I recently listened to what might be the best episode of Chris Oatley’s Artcast ever. It was so good I listened to it three times. Chris says, many people fail at art because they give up too soon. They feel pain and frustration and don’t stick with it long enough to be rewarded for their effort. He compares it to the runner’s high: a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lessened ability to feel pain that some people experience. Once you’ve experienced this feeling, it becomes easier to mentally push through the lows because you know a high is coming.
You are a statistic.
In the previously mentioned episode of The Artcast, Jenn Ely talks about a sociopath (read: emotionally detatched) doctor who was interviewed by a psychology journal. He had accomplished many things that others often fail at and he credited his ability to remain objective in the face of failure. When he decides he wants to do something, he researches the steps for accomplishing that goal, completes each step and submits his work. If his first attempt is rejected, rather than dwelling on it, he uses the rejection to guide his next attempts and repeats the process until he is successful. Jenn points out that this man understands he is in a game of statistics and he wants a white gumball. He knows that if he keeps trying he will eventually get one. This is not helpful in every situation, but when faced with failure or rejection, I find it encouraging. It's tempting to wallow in the misery of being rejected, but if you allow yourself a brief mourning period and then focus your energy on improving using the feedback you receive (when appropriate) you may find that you can maintain some forward momentum even when you fail.
Mind the gap.
This is what Ira Glass refers to as the “taste gap.” It’s the idea that people who pursue creative endeavors have killer taste. It takes a long time for your skill to catch up with your taste and this is why your work disappoints you. I have watched this video many times.
Remember that big growth often follows periods of frustration.
Check out this helpful chart by Mark Dalessio who, like Ira Glass, also points out that our ability to see improves faster than our technical skill.
Repeat after me: Finished, not perfect.
Sometimes it can be paralyzing to work when you feel like everything you do has to be perfect. This is a mantra I learned from Jake Parker and he even made a video about it:
What encourages you when you are feeling discouraged? Please share in the comments and to all of my art friends, you are amazing and you inspire me every day. Keep going!
If there is one area of foundational skill in art education that always feels elusive, it’s composition. This is probably because there is no short answer to the question, “what makes a composition good?” And if you were to ask a room full of art students to each come up with a successful composition, they would all come up with something completely different. So how do you study something that is vague, subjective and doesn’t have concrete rules or instructions?
Master copies or master studies are a tried and true approach to learning to create compelling compositions. The idea is that you make copies of successful compositions. By deconstructing compositions you like, you can begin to understand what makes them work. This is something that I did when I studied oil painting. The instructor would have us flip through giant books filled with paintings by John Singer Sargent or Diego Velázquez or Joaquin Sorolla and then when we found one that appealed to us we would paint it.
It seems so obviously, but I never really considered that this same approach would be equally helpful to my illustration work. I recently started taking a class on Schoolism by concept artist Nathan Fowkes called Pictorial Composition. For the first assignment he asks us to begin a file of images that have compelling composition. I have been collecting mine on a Pinterest board labeled “Compositions.” You can pull your inspiration from anywhere: photographs, live acton movies, illustration, fine art, concept art, animated films, or even real life.
We are supposed to choose three of those images and for each one make three studies that focus on conveying the main idea of the original.
Study #1: Reproduce the image using simple shapes and only three values.
Study #2: Reproduce the image using a full range of values.
Study #3: Reproduce the image using full color.
It's Not About Making an Exact Copy
The idea of the reproductions is not show that you can make an exact copy of the original and it's not about rendering textures or details. It's about determining the intent and focus of the original image and then figuring out how the original artist used shapes, value structure and edges to convey those ideas. In some cases you may even find that you want to change things just a bit to give the image more clarity. Nathan Fowkes says that ideally you should spend 30 minutes to an hour on each of the studies. This is where I will need to use some personal restraint. I’m not sure how much time I spent on mine, but hopefully as I do more of these I will get quicker and will begin to know when to declare it finished.
Sharing Master Copies Online
One more important thing to note: master studies are a learning tool only. If you are going to share your master studies online, be sure to label them clearly so that anyone who stumbles across your image will be well aware that yours is a copy of someone else’s work. This post by James Gurney is helpful.
I don't know about you, but I always listen better while I'm drawing and I draw better when I'm listening to something inspiring. Here are a list of my favorite podcasts at the moment. Enjoy and have a happy 4th of July!
Do you have favorites that aren't on this list? Please share them in the comments! :)
1. Stories Unbound
"Your Guide to the Growing World of Kidlit and Children's Book Publishing." Hosted by Shauna J.C. Tenney, the Author/Illustrator of Brunhilda’s Backwards Day. This was the first kidlit podcast I started listening to and it really gave me a good foundation of kidlit industry knowledge.
2. All The Wonders
Matthew Winner is made of gold. He hosts inspiring interviews with kidlit Authors and Illustrators. Matthew is an elementary school librarian by day, so he has a unique perspective on all things kidlit. All The Wonders just celebrated four years of broadcasting, so there’s a wealth of information here.
3. The Picturebooking Podcast
A podcast about creating and sharing picture books, hosted by Nick Patton who is an author/illustrator. Lots of interviews with different authors and illustrators here too. This podcast is produced by All The Wonders, but it approaches it from more of a creator’s perspective.
4. Chris Oatley's Artcast
"Artistic insight and career advice from the most inspiring voices in animation, games, vfx, comics and new media. Hosted by Chris Oatley." Chris Oatley is a former Disney character designer and director of the Oatley Academy of Visual Storytelling.
5. The Paper Wings Podcast
This is an Oatley Academy podcast focusing on story development. "Elevate your visual storytelling! Learn to write, draw and make a living from your creator-owned comics, graphic novels, films and miniseries with Chris Oatley, Lora Innes and Marvel storyboard artist Justin Copeland." There haven't been any new episodes in a while, but the existing ones are packed full of storytelling wisdom.
6. The DIY Animation Show
Yet another Oatley Academy podcast. "Learn tips and tricks to make your own animated web series, shorts, features and gifs!" This one is relatively new, but worth a listen.
7. Make it and Then Tell Everybody
Finding out how comic artists and illustrators do what they do. Hosted by Dan Berry.
8. Escape from Illustration Island
This one recently was relaunched. There are tons of back episodes to listen to as well. “The critically-acclaimed audio podcast featuring conversations with Illustrators, Art Directors, Art Reps and other creative professionals.” Hosted by Thomas James.
9. Social Media Examiner Marketing Podcast / Social Media Examiner Show
This is actually two podcasts. The first features longer and more in depth discussions of social media topics. The second one is a shorter (approximately 10 minutes) show that can get you the information you need quickly. Both are very helpful and chock full of tips for promoting yourself on the web.
10. Social Media Happy Hour
A short, informative podcast with tips on social media and online promotion.
11. The Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast
Hosted by twin animators Tom and Tony Bancroft. They “talk about their Disney Animation past, the present animation business, and the future of animation. Interviews with talented artists, inspirational words, and wild speculation will help you grow as a person - or not.”
12. Chasing Dreams
Introduces you to people you never knew you needed to meet. "Aimee J. talks to fellow dream chasers who share the story of their chase, the lessons they've learned, and have a good time doing it." I recently discovered this one because Aimee did an interview with Dani Jones. Good stuff!
Most of us are familiar with doing personal work. We give ourselves assignments to fill our portfolios and show prospective clients the kind of work we like to do and what they can expect from us.
This approach works, but lately I've noticed the cycle of going from one individual piece to the next has left me feeling empty because the things I'm doing don't lead to anything bigger. Every time I finish a piece for my portfolio, the story ends and I find myself in limbo until I come up with the next assignment.
I dread this because it removes me from making art. Sometimes I'll spend weeks researching a topic, unable to settle on a concept. And although this is an essential part of the process, it feels like progress has stalled which puts me in a bad place mentally.
The idea of a personal project is really appealing for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it's easier to maintain momentum when your brain can stay immersed in a theme or story as you make a collection of pieces. But once you have your theme or story, what should your personal project actually look like? Here are some different formats you might consider for your personal projects:
Online Graphic Novels
For a long time I've been in love with the idea of serialized web comics. These are produced at intervals over long periods of time to eventually make up a long-form comic called a graphic novel. Raina Telgemeier's popular Scholastic graphic novel Smile began as a serialized web comic about her childhood. Many artists I admire have published, or are in the process of making, inspiring online graphic novels or web comics including:
- Starspun by Laura Diehl
- Wormworld Saga by Daniel Lieske
- The Unlikely Adventure of Pip Swiftfoot by Kimberli Johnson
- Montague Mouse by Kiri Leonard Ostergaard
- My Sister the Freak and Little Women by Dani Jones
- Copper by Kazu Kibushi (Author of the Amulet series)
Annual Sketchbook Collections
A graphic novel is an impressive goal, but also a daunting one. A graphic novel could take years to complete. For someone who needs a more attainable goal, Cory Godbey has a particularly interesting approach to personal work. He creates a focused collection of approximately nine pieces all related to one story or theme. He calls them "annual sketchbooks" because when he is done, he assembles them into a printed booklet. In this article on Muddy Colors he talks about why he has chosen this approach to personal work http://muddycolors.blogspot.com/2013/11/personal-work-making-it-count.html
Have you noticed posts on social media using the hashtag #100dayproject? This post from The Great Discontent explains how to get in on the action, but all you have to do is make work and post it using the hashtag. One hundred days is a LONG time, but it recently occurred to me that it doesn't have to be 100 consecutive days. You can find some really great inspiration by browsing the hashtag. Try choosing a theme that is specific rather than "I'm going to make 100 illustrations" because often, self imposed limitations actually fuel creativity. The lovely Blythe Russo has been working on a Kids and Their Pet Pals #100DayProject lately that is amazing. My fellow PuddleJump Collective illustrator Gladys Jose also completed a really fantastic kidlit #100dayproject a while back and you can see the entire thing here.
Make a Finished Book
It's common for author/illustrators make book "dummies" or small, rough versions of a picture book to show publishers how a finished book might look. Dummies typically have rough sketches and one or two spreads with finished art.
But what if you just made the entire book? That's what Shawna J.C. Tenney did for her spectacular picture book Brunhilda's Backwards Day that was picked up by Sky Pony Press. Her intent was to show it to publishers, but she planned to publish it as an ebook regardless of how it was received. She just acted like she already had the job she wanted to be hired for and did her best work.
What personal projects have you seen others do that you found particularly inspiring? Please share them in the comments!
Do you have a personal project? Should you start one? Personal projects can be rewarding in a lot of ways, but for me the real benefit is skill building. You can spend all day reading books and watching videos of other people making art, but nothing builds real skills like actually doing the thing you want to learn.
When I graduated from college, I was hired as an in-house graphic designer. That doesn't sound too weird unless I tell you that I majored in Advertising and never learned how to use Photoshop. I'd played around with it some, but didn't find it to be very intuitive, so I never used it for any school portfolio projects. I had taken a one hour Photoshop lab where the instructor walked us through a project that he had created, but I never used it to make anything on my own. On my first day of work, when I was asked to make a marketing piece in Photoshop I said, "Sure. I can do that." Then I panicked. Online learning wasn't really a thing back then, so as soon as lunch rolled around, I ran out and bought a copy of Photoshop CS2 Classroom in a Book (did I mention this was a long time ago?).
By the end of the week I had the hang of it, and a few months later I could do just about anything you asked of me in Photoshop with my eyes closed and my right hand tied behind my back (you know, because I'm a lefty). Not really, but it wasn't long before I was helping my more senior co-workers troubleshoot some of their Photoshop issues. The point I'm trying to make is that I had lots of opportunities to learn Photoshop, but I didn't become an expert until I was put in a sink or swim situation and had to use it to make real work.
Act Like You've Already Been Hired
You're probably saying, well that's great. How am I supposed to get on-the-job experience if I haven't even landed the job? The answer, my friends, is personal projects!
What is it that you want to make? Graphic novels? Picture books? Animation? Book covers? Figure out what it is your passionate about making and then go make it. We get hired based on the work we've already made, so don't wait until someone has already hired you to start making stuff.
Show, Not Tell
"The only way to prove (as opposed to assert) that you are an indispensable linchpin – someone worth recruiting – is to show, not tell. Projects are the new resumes."
–Seth Godin, Linchpin
We've all heard as illustrators that we're supposed to show, not tell, but we can apply this same advice when it comes to attracting prospective clients. Examples of people who have put this philosophy into practice and reaped the rewards are all over the internet.
Wait, Rewards? What Rewards?
You might make money, you might get work, you might grow your following or help to build a community, you might even land a book deal ... or you might not. At the very least, if you give it your best effort, you are guaranteed to build your skills and if that's all you do, your project was successful.
Raina Telgemeier's popular graphic novel Smile began as a personal project: a serialized web comic about her childhood. Scholastic noticed and asked her to illustrate the Babysitters Club Graphic Novel series, which opened the door for her to write and illustrate other graphic novels in the same vein including Sisters, Drama and Ghosts.
Dani Jones is always telling us to make stuff and show it to people. She recently completed and self published a graphic novel based on Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women. She also wrote and illustrated a web comic called My Sister the Freak which she says was a major outlet for self-expression, improved her drawing skills and helped her land some of her more exciting client work. She says, "If you are trying to make a living as a creative person, find something you like to do and do it ... If you make things of value, people will notice it. There is no prerequisite of experience you need to get started. Try new things, experiment a lot, share your stuff with lots of people, and don’t be afraid to mess up."
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What are you passionate about that you could turn into a personal project? What does a personal project even look like? If you're still reading and I've convinced you to start a personal project, stay tuned. Next week I'll share some ideas.
Prior to my first SCBWI conference, I was really bummed to find out that my super cool Pina Zangaro portfolio briefcase does not meet SCBWI standards. Until then, I had not put much thought into the physical way that I would be displaying my work. It turns out there are a lot of options. Here are a few:
- Screw post binders – Pina Zangaro can even imprint your name or logo on the front. Back in my college Advertising days, Pina Zangaro was the gold standard, so this is what I ultimately chose for my first conference. There is one for a range of budgets. In their sale section, I found a simple black canvas screw post binder with Pro-Archive sheet protectors.
- A completely handmade from scratch portfolio – a quick search of Pinterest brings up a whole slew of options complete with how-to instructions. This might be a great option for a crafty person who wants their portfolio to feel personal and one of a kind.
- Screw post photo albums – like these from Kolo.
- A cheap 1-inch office binder – Sounds strange, but Chris Oatley has mentioned that he uses these because they are so inexpensive he can actually give his portfolio away to someone if he wants to.
- A printed photo book – there are tons of places you can get these made online and they come in a variety of orientations, hardbound or softbound. This was my choice this year – read on and I'll explain why.
Last year, I was convinced that it was better to choose a portfolio with removable pages. I knew I would be improving it constantly and thought I would not want to reprint a photo book each time I made changes.
However, last year I spent hours sending files to be printed with special instructions, driving around town to pick up prints (or reprints if something had gone wrong or the color was not as expected) and trimming my work to fit in the sleeves. I would have spent even MORE time if I had opted for the book that requires you to mount everything on the pages. I ended up spending a lot of money on my prints and driving and I did not enjoy this process.
This year I decided that a printed photo book was the perfect solution for someone who wants to avoid all that hassle and get back to making art as quickly as possible.
I chose Blurb because they seemed to have a size and orientation that suited my purposes, but there are tons of places where you can order books like these online. Blurb has really great customer service, they had some good coupon codes and I was really happy with the way all of my images printed. All in all, it was a great experience and very hassle free. It took me less than a day to complete the layout using their website. Best of all, it showed up a day early, which is always a concern when you've waited until the last possible second to print your book. I will definitely do it again in the future.
How Many Pieces Do You Want To Include?
One downside of using a photo book as your portfolio is that most of the photo books have a minimum number of pages. It's usually about 20. You will have to figure out how to fill all 20 pages. With Blurb, one of those pages is reserved for their logo and I used another page to display my contact information. But, I ended up putting some pieces in my portfolio that I would have left out had I been in control of the number of pages. You may be able to avoid this problem by displaying some of your pieces as two page spreads, but a lot of my work is not the correct orientation for this.
Don't Make Viewers Rotate Your Book
Because I have been doing work primarily for middle grade, most of my work is portrait orientation or not the correct aspect ratio to fill a two page spread. It's best if you don't make the viewer rotate your portfolio to look at work so you will want to think about that when ordering a portfolio. If you are displaying a piece as a double page spread you will want it to be landscape orientation with the gutter where it would be in an actual book. You don't want to split your portrait orientation images down the middle to make them span two pages.
Do you have any portfolio making tips? I would love to hear them in the comments. :)
This past weekend I attended the SCBWI Austin Writers and Illustrators Working Conference. This was only my second conference. Last year at this very conference I was awarded the Emerging Voices Illustrator Mentorship and thanks to my mentor, Marsha, I was much more prepared this time around.
The out of town speakers on the Illustrator track this year were Giuseppe Castellano and John Hendrix. Giuseppe is an Art Director for Penguin and John Hendrix is an amazingly talented author/illustrator. I had really helpful portfolio reviews with each of them. Both Giuseppe and John gave really fun drawing workshops. John's workshop was based off of his book Drawing is Magic which you might want to check out. One of our local illustrators, the amazing Jeff Crosby, gave an excellent presentation about why you should use maquettes as part of your illustration process. I have heard this advice from James Gurney, but somehow I felt more inspired hearing it from someone I know. I have a bag of sculpey clay that I took home from the presentation that I am anxious to form into a character of some sort, hopefully sometime this week.
I also attended the networking dinner this year which was really fun. It was great to get extra time hanging out with conference peeps and it was nice getting to know a few of the presenters as "normal people."
There were some common themes that kept coming up during the presentations. Here are some big takeaways from my notes:
- On self promotion: Choose the method that is most authentic to you, otherwise it won't land. If you hate Twitter, don't use Twitter. –Tara Dairman, Author
- Don't chase a market because you know it's going to sell. Do it because you have a genuine interest. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- On We Need Diverse Books: Don't throw in characters of different ethnicities just because. It has to make sense and come from a place that is natural. –Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director
- Stop thinking that you have to be "children's booky." The best art for children's books is the kind that doesn't necessarily look like art made for children. It just looks like beautiful art you would want on your wall. –Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director
- The best way to work is the way that feels best to you. If there are certain times of the day or seasons where you don't feel as creative, don't force yourself to power through. Honor your natural cycles. -Kendra Levin, Editor and Life Coach
- Create now, Edit later. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- Turn off your inner editor. You cannot revise what's not on the page. –Caroline Leech, Author
- Ideas come from actions, not thinking. Anything you can draw will help you get to the next thing. It's easier to edit than it is to create. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
Failure and Suffering are Required
- Everything in life worth doing is going to cause you suffering. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- Embrace failure. You are going to fail. There is good failure and bad failure. Failing because you didn't show up is bad. Good failure is when you try your hardest and still learn something from the process. Failure is learning in disguise. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- Iteration is essential. Eventually you will forget to worry about making a bad drawing and make a good one by accident. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- Bring a sketchbook everywhere. Don't be afraid to let people see you try. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- It's ok to be in process. Don't wait until you've arrived to put yourself out there. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
Love the Work
- Your sketchbook is a compass. A sketchbook can unlock new ideas through a very simple notion: If you find what you love to draw, you'll find your visual voice. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- Treat your sketchbook like a playground and it will turn into a treasure map. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
- Professional goofing off is essential. Don't prioritize accuracy over enjoyment. Trust your imagination. The slavish desire to be accurate can be crippling. –John Hendrix, Author/Illustrator
It was a great conference! Thank you to all the presenters, volunteers and support staff who made it possible.
This is the second in a series of posts that addresses some of the most common reasons why we can't just sit down and draw. In each post I will discuss a real reason that I have avoided drawing and attempt to offer some actionable solutions. My hope is that these posts will be helpful to you if you are struggling with developing or maintaining a daily drawing habit.
Reason you can't draw: I don't know what to draw.
Why you should draw anyway: IF you draw is more important than WHAT you draw.
I just finished a new piece and it never fails that after coming off the "high" of finishing something, I go through a period of feeling pretty lost. I guess you could call it a creative block. I don't know what to work on. Days will pass where I don't draw anything and dark thoughts begin to creep in. I start to think I'm not really any good at this and I'll probably never make anything good ever again. Sound familiar?
These thoughts always come when I have stopped making things because I don't know what to draw. And as soon as I start again, they fade away. Are you feeling stuck? It doesn't matter what you draw. Just draw something. It doesn't need a purpose or an end goal. The important thing is just to do it, because it's the process that will eventually bring you back to your happy place.
Still Don't Know What to Draw? Try These:
- Gesture drawing: Try doing timed gesture drawing practice using a website like Quickposes or Posemaniacs Lots of these websites exist and there are even some that will show you different animals. *Bonus: Look back over the gesture drawings you did and see where you can push the poses to make them more interesting. *Bonus 2: See if you can turn any of the poses you drew into a narrative illustration by imagining that the figure is doing something else.
- Anatomy: Focus on particular parts of human anatomy. Right now I am working on hands and feet. Kiri Ostergaard Leonard has compiled a number of resources for drawing hands and feet on her website. But, you could also focus on eyes, noses, lips, ears, arms, legs, or torsos. I am also a big fan of Aaron Blaise's How to Draw: Human Anatomy course. It sometimes goes on sale and I have watched it a number of times. He has some free videos and downloads that are fun to draw along with.
- Trace Drawings of Illustrators You Like: This is a suggestion from illustrator Laura Zarrin that I read on Simply Messing About. She suggests, as an exercise only, tracing drawings by illustrators who inspire you. She uses a blue pencil to find line of action and draw through all the shapes before finish the drawing.
- Make a Style Bible: I just read about this concept in the SCBWI Bulletin. The idea was credited to illustrator Julia Patton. You buy a nice hardback sketchbook and using tabs, create a section for each letter of the alphabet. You fill the sketchbook with drawings of things that start with each letter, but you draw them on loose paper and then cut and paste into the book using removable tape. The idea is that you can add and remove things as your style evolves. It was referred to as an "anal version of a sketchbook", because you are able to completely control what goes into the book. Also, when you don't know what to draw, you can see where you need to fill gaps and say, "Ok! I will draw something that begins with R." If you want to read more about it, SCBWI members can download the latest Bulletin online.
- Make your own #100DayProject: This can be hard, because you have to come up with a topic you will enjoy drawing for 100 days. I'm going to say for the purposes of getting unstuck, just choose something and do it, and then change it if you want to. It's more important that you start and draw something than it is to stick to the same topic for the entire project.
- Go through this list of prompts by Dani Jones.
- Try some suggestions from this list from Pen and Oink.
- Draw Something In Your Comfort Zone: Sometimes when I sit down to draw, my brain and hand feel disconnected and I feel like I can't draw anything. This happened to me recently and I decided to make a new piece that featured a horse. I did this because when I was a kid, I used to draw horses obsessively. I have drawn them so many times, that I am almost always successful when I try to draw one. What is the one thing you could draw with your eyes closed? Draw that. If you draw something you know, you increase your odds that it will turn out well and when you are successful it will boost your confidence. Sometimes a little boost in confidence is all you need to get unstuck.
- Pick up a Book: A few of my more recent illustrations have been inspired by books. I started reading and then ended up having to stop 50 or 60 pages in to start sketching thumbnails. Give it a try.
- Take a Step Back: When all else fails you may need to take an intentional time away from creating to recharge. Sometimes when you feel like you are fresh out of ideas it means that you need to spend some time filling your creative bank account. Take a walk, leave your immediate surroundings or if you can, spend a whole day doing something else that you enjoy.
Do you have your own tips for getting unstuck? Please share them in the comments.
Share your work! Sometimes community helps us stay motivated. I would love to see what you are working on. Use the #dailydrawinghabit hashtag on Twitter and Instagram!
Today I thought it would be fun to share a process post with you guys. My mermaid cave piece began with an extremely rough idea inspired by Frank Baum's book, The Sea Fairies. There is a scene in the story where the main characters explore an ocean cave in a small boat. Inside the cave, they discover mermaids. I wanted to make a dramatic composition, from inside a cave looking out at the ocean, that conveyed the feeling of magic and mystery I felt while reading that part of the story.
The top left image is my thumbnail. All was trying to do here was get my idea down. Once I had a thumbnail that I thought was promising, I made it into a more detailed sketch, which I showed to Marsha (top right). Marsha suggested that I do something really cool.
If you use a bright color to draw the bone structures of your figures over the top of your sketch, you can see where your anatomy is working or not working.
Sometimes when drawing figures we don't remember to leave space for internal organs or keep in mind that the skin is wrapped around the skeleton. I drew spines, ribs and hip bones on all of my mermaids which helped me make adjustments to the anatomy. Then I did an even more refined sketch and value study before painting the whole thing in color.
I have drawn my entire life, but until a few years ago, I never learned the importance of drawing through the forms and underlying structures of things you are going to paint.
"Drawing through" means that you are thinking about the shapes and volumes of things you are drawing and painting as if they were three dimensional objects. It also means that you continue lines that might be hidden behind other objects. It might seem like you are doing a lot of extra work for nothing since you won't even see some of these things in your finished piece. But the forms and structures inform the rest of your drawing and it will actually save you time in the long run because you won't end up having to go back and correct things later. For example, if you put clothing on a figure without considering the anatomy underneath there is a good chance you are going to run into trouble.
James Gurney says, "When an architect draws a building elevation, she knows where the windows and doors are located on the back side of the building." [Tweet this]
You can see that even as I move into the color painting, I painted the bodies of the mermaids under their clothes before putting clothes on them. And for weeks I had to field questions from everyone in my house about when I was going to put clothes on those mermaids. All worth it! :)
Scroll to the bottom to see an exciting animated gif of the whole process!
This is the second in a series of posts that addresses some of the most common reasons why we can't just sit down and draw. In each post I will discuss a real reason that I have avoided drawing and attempt to offer some actionable solutions. My hope is that these posts will be helpful to you if you are struggling with developing or maintaining a daily drawing habit.
Fear: Ruining pages in your sketchbook.
Why you should draw anyway: Sketchbooks are a place for you to practice and develop your craft. They are for YOU, not for anyone else.
I used to have all of these blank sketchbooks. At any given moment I carried three in my purse along with an assortment of technical pens and pencils. I kept them handy so they would be ready when I needed them, but I could never get into the habit of drawing in a sketchbook. In college, we were supposed to keep "idea journals" as part our grade for Creative Advertising. At the end of the semester I always found myself playing catch up trying to make a semester's worth of entries during the week before finals. I just found it really difficult to put things down in a sketchbook.
Every time I went to the art supply store I bought a new sketchbook, thinking maybe I hadn't found the right one. I bought handfuls of pens and pencils that would go home to die a lonely death in a desk drawer. I wanted to draw, but I was afraid of ruining a nice sketchbook or wasting nice pens and pencils on bad drawings.
Tip 1: Buy cheap sketchbooks so there is less pressure to be perfect.
One day I came across an old spiral sketchbook, with a flimsy paper cover, that I had stashed away in my closet. I started using it when I needed to work out a design problem or anytime I needed to draw something that wasn't "worthy" of my other sketchbooks. I found that I felt okay about making bad drawings inside this sketchbook because it was cheap and I didn't really like it.
I had all of these nice Moleskine leather bound journals with thick paper and it was hard for me to experiment in them because whatever I put on the pages needed to be worthy of the notebook.
So, I started buying cheaper sketchbooks that I didn't care about and eventually I was able to start filling them up. Don't get me wrong, I love Moleskine notebooks and I still buy them for sketching, but now I choose this kind.
Tip 2: Remember that most artists only post their best work online.
I have always had this idea that any artist who is any good probably has stacks of sketchbooks filled with pages upon pages of gallery worthy art. When Instagram became a thing, my sketchbook anxiety reached an all time high when I actually started seeing the insides of sketchbooks belonging to artists whom I admired. I became so frozen with fear at the idea of having an ugly sketchbook that I really couldn't even open one.
If I did draw something, I would do it on lose printer paper so that if it went wrong, I wouldn't have to tear pages out of my sketchbook to destroy the evidence.
We have all heard that social media can be deceiving because most people present their best selves online. Remember that this holds true for art as well. It is easy to get down on ourselves when we see so much amazing art online, but just because you are not seeing someone's failures posted online doesn't mean they aren't happening. Don't hold yourself to an unrealistic standard.
Tip 3: Use sketchbooks for research, exploration and getting down your ideas.
About a year ago, I was listening to a Stories Unbound interview with illustrator and character designer Ovi Nedelcu. He said some things that resonated with me and changed the way I think about sketchbooks.
"Sketchbooks were never meant to be finished, polished gallery art, but the research and development behind it." –Ovi Nedelcu [Tweet this]
He says he used to have trouble filling up sketchbooks until he made a conscious effort to stop caring what people thought of his sketches. He says his sketchbooks are meant to help him grow as an artist and they don't need to impress anyone. He uses sketchbooks as a place to get down ideas, solve problems and explore shapes, compositions, etc. Once he embraced this idea he began to fill pages in his own sketchbooks. And the more pages he filled, the more his confidence as an artist grew because each of those pages represented time spent developing his craft.
Do you have blank sketchbooks lying around?
What is stopping you from filling them up? Or have you overcome your own sketchbook anxiety? I would love to hear about it in the comments. I hope this first post on developing a drawing habit has been helpful to you. Stay tuned for more posts in the Developing a Daily Drawing Habit series.
I talk about daily drawing a lot. And I don't mean to be redundant, but it truly is the key to seeing real improvement in your art. I mentioned in my last post that the biggest takeaway from my yearlong illustrator mentorship was that if you want to improve, you have to make art every day. Maybe you already agree and you want to start doing it, but you are finding that it is easier to talk about drawing every day than it is to actually do it. Getting into the habit of doing something daily can take years of trying. I know this because I tried for years, unsuccessfully, to develop a daily drawing habit.
Why Do We Stop Drawing As Adults?
I used to draw constantly and then somewhere along the way, maybe after college, I stopped doing it. What changed? I got busy with other things and developed other interests. I started a career in graphic design where I worked primarily on the computer and found it really difficult to switch back to analog mode (pencil and paper). Eventually my hands lost muscle memory and I let fear creep in.
Finally, this year, after hearing it straight from a published illustrator – my lovely mentor Marsha – it was time to get serious. I was going to start taking time each day to work on my craft. I wanted drawing to be as non-negotiable as coffee in the morning. I knew that the reason I was not drawing was because at any given moment I could think of ten different reasons why I couldn't draw right then. This was my pattern and old patterns are hard to break.
The Best Way to Develop New Habits
In the past when I have had success with intentionally developing habits in other parts of my life, it has been because I made small incremental changes, slowly over long periods of time. The same concept seems to apply when it comes to breaking old patterns, especially when your patterns are rooted in fear and self doubt. Sometimes you can't just squash them and be done. You have to deconstruct them piece by piece, a little at a time, and make a plan of action so that you won't fall back into your old patterns when things get tough.
That's why I wanted to write an ongoing series of blog posts to share some of the excuses I have made for myself in the past as well as some actionable tips for shutting down the inner monologue so you can start drawing. My plan is to start posting these on Mondays, but we will see how that goes. Regular blogging is another habit I am working on developing :)
Already in the habit of drawing daily?
I hope these posts will also be helpful to people who are already making art every day, but maybe have hit a bump in the road and need to get back on track. This past month I struggled to start a new piece after finishing my mermaids. Every time I started sketching a new idea it just seemed like nothing was working and I began to feel like I would never finish another piece again. No one is perfect and we all occasionally need some encouragement to get going again.
What are some reasons that you avoid drawing? What problems do you have with drawing that you would like to see discussed here? I would love for you to email me or share your own struggles or tips in the comments. Check back in soon for the first post in the series!
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
It really bothers me when people say that they can't draw. Forgive me if I sound like a broken record. I have talked about this before. I recently read an article about how mindset influences success. Specifically, it discusses the benefits of having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. So, what does that mean exactly?
A fixed mindset means you believe talent or intelligence are fixed qualities you are born with, and if you're not born with a specific talent, you will never be good at it. You believe success is a result of talent, not effort. Example: I don't draw because I'm not good at it. I'm just not as talented as you are.
A growth mindset means that you believe talent and intelligence can be developed with hard work and deliberate practice. You see failures as learning opportunities. They are stepping stones along the path to achieving your goals. Example: I'm not good at drawing faces. I'm going to draw 100 of them and when I finish I'll be much better at it.
Practicing Growth Mindset
If you need help with your growth mindset, a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle puts this theory to good use and dives into the concept of what deliberate practice looks like. I have not read it myself, but heard it recommended in an interview on Stories Unbound with children's book author Mike Sundy. It's on my list of books to read very soon.
If you need proof of this theory in action, illustrator Kelley McMorris created a Tumblr called Anyone Can Improve at Drawing where you can find an endless list of real life examples of how artists can improve with practice. Check them out and submit your own!
A Year In Review
With the SCBWI Austin conference approaching I wanted to look back on where I was at this time last year when I registered for my first conference. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a 5-month-old baby who didn't take naps and needed me to hold him all day long. Always the multitasker, I decided that if my hands were occupied, my brain needed to be busy too, so I spent that time watching the entire SVS Learn course library in preparation.
I arrived at the conference with a portfolio that was bursting at the seams with every children's book illustration I had ever created – all five of them! – and walked away with my very own mentor. Having Marsha available to me has been invaluable. I still cannot believe my luck.
I have spent this year blogging, reading art books, co-working with my mentor, taking online illustration and storytelling classes, listening to kidlit podcasts, attending SCBWI meetings and open critiques (even if I have nothing to be critiqued), and most importantly making art daily while my toddler naps. It has been a lot of work, but I have learned so much and I couldn't be more excited about this year's conference.
The Big Secret to Improving at Art
Reflecting on the last year, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from my mentor was to make art every day. The images at the top of this post were each done about a year apart. Pretty crazy huh?
So here's the big secret:
That is basically it. If you make the commitment to work on your art daily (or whatever it is you want to improve at), you may not see obvious changes from day to day, but over time the improvement will be clear.
This is good news and bad news. It's bad news because it takes time, effort and dedication. But it's also good news because making art is what we love to do. If you are already doing it, just keep doing your thing and know that you are on the right path.
I used to have a lot of trouble starting a new piece because I had a common misconception that I should be able to pull everything completely out of my head. I would have an idea for something I wanted to draw, but once I started sketching I couldn't get the pose or perspective right. I would spend hours drawing and redrawing (usually the pose would morph into something else entirely during this process), and then I would struggle to add the background as an afterthought, not knowing how things should look. Do you think you know what a classroom looks like? Once you start trying to draw it you will realize you don't. I usually managed to eek something out that looked somewhat like a space that could maybe exist in reality, but it lacked any interest or specificity. So we have this character, wearing generic pants and a t-shirt, whom we are supposed to believe is doing something really exciting while standing in front of a mostly blank wall.
As you can imagine, this was all very frustrating. I really felt like I just needed to make a few more illustrations and then I would somehow magically acquire the knowledge of a professional illustrator and the ability to slap down a perfectly believable and fully formed scene on a piece of paper at any given moment (this is where you are supposed to laugh).
During one of my monthly co-working days with Marsha (I like to refer to them as art therapy sessions), I mentioned that I really needed to practice drawing environments and I just wasn't good at it. She asked me what I meant by that and I pulled up one of my favorite illustrations by Kelly Murphy to show her. That's when she told me the big secret: the first R of Illustration is Research. Marsha proceeded to point out approximately twelve different things in the illustration that were the product of extensive research.
The image below is an example of what happened when I did not use research to inform the background of my piece. My fellow Puddle Jumper, the lovely Lynnor Bontigao, pointed out to me that the background I had painted for this piece (as an afterthought) could literally be a room anywhere. It needed to look like a science lab and in order for it to look like a science lab I needed to do research. So back to Google images I went in search of photos of laboratories and lab equipment from the early 1900s. You can see that the second image at the top of this page is MUCH better as a result of my research.
Using research has made all the difference in my work. You may have heard someone say, "Don't draw a car, draw THAT car." I now begin every new piece with lots of research and compile and organize all of my reference material (the second R!) on a Pinterest board. I try to anticipate every obstacle I might encounter while working on the piece. Does it have boats? What kind of boats are they? Will there be water? What about lighting and color? What would the characters be wearing in this specific time period? What is the weather like? If I can't find reference for a specific pose, I try to take my own.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? It is. In fact, it's so much work that sometimes I try to take "shortcuts," which actually end up costing me extra time in the long run. I am consistently noticing that the things I have to redraw in the late stages of painting are the exact things that I decided not to research or find reference for. This is where the third R comes in: Re-doing – because that's what you'll be doing if you don't research and use reference. :) :) :)
A little over a month ago I began a challenge to make something — either a drawing or a painting — every day. And just for extra accountability I try to post my work daily to social media. This was a pretty big challenge for me because even working as a graphic designer, I have never been in the habit of producing art daily for myself. It was really only something I did when I had time (i.e. never). Now I am making time for it and I am really happy with the results. About halfway through the month I also began a writing journal (an idea I stole from Marsha Riti). I will talk more about that later.
Looking back on the last month, I created more personal projects than I have over the last decade. And I have learned SO much in the process. I've heard daily art-making described as "putting yourself through bootcamp." If you are not already in the habit of creating daily, just do it. If you want to improve your art, you won't regret taking the time to work on it each day.
Back in June we went to spend a week with my parents in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Manitou Springs is a little tourist town that sits near the bottom of Pike's Peak just outside of Colorado Springs. It is home to the Manitou Incline, one of the most popular and challenging hikes in the area. The Incline is basically a mile of precariously spaced stairs that climb 2,000 feet in altitude. It is so steep that hikers are discouraged from walking back down them — there is an alternate trail that will take you back to the bottom.
The hike to the top can be done in about 30 minutes if you're, say, an Olympic athlete (several of them were passing us on the way up). And maybe it's possible to do it in under an hour if you've properly hydrated or if you didn't come from zero altitude the day before (oops). I agreed to do the Incline it without doing any research, which is extremely unusual for me, and as we sat on a bus to the bottom of the trail, I looked up to the top of the Incline and said, "Oh, shit. This is not going to go well." From the bottom it looks like an impossible distance, but like anything else, it can be done if you take it one step at a time. Even Luke, who is only 7 years old, eventually made it to the top, because after every break he took, he climbed a few more steps and he never quit. When we got to the top we turned around to see how far we had come. Luke told me that the view was beautiful. He had a hard time believing he had been able to climb so high simply by moving one foot at a time. One step at a time.
Daily art is a lot like climbing a mountain. You do a little every day and over periods of time, you can look back and see that you've come a really long way. And even if you can only do a little each day or you miss a day, you are still making forward progress if you never give up.
Here are some takeaways and observations from a month of daily art making:
1. Your drawing skills will improve. I can look back on the things I drew before this and see real improvement. My hand moves more confidently. I work faster. Every day I have solved new problems with color, line, value, perspective and composition. Without a doubt, I have gotten better at each of these things — I'm far from perfect, but if I got noticeably better after one month, how much better could I get after 2? 3? a year? There is no substitute for daily practice.
2. It will get easier to sit down and start. I have a tendency to spend lots of time THINKING about making art, but not actually making any. I will sit down and stare at a blank page, frozen and unable to start because I can't decide what to draw. I'll watch a video of someone else drawing, which makes me feel like I could do it, but then I don't. Or I will plan or research beyond the point of usefulness (read: procrastinate real work) because I am afraid of messing up and I want it to be perfect the first time. Forcing myself to sit down and make something every day means that there isn't time for any of that. I just have to sit down and start. And I found that each time I sat down and started, I built a little forward momentum that made it easier to start the next time.
3. Some days you will make ugly art. Just like anything else there will be days where everything is a struggle and nothing turns out right and you hate everything you do. I have been posting my daily work to social media even on the days when I felt like I my work is crappy or I have nothing to show. That's hard on the ego, but Marsha told me in one of our phone conversations, "You have to get the bad paintings out to get to the good ones."
4. Some days you won't make any art. There will be days when life gets in the way and you won't make anything. Many of us have kids and jobs and other things going on and sometimes you just won't get a moment to yourself. There were some days this past month when Tobias didn't take a nap, therefore I didn't accomplish much. Or sometimes I had to spend his nap time doing something else. There might also be days that you just need to take a break. There is nothing wrong with taking a day off as long as you tell yourself that you will wake up in the morning and begin again. Jake Parker has mentioned before that he takes an intentional break from art one day a week and doesn't look at any art or even think about it. I think whatever works for you is great as long as you are consistent. Consistency is what will keep you in habit mode.
5. You might make a lot of things that don't serve a purpose. Here is where you might need to adjust your goals if you find that you are sitting down to finish a painting every day and you are creating a lot of work that doesn't lead you anywhere. If you make a goal of finishing a painting every day, sometimes it will be tempting just to just make something that you can post online, but doesn't actually serve any purpose. And by that I mean that it doesn't challenge you or move you forward in any way and it is not part of a larger project. While they might be pretty to look at, those pieces are not going to end up in your portfolio.
I think it's cool to sometimes just make things because you enjoy making them, even if they don't serve a purpose, because sometimes, serendipitously, a random drawing or painting of a bear on a white background might spark an idea for something else, like a book about that bear. Also, the act of creating for enjoyment is something we don't do enough and doing this more probably could go a long way toward preventing burnout. BUT, it would be nice if some of your daily paintings or drawings were pieces of a larger project that could perhaps be a portfolio piece or a book dummy or something that you really put your heart into. So rather than holding myself to the rule of posting a finished piece every day I am starting to practice more what Dani Jones refers to as "purposeful progress." That means that you do something every day to move your art forward. One day it might be a series of thumbnail sketches. Then the next day, a drawing from one of those sketches, the next day a painting from that drawing. Maybe you'll do character sketches and the next day write a story about one of those characters. You can do as much or as little as you want, as your schedule permits as long as you do something every day to move you forward. Dani says she keeps a folder on her desktop and every day adds something to it with a date as part of the file name. I think this is a really good tip and is something I hope to implement into my own daily work in some way.
How has daily art helped you? What have you learned? What are your tips for staying in the habit of creating daily? Let me know in the comments! You can check out my daily art by following me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
SCBWI AUSTIN RECAP
Back in May, on the weekend of my 33rd birthday, I attended the SCBWI Austin Working Conference. Twelve weeks prior to the conference, I got the crazy idea to leave the baby with daddy for the weekend and go. It was my first real time away from Tobias since he was born, so that alone was a little nerve wracking, especially because we are still breastfeeding and he's not super interested in taking bottles. Also, this would be my first SCBWI conference and although I didn't have a children's illustration portfolio, I felt that I needed to sign up for the portfolio showcase to get the full experience. No pressure!
Maybe if I were not chasing a crawling baby around all day long, 12 weeks would have been enough time to put together 8 to 10 pieces, enough for a respectable portfolio. But realistically I did not expect to achieve that level of productivity, and that was ok. I decided that if I only went with a handful of pieces in my portfolio, I could at least get my feet wet and would have a head start for next year.
Well it turns out, my method of rendering is very time intensive and working digitally was still new to me. I was able to finish 5 pieces in time for the showcase. I printed them up at Skyline Printing and then screwed them into a new Pina Zangaro binder. I felt good about what I had accomplished, but never considered that I might win something at the showcase. In fact, when they announced the winner of the mentorship and my name was called, I had to locate my shoes under the table before I could get out of my seat. That's how much I was not expecting to be chosen.
The conference itself was a great experience, but the mentorship was possibly the most valuable thing I could have walked away with. I'll have a year of one-on-one coaching and career guidance from the lovely Marsha Riti. Marsha has illustrated an impressive number of books including the Critter Club series and The Picky Little Witch. She is a member of an all female illustrator collective here in Austin called the Girllustrators, and is the wonderful mama to Maple, who is about 17 months old. Not only will she have great insights on developing a career as an illustrator, but she knows what it's like to do this type of work while taking care of a tiny human. In the brief time that I've known her it is apparent that she's an amazingly sweet and kind person. She is someone you can talk to for 15 minutes and feel like you've been friends with her for years. I'm very excited and honored that she chose to work with me and I intend to take full advantage of the opportunity. I hope that I can make her proud. Here's an article about the mentorship.
I've had a lot going on since the conference, but this month I am finally free to work on my first assignment from Marsha: make art every day.
This is an assignment that I give myself from time to time, but I tend to approach daily art making the way many people approach dieting, so this post is as much for myself as it is for anyone else who happens to be reading. So, dieting usually goes like this: you do it for a while and then you quit. Or let's say you normally don't partake in office treats, but one day you cave and eat some donuts that someone brought (that's donuts plural, that was not a typo). Then, after lunch you find out that there is birthday cake and you think, "well, I had those donuts so I might as well have some cake too. I'll take that big piece over there." Then, before you know it, 4pm hits and and you've become a sugar fiend. You find yourself going back to stick your fingers in the icing when no one is looking. On the drive home you remember you have chicken and vegetables to cook tonight, but you think maybe you'll have some cheesy noodles for dinner instead. And from there, maybe for weeks, you continue saying yes to any junk food or delicious carbs that come your way.
Everyone knows donuts are a gateway drug and everyone knows this dieting approach doesn't work. If you make a mistake and have a day of gluttony, the next day, you get back on track. If you want to be healthy, you have to make a healthy diet a priority for life. If you want to be a good artist, you have to keep making art. Everyday. Forever. If you don't get around to it one day, don't tell yourself that you'd might as well skip it today. You have to get up and try again. Even if you make a horrible, ugly drawing that you hate and you don't want to show it to anyone, just do it (and then burn it ... or post it on social media). Never stop doing it. Effort begets effort. They say that objects at rest tend to stay at rest and it's totally true. The more days that pass where I don't make any art, the more I avoid making art. But as Molly Idle said during her lecture at the conference, nothing will ever happen if you don't do anything. And Marsha reminded me during our talk last week that no one was ever recognized for doing good art because they made one good painting. You have to make lots of paintings. So make lots of paintings! (that was horribly paraphrased, but you get the idea).
And let's be real. Good habits are much easier to talk about than they are to implement. Sometimes life will happen. If you have a day that is busy and you just don't have time, forgive yourself and then get up the next day and draw something. The more times you repeat an action, the more likely it is to become a habit.
I started posting daily art a week ago on Instagram. You should do it too! You can follow me @kristinwauson.