I love being my own boss, but sometimes I find it hard to start the day when my head is full of ideas, worries and/or plans for the future. I feel an urgency do to all of the things (make new portfolio work! get an agent!) but then feel too overwhelmed to actually start. Where to begin? What to do first? In my mind there are so many things that I think I should do in order to be a ‘good’ illustrator, like observational drawing, creating everyday, be active on social media, experiment with new materials, being playful, find new work… The list goes on. When I don’t have a plan for the day I can easily get distracted by these ‘shoulds’. I then do a little bit of everything but without a real focus and at the end of the day I’m disappointed with myself for not doing any ‘real work’ or not getting anywhere.
Rituals & Routine
I know I thrive when I have a solid routine, but for some reason I have to keep learning this lesson again and again. After finishing a big project, like after graduating from the MA or finishing my first illustrated book, I tend to creatively flounder for a while. When a deadline has been met, the daily routine that was part of making that deadline falls away and if I don’t create a new one I will find myself getting overwhelmed with all the options of what to do as I mentioned before.
Rituals and routine help me a lot with getting on track. One of my favourite rituals to start the day is lighting a scented candle (my favourites are FIK candles, made in the Netherlands), having my cup of tea ready and coaxing my cat Umi into her bed on my desk after her usual zoomies in my studio. I then either write my morning pages (a journaling method to clear the head) or I will warm up with a creative play exercise like making a collage, or using playful materials to make a quick drawing, or I do both. Having a ritual to start the day is like a Pavlov reaction tricking my brain into the right frame of mind. In ‘The Creative Habit’ Twyla Tharp writes:
“It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. (…) The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)”
When I’m out of ideas
When I’m not working on a commissioned project, I can find it hard to structure my day. I’m either full of ideas and don’t know what to prioritise or my brain is like creative desert where tumbleweeds lazily roam about the landscape. This was the case for a while after finishing my last client project. Even in these periods of creative drought, I find it important to keep showing up at my desk every day and do something, no matter how small. This is how I started my Dog ABC. I figured if I did something small each day, like make one collage, it would eventually accumulate into something bigger. I also use 'Draw Every Day, Draw Every Way' by Jennifer Orkin Lewis, a book full of drawing prompts. By making a collage following one of the prompts I can tick off many of my creative routine boxes, like warming up, being playful and experimenting.
Collages from the book "Draw Ever Day, Draw Every Way" by Jennifer Orkin Lewis
When I don’t have a solid project idea to work on I try not to freak out (what if I have used up all my ideas!) and try a method called thinking through making. By just starting something, anything, an idea can come to you. British artist Mark Hearld puts it perfectly: “I don’t always have a fully formed idea. At art school, the idea is put on a pedestal in such a way that if somebody feels they haven’t got one they’re paralysed. However I think it’s important to find the idea in the making and the doing.”
Daily dog collage project: B is for Bichon Frisé
Small daily acts of creativity help me ward off imposter syndrome when I’m in between project ideas and it helps me stick to my creative practice. I find that if I don’t do anything creative for a while, it gets harder and harder to get back into the flow of it. Better to stick to it for at least a small amount a day than to not do anything whilst waiting for an idea.
Page from the book "Draw Ever Day, Draw Every Way" by Jennifer Orkin Lewis
Planning: Long term and short term
When a project idea does come to me, I start with making long term plan by breaking the project up into smaller, more manageable bits and by setting myself a deadline. Presently I have a new picture book idea and I would love to have a dummy ready to show at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March next year. To realise this project I started planning backwards from the deadline in March. Two weeks before the fair I want to have the dummy printed, so I put that in my calendar. I do the same for all the other bits, like finishing at least 5 spreads of artwork, making several dummies in order to determine the sequence, developing convincing characters, organising crit groups with my MA friends and planning tutorials with industry professionals. In order to make my deadline, I’ve made a monthly calendar up until March so I can keep track of what I need to do. This long term plan makes it easier for me to fill in my working days and working towards a goal like this gives me a feeling of purpose.
When I’m all fired up and ready to go, I have a habit of completely overestimating what I can accomplish in a day and can easily get disappointed with myself when I don’t reach my (rather unrealistic) goals. I have since learned to plan more reasonably. It’s more manageable for me to plan less and be happy when I achieve more, than when I push myself to go above and beyond. This was hard a first, especially when I compared my productivity and process to that of my friends (some of whom are true beasts of productivity), but then I stumbled upon a theory of mindful productivity by Anne-Laure Le Cunff:
“There is research that shows us we can only do about 4 hours of very focussed creative work per day. Everything else is fine to do, like emails, or something else that doesn’t require as much mental power. But true creative work, we only have 4 hours a day. Mindful productivity embraces this and doesn’t see this as a limit we can push through.”
I no longer feel bad about not being able to do creative work for a solid 8 hours a day. This gave me so much breathing space that I now plan my days around this. I know that I’m at my best in the morning, so mornings are reserved for focussed creative work like sketching out a composition or creating artwork. After lunch I’m usually less sharp, so afternoons are for experimenting, working on my website and online shop or admin jobs. Taking proper breaks is also important, as rest is a big part of productivity. This might feel counterintuitive in our current hustle culture but as Julia Cameron writes in ‘The Artists Way’, we have to ‘fill the well’, we have to replenish what we use up, either energy wise by taking a break and having a nap, or creatively by going out of the studio bubble and getting inspired by things that aren’t just illustration. I also found that a creative practise doesn’t solely consists of being productive and making things. Research and reading are also part of my creative practise, as are visiting a museum and getting inspired, walking in nature, watching a film or documentary, eating well and even taking a nap.
Page from the book "Draw Ever Day, Draw Every Way" by Jennifer Orkin Lewis
But then there are the days in which nothing will get me going. Not my routine, not my plans, not all the scented candles in the world. Nothing. Sometimes there are days that just don’t work out, and that’s okay. I try to catch this early on and make peace with the fact that that day is not the day and do something else instead, like going on an artist date (another technique mentioned in The Artist Way, highly recommend) or read a book and recharge myself, and try again tomorrow.
Twyla Tharp writes:
“In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit forming.”
Thanks again for being here with me and my musings. Would love to hear your about your creative rituals and routines in the comments.
Lots of love,
Mindful productivity by Anne-Laure Le Cunff
Mark Hearld - On Making a Collage
The Artist Way by Julia Cameron