Camping out on a plateau I've built for myself.
August 26, 2014 1:12 PM   Subscribe

As a working artist for shy of a decade, I'm starting to feel like I'm hitting walls most of the time I make, which is making artmaking frustrating. Suggestions for how to rekindle love and patience for the process and start climbing up the next hill?

I've been working as an illustrator for going on 10 years. It's something I feel infinitely grateful to get to do for a living, and if I look back upon the years I can see a lot of progress from when I started. I've learned that this career is more of a marathon than a sprint, and every time I am hitting a rough patch that my work's going to evolve in some way.

I started teaching college students a couple years ago and while that's been fantastic in a lot of ways and helped strengthen my own artwork, I'm also much more critical while I'm making. Especially when it comes to self-generated work, it's so easy to get frustrated or talk myself out of a project, thinking it's not ____ enough to pursue. (good enough, interesting enough, etc). I am dealing with issues of depression and anxiety and am working on them. But they definitely surface when I am making something, and I have to fight them all the time.

Even though I can see I've made a lot of progress, I also feel like I'm getting worse at drawing somehow; both in terms of general skills and physical ability (my hands wobble more than they used to, so I'm learning how to work with that). Or at least I'm getting more impatient with things being in process and looking bad before they get good. It's pretty discouraging and I often wish I could be like a little kid and just enjoy the process.

I experiment a lot with process and materials (sometimes too much and then I feel scatterbrained when I work on a drawing) and I'm trying to build in more time to expand my visual language, try new ideas and learn how to improve less-strong skills-- as well as try and let go of my critical nature. I'm also trying to pull away from the work a bit as I think sometimes I get too wrapped up in my job as my identity so that when it suffers it hits me harder.

So what I'm wondering is kind of two part--

1) are there ways to rejuvenate oneself or learn to be more patient and kind with myself when artmaking? I think I need to rekindle the fun and joy of making, even if I can't treat it like a kid would since it's my job. When it's good, it feels meditative and I can shut my inner critic off, but that's tough sometimes as the chatter fills up and gets me feeling anxious and impatient.

2) Can you suggest any tips, resources you've found or exercises you've done that have either made your skills ramp up after working at them, or helped you become more of a patient and productive artist? Basically, any good suggestions for getting to be a better/stronger/well-rounded artist. A lot of the things I've found seem to be beginner oriented, which aren't bad but I'd love to hear other points of view. I've started thinking of art as like a sport and drills/reps are important so you don't get lazy or weak in a particular area! One example that I've found helpful is to keep a sketchbook of drawings using only ink; that's helped me gain more confidence in line quality.

Any suggestions you can give me would be great. As I head into the next decade of my career, I don't want to slack or rest on my laurels!
posted by actionpact to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
A fellow mefite and I are doing Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. We're on Week Five.

I'm by no means a full time artist, but I do write for a living, and I feel like the lessons and focus have strengthened my work. I feel feel more open to possibility and the playfulness of my work, and less likely to listen to my inner critics. It feels like exactly what I've been missing.
posted by mochapickle at 1:27 PM on August 26, 2014

If you haven't already, watch Neil Gaiman's graduation speech for the University of Arts' class of 2012. It's long, but worth it.
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:54 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

So these are techniques I've tried as a scientist, but perhaps they might apply here (after all, both at heart are about creating something):

a) Try to learn a somewhat related skill set. For an illustrator like yourself, maybe trying photography or knitting. Immerse yourself in it. Then apply techniques you learned from that pursuit to your discipline, even crazy weird techniques. Look for connections. It will give you a fresh eye for what you're already know, give you permission to not be critical as you're trying something new, and give you an appreciation for the skills you've gained. It's often when we trying something new that we have the most insight about how something else works, and you'll remove some of that pressure from yourself.

b) Try learning something completely unrelated. For you, maybe, an example would be learning the basics of a science like astronomy. Despite it being unrelated, you'll find your mind wandering to how you can approach this new subject with your discipline. For example, you may find yourself trying to figure out a way to draw light waves from stars.

c) Collaborate! Partner up! Work with someone who is better than you at something - this will force you to want to do better, you can learn, and you'll feed off the creative energies of each other. Friendly competition is great for making us reach into ourselves.

And you don't even have to do it "face to face" - you could find an illustrator you admire and copy them, be inspired, pretend you're working on a "set" together - let your imagination flow. (One of the best & most successful research papers I ever wrote was inspired by my pretending to be doing a collaborative experiment with Darwin.) Do something like trace an illustration exactly. Yeah, it's kind of a "school" thing to do, but there's a reason we did these things in class - and remember the joy and pressure free moments of learning by doing? Along the same vein, try imitating a life path moment of an artist you admire, i.e. when they do something very specific like, I don't know, going into the French countryside to learn about light. Or practiced Japanese drawing techniques. Chances are, along the way, you'll come up with your own path that suits you.

d) Finally, I have an approach that exactly mimics the sport/drill/reps idea. Every 4-6 months or so, for about a month I approach my profession that I should train for it like an Olympic athlete. I even have a strict regime concerning sleeping and eating (with the idea that if I eat well, I'll do better, that what comes out of my body is what I put in it.) I pick one very specific area for that month and practice, practice, practice. I do "drills" for half an hour to an hour a day. I practice something very simple, or basic, sometimes things I haven't done since freshman year. I practice hard things, too, by picking a specific part of that area I'm uneasy about or don't know anything and work on it. I read and learn about that area/skill intensely and work very hard to apply what I practice and learn. I take apart skills I already have - "Oh, so this is boring because I know it so well? Prove it. Break it down. Show how and why and what of the different parts and how they fit together." (I always end up surprising myself when I do this.)

I can only do this for about a month - life, etc. , and I have real work, too that I have to do along the way - but I feel a lot more confident about that skill/area afterwards. And again, approaching it as something to learn, no matter how basic it is, helps free me to make mistakes and admit what I don't know/am bad at/could use some work.

All of this is about taking the "thinking too much" monster and putting it away for awhile and give yourself permission to mess up, have fun, and approach differently things you've done hundreds of times before.
posted by barchan at 2:09 PM on August 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

I know some illustrators that keep special sketch project books to tackle the things that they hate drawing the most (usually corresponds with things that they feel they don't render well). It forces them to hone that part of their skill set and results in stronger overall drawing. It also turns things that you dread into things that you're confident about.

And, while this is often something suggested to a beginner, copying the work of others can help freshen approaches, composition, and techniques. Plus, it's fun if you pick someone whose work you love.

Do you have fun projects that are just for you rather than just work or skills-building projects? Animation, pottery, comics, or working with new media while not on the job? That can also help.
posted by quince at 2:10 PM on August 26, 2014

I just read this Wired piece on Brock Davis where he discusses regaining enthusiam.
posted by mecran01 at 4:14 PM on August 26, 2014

I suggest reading. Art theory is often looked down on by artists as a kind of add-on, or worse, proscription, for the practice of art making. But thinking about art intellectually can open new avenues that you wouldn't have otherwise thought to pursue. Identify some of the particular problems/questions/doubts/ aspirations/goals/inspirations in your work and do a little research. Chances are that other people have thought about these issues too. Read what they wrote. It can be amazing! All of sudden your art is part of a larger conversation, and that means that interesting new challenges will appear.

Also, get feedback. Ask a friend or colleague in with the express purpose of looking at your work and giving you feedback. Call it a "studio visit."
posted by aunt_winnifred at 7:14 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you familiar with the writing/illustrating classes that Lynda Barry teaches at UW-Madison? She keeps an online chronicle (at The Near-Sighted Monkey) of her current (and past) classes that I find inspirational. Her book What It Is might also help to bring you back to the joy of mining your own life and memories for inspiration.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 9:48 PM on August 26, 2014

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