1. Set the vibe When I was studying for my MA in Cambridge, you could often find me in the print room. It was in the middle of the pandemic and a handful of local students were allowed in to work in there (socially distanced and with face masks of course). The place became my refuge. Our lecturer and printmaking technician John Williams, would always have the best tunes on, on full blast. I got to know so many cool bands and musicians in that time, and starting the day with the right playlist has been a part of my practice since. I have made several playlist since, depending on what I’m doing that day. If I start out the day writing, I will put on something calm to focus my brain. If I’m illustrating first thing, I will put on my warm up tunes playlist and have a little dance, especially if I’m feeling bit restless or anxious for whatever reason. In the wise words of Taylor Swift, just shake it off.
(Fun fact: did you know that shaking it off is actually beneficial for stress release? Animals like dogs and ducks will shake their bodies or flap their wings after something stressful releasing stress from the body.)
2. Create a manageable routine
Creating a manageable routine will condition your brain into the right mode for work. Here is mine. After breakfast, I will make a cup of tea or coffee, and get ready to go up to the studio. My cat Umi will already in prime position in front of the door, ready to shoot up the stairs. I then put on my fairy lights, light a candle and make a to do list for the day. It seems super simple, but having the same little ritual every day before work conditions my brain it’s time for work. Like Pavlov but without the drooling.
'A good Boy', monoprint
3. Always warm up It took me a while to figure this one out. Making art is like baking pancakes, the first attempt is always a mess. After that it will get better. I allow myself a little playtime before I get on with my client work by either experimenting with materials, dive into my current obsession (Treehoppers!) or make a little collage. Whatever suits my fancy that morning.
This is a practice I first came across via Fran Meneses, aka Frannerd. She is a queer illustrator and YouTuber, I’ve been following her for years. Fran started her practice of drawing in what she calls an ugly sketchbook to give herself a space to make (spoiler) ugly drawings, without the pressure of perfectionisme. As per usual when you do something steadily for a long time, her ugly sketchbook drawings are not ugly at all. It’s all about creating a safe space for yourself where you can do whatever you like, without having to post or share it anywhere. It can be your secret place. You might even surprise yourself by what you create in there.
5. Change your medium Changing your medium is a great way to get un-stuck. My go to is collage because it requires thinking in shapes rather than lines and it been a real game changer for me. In a lesson about Tone during my MA, Juliet Docherty, aka the colour tutor, advised me to look for the solid shapes in the image that I wanted to make. This tip was super helpful when tackling perspective in my drawings, something that my eyes will see in observation, but my hands refuse to do when thinking in line. I also love prepping the pages for a collage by going wild with paints and crayons, trying to get the perfect textures.
6. Fill the well, go on an artist date An artist date is a date with you and your inner child. What did you love to do as a child? Climb trees, make a sand castle, collect seashells at the beach?
I don’t do them often enough, but when I do I always come back revived and full of inspiration. My favourite artist dates are going to a museum to draw, going to a bookshop to browse, taking myself out for a coffee and read in the cafe, browsing through a charity or second hand shop or going to the cinema alone.
7. Copy a Master
A common part of the curriculum at art schools back in the day. When I was studying for my BA at the Royal College of Art in The Hague, the library was situated next to the plaster room, where you could find lots of plaster casts of different sculptures. Sadly I never drew from them since my focus back then was graphic design, but I’ve come to appreciate the exercise since getting reacquainted with it on Rebecca Green’s fabulous blog. After finishing ‘The History of Art without Men’ by Katy Hessel the other day, I was inspired to do a master study of the great Suzanne Valadon’s ‘The Blue Room’ (1923). I used a bunch of different materials, like gouache, crayons and coloured pencils and by doing so I found out a lot cool things I want to experiment with in own drawings, like the use of a dark blue outline.
A twist on this exercise could be to try a classic by creating a self portrait, a still life with found or favourite objects (make a Vanitas by adding a skull!) or to draw a local landscape in the style of an old master.
Master study: Suzanne Valadon 'The Blue Room', 1923
The Cambridge dictionary describes doodling as ‘to draw pictures or patterns while thinking about something else’. It’s the thinking of something else that is key for me. When working, my brain needs just the right amount of distraction. Not so much that I can’t focus, but not too little either, otherwise I will overthink my decisions. Having a podcast or an audiobook on provides me with just the right amount. It’s a great technique to trick my brain that I’m not making ‘real’ artwork, but that I am just playing around.
Favourite doodle from last year
9. Find something you’re really excited about In the autumn, I was obsessed with mushrooms. I went to look for them in my local park, took pictures of them and tried to find what species they were. The pictures I took fed into my Folktale week. My current obsession is with Treehoppers, tiny ridiculously cute bugs that are members of the Membracidae family. They come in all sort of crazy shapes, giving them an otherworldly sci-fi-like appearance. I am absolutely fascinated by them. Below are a few pages from my ugly sketchbook, where I happily spend an hour with them on the page.
Treehopper drawings slideshow
10. If all else fails, rest. If all else fails, just rest. Tomorrow is a new day. You don’t always have to hustle. Sometimes all you need is a nap, a snack and a good book or movie with a cat on your lap. Resting can the most productive thing to do.
Let me know how you get on with these tips or if you have any you want to add to the list.
As always, thanks for being here. See you in the next one.
Suzanne Valadon artist profile The Blue Room
My current writing track for focus
My Folktale week focus track on Youtube
Fran Meneses' Ugly Sketchbook
Juliet Docherty, The Colour Tutor & Instagram
Seven benefits of Doodling
The science of Shaking it off
My favourite podcasts:
Great Woman Artist Podcast on Spotify
Good Ship Illustration Podcast on Spotify
Studiomate Steve Podcast on Spotify
Creative Peptalk on Spotify