The personal equation of art + work

Over the past year I’ve had quite a few conversations that gave further pause to reflect on my approach to my art and craft. I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal experience in terms of:

  1. Philosophy: How I integrate art into my life.
  2. Discipline: Finding enough of it to work on projects and see them through to the end.

Disclaimer

What I’m covering here is hardly new ground. Many people have written about these things, or similar things, in greater detail, far more eloquently, and with more research and experience. Some of the personal reflection is not new to my own ramblings either; I’ve touched on many of them on other social media accounts.

Also, I repeat this theme, but it’s important to remember everyone is different. We do have shared experiences, and there are best practices that work for many people. There’s a lot of value in learning about how others approach things, and why. That said, you can follow rules to the letter and fail to have something stick. You can do something I’d never in a million years even want to consider, and find happiness and get your projects done. As long as it works, that’s the whole point.

Ultimately I just wanted to collect my thoughts in a somewhat more organized fashion, and provide another angle for those interested in art, figuring out how to integrate it into their lives, and trying to get creative projects done.

1. Philosophy

Art for a living and art for life are not the same thing

There are many well-known argument about following your dreams versus being stuck doing something you “don’t love”. These are two extremes, and the truth for everyone is different. Honestly, truths are usually somewhere in the middle: a spectrum, a bit of this and that to find a hodge-podge of solutions for your own needs.

For as long as I can remember, communications has been a huge interest for me. So many things I love are expressions of this idea/field. I love art and drawing and writing and storytelling and comics. I can’t imagine not actively doing these things! On the other hand, the idea of having to be dependent on producing on command? That’s not really something that gets me going.

The lovely people who have been following me online for a while already know this, but I have a “non-art” job (though I am still surrounded by creative people and involved in creative things). It has its ups and downs, like any line of work. But the point is, I enjoy it. I think of it as a career, not an interim thing propping me up until I “make it” with my art.

How did I decide to get to where I am? One summer before deciding on my post-secondary direction, I did some character and monster design work for a startup MMO. It was interesting and educational. Perhaps the most notable insight I gained was realizing I didn’t relish drawing the same thing over and over from different angles, or having to render someone else’s rough sketches or concepts.

I realized I didn’t want to burn myself out, especially not on other people’s projects. I didn’t want to be working on my own art with a sense of guilt: ”Oh, I have time to draw for myself? Well I should be drawing something for work instead!” Similarly, the idea of relying on the profitability of my own work turned it into a slog too.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s amazing there are people who can do what they love for a living and go at their passion 24/7. I definitely don’t think such a direction means an artist is automatically headed for a miserable sellout or burnout time. You only live once, and I firmly believe you gotta do what makes you feel like this life has been worthwhile. Seeing the incredible discipline and will that people have to tackle their creative goals is immensely inspiring and wonderful to see. I learn a lot from them.

That said, doing art 24/7, or doing art for a living, is not the specific dream I have.

Being able to make art throughout my life, and having the opportunities to create what I want to create, is.

I feel I was lucky enough to realize early on what exactly it is that I like about the things I like doing.

Not to say I could or would never do art for a living, but that hasn’t been my mission. Maybe my path will change in the future, but to date I’ve been pretty happy. I have a job I find interesting and challenging in ways different from my art without taking away from my capacity to make stuff. I still have time, resources and support to be able to pursue lots of personal projects like draw a webcomic, make books and zines, do conventions and workshops, and whatnot.

Which leads me to time, resources and support.

Managing expectations – especially your own

I can’t emphasize enough how incredibly fortunate I am to have family, friends, employers, and coworkers, who, even if they don’t always understand exactly what I’m doing, do get the personal commitment involved in furthering my art “on the side”. It’s huge thanks to them that I didn’t fully realize how big of a deal this can be for some people. A colleague, who is also trying to do creative stuff on the side, sadly found that some long-running relationships were becoming very strained because those particular friends couldn’t understand why she needed so much time away to work on her projects.

When people ask where I find the time to make art, I sometimes joke that I don’t do anything else and I have no social life. That statement is probably not far from the truth for some people. But again, everyone’s definition of a rich, fulfilling social life is different. Thanks in no small part to the amazing people in my life and managing my own expectations, I’ve been able to find a balance that works for me.

There definitely are “sacrifices”. I look back and wonder about the bygone days of yore when I played so many videogames or read so many books/comics/etc. But that probably would have happened no matter what I cared to dedicate my time to. I’ve weighed my options, and for me, what I’ve decided to focus on more than makes up for what I’ve chosen not to chase.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I’m not a big party-goer, and I’m fairly introverted. I can see how someone who thrives a lot on constant human interaction, or has a large family/social circle and many commitments, would have different priorities and may find some things more difficult to manage or work around.

It was really important for me to figure out what I value, and make that clear not only to the people around me, but to myself. I try not to spend time on things that are in conflict with my priorities, minimizing the times when I have to do something “for show” to meet some expectation that doesn’t actually reflect what I care about. Otherwise, it really would be easy to be miserable – not to mention very difficult to figure out where to focus my limited time and energy.

A concept of time

“Where do you find the time to do all this?”

My life is pretty busy, but I’m certainly not the busiest person in the world. Finding, making, taking time – these are all semantics. Nobody has more hours in a day than anyone else; everyone is doing something. “Sleeping” and “lying around motionless” are also things that use up time (and things I am guilty of too at one time or another). At the end of the day, the question I have is, am I satisfied with the end result of where I invested my time?

One thing that the simple time question also overlooks is that the more you do something, the more proficient – and efficient – you become at it. There are always going to be things you can’t or shouldn’t speed up. But there are also aspects, small as they are, where you can get better at it and figure out shortcuts for the methods that work for you, consciously and subconsciously.

Busy-ness attracts busy-ness. One thing I’ve noticed in my work cycle is that when things get busy, they get quite crazy. I often look back and think “Geez, how the heck did I do all this crap before? I can’t imagine doing all that stuff again.” Then the next year rolls by and it happens again, though the events and the projects may be different. After a while I realized, it was probably because I had a lot to do in the first place.

When I’m not busy, I get really bored, and things slow down. Just because I have a lot more time doesn’t mean I actually get more things done – it just means I feel like I have the luxury of spreading it around and being more leisurely about tackling tasks.

But when I’m busy, and I’ve committed myself to something (usually several somethings – a drawing challenge, a zine I want to make, an event, a workshop), all of a sudden ideas for other projects are bursting out of the woodwork, I keep finding more interesting stuff to do, and the list just grows and grows. All my hustle and bustle was pushing me to be out in places where I could notice, or be noticed by, other opportunities. It’s like I’ve been primed or stimulated to be in positions where I can’t help but keep thinking and producing. It’s kind of like why people always seem to perform more – get more done – under the pressure of deadlines.

Also, I personally think having something else to do (e.g., a different job) is really helpful in my creative process. I don’t think I’ve ever truly felt the pain of writer’s or creator’s block, because if I get stuck there are a million other things to do. Meanwhile, my subconscious is still working away. Then when I have moments of relaxation or autopilot, ideas and solutions or at least a better sense of direction comes for me to work with.

I noticed this a lot when I was writing a lot of fanfiction. Sometimes when I had a challenge working out some issue in a scene or the overall plot, it’d come to me later while commuting (especially during walks) or showering. It was like my brain was actively working on it in the background while I was busy freaking out over other things. I’ve come to rely on this a lot in much of my creative work. Don’t passively wait for things to come to you, keep working on other things in the meantime.

2. Discipline, the underdog

Ah, the magical and hated d word. Everyone who works creatively in any way knows the “dirty little secret”. It’s not really a secret, it’s just that it seems so obvious and mundane that everyone wishes there were some easier way.

Basically, everyone has awesome ideas, but not everyone does it. And getting stuff done is the biggest pain in the butt.

I frequently make references to screaming and crying my way through projects, both from a humorous and a very real perspective. Anybody who talks about inspiration flowing effortlessly like a divine spark from the brain to the reality of paper (or whatever medium they use) is generally super duper one of three things: lucky, lying, or not actually a practitioner of whatever they’re talking about.

Making stuff is work, and it can be very aggravating, tiresome, and demoralizing. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like whatever I make at the end will be worth it, because it feels like I hate it so much while I’m slaving over it. I only know at the end, when I’ve completed the thing and am looking back, that I did it. The more I do it, the more I remember how the experience can ultimately turn out and use that memory to support me in the low points of the journey.

In reality, I don’t feel like I’m particularly disciplined. But things seem to be getting done one way or another – eventually. For every little thing (comic page, illustration, book) you actually see me put out, there are a bajillion things that are half-assed somewhere, or never even see the light of day outside of my head. But I’ve somehow manage to complete enough things that I’ve had people ask me how I do it, and sometimes even mention that I seem to produce a lot despite not being a full-time professional artist.

There are a lot of self-help resources out there on this topic. To be honest, I’m probably pretty ignorant of a lot of them. I mostly bumbled around and figured out/cobbled together some strategies along the way. Experience is a great teacher! That said, learning from someone else’s experience probably saves you a lot of time and anguish if you are able to incorporate it. (But for some reason having another person tell you, “Hitting yourself in the face with this stick hurts a lot, don’t do it” doesn’t seem to be as effective as you hitting yourself in the face with a stick and truly understanding pain.)

So, with a massive clump of salt, here are a few things that seem to work decently enough, a decent amount of the time, for me.

Working from big to small

I find this principle useful for both task management and creative development.

Breaking things down and list-making are the most basic steps of any sort of project management or get-stuff-done attack plan. You take one daunting goal and you break it down into tasks to make it less scary, and then you tackle each piece one at a time until at the end you have achieved that thing! Some people get really into this, creating detailed calendars, schedules and lists. I do that – sort of.

My method is honestly kind of laid-back and “loosey-goosey” – I follow the general principles, but I definitely treat them more as guidelines than a rigid structure. I often set out with a grand plan, but it usually devolves into a “good enough, I’m moving forward” process as follows.

  • I generally set a final goal deadline of some some sort, and then checkpoints along the way marked in my Google calendar to help remind myself.
  • In my head I break down the various tasks and then as I go day by day, week by week, I have a constantly shifting list in my head.
  • Sometimes, to help me focus, I’ll write down the specific items to be done. The time frame for this is usually a day, a weekend, or a week.
  • I don’t really track these lists to a huge amount of detail, aside from reminding myself what to focus on. Some people find a physical (or digital) checklist of some sort a great way to look back and have accomplishments to validate their progress. I usually throw out my little day/week/weekend lists or use them for cleaning up/testing colours on my brush while painting. For me, knowing that I’ve made progress in my head is enough to validate and motivate me to keep pushing moving forward.
  • I’ve seen comic artists who post big honking calendars on their walls with really detailed work schedule breakdowns of what’s going to be done when. I imagine if I were hitting publishing deadlines with big consequences this would be super helpful! My ultimate deadlines are generally self-imposed, often driven by wanting to get a certain book done for a specific convention/event. In the past, the above has worked well enough for me.

When I first started my webcomic Now Recharging in 2015, my approach for the first few months was to do it when I had time and see how it goes, get myself comfortable with the story and the process. Heading into the beginning of 2016, I wanted to take this project much more seriously and try to get 2 pages posted a week.

The above method has worked for me so far as well, and is less crammed into a specific time period and more spread out. I actually feel more like I’m working on things on a regular basis, like a dedicated ongoing job now. It’s a long haul, a steady marathon instead of a screaming dash getting a small thing ready for one event.  I’ve had to be more careful about my time and how I fit in other creative things (like working on another zine, or doing other little illustrations and doodles on the side). I have a feeling that the work and posting schedules are going to take a hit when I head into convention season (where attending events takes time away from working on the comic), or when I go on vacation/trips. I’m trying to get more pages done in advance in anticipation of this, but overall the pace is affected as well if other aspects of my life (day job, family responsibilities etc.) get busy and I get home too tired/blahh to want to work on anything. (See below “creative procrastination” for more thoughts on this).

Similarly, I find it useful working “big to small” in terms of tackling the actual creative work as well. I sketch out high level goals or ideas. As I have time, I slowly fill in the details. Then I combine it all together, and from there I can polish and refine it.

  • This works for art and writing. I can draft a point-form outline of a script to create a skeleton or framework for the overall story, or just a chapter. From there I go even deeper into pages, panels, each final word of the dialogue. I can thumbnail a page to figure out the panels, then figure out all the details at later stages. I don’t freak out about not having everything figured out at once.
  • Again, my method is pretty loose. Sometime before I started working on Now Recharging, I read shazzbaa’s “Where to start [with webcomics]?|” answer and thought it had a lot of great points. I found the technique of using a spreadsheet of chapters, general descriptions of what happens in each section, and then start detailing the pages and panels from there really appealing – it’s similar to how I manage my smaller comic/book projects. So I tried doing that… but found I quickly stopped updating it when it was for a longer webcomic.
  • Now, I just use a Google doc that I add to whenever I have ideas for scenes, and do a search for keywords to find sections. (This is actually really similar to my process writing poetry and fanfiction.) As pages are completed and published, I move the text into separate document to keep a “final” version of the script.

Creative accounting

This is more an emotional/psychological dealing tactic than it is about actually getting work done. It’s my way of skirting the unproductive feeling of guilt and self-loathing when I haven’t done everything I planned on doing from my list or my schedule.

It’s important to note: this is not the same as lying to myself, although it has the potential to head down that road. I still have to justify to myself that legit work happened. Creative accounting is about reframing my achievements in a positive way so that I feel good about what I’ve done instead of feeling feel defeated and unmotivated to continue (a.k.a. the “why bother”).

Creative accounting takes place when I say “I’m gonna ink two pages this week!” but end up with five separate pages that have only panel borders inked. Whatever, that’s kind of equal to two pages fully inked, and I’ve saved myself some future time already. Pat myself on the back, go have ice cream or go to bed or whatever, and tomorrow ink a little more of the five pages. Or finish inking one of the pages. I’m still inching towards my goal instead of doing nothing.

Creative procrastination

Basically, I have lots of ideas and projects on the go almost all the time. When I don’t feel like working on one, I work on another. Eventually, at least one of them gets done. This works for bigger projects too when I can break things out into different phases, and different pieces that can be progressing through phases simultaneously.

For example, here’s me breaking down the tasks for Now Recharging.

  • From a high level perspective, there’s writing/scripting, thumbnailing, character design, etc.
  • From a page by page perspective, there’s (again) thumbnailing, finding references, sketching the base of the page, inking, colouring (in my case, watercolouring), scanning, cleaning, lettering, posting online.
  • Writing/scripting requires very little special equipment, and I’m often doing it a lot in my head already as I go about my day, imagining the future dialogue and how to move from scene to scene. The most I need to do is write it down somewhere (scrap paper, notebook, email draft, Google Docs) before I forget the details. A lot of dialogue and word/phrasing choices are finalized just before I finish editing my scan and post, so at this stage I really only need to refine the text to a point where I know this is basically what the characters will be saying and approximately how long so that I can allocate appropriate speech bubble space. (Sometimes I fail at it and end up contorting myself trying to figure out how to salvage the dialogue with hyphens and font sizes at the typesetting stage. But oh well, it’s a learning experience.)
  • Thumbnailing and sketching requires more time and thought for me than the writing. I need to plan out how the content breaks over different pages and the visual flow and reader experience. Some of this I already have in my head and will note it down as I rough out my script, but when I start doodling it out and making it “more real” I’ll usually notice more issues or opportunities. There are lots of pauses and restarts and reworks here.
  • Finding references is easy thanks to Google and my own excessive collection of photos. It’s easy and somewhat mindless so a good thing to do when I have a little bit of free time, but not enough to focus.
  • Prepping the final comic page pencils – drawing my borders/marking off margins etc. is easy and mindless too. Another little task I can do when time is tight.
  • Inking always takes me the longest and causes the most complaining. Bleh. Things have improved greatly since I started using a brush pen, but it’s still one of the most difficult steps for me, requiring both time and mental focus.
  • Watercolouring is much faster and way more fun than inking. One downside – I really would prefer to do it during natural light, which usually means waiting till the weekend when I can do it during the day, so I try to do everything else during the weeknights. Sometimes I’ve ended up painting in my poorly lit room, however. Thank god I only have three colours to use. (Now Recharging is painted only with brown and 2 blues, aside from a couple of pages where Emmie’s eyes are glowing red.)
  • Flattening my art/prepping for scanning is easy, but I can only do one page at a time because of space issues.
  • Scanning is easy and quick.
  • Cleaning up my art, including adding text on the computer and exporting final artwork, is super tedious but mindless. Good for evenings after work when I have time but I can’t concentrate on scripting or inking.

By breaking it out into these kinds of tasks, I can have multiple pages going with all of these things. It’s easy to find something to do and jump from one small task to another when I lack the mental focus or the time to tackle something more intimidating. If I’m too tired to think, let’s clean up some scans and letter them. If I have no time, I can still draw the borders for upcoming page templates/blanks or flatten a finished page or scan a page.

One thing I’ve found is getting started can feel like a chore, but once I’m into it, I often perk up and really get into it, even moving up to more mentally tasking items on the to-do.

Gathering focus

Ugh, focus. I do find sometimes my work is reduced to inking two lines, then surfing tumblr for like five minutes, and repeating. It’s amazing anything gets done. A few things I try:

  • Figure out optimal times – I try to do some of the most mentally consuming things first thing in the day (e.g., morning of my weekends) and the most mindless things at the end of the day after work. When I feel fresh and not worn out, that helps a lot in being motivated and staying on track. That said, I do sometimes do mindful things after work too if I feel like it – there are days when an idea will latch into my head and I’ll be itching to get it out. But having plans for optimizing my time helps a lot in terms of managing my expectations and being to support my ability to focus and get stuff done.
  • Doodle day – Sometimes I’ll get together with my friend atorier and we’ll hang out at some food court or coffee shop, working on our respective creative projects. It helps a lot to get the heck out of the house and have a change of scenery and not being in an environment where it’s easy to be distracted by all the stuff I have in my room. This has been really useful for scripting and thumbnailing, because distraction in those areas is too easy. And it’s great that I can do this with a creative and trusted friend because we can bounce ideas off of each other too!

Giving it distance

Distance and perspective are two related concepts I try to keep in mind. The longer you work on something, the more focused and myopic you can become, to the point where the tiniest flaw is magnified into the biggest there’s-no-getting-out-of-this-black-hole-of-failure catastrophe.

  • When I’m really struggling with something, sometimes I just have to remember to stop, let it sit, switch gears and come back to it later. It doesn’t always work, but time definitely helps you to be more objective about it. I’ve had many times where I absolutely hated something I was working on, but when I came back to it a day or two later, it looked fine and I couldn’t even remember my main problem.
  • Talk to other people who make things about making things. This is really important for any industry or craft where you work in isolation. It helps you keep perspective to know you’re not alone, and having that interaction with other artists can net you inspiration and energy to push more on your work!
  • In general, it’s good to take a break and do other things. Recharging is a big deal, obviously, and I find exposure to other things is really refreshing and helps to expand your perspective and problem-solving abilities (not to mention gives the opportunity for the subconscious to work at finding solutions too).

The “Good Enough” principle

This is definitely one of the many things I’m still working on, and probably will always be working on. It’s the ability to pull back and go “is this good enough? Does this achieve the goal of what I was trying to do?” and if it does, move on. It’s not a bad thing to want to aim for perfection, but it’s not realistic; nothing gets out perfect. Ultimately, the point is to get it out.

At the end of the day

Looking back, I think the most important thing I’ve been able to do is be able to maintain perspective and keep the end goal in sight. While I definitely get frustrated and demotivated, more often than not I can visualize the end result of little pieces of work, all the bits of time I’ve dedicated to it, and let that drive me. (That said, the nature of my projects and the stories I tell has tended to be quite piecemeal and conducive in nature to that kind of approach – I haven’t been able to tackle something with the scale of a long-running “epic”… yet!)

Ultimately, while I’ll never be able to be as objective about my own work as I’d like, I know that immediate perfection isn’t the point. I try to be kind to myself, and take the time to look back and think, “Hey, I did make a lot of stuff that’s not bad!” It’s critical to give yourself credit for the things you’ve achieved. I doubt it’s possible to feel 100% satisfied, but I know I can at least look at my work and feel positive about my output and direction.

More food for thought

Over my time of thinking too much on these things, a lot of other people’s perspectives have crossed my path. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed and found particularly helpful. I’ll update this as more come to mind!

In general

With a particular focus on drawing/comics