Novel Gardening Part II

Since my last post about tending to the garden of the novel, I have been doing a great deal more novel gardening (i.e. revising and rewriting), some actual gardening, and thinking a great deal about ways to cultivate growth and positive change in the wild spaces of writing.

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In the spring, my sweet husband made me two small herb gardens in old metal tubs, since we live in a rented townhouse and thus can’t plant an actual garden just yet. I’ve already harvested herbs from them several times, hanging the fragrant bundles in my kitchen to dry, and I’m already looking forward to cooking with them all winter long. It then occurred to me that sometimes I need to trim back parts of my novel and let the bundles rest for a bit, so that I can use them later on. Not only does this pare a scene down to its essentials and keep it from interfering with its neighbors, sometimes the extra bits can be put aside for later use. I enjoy using Scrivener when working on novels, partly because it makes organization so easy, not only for the novel itself, but also for all the research, notes, etc. that go with it. A bit like a garden shed nestled in a back corner.


I am not, by nature, an organized person. While this drives Daniel crazy, I quite enjoy running on chaos most of the time. However, I’m working hard to become more organized when it comes to my novels, as a bit of organization and planning at the beginning can mean far less revising and rewriting later on (as I’ve learned the hard way). In tidying my novel “shed” (all the behind the scenes work), I’ve created a few different bins into which to sort things I’ve either cut or dug up from my books. For each, I created a separate folder in my Scrivener project, as well as a few notebooks in which to jot ideas outside of the garden proper. This is by no means a definitive system (it’s hardly a system at all), simply what I’ve found works best for me. For this season anyway.


Things to Transplant

Often when I’m revising a scene, I’ll cut large chunks of text that don’t work, but that I still like. So I’ll put them in a separate pot in the greenhouse for a while, and see if I can find a place for them later in the book, or in a different project entirely. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Plants don’t always survive in pots, just as fragments don’t always work outside of that particular scene. But that’s okay too. A healthy garden needs compost to! Which leads me to my next bin…

Compost Bin

Some days we are blessed to write page after page of brilliant stuff. The flowers bloom, the sun shines, and the birds all break out in glorious song. But more often than not, at least for me, when I sit down to work on a book, it feels like I’m slogging out into the garden in heavy rain, my wellies sticking in the mud, and nothing is growing. So I write the weeds, then put them in my compost bin. This can be a depressing process, especially if it goes on for weeks and months, but it’s a necessary one.

So it cheered me somewhat to read a recent keynote speech given by author Lynda Mullaby Hunt at the SCBWI LA conference where she said:

“I wrote for hours. For days, months. Many, many moths. And I knew it was not good stuff. And so I just kept writing crap. The gardener inside reminded me that crap makes good things grow. So, I just kept going.”

I believe in writing every day. Even if that means writing weeding compost stuff. Because the compost shows that I’ve been working through it. I choose to believe that nothing is wasted. I choose to see my compost bin as proof that I’m willing to put in the hard work day after day, and to really tackle the questions and problems of the book in a deep and meaningful way.


For the last six years, I’ve worked on and off on a YA fantasy trilogy. I was 75% of the way through the second book when I realized none of it was working. The books and characters had changed so much through a half-dozen revisions that I no longer recognized them. The plot felt disconnected, the themes buried under half-hearted attempts to make the books more “commercial,” and my inspiration had long gone stale. So, I threw the books into the compost bin and decided to start over, combining the ideas of both books into one new novel. Was it an easy decision? Not in the slightest. Did it hurt? You betcha. But as soon as I made the decision to start over, with a freshly tilled garden plot (pun intended), I found inspiration rushing back to me, begging to be planted. The two composted books are providing excellent fertilizer for the new novel; they’re helping nurture my seedling ideas and questions, so that they can grow into a garden so full of life it one day will become a forest of its own.

Staying Open

In the midst of all this, I have realized once again the necessity of staying open. Open to new ideas, directions, and inspirations. Open to seeing what you once thought of as a weed as a beautiful flower. Open to letting yourself try new things and experimenting in your garden. Once I let myself be open to the possibility of starting over, my inspiration began to come back to life.

I believe that openness is a choice. It can start with a small choice to try rewriting a scene from another character’s perspective. Or to play around with a new setting and see how it influences your characters and their decisions. Openness is a sum of small choices. Such as my choice to view starting over as an opportunity to have fun and start something wonderful growing, rather than just slashing and burning my old book gardens and letting that negativity and resentment fester.

Seedlings and Clippings

Of course, I’m still trying to preserve a few clippings and seedlings from the previous two books. Maybe they’ll take and maybe they won’t. But until such time as I find the perfect spot to replant them, they’re hanging out in my garden shed in their own little area. This is what I refer to as my “To Root” bin. Here I’ll put bits of writing that spark an idea, emotion, etc. but I don’t know quite where they go, or how they fit in with the novel as a whole. So I set them aside in the greenhouse to grow on their own for a bit, much like putting clippings in water on the kitchen windowsill for a month or two to root. I’ll often go into the greenhouse and pick one of these seedlings as a starting point for my morning writing practice, or if I’m stuck and need some fresh inspiration. Often times the seedlings will grow up and go into different gardens entirely, and that’s fine too.

I also keep a greenhouse notebook, where I jot down interesting ideas that don’t correspond to a particular project yet. Sometimes these will be ideas for future books, or just something I think would be fun to write about. The notes can be anything from a word or two to whole sentences or bits of dialogue that might pop in my mind. Then, generally owing to my own scattered mind, I’ll forget about them for a while, during which time they can germinate and sprout if they have enough energy. If not? Into the compost bin they go.


It might sound naive or idealistic, but because I want my books to be deeply positive things, I believe that writing them should be deeply positive experiences as well. I wish to incorporate nurturing practices in every step of the journey, both for the sake of my books and my own creativity. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be hard work, challenges, and failures along the way, but it means that I can choose to see them as opportunities, rather than disappointments. Whatever my garden grows into, I plan to enjoy it, and to celebrate the journey as much as the end result.





Revising the Garden of the Novel

I have been lost in the wilderness of my current novel (adult literary fiction) for some time now, overwhelmed by the daunting process of revising.  Having not had a formal education in writing, I've been reading every revision guide and piece of authorial advice I can get my hands on.  And it has made me so upset to see so many well-respected writers and editors talk about "fighting," "breaking," and "attacking" their writing when they revise, as if it's some monster to be defeated.  "Kill your darlings" they say, "make the manuscript bleed."  What of the pieces of ourselves and our hearts that live in that manuscript?  Are we expected to put part of ourselves to death every time we have to revise?  And then it hit me, why can't revising instead be a positive process? 

I have a weakness for British gardening shows.  It's no secret that I'll take Monty Don and a quaint cottage garden over a high-stakes drama any day.  So while watching ordinary gardeners turning their unused, weed-ridden gardens into truly delightful spaces, I thought, why can't I do this with my novel?  For me, creativity and creation are deeply positive things.  My end goal, no matter whether it's a painting or a book, is plant the seed of something positive, whether it's hope or joy or gratitude, etc.  So it seems only natural to me that revising and editing (both firmly a part of the creative process) should follow suit, should also be positive.

Of course, if you're overhauling a garden, the first step is usually to clear out the space.  Cut back the dead prose, the passages with no life or energy, that are no longer working for your new vision or your new season of writing.  You must make room for new growth and new ideas.  Yes, this means a lot of hard work, and sure, on the surface it can seem like a violent process: slashing and digging up all the weed-ridden info dumps and dull descriptions, but it is also invigorating.  You're not destroying, you're creating space.  Space for yourself, for your story, for your reader's experience.  You're pruning back scenes to let the action/characters/etc. shine through.  Less is often more in gardening and in writing: you must maximize the space, make full use of the literary form you're utilizing. 

I don't exactly have a green thumb, but I quite enjoy growing roses.  And if you want your rose bushes to keep blooming all season, you must continually trim off the dead blooms; roses thrive on new growth.  And I believe, so do novels.  Both can be beautiful, fragrant gems, but as they say, every rose has its thorns.  Which is to say that the revision process is never an easy or painless one.  My advice: wear thick gloves, don't be afraid of a few cuts, and go in anyway, armed with purpose and determination.  You were brave enough to write a novel, you are brave enough to revise it. 

Books are surprisingly hardy creatures.  Like trees, if they're made of tough enough stuff, they can survive the worst of storms and continue to grow and thrive.  They need room to grow as well as sunlight and water.  In your novel, make space for new perspectives, or for ideas you plant to germinate and grow.  Cram too many ideas together and they'll suffer, fighting with each other for the limited resources of the reader's attention and belief.  I like to imagine working on your plot structure like landscaping a garden, setting a clear narrative path for the reader to wander down and enjoy all that your novel has to offer.  Let them admire your beds of character: filled with all sorts of disparate plantings that come together to create a well-rounded and interesting whole.  Allow them to stop and sniff the lovely aroma of your prose, notice the ingenious layout of your plot, and surprise them with hidden delights every step of the way. 

Finally,  I believe that books and the characters in them take on lives of their own.  As such, you must allow them to grow.  Sometimes this means not hovering over them with spade and pruning sheers every minute of the day, or not fertilizing them until their tender roots start to burn, but simply walking away, and letting them get on with it.  It may take a few seasons, but growth takes time.  Be patient and don't give up.  Soon you will have created a garden that can be carried anywhere and enjoyed by readers the world over.  I believe in you. 

Healing Arts

As many of you know, I've been fighting major illness for a long time, illness which suddenly took a nose-dive this past autumn.  This coincided with my finishing two novels in two months, and meant that I started 2018 physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.  So I started painting.

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Nothing big, just little doodly paintings that I'd work on during lunch or in the evenings.  But they sparked something, and I soon found myself painting in every spare moment.   

I went back and forth to the hospital for more and more tests, and at home struggled just to perform normal household tasks, like cooking and getting out of chairs.  It was around this time that I began craving gardens.  I yearned for sunshine, fresh air, and most of all, plants.  Some deep and essential part of me needed to be beneath the trees, to feel soft moss under my feet, and see tender bulbs begin to bloom.  But with my health the way it was, I could no longer just go for a walk or a hike in the mountains, as I used to.  So I decided to bring the outdoors indoors. 

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Sitting at my desk with my paintbrush in hand, I began to dream of rambling cottage gardens and allotments filled with vegetables and herbs.  I dreamed of roses climbing over old stone walls and snowdrops peeking out beds of moss deep in the forest.  As we live in a small townhouse, I couldn't have a real garden, but with a little paint and imagination, I could create any garden I dreamed of.  Tiny gardens that would fit in, say, a teacup.  A cup of hope and sunshine, dainty enough to fit in the smallest of spaces.  Being Very Sick, I have a hard time finding hope in great quantities.  But through my little gardens, I've found I can create just enough to fill a teacup.  So for now, I'll take my optimism one cup-full at a time.

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Texture

Before I began my master's degree in illustration, I had had no formal training in art.  And while being self-taught does come with certain advantages, I quickly realized how much I didn't know about technique, theory, design, etc.  Even now, I feel like I'm only just beginning to delve into my craft and learn its intricacies.  And what an adventure it is to learn! 

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In my first critique sessions in art school, I was overwhelmed by all the terms I didn't know.  Or if I knew them, I had no idea how to execute them in my own work.  Texture?  Tangents?  Golden thing-a-ma-jigs?  In light of that, I thought that I'd start the New Year off with some more practical blog posts about techniques, terms, and simple ways to improve your art.  First up: texture!

Texture

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Texture adds richness and depth to your painting, as well as making the surfaces therein feel more tactile and therefore real.  Paintings are like the Velveteen Rabbit, they all yearn to be real.  And no matter the style or subject matter, it's always good to anchor some part of the painting in reality, to give your viewer somewhere to start and something familiar to hold onto. 

So that's all well and good, you say, but how do I put texture in my art?  As I'm primarily a watercolorist, I'll share some of my favorite texturing techniques below.  There are many, many more ways to insert texture into your art (especially if you work digitally or with mixed media), but many of these painting techniques can be applied using your medium of choice.

1. The damp sponge method. 

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This is exactly what it sounds like: lay down a wash, wait for it to be almost dry (no longer glossy), then dab with a damp sponge (natural sea sponges work best, but in a pinch, a crumpled up paper towel will do) to create cool water spots.  I did a more in-depth tutorial a long time ago which you can still find on my tumblr HERE.

2.  Salt snow.

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Again, the name says it all.  I've never been a huge fan of this one, since the effects are hard to control (and we all know how much I love control).  Basically, lay down a wash (it works better with darker colors) and while the paint is still wet, sprinkle on salt.  Coarse sea salt works best, but for the above example, I literally just sprinkled some salt from my little penguin salt-shaker onto a wet wash.  Then when it's completely dry, just brush off the salt.

3.  Hatching/Painted texture

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This is an easy technique to do in any medium to add a bit of texture.  Need to make that basket look like it's actually woven from sticks?  Add some hatch lines in a slightly darker color.  Want that tunic to look like it's made from rough-spun wool?  Hatch lines.  Knit patterns on a sweater?  You guessed it: hatch lines.  Just pick up a small detail brush, and start painting thin lines in one direction, then add some going in a different direction.  Super.  Easy. 

Experiment with line weight and stroke to make your hatching even more expressive.

4.  Dry-brushing

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It's exactly what it sounds like.  Painting with a dry brush.  This is a bit harder to do with watercolor, as you have to have some moisture either on your brush or in your pigments in order for them to spread.  But a little goes a long way.  Too damp?  Run the brush over a dry paper towel or the back of your hand a few times to dry it off a bit.  The left half of the sample was made by stippling, the right half by doing normal strokes.

(This is how I get most of the texture on my tiny moth wings.  It's great for subtle texturing and small details.)

5. Painted textile designs/patterns

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Fun fact, I used to work designing commercial fabrics.  It was a pretty interesting gig, and taught me all about repeats as well as historic pattern design, though I'm happy not to be banging my head against my desk trying to make complex tiny repeats work anymore. 

Similar to the cross-hatching, just pick a design and start painting!  For a subtle pattern, make the designs in a color only slightly darker than the base.  Or go for contrast and do something really bold and bright!  I also love painting fabric designs with my iridescent gold from FineTec.  (Which, unfortunately, scan brown.)
Remember, your patterns don't need to be perfect (mine are far from it, for evidence, see above), they just need to break up the monotony of flat-colored surfaces and give them some visual interest.

 

6.  Layered brush strokes

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Similar to hatching and dry-brushing this technique is great for painting fur, hair, spines, etc. and making them seem more real.  Remember, paintings are like the Velveteen Rabbit, they want to become real. 

I modeled the left side of this sample after hedgehog spines and first put down a thin wash of burnt sienna for the base, then did a layer of strokes in burnt umber, all going the same direction.  Then when that was dry, I went back with a thinned white gouache and put some more spines on top.  For more complexity, add more layers of in-between shades (or hide some dull blues or violets in there), just be sure that you can still make out distinct spines, so that it hasn't all run together in one blob.

The right side I modeled after fur, and followed the same basic steps as above, just with a thinner brush and short, curving strokes.  Remember that fur moves a lot and frequently changes direction.  Just look at a dog's face and all the different directions the fur there grows.  Then snuggle that dog, because we've reached the end of our tutorial!

 

If you want more practice, challenge yourself to find and paint six different textures (or more!) around your house or in your backyard.  Maybe there is some really interesting tree bark outside, or a nice pattern knitted into your favorite sweater, or even lichen-mottled rock surfaces.  Remember, inspiration is everywhere! 

If you have any questions or would like to make requests for my next topics, just let me know if the comments below.  Happy painting!

Time

I believe that time is a gift.  Every day that I wake up is a blessing, and one I try not to take for granted.  (Thinking that you're dying does have its advantages.  But don't worry, I'm fine now.)  Time is also a gift I choose to give myself.  Time to work and think creatively.  Time to rest and take care of myself.  Time to steep myself in nature and quiet moments.  Time to just let myself be, and be thankful for all the many blessings in my life. 

As I've been participating in NaNoWriMo this month (though with slightly less-intense rules, since I write and paint full-time already, and it's not just a one-month stint for me), I've been thinking a lot about the time creativity takes.  The great investment of time it demands.  NaNoWriMo has also reaffirmed my belief that no good book is written in a month, but a good rough draft can be.  A rough draft that you can spend the next year or two revising and reworking into something truly beautiful.  Art takes time.  Everyone works at different paces: I know some writers who have spent ten years on one book that's still not finished, and I also know writers who churn out a novel every three months.  There's no right or wrong timeline, so you need to do what's best for you.  Listen to yourself and to your work and give it your all!  Give yourself the time and space to really invest in your craft and give it everything you've got.  What emerges from work undertaken with dedication and with love will always be beautiful.   

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I can't procrastinate.  Believe me, it sounds like loads of fun and I'd love to try it sometime, but I seem physically incapable of it.  And while this is great for meeting deadlines, it's not so good when it comes to letting projects rest and steep for a while.  The only way I can accomplish this is by working on another project instead, cycling them out so that I always have two or three books on my desk at any given time. 

I think it's important to let large projects (like books) rest for a while in between creative bursts.  The novel I finished for NaNoWriMo (I was about halfway through when I started, and now have a completed rough draft) was one I've been working intensively on for the past six months.  It's a book that I'm deeply passionate about and is quite close to my heart (which are often the hardest ones to write).  As such, I respect it enough to give it a break now.  Let it sleep for a while, during which time I'm free to work on other things, letting my mind operate in different rhythms, think different sorts of thoughts, and let my creativity stretch and flow into different shapes.  And then in a few months, when I'm ready, I'll go back to the novel and start revising and reworking it.  This process will then be repeated for however long it takes to craft the book into the best it can be (since I'll never, ever be satisfied with anything I create).  Or until I desperately need the money from its sale.  That's definitely a large part of the equation as well.  But that's one advantage of having so many books in-progress at once; I can give one time to rest while another is thrown squawking from the nest into the waiting jaws of the publishing industry.

None of us know how much time we have, so it's our job to make the most of it.  This is as true in art as it is in life.  It is our responsibility therefore to invest it in what we are truly passionate about, what gives our lives joy and meaning.  As J. R. R. Tolkien so wisely said "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

 

         

     

Self Care + Kindness

As I hit the final stretch of grueling book revisions (and use them as my excuse for not posting much in the last few months), I'm realizing all over again the importance of self care, especially for those of us in rigorously creative fields. 

I can only speak for myself (since I don't have much experience being anyone else) but I personally find it much harder to be kind to myself than to be kind to others.  Growing up, most of us are taught to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to others.  But we're not necessarily taught to show ourselves the same mercy.    

It seems preposterous to beleaguer someone, work them to the bone, hold them to impossible standards, and then expect them to produce truly creative and meaningful work.  How then does the argument change when we replace the third party with ourselves?  Somehow we think that if our behavior only affects ourselves, it is justifiable to be a tyrant and a bully.  To abuse and neglect ourselves in the name of productivity and hard work. 

I readily admit that I am long guilty of this offense, of punishing and pushing myself without reprieve, all so that I might feel I'm working harder, driving myself further, ruthlessly expecting perfection at all times, or at least a good showing of blood.

So how do we change this vicious cycle?  How do I change?  However much I may poke and prod at possible answers, don't be fooled, I have no idea either.  Or perhaps I haven't the courage to give up my familiar and brutal ways in favor of something more sustainable, something kinder and gentler.  Or perhaps I'm simply a masochist, so entrenched in my ways that I fear if I change, I will lose my edge.

Let me be clear: I fully support hard work, devotion, and rigorous drive, especially when pursuing one's passion.  But there is a limit.  In all things, there must be a limit.  Otherwise we'll simply drive ourselves mad with work, with a quest for perfection that doesn't exist.  I digress.   

I don't know the big answers about how to change a lifelong relationship of abuse with the self, I don't know how to alter deeply set familial or societal expectations, but I know small ways to be kind to myself.  To relent and to rest.  To call a truce even for a short while.  This is simply my list of nice things I can do for myself, small gestures to remind me that I love and care about myself, reminders to be gentler with myself in the future:

1. Take a hot bath (bonus points for bubbles or good-smelling bath salts/bath bombs).
2. Go for a walk/hike outside.
3. Get up from my desk, stretch a bit, maybe do a crossword or read for a while.
4. Don't work through lunch or eat at my desk.
5. Light candles. Enjoy their warm light and their gentle scent.
6. Wear a dab of nice perfume. Stop to breathe and smell it every now and then.
7. Play with my dog and cat. Extra points for puppy snuggles.
8. Take time to bake. Enjoy the simple meditation of making bread or cutting out pastries.
9. Read a fun, light-hearted book (nothing too dark or serious)
10. Paint/doodle something fun, just because I want to (like moths or silly comics).
11. Listen to happy music, something that makes me want to sing along.
12. Do easy crafts (especially if it involves gluing googly eyes on things).
13. Take a night off. After dinner, don't let myself do any more work for the day.
14. Say "no" more. Don't feel obliged to say "yes" to everything and everyone. It's okay to be selfish sometimes and enjoy a day off/a lighter workload/etc.
15. Go dancing! (even though I'm not very good, I still love dancing tango with my husband).
16. Sew clothes just for myself, but if it gets frustrating, stop and take a break.
17. Remember what I enjoyed doing as a child. Try to do more of that.
18. Take more naps.
19. Go swimming just to enjoy being in the water (as opposed to strenuous laps).
20.  Take a few minutes to stand outside and think of all the things I'm grateful for, and to remember the many blessings that fill my life.  

This week, I challenge you to come up with your own list of 20 (or more) ways to be nice to yourself.  20 small actions that will encourage you to step back and take a moment to breathe, to relax, and to care for yourself.  I believe in you.

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Obsession + Ritual

It's no secret that when it comes to painting, I'm obsessed.  Recently, I spent two whole weeks thinking waves, painting studies of waves, reading about waves, and generally trying to get my mind to move in more wave-y ways.  I meditated on the ocean, studied the frothy white lace that rides atop seawater, and did a lot of swimming, imagining I was a big rock with waves crashing against me, or that I was a seal, gliding through a stormy sea.  All this in preparation for one painting for an upcoming book.  I realize I'm more than a little crazy, but for me, this is all just part of my process.  When it comes to painting, I'm all in: putting my heart, mind, and spirit in everything I do.  It's exhausting, sure, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

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I love getting to really dig into a painting.  I love immersing myself in the colors, the detailed brushwork, the way the water interacts with the pigments.  I think my "immersion method" probably stems from a childhood of having very few friends, being bored to tears in school, and so really throwing myself into my art.  It was a refuge, an escape, a world in which I could create anything I wanted.  I learned to comfort myself with color, to distract myself with detail.  

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Recently I've been thinking a lot about my creative process and its rituals.  I've always been fascinated by creative people's rituals: how they get their juices flowing, and how they keep that energy up.

Funnily enough, I feel like I have more structured rituals when it comes to my writing.  When I sit down to write, I'll light a candle (usually something that smells like a winter forest: juniper, spruce, pine, and snow), have a mug of hot tea ready to go, and play classical music (usually Ravel or Debussy).  Sometimes I'll comb through collections of notes or inspirational images relevant to the project (hello, Pinterest!).  Other times, I'll just sit down and start hammering out scenes.   

Painting is much looser (and easier) for me: I put on some sort of interesting music, or maybe a show (I love watching documentaries, especially food-related ones while I work), maybe do some light stretching or take a short walk outside.  Sometimes I'll even wear certain jewelry or perfume to help myself feel more in the creative spirit.

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I think these rituals are part Pavlovian cue, part distraction to coax my subconscious or intuitive mind out of hiding.  And as my inspiration is constantly changing, I find that the rituals to unlock said inspiration must change too.  It's a constant journey of exploration, of finding new things that awaken my curiosity and ignite my creative spirit.  Who knows where it will lead next?       

Moths

I paint and write because I have to.  In my mind, there is no other option. 

It's therapeutic in a way, self-indulgent in another.  Creating like this is my passion and my whole life I have been drawn to it, like a moth to flame. 

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I began making moths just for myself: for the relaxation and meditative aspects of it.  It's quite soothing, making these little creatures.  I have long admired taxidermy moths and butterflies, but wanted to find a way to preserve their beauty with no creatures being harmed/killed (though I know many mounted specimens are found already dead).  Plus, I thought painting moths would be a good challenge of technical skill (an area in which I continuously need improvement). 

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols notes the unique dichotomy of moths, that they are symbols both "of the soul seeking the godhead...consumed by a mystical love" and "of faithless frivolity."  Both are represented by the image of the moth fluttering around the candle frame until its wings burn.  In a more personal sense, moths to me are representative of creativity: that I am constantly drawn to the mysterious and divine in it, but that if I'm not careful, I'll burn myself out trying to reach it.  

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I've always felt a certain kinship to moths.  We are both most active late at night, when the rest of the world is sleeping.  And though we live in a world of darkness, we seem to expend all our energy seeking out beauty and light.  We're silly, dusty creatures who are continually evolving, even if right now we're just cocoon goo. 

But my moths make me happy.  They are peaceful, contented reminders of creative potential, of metamorphosis, of the beauty found in darkness.     

 

 

New Year, New Aesthetics

As many of you know, I got married late last year, and with that came a change of name.  While this has mostly been a matter of paperwork, it also gives me the opportunity to re-brand and redesign my site/cards/etc. (which I think is a healthy thing to do about once a year anyway).  So though I go by K. A. K. Lecky now, the important things won't change.  I will continue to illustrate and to write (I might feature more of the latter on my site this year).  And with any luck, I will also continue to grow and change as an artist.   

This won't be a dramatic change, mind you.  I still illustrate for the same markets and will continue to do so, but I feel my personal aesthetic has shifted a good deal.  After hearing a talk last fall by the brilliant Giuseppe Castellano, art director at Penguin, I feel somehow as if I have permission to make the sort of art I want, even if it's not the cute and colorful sort normally thought of as for children's books.  His main point was to make good art.  That's all.  It can be dark, or strange, or serious; it doesn't matter, as long as it's good art.  That has really stuck with me and in a sense has allowed me to follow my curiosity in ways which are both personally meaningful and challenging for me.

 

creaturesofthenight

I think as artists, one of the greatest battles we fight is between producing what we feel naturally drawn to create and what we think other people want.  When in reality, it's my belief that people don't know what they want.  So it's really a losing battle from the start.  So this year, I'm challenging myself to say "what is it that I truly want to create?" and "what has meaning for me?" instead of "what will sell?" or "what will be popular?".  Because the latter is built on little more than guesswork.  Only with the former can I hope to communicate something different, something meaningful. 

I'll try to be better with blog posts in 2017; are there any topics you'd particularly like me to cover?  Questions you'd like me to mull over?  Let me know here or send me an email at kakleckyillustration@gmail.com .

Wedding Paper

As many of you know, next week I fly to the Arctic to marry my best friend, love of my life, and fellow illustrator Daniel Lecky.  We'll be traveling to northern Norway and hiking through the Lofoten Islands, which somehow seemed a fitting wedding adventure after getting engaged in the German Alps overlooking Schloss Neuschwanstein. 

To be perfectly frank, I have hated wedding planning.  Planning trips?  Great!  Planning weddings?  Not so much.  But there has been one piece that Daniel and I have really enjoyed working on together: the paper goods! 

Since we're both professional artists, we had a lot of ideas about how we wanted our invitations, save-the-dates, etc. to look, and how we could best collaborate on them. 

savethedate

We designed our save-the-dates pretty soon after getting engaged (well before we knew what sort of style we wanted for the wedding), and so tried to have them really reflect our personalities: kids at heart who love adventuring together outdoors.  We both grew up with Calvin & Hobbes, and love it just as much now as we did then, so it seemed a natural choice of style.  Plus, the comic setup let us tell more of a story, which we really liked.  Daniel did all of the sketching and inking, while I did the painting/color.  It was a fun experiment, trying to copy someone else's watercolor style like that!  Most of all though, we enjoyed getting to work together on a project, which, having such different styles and types of work, is a rare occurrence.

weddinginvite

For our invitations, I wanted to do some kind of papercutting, while still involving Daniel's sleek design sensibilities.  Our original wedding venue was a gorgeously restored 1920s Art Deco building, so as you can see, we drew heavily on that glamorous Deco style for our invites.  And while the venue unfortunately went out of business 5 months before our wedding (giving us some major panic and forcing very hasty replanning!), we still liked the look of the sumptuous fur and classy tuxedo, and decided to use the design anyway, just replacing the background. 

rsvp

And of course, our cat, Arthur, wanted to be included too, so we set him to work guarding the RSVPs.

While I know that a lot of people try to have all their paper goods coordinate in design, we decided just to have fun with it and do a little bit of everything.  Also, since we've both been working our normal jobs throughout the entire process, we only had time for so much.  All in all, we had fun with it and had fun doing it together, which at the end of the day, is what matters most.

 

I'll post another update soon about my coming name change/rebranding, so stay tuned!  

Seasons + Mixed Media Process

I am a very seasonal person.  I find my creative energies waxing and waning with the growth of the plants, the temperatures outside, and the natural palettes of the earth.  That said, summer is definitely my period of "creative hibernation."  Maybe it's the intense heat and humidity of the Southeastern United States, maybe it's the bugs and sweat, but every year when summer rolls around, I find myself creatively exhausted.  I'm definitely a cold weather person!

Different seasons bring different sorts of inspiration for me.  For instance, I find I do the most writing in fall and early winter, while late winter/spring are good for editing.  Similarly, I seem to be particularly inspired with papercuttings in that period of Indian summer: the tail end of August through the middle of September.  Then I revert back to more traditional watercolors as the trees turn.  These aren't "rules" of mine by any means, simply observations of my own particular artistic rhythms.  Of course, no matter the season, I have to complete my normal work; but isn't it nice when preference and obligation sync up?

Everyone goes through creative slumps or "down-times" now and then (for me, it's easier to call them "down-times" than "blocks" as the latter tends to be quite a frightening word for creatives).  But I think it's important to keep working through them: drawing/painting every day, learning new skills, and sharpening existing techniques.  Because deadlines don't care about how you're feeling. 

These days, I almost always have a mixed media "doodle painting" going on my desk that I work on here and there while other paintings dry or I just need a break.  Unlike oils or other similar mediums that I have to work on in long spurts, mixed media allows me to dabble some now, some later.  Below, I outline my basic mixed media process (which for me involves mostly watercolor and gouache) from start to finish:

1. Sketch

Since I work primarily in watercolors, I sketch quite lightly, then tap the sketch down with a kneaded eraser which accomplishes two things: 1) it lightens the sketch so that it won't show in the finished painting and 2) removes excess graphite so that the paint pigments don't become muddied. 

I sketch like a painter, which is to say minimally and loosely, since all the real work for me comes later (and a lot of details are lost in the first few washes anyway).  This also gives me the freedom to further refine the image as I go.  My one exception is the face: I'll include most of the facial lines/details in my sketch, since a very small change here can drastically alter the image (nose too long, eyes too small/not even, etc.). 

2. Background Washes

There are lots of "rules" for mixed media (what goes down first, how to layer and combine media, etc.).  For the sake of brevity however, I'll stick to explaining just my own process.

With watercolor, lay down your lightest shades first, as well as the areas furthest back in the painting (usually, your background).  Which, I completely disregard here.  That's the funny thing about art: there are all kinds of "rules," but you have to learn the rules in order to break them (I'm a big believer in this, especially when it comes to things like realism, anatomy, and perspective).  Since the selkie will be painted in gouache, I don't have to be so careful about preserving her outlines.  If you want to be really careful, you can apply masking fluid to the figure.  I, however, am not that tidy.  I also like doing a wide background wash, as it helps tone the figure and keep her palette harmonious with the background colors.

The scan below actually shows several washes, adding different colors each time.  Watercolor takes a bit of layering to darken up/make really vivid, so for the edges, I applied several washes of deep ultramarine + burnt umber, with a mix of deep ultramarine + viridian + aqua for the middle.  The great beauty of watercolor, for me, comes from all the colors you can hide in one area.  If you look closely, you can spy tinges of purple, rose madder, and burnt umber in the background. 

I also took the opportunity here to add some texture to the background with a sponge.  This is a very old technique, used by illustrators like Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, but can be quite tricky as it relies on precise dry times (I have a separate tutorial for it here).  I also sponged away the pigment at the focal point of the painting: the selkie's face to help it stand out more. 

3. Base Colors

In doing so many dark background washes, I almost completely lost my sketch (thankfully I had scanned it earlier, so I could refer back to it as needed).  However, I can see the basic shapes, such as the selkie's face and the curve of her tail, which is enough for me to get started.  This is why I never spend too long on the sketch.

Using gouache, I lay down the base colors for the selkie: her skin, sweater, and tail.  Then, I start marking out her face and adding the making the gradient for her hair.

selkie_base.jpg

4. Details

Once the base colors and shadows are painted, I start adding details, such as the cabling on her sweater, strands of her hair, and tail spots.  I also add highlights to her face and hair to help them pop more.

 

selkie_03.jpg

5. Photoshop Test

If this was a real illustration, instead of just a doodle painting, I would've already planned out the image and colors with thumbnails and color comps.  However, since I didn't do any planning, I decided to scan it and do some test runs of different colors/rock placements in Photoshop.  This allows me to play with endless different options without affecting my painting.  This is an especially helpful tool with watercolor, as there's no going back once you've made a mark on the paper!

selkie_04.jpg

6. Background Details

If you covered the foreground (in this case, the selkie) with masking fluid or knew that you were going to use opaque acrylic gouache for the figure, you could've done this step after completing the background washes.  But again, since I more or less made this up as I went, I finished the background pattern towards the end.  In this case, I added rounded diamond shapes in gradients to represent the flowing Arctic waters.  I also added the rocks with acrylic gouache and painted patterns on them with watered down gouache in a light mint.

7. Finishing Touches

To finish off the painting, I added some white highlights to her hair, and painted ripples in the water with a more watered down white.  Overall the painting still has plenty of problems, but since it's just an un-planned doodle, I'll let it stand as is.  There is a very fine line between putting enough work into a painting and knowing when to stop.  Unfortunately, this is one of those things that is best learned by doing (and messing up plenty!).

And even if I'm not totally satisfied with the painting, I still accomplished my goals with it: to visually think about Arctic selkies and how to represent them and to have fun!

Happy painting!

Stepping up your Sketching + Gouache Process

I love looking at other artists' sketchbooks, whether in person or online, via social media platforms like tumblr or instagram.  Sketches give a unique look into an artist's thought process and method.  While some sketch in pencil, many more take their sketches to the next level with ink+brush, gouache, or charcoal on toned paper (to name but a few).  This change in media may seem small, but it can have a huge impact on your sketches and really take your "silly doodles" to the next level! 

While cultivating a portfolio, the goal is always to make your work look professional (fake it 'til you make it, right?).  And with social media becoming a larger and larger part of marketing and making connections, it's important to carry that professionalism over into the sketches and "rough work" you show too.  Sure, your lines can still be loose and messy, but a simple change of medium can help your doodles really shine. 

Lately I've been doing more gouache sketches.  These quick and simple paintings help me focus more on shape, color, and pattern since I don't use any line work etc.  Below is a step-by-step look at the process I use.  For this painting, I used acrylic gouache, which dries quite quickly, forcing me to work fast and really commit to the colors and shapes I put down. 

dw1

1.  I start off with a wash of aqua for the base.  Some artists prefer to put down their sketch layer first and then seal it in with a very light wash, but since I'm using opaque acrylic gouache, I decided to put the sketch on top of the color once it was dry.  This aqua is actually straight from the tube, which made it easier to clean up edges/stray marks at the end.  While I rarely use color straight from the tube, I take exception when I want a painting to be A) extra colorful/bright or B) fast.

I keep my sketches minimal and very light--blotting them with a kneaded eraser so that they're barely visible.  (This comes from working primarily in watercolor, where you want your sketch to be so faint it's almost invisible.)  Also, if you have too much graphite in your sketch, your paints will pick up its grey pigment.

dw2

2.  Starting with the objects in the very back of the painting, I start to block in the colors.  I decided to have the pineapple be a gradient of yellow to orange/coral so that the light-colored dole whip (the midground) would stand out more.  Since I'm painting yellows/oranges on blue, I had to use a few coats to get the color pure and not so muddy looking. 

dw3

3. Start playing around with patterns/textures for your background object(s).  Remember that it will be easier to experiment now, before you paint the top layers (in this case, the bird).  Then I block in the dole whip with light, buttery yellows, starting to get that swirled look with my brushstrokes.

dw4

4. Add more detail to your midground (dole whip), and then block in the colors of the foreground (bird).  As with the pineapple, since I painted a white bird on a blue background, it took several coats to get the color bright and pure like I wanted. 

I also gave Miss Birdie an eye, because I find it much easier to paint things that "have a soul," so to speak.  People/animals/etc. really come to life once you give them eyes; it's usually at this stage that they'll start telling me who they want to be, their personality shining through with every detail and line. 

 

dw5

5.  Almost done!  The more I paint Miss Birdie, the more I come to understand who she is, what kind of personality she has.  With each pass, I add more detail to the painting.  Remember that detail, like color, can draw your viewer's eye to a certain spot, so try to focus it wisely.  Here, I use it to point to both the bird's face and the dole whip.

 

dwf

6.  All finished!  As you can see, I changed my mind a few times before I arrived at the final painting.  Namely, changing the texture on the pineapple and having the birds feathers all separate from the body.  The nice thing about acrylic gouache is that, like regular acrylic, you can simply paint over mistakes and keep going (though the paint builds up rather quickly, giving it a distinct texture, unlike acrylic, whose layers tend to lay smooth). 

Note: This image shows the colors more clearly since it's a scan, rather than a quick phone picture.

So the next time you feel like doodling, try adding color, or sketching in a new medium.  You never know what happy accidents you may find!

Brain vs. Paper: Getting Your Idea Down

So often, people tell me "I wish I could just draw my ideas, but I can't."  But the secret is: even professional artists often have a hard time getting the idea or image in their head down on paper.  After all, there are no USB cables to connect your brain to a printer, as tempting a thought as that may be sometimes.

Ideas and images that come into your imagination tend to be fleeting.  It's just part of their nature, I think, as it's part of the nature of creativity.  Like I've mentioned in the past, I like to think of creativity as a living, growing organism.  And like cats or small children, it never stays still for long, so you have to keep up with it, and develop a system for quickly capturing ideas as they appear.  Of course, this system with vary from person to person, so think of the guidelines below as a sort of starting place to play around and see what works best for you.  I've also found these steps to be helpful when trying to pin down on paper that elusive image in your mind.  And while here, I'm relating these steps to visual art, the basic principles can also be used for writing, music, dance, etc.

1. Get down the bones

Natalie Goldberg has a wonderful book on writing called Writing Down the Bones, which encourages writers to first get down the "bones" of their work, whether it be a story, novel, poem, etc.  The idea here is basically the same: start with the bare minimum.  Break out the ugly scribbly lines!  The messy blobs of color!  Some ways to get started:

 (While I can't show you the full image, here's a snapshot to give you an idea of the sketch.)

(While I can't show you the full image, here's a snapshot to give you an idea of the sketch.)

  • Make a rough sketch or gesture drawing.  It doesn't have to be pretty; as long as you know what you're trying to convey.
  • Color block your image.  Just get down the hues you see in your mind, and don't worry about them working perfectly yet; remember, this is just stage one.
  • Value block your image (like color blocking, just with shades of grey).  This works particularly well for people who tend to think in black-and-white or have an eye for dramatic lighting (chiaroscuro, anyone?). 

Each person has their own preferred method for doing this.  For instance, being a painter at heart, I work by color, so I'll start by painting large swathes of color either with watercolors or Photoshop (the latter is nice in that it's easily edited), or I'll sketch in very loose, messy strokes.  Again, don't limit yourself to only these methods: play around and just have fun with it, seeing what comes easiest to you!  Maybe it's making collages, or arranging tiles into patterns.  The most important thing is to keep it quick and dirty: getting the basics of your idea down in a couple minutes and in a way that seems natural to you.

2. Research

Now that you have the outlines of your image/idea down, you can breathe a little easier.  It's not going to float away into the ether, and now you have some time to develop it further.  Take inspiration from everywhere!  If you're starting an illustration, don't just limit yourself to art and photographs.  Go take a walk outside, read magazine articles, flip through a genre of book you normally don't read (I find nonfiction to be especially helpful for this), or just go people-watch at a busy coffee shop.  The point is to get your brain thinking in new and different ways and to shake up your perspective.  True, this isn't technically research, but think of it as mental stretching before you get into the thick of it.  Once you feel all limbered up, try looking up the following:

 An inspiration board from a (still unpublished) project.

An inspiration board from a (still unpublished) project.

  • When it comes to art, you can never have too many reference photos.  The best are the ones you take yourself (cell phone cameras are great for this, since you can capture interesting details/lighting situations/etc. anywhere you go).  Plus, if you're someone who tends to rely heavily on reference photos, using your own photos avoids problems with copyrights and intellectual property rights later on.  
  • One of the most helpful things to me when I'm trying to get an image down is finding inspiration images.  Usually these are other pieces of art, maybe with a similar palette, or style, or even just a way of drawing noses that I like.  I collect entire Pinterest boards fill of inspiration images to flip through when I find myself stuck, but also frequently reference children's books, vintage prints, and museum archives (The National Gallery and Met have amazing online collections, as do many other museums). 

    3.  Go piece by piece

In Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird (I really like books on writing, okay?), she encourages writers to take their stories one step at a time, and not get overwhelmed by the big picture. 
Most oil and digital painters work through a similar method: they start with very loose sketches and rough blocks of color, and then slowly, work on each part of the painting, adding more detail and clarity with each layer.  The idea is to build up the final image with each layer, firming up your idea as you gradually bring your image to life.  Maybe you change your mind partway through and decide that it would actually work better if you did this, or altered that.  Remember that editing is an essential part of creation!  Very few people have the gift of getting it right the first time around (and we don't like those people very much because of it).  Most of us mere mortals have to really work at something, let it sit for a while, then come back with fresh eyes, work at it some more, and repeat until done.  This is a process that could take hours or could take years (scary, I know).  But unless you have a deadline, try and let yourself enjoy the process! 

So the next time you get a great idea for an illustration, or any sort of creative work really, but feel like you just can't bring it to life or get it down on paper, give these steps a try.  Take it one small piece at a time and work your way up to the image or idea as a whole.  Be kind to yourself, and remember that mistakes are always allowed; you never know what unexpected opportunities they may bring!

 

Enjoy Everything

There is a photo of the Dalai Lama that I particularly love: he is hunkered down in the passenger seat of a car as a child might be, his hands eagerly clinging to the side of the door, and his face full of wonder.  There is such simple and profound joy in his eyes, that I can't help but smile every time I think of it.

I think of that photo almost every day when I sit down to paint.  I marvel that such joy could come from something as simple as riding in a car, something that to many of us would be considered mundane and dull.  It's a poignant reminder to me to enjoy every piece of my paintings, and every step of creating them.  I often feel silly, getting so caught up in the beauty of a particular color or the grace of a simple brushstroke, but I have to remind myself that it's okay to be childlike in my wonder.  There's a magic in the quotidian, if we let ourselves see it.    

orange

In my younger days, I read a lot of manga, but the only series that I continue to read (or go back and re-read) is Yotsuba& by Kiyohiko Azuma.  The premise of the series is very simple: Yotsuba is a little girl living in Japan with her adopted father and experiencing the many adventures of life (such as puddle stomping and ordering pizza) for the first time.  My favorite part of the series, though, is its motto: "Enjoy everything."  One of my goals every day is to do just that: enjoy everything!  From pouring the water for my tea to cooking meals to seeing how the wind stirs the branches outside my window, and everything in between.

joywreath

Such an attention to detail, a willingness to see the adventure in even the most ordinary of tasks, is something I work had to bring into all of my art.  Most of us [unfortunately] don't usually get to go on epic adventures every day, like having tea parties with dragons or taking a hot air balloon around the equator.  Kudos to you if you do.  But for the rest of us, we have to make do with calmer, more ordinary adventures, like going to the grocery store, waiting at the doctor's office, and the ever-fun game of laundry.  But why do these things have to be less exciting or magical than what we read about in books?  They're more common, true, but these simple tasks have a beauty all their own, I believe.  There can be something very peaceful and zen about folding laundry or seeing produce at the market arranged in colorful stacks.  So the next time, you're feeling bored or "normal," take a moment to appreciate the quiet beauty of the world around you.  Find grace in even the most minute of movements.  And above all else, cultivate gratitude for all these small moments of magic; after all, no one else sees the world quite like you do.   




Transforming the View: the Freedom of Art

I apologize for the long silence on the blog, life has been inordinately busy lately with travelling to Germany, moving, and planning a wedding.  Phew!  Amidst it all though, I'm still trying to find time to doodle every day. 

charlottenburg

Being plunged head-first in the wedding industry (the magazines, the planning guides, the websites full of expensive foof), I realize just how inundated our society is with desire for material things.  Living in a consumer society, we're constantly told how we "need" this or "have to have" that, so much so that we spend all our time lusting over items and not appreciating what we have, or what's more, what we ourselves can create.  That's one of the great appeals of art to me: I can create anything I wish, anything I can imagine.  There are no budget limitations (unless you're shopping for supplies, that is), no "oh, I don't have the body for that," no limits on travel. 

celebrate

I deal with a lot of chronic health issues that force me to follow a pretty strict diet.  This results in constant cravings for things I can't have (I'm looking at you, donuts).  I mean, it gets bad.  So what do I do?  I paint pages full of colorful, sprinkle-covered donuts.  Weird?  Yes.  But oddly enough, it helps.  Just like when I'm working on book illustrations, I like to paint places I'd like to spend time in: magical forests, cozy cottage homes, wild mountain paths, etc.  After all, how can I expect readers to get lost in my illustrations if I myself can't?  

Like many artists, I believe that art is an opportunity to be free.  You can be whoever you wish to be in your art.  I am normally a very shy and quiet person, but in my art, I can be as loud, colorful, and exuberant as I want.  You can try out different sides of your personality, express things you may be uncomfortable expressing.  In my art, I let myself be a big kid, enjoying simple things like a beautiful color or a funny expression.  (All right, so that's no different than how I am in real life, but you get the point.)     

balloons

So the next time you sit down to doodle, but don't know what to draw, think instead about the kind of person you wish you could be, the adventures you wish you could go on, the world you wished you lived in.  Because through art, you have the ability to transform not only how you perceive yourself, but how you (and others) view the world around you.

The Spark of Joy

Recently, I've been reading Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  While I initially started reading the book in hopes of paring down my possessions for an upcoming move, I have found myself transfixed with the simple question she uses when deciding whether or not to keep an item: "Does this spark joy?"  And while certainly this is an excellent way to narrow down what physical things you value most, it can also be used in many other situations, namely: art. 

Does your art spark joy?

For years I tried to make art that was marketable and appealing to a wide range of audiences.  And along the way, I lost my passion for it.  I was so focused on trying to make commercially viable art, that I forgot the reason I had started painting in the first place: which was simply that painting made me happy.  Funnily enough, as soon as I started making art that I enjoyed creating and that brought me joy, I found the commercial success for which I had yearned. 

bluecarouselhorse

For many of us, our art is also our work and thus takes up a large portion of our time and energy, but this doesn't mean that we can't still enjoy it.  Think back to why you decided to go into art in the first place.  Did you constantly doodle in your notebooks in school?  Were you always making up stories in your head?  Did your limbs ache if you sat still too long, begging you to dance?  More than likely, you pursued art because it brought you joy.  And, more than likely, your art sparks joy in others too. 

I have a dear friend who is an incredible dancer and choreographer.  When I watch her dance, I am filled with the same feeling that I get when I'm sitting in my studio, absorbed in a wonderful trance of painting.  It is a pure and fascinating joy, and I can see her passion and her devotion to her art in every movements.  It can be easy, I think, to be so consumed in the process of creating that we forget that the finished art is meant to be seen and enjoyed.  That we can, in some sense, share our joy with our audiences, even if we don't know it.  That we can choose to create joy in our lives and in our work, and offer up this happiness for others to participate in too.

Of course, there are many aspects of your art that will not necessarily bring you joy.  For instance, I don't particularly like painting still-lifes or realistic studies of anatomy.  Yet, if I ignore these crucial exercises, my art will suffer.  Similarly, I greatly dislike bookkeeping and accounting, yet I can't very well skip them simply because they don't bring me joy.  I'd be in a very tight spot if I did!  I like to call this the "eating your vegetables" principle, where you may not enjoy something (and it may very well feel like choking down raw brussel sprouts), but it's good for you.  It's a necessary step to keep growing as an artist and to running a healthy business.

handsstudyii

The key, at least for me, is to think of the joy of art in terms of the big picture.  Since I do illustration for a living, I work on plenty of projects that might not be my personal favorite, such as an assignment to draw cute cans of spinach (you'd be amazed).  Yet, even illustrating spinach cans, I can find joy in the fact that I'm getting to do what I love: paint.  I am able to take pleasure in working from home and in having a flexible schedule.  It's all about silver linings and remembering to view things as a whole, instead of getting caught up in the details of "I don't like this" or "this isn't my style."  Naturally, as your reputation as an artist grows, you're able to be more selective about the projects you take on, but it's still good to be able to find the positive in everything.

I know I've written before about the importance of artistic play, and this is why.  To be able to take even a 5 minute doodle break and in so doing remind yourself how much you love what you do is invaluable.  I've often heard the saying "if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life," which I don't quite agree with, but I like the sentiment.  If you are passionate about your work, and if that work makes you happy, it will show.  When I'm asked about working as a professional illustrator, I admit that I quite often work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, with very few true holidays.  Most people make a horrid face and ask how I can do that, week after week, month after month.  And the answer, quite simply, is that I love what I do.  Painting sparks great joy for me, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

 

The Myth of the Starving Artist

Of all urban legends, from Bigfoot to Nessie, the myth starving artist has to be one of the saddest and, at the same time, one of the most widely propagated.  In fact, one of the most common responses when I tell people that I make my living as an illustrator is "you can do that?"  It amazes me how many people still believe that art is not a viable career, and worse still is when this belief is instilled in creative children.  I was lucky enough to come from a very creative and supportive family, who have encouraged my artistic ambitions from a young age, but many young people do not have this luxury.  Instead, they are told that to survive, they must pursue a career in something "practical:" business, medicine, law, etc., and while these are all necessary and noble pursuits, they are by no means the end-all-be-all of success.

bunnynouveau

First, there needs to be some groundwork laid for the definition of success.  Obviously, everyone has their own idea of what it means to be successful.  For some, it's driving a sports car and having a designer handbag.  For others, it's being able to buy groceries that week.  Personally, success means doing work that I believe in that is of some benefit to others.  I feel successful in that I am able to do what I love every day, and that maybe one of my books will bring a child joy or instill in them a love of reading.  I am by no means rich, but I also firmly believe that work and money are not everything in life, not even close.  (That said, I would surely not mind being financially successful, just in case anyone was wondering.)

So even though art may not bring me Scrooge McDuck-ian amounts of money, it does provide for me.  Something that most people don't realize is that almost every industry employs artists/creatives in some way, shape, or form.  For example, my day job is illustrating and designing the children's and nursery fabrics that you find in Hobby Lobby, Jo-Ann's, Hancock, etc.  Every piece of fabric in the clothes you wear was designed by someone, was overseen by an art director, and worked on by multiple designers and colorists.  So to those that say "you'll never be able to find a job in art," I say that you'd live in a very boring and bland world without us!

That said, you have to be willing to be flexible.  And while, yes, touching your toes is a wonderful accomplishment, it's not exactly the most impressive interview skill.  To work in art usually means being willing to do a little bit of anything and everything, moving outside your comfort zone.  For me, that meant learning how to use Adobe Illustrator, work in vectors, and learn the ins and outs of commercial design.  For some people, being flexible means designing cool coffee tables instead of giant robots.  But just because that's what you do now doesn't mean that's what you'll do forever (unless you want to, of course).  Plus, no matter what you do for work, you'll always have your free time to work on your own art and projects.  I hear a lot of young artists say that they won't do something because it's not "their style," or "it's not what they do" and while I appreciate the importance of artistic integrity, I also feel like that sort of attitude is really just shooting yourself in the foot.  Who knows what you'll learn from doing new things and working in completely different mediums?  Maybe you'll gain a new perspective that will help in your own work.  Maybe you'll make important professional connections or friendships.  I believe that we can never learn too much and that no experience is wasted.

"But, Kelsey, I don't know how to find jobs in art!" you say.  Which is a valid point.  If you plug the word "designer" into job search engines, it will pull up everything from customer service positions to web designers.  For me, the key was going to art school.  Going to SCAD for my master's put me in touch with a huge wealth of resources, from their job portal to career services to in-person events.  It gave me the opportunity to connect and network with a wide range of industry professionals in my field, which, in turn, has led to jobs and books.  Which is one of the main reasons I chose to go to art school, simply for the massive professional network it put me in contact with and resources it gave me access to.  But I'll write more on that later.  

My point, quite simply, is that you can absolutely make a living with art.  If you're willing to put in the hard work, research, and flexibility required, you will never be a starving artist.            

On the Importance of Breaks (and actually taking them)

I will be the first to admit that I'm something of a workaholic.  Okay, I'm a terrible workaholic.  I have great passion and drive for what I do, which, most of the time, is a good thing, but every now and then, I have to force myself to take a break.  A real break, not a "oh, I'll just work on this other project for a while" break.  What defines a "real break," you ask?  Well, the answer differs for everyone, but for me it means 1. I'm away from my desk/computer 2. I'm not checking my email and 3. I'm not doing any painting/drawing/doodling/papercutting/etc.  Now the first two are easy enough to achieve (and partially explain my love of travel), but that third one's the kicker.  And wait, shouldn't artists always be drawing, every day working to improve their craft?

autumn

Art, like many things in life, is all about opportunity cost.  Put simply, opportunity cost is when you say "yes" to one thing, what else are you saying "no" to?  For instance, if I say "yes" to doing an hour-long watercolor study of something, I might be saying no to a walk outside, a nap, baking bread, etc.  So while I believe that it's good to try to hone your skills everyday, I also believe it's good to just take a day off now and then.  In the long run, taking care of yourself and your creativity are more important than, say, working on your proficiency in graphite.  Your art should be something you enjoy doing, so be gentle with yourself and with your creative energies.  

Taking breaks and engaging in non-artistic creative activities is also good for your brain.  They help you to think in different ways, to alter your perspective, or maybe give you a new approach to problem solving.  And hey, you never know when inspiration may strike!  Maybe during the dodge ball tournament with your friends, you'll see a guy with the craziest face and that will give you an idea for a new character or story.  Or maybe working on a fun puzzle will help alter the way you connect ideas/colors/etc.  Personally, I really enjoy word puzzles, like crosswords or scrambles.  They let me use a different part of my brain and let the visual/creative parts rest a bit.

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One of my favorite ways to take a break and let myself recharge is to read.  I'm a voracious reader and will read just about anything I can get my hands on.  So when I'm feeling worn out from work, I'll pick up whatever's currently on my nightstand: James Joyce, Brian Jacques (anyone else grow up reading Redwall?), D. H. Lawrence, medieval German epics, Kenneth Graham (Wind in the Willows is one of my very favorites), or any number of children's books.  Reading, unlike watching TV or movies, helps fuel your imagination and expand your horizons, and besides that, how wonderful is it to slip away to another world for a while?  

No matter how busy you are, there is always time to take a break and take care of yourself. 


Inspiration in all the Strange Places

One of my favorite parts of being an artist is never knowing where my next inspiration will come from.  One week it could come from a walk I took in the forest, another could be sparked by something I've read recently, or maybe a beautiful piece of calligraphy.  My job is simply to remain curious and open to finding inspiration in all the strange and unexpected places.

It can be easy, I think, to fall into a "genre rut," so to speak.  Where you become so entrenched in one genre (children's books, fantasy, dark, realism, etc.) that you lose sight of all the other wonderful sources of inspiration all around you.  While it's good to keep up-to-date on the goings on in the markets in which you work, if you look only to others' work, how will yours be different, unexpected, and delightfully original? 

witchypoo

A good challenge to get you out and looking about is to go to the library and get books on 5 things you know nothing about.  So, for me, I might get books on Chinese ceramics, constellations, German festivals, crochet, and early automobiles.  Then, do some doodling based on what you find in the books.  I might doodle an old lady crocheting in an old car flying down the road, her scarf/whatever she was making trailing out behind the car.  Or maybe a big Chinese vase covered in stylized constellations or German folklore.  Anything to get my brain thinking in different ways.  I believe it's good and healthy to force yourself out of your comfort zone and to get interested in new things.

Another thing I've learned is to embrace your obsessions.  I'm not talking about how you binge-watched all 7 seasons of 30 Rock in 2 days, but rather, all the weird and interesting things that you find yourself drawn to.  Do you collect stamps?  Play lacrosse?  Love to cook Indian food?  Really like shoes?  Use it!  Let yourself be inspired by these spikes of curiosity and use them in your work. 

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For instance, while I'm working on a big papercutting, I tend to become consumed with whatever the scene is.  So, while working on the Arabian Nights papercutting, I did nothing but research Arabian and Moroccan architecture and mosaics, Arabic calligraphy, Arabian folktales, native desert plants, styles of dress, and Islamic art.  I imagined what that courtyard would smell like, with the sweet desert jasmine, the woman's perfume of sandalwood and spice, the hot dusty stones.  What it would feel like to dip my hand in the fountain after a day in the hot desert.  What the music and language would sound like wafting through those huge archways.  What it would be like to snack on dates and Moroccan tea, seated on brightly patterned cushions.  

So let yourself go a little crazy!  Be swept away by your curiosity!  And most of all, have fun.  While the end result may belong to your viewers, the process belongs solely to you, so sink yourself into every moment of it and enjoy.