Friday, December 27, 2019

Writing, Art and Creator Burn-Out: A Tale of 2019

For anyone working in the creative arts, figuring out where to get inspiration and refill that so-called "artistic well" is among the most important of challenges they face. For myself, I have a number of strategies. Going for walks, talking about movies and books with my friends and, of course, watching musicals.

One musical I think about often when I'm in creative downturns, looking for renewed vigour, is Sondheim and Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, which tells the fictionalized story of French post-impressionist George Seurat and how he came to paint his most famous work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

In the musical, everyone pictured is singing!
Throughout the play, various characters comment on George's obsession with the painting, what it means to be an artist and what art even is. There are lots of characters offering hot takes, but one has always stood out to me. 

Work is what you do for other people. Art is what you do for yourself.

I don't particularly agree. Art, I tend to think, has more to do with the content of the piece rather than the origin or expression of the creation, and yet I've often thought this quote gets at something very real. This crosses out of the realm of visual art and also applies to the art of writing.

Writing for Yourself and Other People

When starting out, most books grow from an idea the author is passionate about. In the sense of the quote from Sunday in the Park with George, this is where art is not work. It's a thing writers do for themselves; scribbling new stories with fresh, new ideas. If this was the whole writing process, then writing never would be work, but it is, and all too often, it becomes work the moment other people enter the picture.

Almost everything that you can buy published in a bookstore found its way there by way of a major publishing company and was touched not just by the author, but also an editor and probably an agent and maybe a marketing department and definitely a cover designer. And along the way, they asked the author to make (le gasp!) changes.

I got a first hand taste of this over the past year, when an agent I queried asked me to complete a revise and resubmit. Most of the changes she asked for I agreed would make the book better, so I got to work. And work it certainly was, because that level of unpacking a book is not something I would have done "for myself."

I've gone through forms of this process before, and don't get me wrong. I enjoy my work. But maybe because I spent so much of this year revising, writing felt like less fun than it usually does. All writers have their favourite parts of the writing process and mine are early on - usually idea generation, drafting and reworking the "first draft" into it's second, slightly less messy iteration. Those are such fun stages. I do them for myself.

I'm proud of the revision I did this year. I'm grateful for the eyes of other people and for the pressure I feel to make my writing something that communicates ideas more clearly and meets the needs of my audience, not just my own. But in a tough year, where the writing felt like work, I needed something to refill my creative well more than usual.

So writing was what I did for other people. Art was what I did for myself.

Children and Art

I can say with utmost confidence, I did not come into this world with extraordinary talent for visual art. I made blobs and squiggles and stick-men of the same caliber as my peers. But did I ever love doing it. Creating something and then being able to hold it up and say "look!" was reason enough to keep at it. I think most children are like this. They love putting something into the world that didn't exist before and they rarely question if their work is "quality." It's just pure art. Something they do for themselves, not other people.

The hard part is keeping kids drawing once they're old enough to compare their work to their peers and start realizing some kids are progressing faster than others. Here, my greatest talent was not in producing great art, but in being oblivious. For years, I pressed on filling massive binders full of "masterpieces" that were nothing more than weirdly proportioned renderings of my stuffed animals. Yes, I kept these and yes, I still love them.

I only chanced upon the concept of artistic "skill" in Grade 4 when I became close friends with the girl who everyone agreed was the best artist in our class. For a split second, I felt discouraged, but she loved drawing and she was my friend, so we drew together and that was that. I got comfortable being worse at something than someone else, and that kept my artistic spirit alive. I kept drawing my stuffed animals, but increasingly, I also designed original characters based on the stories I made up. I shamelessly copied the work of my older sister and her friends, who also liked drawing, learning early Picasso's lesson of "stealing like an artist." Sorry to plagiarize you, Kate.

Sometime around my late teens, it became apparent that I actually did draw better than most of my friends (though not all. I've consistently spent my life with at least one best friend who is better at art than I am. Shout out to today's model, Lean Conrad!). But getting where I am today in art was a slow process born of years upon years of both doodling and intentional practice.

Move On

Fast-forward to January of 2019, when I was starting the year in a strange place. I was job hunting, slogging through a revision of my book that wouldn't come together and living in a new city. From the outset, 2019 had a lot of difficult things working against it, and I could feel myself struggling to keep my head afloat.

I needed a survival strategy. After reading some literature online about the use of art in therapy, I decided I need to reinvest in one of my old hobbies. Art is known for having profound mental health benefits and best of all, skill has nothing to do with effectiveness! The mere act of creating and expressing oneself artistically is helpful. With that in mind, I gave it a try.

Going into this year, I felt rusty. My artistic progress has not always been linear, and I was out of practice. Some seasons of my life, I've devoted more time to art than others and I can still look at old pieces that stack up decently next to what I create now. For example, here is a baseball card sized painting of raccoons in our family cherry tree I did 10 years ago that is STILL the best raccoon related piece I've ever done.

Progress is a lie!

Or so it felt. But I needed art this year. I needed something that I could do for myself, that would bring me joy and refill my creative well when my writing was hard and burning me out.

To start, I watched a few art YouTube videos for inspiration, including a few that talked about their *~*art journey*~* and overwhelmingly, a lot of these artists mentioned how posting their work online helped them, even when their work wasn't what many people would describe as "good" yet. Just posting it helped them be accountable, made them take stock of their own progress and prompted positive feedback from family and friends who were just pleased to see them creating.

Ever since Grade 4 introduced me to friends who drew better than I did, I've been painfully aware of how flawed my own artwork is. It took a lot of nerve to start posting my work, but I figured I could use the kick-in-the-butt accountability gave me, plus whatever positive reinforcement my circle might give. So I took the dive.

First, and more important than I might have expected, I organized my supplies. I went through a Marie Kondo phase at the end of 2018 and got rid of a LOT of stuff that was otherwise overcrowding the new space I lived in. One of the discoveries I made during this was that every single one of my art supplies sparked joy and I had no interest in getting rid of a single tube of paint, but they also weren't likely to do me much good buried in a closet. Realizing this, I moved my art supplies to their own unit in my bedroom. Everyday, I wake up and they stare at me from beneath a poster of Porgs, reminding me I should be making art.

So I got out my watercolours, the most joyful of my supplies, and I made myself paint.

I started with my comfort zone. I don't draw my stuffed animals as much any more, but fan art is kind of comparable, so I painted some faces from the Umbrella Academy.

Painted early March 2019, when I really got going

I really enjoyed working on these, but I also found painting took a LOT of time and specialized supplies. You have to really set up water and your work area, and I didn't always have the space and time to do so. During my Kon-Marie purge, I whittled down my sketchbooks to the drawings I wanted to keep, plus a sketchbook I had halfheartedly started with a drawing or two the previous year. It was portable and it was there, so good enough.

The paper in that sketchbook wasn't the best, so at first I tried to stay black and white. The one time I added paints, the pages buckled like crazy. But black and white art tends to bore me a bit, in part because I'm stronger at colour theory than I am line art. I realized I was more likely to draw if I gave myself permission to colour pieces afterwards, so even though the paper could barely handle the ink, I pulled out my old prismacolour markers. Eventually, I got some pieces I was happy with.

It was a lot of fun rediscovering my markers. They don't always feel as "classy" as my watercolours do, but I love their vibrancy and I had to admit, I was probably better at using them than I was paint. I tried harder to bounce back and forth between the two, as I learned to get different effects with the different media.

Since I was job hunting, I didn't have a lot of extra cash lying around for new supplies or classes, so I focused on using what I had and studying free, online lessons. (I have so many opinions on "Art YouTube" now and what videos/content creators might be useful for a beginner like me. Let me know if you need recommendations!) Watching them prompted me to do some basic "good practice" exercises I'd neglected over the years, like swatching all my paints and markers, filling the whole page in a sketchbook and practicing body parts from different angles. As someone who uses alcohol based markers, I also quickly ran into the cult of Copic users and learned there were markers with velvety brush nibs, that let you blend and color in a way that resembles painting. I was intrigued, but too poor to consider such treasures.

My other great resource was the aforementioned best friend and better artist, Leah Conrad. A young, busy mum, Leah was excited to see me get back into art and wanted to draw together immediately. Whether she was working on commissions or something just for fun and practice, her company was always a huge blessing. She knew things. I could hold something up to her and say, "something is wrong but what?????" and she could spout off quick, helpful advice like, "the foreground and background are too similar" or "that arm should be longer" and then I could get back to work. Check her out on Instagram and enjoy a peek of some of her awesome work below!

Shooting Stars Over Mill Hill, by Leah Conrad
Leah also introduced me to the very addiction I thought I couldn't afford. As I rambled to her about the art videos I had been watching and how badly I wanted to try brush nibbed alcohol markers she casually uttered the words, "I have Copics."

Copics. The industry standard, Rolls-Royce of alcohol markers. She had a small, carefully curated set that she rarely used, and was willing to lend them to me.

Prismacolour markers are very good markers and besides which, there are far more important things than art supply quality when it comes to creating art. Still, supplies do help. Once I got used to the feel of them, I couldn't deny that they worked better than what I was used to. They blended smoother and layered gorgeously. My art took a jump up in overall quality and going back to my old markers was slightly depressing.

First Copic illustrations, from July 2019
I decided to use some coupons to buy just a small set of Copic markers of my own. I expected to spend a very long time building my Copic collection up to the same numbers as my Prismacolour markers, until salvation arrived in the form of Facebook Marketplace. Someone was selling their collection of lightly used Copics for roughly 80% off the regular retail price.

After that? I kept drawing. I took books out of the library. I practiced the exercises they suggested. I joined an art group that trades art around the world and sent in baseball card sized illustrations to new friends. As I continued to post my work online, I made more friends and saw more art that inspired me, and they were kind enough to encourage me in my art journey.

By the beginning of September, two magical things happened. First, I filled a 75 page sketch book that I'd started only six months earlier, which was far more than I'd drawn in years. Second, I had a job! The summer had been very stressful, due to the ongoing job hunt, so getting some stability was a tremendous blessing. I honestly don't know if I could have made it through the summer without art. It kept me sane and feeling like I was accomplishing something when there weren't obvious milestones to point to in my work and writing.

With that in mind, I decided I wanted to do something big and challenging in my *~*art journey*~* as a way of saying thank you to the thing that kept me going through the year. With that in mind, I geared up for my first ever Inktober.

Inktober 2019

Every year, artists around the world challenge themselves during the month of October with the task of producing more art and learning new skills. The basic form of the challenge is this:

1) To produce a new work of art each day of the month
2) Drawn in ink
3) Based on an official prompt list released each year.

There are people who fudge the rules, which is fine. Maybe they don't have time to draw every day or work digitally. Plus, there are roughly 50 billion prompt lists that pop up each year for those who don't want to use the official one. But for my first year, I played it pretty traditional. Conveniently, I wanted to practice dip pen inking, plus I'd never forced myself to generate that many drawings in a single month before. The prompt list seemed like a good source of ideas when burn-out inevitably set in, so I also committed to that.

Challenges were no stranger to me. Writers use the following month, November, as NaNoWriMo - or National Novel Writing Month. I had never successfully done NaNo, however, so I was a bit nervous going into Inktober. Still, I felt as ready as I ever could be.

I'm still processing everything I learned during the month. In an effort to try to organize some of my thoughts, here's a list.

1) It's absolutely possible! Despite some occasionally rocky days and nights that went until 3 am, I finished the challenge. My new sketchbook has one drawing for every day of October and for that alone, I am immensely proud and grateful.

2) It's absolutely possible to burn yourself out doing it! To minimize the pressure, I chose all my materials ahead of time and used the same supplies and process EVERY SINGLE DAY. I wanted to get rid of as many on-the-fly decisions as possible, so I could focus on the challenge and moving on with my life. Still, I was losing my mind a little towards the end. Consider, for instance, this image from Day 30, prompt word "Catch." It was drawn upside down and on the wrong side of the page in my sketchbook, but I did not realize it until after it was done. I also had giant, scribbly blobs by it that I hastily covered up with a digital speech bubble for my Instagram post.

What a catch.
3) It's unlikely you will get thirty-one brilliant works of art from the challenge. But you'll get something. Some days, I didn't have time or energy to throw myself at a piece for a long time. Almost everything I drew that month felt a little rushed. I couldn't return to something the next day and refine it, because it was too important that I move on to the next picture. Allowing myself to be happy with something quick and easy was an important survival strategy.

4) I generally conceptualized a piece, drew, inked and coloured all in one day. This lack of forethought meant I learned a few things about my default style. Going in, I knew I drew a lot of people and faces, but what surprised me was how often I turned to animals. These were frequently my favourite pieces and the ones I was most likely to use reference photos for.

Days 24 and 23
5) Even though I wanted to improve my inking and line art, I found my colouring with Copics probably saw the most progress. Ah well.

6) While most of the challenge passed in a flurry, there were still days when life came together and I actually made something better and stronger than my usual work. You throw enough darts, eventually one will hit the bull's eye. This stretch of drawings really sang for me.

Days 11 through 13
7) By the end, when I was finishing the challenge just so I could say that I did it, it felt like... work. And that's okay. If I was left to FOLLOW MY BLISS everywhere in life, I would never finish anything. And with that in mind, by the time I was done Inktober, I was ready to be done something else too.

Putting it Together

By the end of October, I had a very full sketchbook and no desire to draw anything for a couple of weeks while I recuperated. So what did I do instead? I finished revising my book.

I had been chipping away at that revision all year long, but going into November, I felt an extra degree of oomph pushing me. My creative well was full of fan art, Copic markers, drawing sessions with Leah, reference photos, dip pens and watercolours. Within a few weeks I was done, had notes back from Beta readers and could query my book for the first time in over a year... right on time for the holiday slowdown.

But that's okay. I might not have word back about my book, but it exists in a more refined version now, as do pages of art that helped me through it. In my own life, I do believe art can be work, and that we do it both for ourselves and for other people. Going into the new year, I don't know what project will be my main focus. I've been working on revising one book for a long time and now, it's time to find it a home with an agent or publisher. Failing that, it's probably time to write something new. I'm not certain what that will be yet. I might need to do some sketching to figure it out.

What I really learned this year was the importance of a hobby. Art might not be the thing that intervenes on your behalf, but it certainly helped me. At the Storymakers Conference this year, I heard a wonderful quote in a talk given by Josi Kilpack.

That which takes me away from writing gives me something to write about.

At the time, I thought of the things that take me away from writing against my will, like day jobs and family commitments, but now I want to advocate for the things we willingly let take us away from our artistic passions. You cannot draw water from an empty well, so find a way to fill it. Let yourself have something you "do for yourself" that doesn't feel at all like work.

As I reach a crossroads in my writing, I'm at a similar one in my art. I don't know what my next big goal will be now that Inktober is over. For Christmas, I asked for some new art supplies and am lucky enough that many of them showed up in my stocking and under the tree come Christmas morning. There's definitely some playing around and inspiration to be found there.

Still, I think the most profound gift I received was one that came from another young artist. My eight-year-old nephew spent weeks leading up to Christmas telling me how excited he was to give me the gift he picked out for me. When I opened it, I found a black, hardbound sketchbook, just like the one I used for Inktober, with one critical difference. The first page had an inscription from him.

Don't Let the muggles get you down - Ron Weasley
Isn't that what art is really all about? You can't let the muggles get you down. You fight back with colour and line and composition and the love it takes to create something. 

Looking back, I won't pretend 2019 wasn't a hard year. I knew it would be, and it was. But something good came out of it. I haven't figured out what all my illustrious goals will be for 2020, but with the right friends, attitude and hobbies, I think I'll get through it.

Happy New Year, friends! May yours be filled with beautiful art.

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