Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections on Hiatus 2016

I've been very fortunate to have the past two months off of work to concentrate fully on studying and creating concept art and illustration. I go back to work on Monday, and as I wind down my final week, I wanted to share some reflections on what I've learned during this time off, where I think I can do better, and my goals for the future, to keep myself motivated and accountable to continue the art hustle while also maintaining a full-time job.

Throughout this post, I've used pictures of some post-it notes that I've put up around my office that help to illustrate my current mindset.


My two goals for this time were (1) to gain the courage to make art consistently (and have fun doing it), and (2) to level up my artistic skills.

I haven't spoken publicly about this, but I feel it's important to know that at the beginning of this time off, I was just starting to recover from a long stretch of artistic burnout. I never stopped drawing, but my relationship with art was bitter, caused mainly by the pressure I had put on myself to turn my hobby into a full-fledged career. Fear was controlling every aspect of my approach to artmaking. Sitting down to draw hadn't been fun for a long time, and it showed. This had gone on long enough, and caused enough distress, that I knew I needed a major change of attitude if I was going to make another portfolio push, which is a time consuming and exhausting effort.

Enter the campaign of Make Art Fun Again 2016. Over and over again I had encountered the idea that if you don't enjoy what you're doing, no one else will. So my main goal with this time off was to get loose, approach it with a sense of joy and fun and play, draw stuff that my six year old self would have requested, and generally just start enjoying the process again. With that in mind, I took all thoughts of my professional portfolio off the table for the first few weeks, and just made whatever I felt like, with the goal of not defeating my fear, but learning how to live with it and still create.

Coinciding with this campaign was an equivalent effort to take my art ability to the next level, especially in the digital realm. I updated to Photoshop CC, bought Kyle's Brushes, and dedicated myself to truly learning the ins and outs of digital painting.


1. Sketchbook habit
I really wanted to start looking forward to time spent in my sketchbook instead of dreading the blank page. One thing that really helped kickstart this was discovering the Pomodoro technique (I used an app called Be Focused to help me with this). By setting a timer for 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest, my brain immediately wrote off that time as "not so bad," and I was able to approach the sketchbook with much greater ease. I've done at least one set per day every day since I've been off, including weekends. Some days I literally scribbled black clouds because I couldn't think of anything else, but some days I ended up doing more than one set because I was having so much fun just playing in my imagination. I'm very happy to say that I found a lot of happiness in this practice, and I consider it the #1 best thing to have happened during my time off. It sparked a lot of the illustration and character ideas that I'm hoping to incorporate into my new portfolio, and I'm confident I can continue to find 25 minutes a day to sketch while I go back to work.

2. Learning Photoshop
It would have been easy for me to write this off as a way of avoiding making art, but I decided to really invest a good chunk of time each week into watching Ctrl+Paint videos, experimenting with brushes, and looking up digital painting techniques. This was huge. I feel as though I now have full command over the brush tool, and it has taken my ability to express myself visually to the next level. I even spent a few hours one day simply learning (and writing down) Photoshop's most useful hotkeys, which has completely changed the game for me and I consider it one of my best-spent chunks of time.

3. CGMA class on Color and Light
A week into my hiatus, I signed up for CGMA's 'The Art of Color and Light' online course, with lectures by Ty Carter and feedback and Q&As by Kristy Kay, both favorite artists of mine. This was a big decision as I knew it would majorly cut into my artmaking time (and it has). But - and I do not say this lightly - I believe this class was the missing brick in my Wall of Art Education. I find it extremely fortunate that I chose this specific course over some of the other ones I was considering. I'm shocked that it took me this long to realize, but color and light is everything when it comes to creating narrative images, and the lessons I've taken from this class have helped tie everything else I've learned together. One note for anyone considering taking this or any other CGMA course - as with most of the other classes I've taken, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it, and obviously, student-to-student interactions are much more limited than they would be in an in-person class. I do wish you could save the lecture videos; it's a bummer that you can't.

4. Saying no
In the past, I've said yes to almost every major and minor project that came my way. Now that the people in my life know I'm an artist, I get a fair amount of requests for logos, greeting cards, T-shirts, personal cartoons, you name it. After realizing that I was never going to do it myself, my husband Dave strongly encouraged me to stop taking these on, even the ones with offers of compensation, in order to preserve time for my own work. This was one of the things that was the absolute hardest for me to do, as I am an intense people pleaser (and also I would rather put off the hard work of thinking about my own art in order to do the easy work of just drawing what someone else tells me to draw). But this has made a huge difference. Had I not consistently turned all those little projects down, this time would have been completely lost to classwork and other people's projects. I did do one (paid!) commission for a friend who works in animation and wanted a full-page illustration done for a animated feature film pitch that she's working on - I thought this lined up perfectly with my own interests, and it was a very fulfilling job. Also, last week I put a little extra time into one request, reaching out to former classmates of mine in order to help a coworker find an artist for a Save the Date card commission. The person who ended up taking the job was perfect for it, and I feel like I paid it forward all around.

5. Sources of inspiration
Again, this may sound like a no-brainer to some people, but I began to value time spent just in pure inspiration mode - i.e. looking at art that speaks to me, and analyzing what I like about it, and why. When I made my current portfolio in 2014, I remember starting a Pinterest board (which is how I save all my art references) for visual portfolio inspiration, and just pinning tons of concept art to it willy-nilly, with almost no filter other than "I like this and it looks cool." This time around, I'm curating a very specific selection of art and artists that I love and want to emulate, and I took a few hours one afternoon at the beginning of the time off to write down a list of the common threads that I saw that I want to incorporate into my own work, which has been super helpful to return to anytime I'm starting something new or feeling lost in the middle of a piece.

6. Get physical
From taking a few deep breaths to going for a walk, stopping down my brain and standing up and moving my body around was key to keeping my mental energy from depleting over the course of the day, week, and month.


1. Time management
One of the reasons I'm actually looking forward to going back to work is that I struggle mightily with time management. Having a limited amount of time to devote to art will help (I hope) to really focus what I use those precious hours for. Although I feel I've used my time off wisely for the most part, there have definitely been days where I've lost a few hours to distraction and procrastination.

2. Working harder instead of smarter
This is closely related to #1. When feeling the pressure to get things done, it's often tempting to jump straight in and keep my nose glued to the computer for the entire day. It's hard sometimes to remember that the quality of my work improves when I take time to plan out what I want to do (and how I want to do it), or, if I'm feeling stressed and spinning my wheels, to take that time to physically step away and take a walk, have some tea, look at some art to get myself inspired again. But it's so easy for my brain to dismiss those activities as 'wasting time' (especially since I don't want to fall into the procrastination trap), and I end up working longer hours on sub-par content as a result.

3. Being overambitious
I guess this one sounds like a humblebrag, but I really am way too ambitious when it comes to making artistic plans or figuring out what I want to get done in a given day. This only leads to disappointment when I don't finish everything to perfection. It would be better to make modest, achievable goals and just keep in mind that every step brings me closer, no matter how small.

4. Stress, pressure and fear
This comes from too many places to name, and I feel it creeping back in with extra vigor this week, borne on the knowledge that my time off is coming to a close with "not much to show for it" (except, you know, a bunch of full sketchbooks, a major update in Photoshop knowledge, 7 weeks of classwork, a full-page animation-related commission, and a few personal oneoff illustrations). But sometimes I can't shake it. It happens to the best of us.


I'm happy to have accomplished my sketchbook habit goal; I can now make rough sketches until the cows come home, and I have so many ideas that I'm excited about. But the biggest thing I have left to work on is to consistently take my favorite sketches and ideas to a finish. This is something I didn't do a ton of during the time off - my sole disappointment is that I'm returning to work without many new portfolio-quality, finalized pieces to show off.

My other major goal is to get a new, clean portfolio website up and running. I'll be using Squarespace for this and I'm excited to have a blank canvas in which to arrange some great new art.

In the spirit of not getting overambitious, and of using my time wisely, I've made some modest goals
to keep myself creating regularly while I go back to work.

Daily - at least 25 minutes of experimental, inspired, playful sketchbook time
Weekly - Get out sketching in the world for a few hours - coffeeshop, interesting location, lifedrawing class
             - Take one small piece, like a character or simple illustration, to a portfolio-quality finish in Photoshop
             - Continue to stay inspired, curate favorite art/artists, and analyze what I like about them
Monthly - Finish a larger portfolio-quality piece
             - Take time to verify that I'm still working towards my goal in effective ways

So these things are what I'll be focusing on for the next few months. As it gets closer to 2017 (eep), I plan on seeing where I'm at and reassessing what my next course of action is, but I feel good about my ability to accomplish these things with the time I've given myself. I'm sure life will continue to happen as it always does, and I plan on being forgiving and not beating myself up about missed deadlines, just shaking it off and moving forward.

One final word: my brain is obsessed with time, and it's pretty much constantly screaming that everything I'm doing is a waste of it. This can manifest in positive ways, like how I've more or less stopped playing videogames. But in other ways it can be quite unhealthy. For example - Art is a waste of time because I'm not seeing instant results. Work is a waste of time because it isn't my One True Passion. Cooking dinner is a waste of time when we could just order something. Hiking is a waste of time when I could be at home getting stuff done. It's telling me right now that writing this blog post is a waste of time, even though I know that it's helpful to gather my thoughts on what this time off has meant, and taking time to analyze and plan is always useful in the long run. My brain is very action-oriented, always wanting to jump right in without a plan, to do-do-do and go-go-go and get instant results. But, as usual, I'm striving to just be present, and remember that the journey is its own reward.

Relax. Everything's going to be ok.

© Gina F. Sous 2016

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