Inspiration is fleeting. You have to work even when the muse isn’t showing up.
I don’t often enter contests, but this past summer I opted to enter one with the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. It was a new contest, called the Narrative Art Award. Disclaimer: I didn’t win.
Well. I didn’t win the contest. I did, however, work hard and quickly enough to pull off three brand new illustrations for my portfolio, each of which stretched my skills as an illustrator and storyteller.
I almost gave up before I even started. The theme was “Mystery” in celebration of Sherlock Holmes’s anniversary in 2017. I sketched and worked and wondered my way through several different ideas, none of which seemed good enough, clever enough, smart enough, or pull-off-able enough.
I finally decided to forget the whole detective theme and simply showcase three characters (a must) going through the beginning/middle/end of their story (a must) with a hint of mystery: where did the dragon’s fire go?
Now for the process photos. In the past year, I’ve become much better at the sketch/grayscale and value study/then paint process. While it seems like that might slow me down, it actually speeds me up, because I don’t lose time trying to pick colours. Once I have my values, I can pick a colour scheme and just work. The guess work is gone. I love this approach.
Here is the selection of main colours I used as my colour scheme. I use color.adobe.com to help me out.
Take a look:
Here are all three illustrations, in order.
The quickest compliment that seems to come up when artists (especially illustrators) share their work is: “Cute!”
Don’t get me wrong – most of the time, the work is cute.
But it’s also a little bit upsetting to hear that the creative thing you’ve spent hours, days, weeks – in some cases, months – working on is … cute.
These things are okay to call cute and leave it at cute:
- a new toy that was mass produced and not hand made
There are ways to say that something is cute without saying that it’s cute – or in addition to saying that it’s cute. I mean, you can give a real compliment! This is so valuable to us. We work alone, most of the time, and most of us do this in addition to full-time jobs and families and social lives. Hearing that something in our process or final product is seen by a viewer is invaluable.
I’ve been to art sales and had potential customers walk by my table and comment that my work is cute. Okay, that’s fine – they’re talking to each other and not to me, and they’re expressing a positive feeling in connection to my work. But you know … we can hear you. One time, a woman said, “Oh that’s so cute!” and then looked closer. When she saw my signature, she laughed and said to her husband, “Oh, I thought a student had made this.” Then she wrinkled her nose and walked away. Ouch.
You see, even though it might actually be the cutest damn thing you’ve ever seen, there is so much more to the piece of art that it often feels like that work is dismissed. If you’re checking out a friend’s work, or scrolling through your favourite artist’s Facebook or Twitter or Instawhatever page, think before you comment.
“But how do I do this?” you ask. Here are some ideas:
- Take a few seconds to look – really look – and pick out something that you’re loving. Instead of saying, “That’s so cute!” you might say, “I love the expression on his face!” or, “These colours really work. I love this palette!”
- Ask a question. “How did you know where to put her so that it would turn out so beautifully?” or “Tell me about how you put this together!” This is going to fuel a conversation, and you’ll end up learning a ton about the artist’s process. Artist’s love talking about their processes, because they are ever-evolving and exciting. It’s why we make art.
- Make a connection. Identify what it is in the piece of art that draws you in, in relation to another piece of art, or an artist’s work, or a book you once read as a child, (note: for these connections, make sure the artist knows you don’t think they’re copying or mimicking that person or piece), or connect to an experience that you’ve had. You could phrase it with the “cute” compliment at the start, or at the end. “This reminds me of my favourite storybook from when I was a kid. I loved looking at the illustrations. They were so cute. This piece you’ve made is giving me the same feeling!” or “This is so cute – it’s bringing me back to the rocking chair with my mom, pouring over my favourite Maurice Sendak books!”
- Identify its uniqueness. So maybe #3 won’t work, because you can’t connect it to anything – it’s original, it’s unique, it’s special. So say that. “This is so sweet, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it before.”
- Ask for more. “This work is so great … where can I see more?” is a powerful message and compliment in itself.
- Say nothing at all. If all you can come up with is “It’s cute,” in the equivalence to replying “I’m good!” when someone asks how you are, then it may be best to say nothing at all. At the very least, seek out another adjective.
It started with the idea that I needed to add some beauty to the school I work in.
I scratched down this idea:
As with most of my art, I painted the canvas out in black. I do this for several reasons, but mostly because the solid underpainting allows the colours to pop and contrast more in line with how they will look when finished, than if I painted them on a white canvas. I love using dry-brush effects, and so the black peeking through really helps to make the most of the rough brush strokes that I love.
Once I had finished all of the heads, I added some hair. For this piece, I knew I had to go with vibrant, wild hair. Partly, because it was going into an elementary school. Partly, because I needed to make these characters JUST far enough from looking like the kids in the school, so that the kids in the school could look up and see themselves represented.
With the hair almost complete, I went in and painted the white background using a very rough brush. This took a few coats in some spots. I wanted a textured look, not a solid look. This is where the black really gave me the most help.
And finally, the words. At first, I went with the lime green. After some consideration and feedback from my critique partner, we agreed that a higher contrast would make for a bigger impact. I roughly brushed in some black, leaving the lime green in place to peek through.
The result? A piece of art that features a pile of people, all of whom are different and wonderful and vibrant. As soon as I showed my class, they hopped up and started looking for the one that might look like them. They knew, instinctively – they all belonged. We all belong.
I think that one of the biggest problems with adults is the inability to listen.
I mean, really listen.
We live in this fast-paced, texting-social-media-I’m-too-busy world, and even when we are slowing down and trying to tune in, I really think that it’s all too often an act.
Learning to shut up our own brains and listen is one of the hardest things to do. It takes effort, and focus, and it takes a lot of forgetting-your-pride.
I try (but often fail) to listen: listen to the whispers in my heart; listen to the nudges of the Universe; listen to my own responses. But most importantly, listening to my kids (biological and students) is the most important listening I think I can do.
The thing is … kids are honest. And if we slow down enough to listen – really listen – then we can dig into what is said/not said/demonstrated, and we can learn.
Imagine. A kid can teach an adult. (Insert studio-audience-canned-gasp here.)
The other morning, I was getting my two year old ready to go to his once-a-week visit to a sitter. I was buckling him in, and the conversation went:
Kingsley: “I’m goin’ to (sitters) and you’re goin’ to work, Daddy.”
Me: “Where do I work?”
Kingsley: “At school-o.”
Me: “What do I do at school?”
Kingsley: “You draw all day.”
I draw all day.
My heart stopped. I was listening.
My son, who has visited me at school but has never seen me draw there, because I don’t teach art and don’t really draw at school very often … my son had worked out what he sees, how I speak, and the pieces of his and my world, and boiled those down into my biggest wish: to draw all day.
I’m not saying the kid’s a psychic, or a mind reader. I am saying, sometimes it is clearer to a kid than it is to an adult. He’s right – I do want to draw all day. If I could afford to draw all day, I would be drawing all day.
But I’m not.
It’s time to keep listening.
This post is part “How-To” and part “Creative Life Lessons.”
I had been talking about putting this chalkboard up since my studio-office was in the last studio-office (which is now our son’s room). I have been talking about ACTUALLY doing it since the summer, and even went so far as to buy the paint I’d need in September.
But you know – life happens. I’ve been writing and making art and raising kids and being a teacher, and somehow the chalkboard just never got up onto the wall.
Until it did. And now – I can’t believe I ever waited, or didn’t have it!
Putting it together was very simple and straightforward. These are the steps I followed:
- Randomly block off a chunk of wall with masking tape, and judge it by eye, or as my
wife calls it, “Patrick-style measuring.” Note: for the purpose of having the wood ready before hand, you may wish to actually measure it all first. I was not that well organized, and sort of lucked out that it even worked.
- Paint 2-3 coats of chalk paint. The beauty behind chalk paint is that it dries very quickly, so I was able to do all of the coats I needed in one night, and each coat only took about 5 minutes to put up onto the wall. The other beautiful thing is that since it will soon be marked up with chalk, the odd line of overlapping paint really does not matter.
- Let it dry overnight.
- Find some scrap wood. Okay, you may want to be more prepared than I was. I happened to have just enough pieces of 1x4x8 hanging around in the garage, leftover from another project. This stuff is rough, and I like that about it. It’s not meant to beautifully finish anything, but with the right stain, and in the right room, it’s perfect. It also costs a few dollars a piece at almost any lumber supplier or hardware store.
- Measure the wood to size and cut. I had measured the size that I’d painted, and then cut according to that. I opted not to worry about angling the corners. I prefer the blocked look.
- Stain the wood. I used Special Walnut from Minwax. It is my all time favourite stain – we use it for almost every project. It’s light, but brings out the rich darks in the wood, and is rustic without being overbearing. It’s like a just-right plaid shirt on a fall day.
- I used a nail gun to attach it to the wall – it’s the easiest way to do it, and you don’t need to worry about finding studs! But if you don’t have a nail gun accessible, you could glue (use construction adhesive), or screw, or nail it to the wall.
- This is maybe the most important step: cover your new board in chalk! I mean rub the chalk all over it – leave no space untouched. When you’ve done this, wash it off with a damp cloth. This allows the new chalk paint to take the chalk and not leave any “burns” – a burn with chalk is when your first drawing, doodle, mark, words, whatever – the first things you put on the board are permanently there, even after you wash it off. It’s a terrible ghost that will haunt you forever, so be sure to cover and wash.
- Use it.
I’m using my chalkboard to help me with two specific areas of my work right now: my weekly accountability list, and my plotting for the second half of a novel I am working on. In the future, it may also be home to lists of clients and projects commissioned, orders made on prints, important dates, general ideas, picture book developments, and whatever else I need it for.
I love this board because of its flexibility, and because it brings importance to my ongoing work. It is a way of exploring ideas without having to save a file on a computer or track a piece of paper, and because it washes off so easily, there is a low commitment level. If I hate it, I can change it without any sweat.
I’m finding that seeing this when I walk into the space is inspiration in itself. There is a certain beauty in creative scratches on a chalkboard; in the lists and wonders and projects-in-motion. It keeps me on-task and motivated, inspired and excited. It feels importance because of its size, too.
This is really the next phase of my belief in having work ready to jump into at any time. I tend to keep lists on my phone and in a notebook on my desk, as well as in ongoing message and email format between myself and my critique partner, but this is in my face. I can’t lose it; it is the first thing I look at when I walk into the room.
I’m a highly organized and structured person. I’m also (even more) highly creative, abstract in thinking, and inspired every few minutes. I have millions – no, billions – of ideas, and I see things in pictures when I imagine them. My two year old walks around declaring, “I HAVE AN IDEA!” – I am much like him. I do the same thing. My wife even promised to listen to all of my ideas in her wedding vows.
These two sides of my brain (or maybe it’s my personality?) don’t always get along, but when they work together, future versions of myself are thankful.
As Creatives, having organization systems in place are really the only way to stay on track. Realistically, I can only complete so many projects in any given amount of time. I’m a full time teacher, a fuller time parent and husband, and I no longer have the ability to forget about sleeping. When ideas and inspiration hit, I need some way of tracking all of this so that I can actually follow through on the better ideas.
I’m not going to pretend I’ve got it figured out. I don’t. But Past Patrick has definitely found some ways of helping out Present and Future Patricks.
Here are my top ten tips for getting, and staying organized, creatively:
- Use email. Don’t delete emails to yourself! I often begin looking in my email for something that I am vaguely aware of making. I often find an image or word file that I sent to myself, and when I fall out of control on keeping up with my submission tracking for books, I check my emails (because I never delete any) for dates and notes.
- Start using a cloud-based storage system for creative work. I love Google Drive. It’s easy, I can drag and drop and I can access it anywhere. This means, if I find 10 minutes that I steal on my lunch at work, I can open it up and work. It means I can organize everything into files that work for me and not only do that when I’m at my personal computer.
- Organize as you go. It’s a pain sometimes, yes, but future you will be grateful. You might say, “Okay, this manuscript is for a picture book … it will be the first thing I put in a Picture Book Manuscripts In Progress folder.” Then, begin placing all of those types of manuscripts in that file. Put a sticky note on your computer/desk/wall/wherever you work most, so that you can recall where on earth did I save that stuff? The more you use it, the more likely it is to become a habit.I’m not an expert – my files are generally pretty wild. But I’ve been slowly working at this.
I decided to start with my 2016 Writing Files. I organized my Google Drive by making a folder called “Writing” (I know, I know, we all have 18 of those). Then, inside I had been just popping in every new version of every manuscript, it was loaded with picture book dummies and submission tracking pages and idea lists. I organized it by creating subfolders: Works in Progress, and within that, “Middle Grade,” “Young Adult,” and “Picture Books”; I also created subfolders called “Finished Manuscripts” and within that subfolder, another folder for each completed manuscript, with everything required for submitting.
The main idea was to clean up the main folder so that when I click into, I’m not overwhelmed and/or more importantly distracted by all of the files I’m working on!
- Make a gosh darned list. PRINT IT OUT. And keep an electronic copy updated. I don’t do this every day. In fact, it was August when I printed out my “master list” of current picture book ideas that are writeable/publishable (by my standards). I’ve been scribbling notes and ideas on and around it since then. I recently opened the electronic file and updated it. I’ve reprinted and now I will work from there. Because I saved it in a logical spot – on my Google Drive, in the Writing folder, in the subfolder “Works in Progress”, I will be able to find it more easily. If I can’t find it later, I can use the search option – because Google Drive syncs with my desktop app, and it is easy to search just about anywhere.(Note: Google is not paying me to amp up their Drive app. I just love it. Google has way better reach than I do!)
- Keep one “to do” notebook near your workspace. I tend to jot ideas and notes anywhere and everywhere. I try to jot those down in my To Do notebook, so that when I’m stuck or uninspired, I can just flip through the book.
- Be intentional. Name your files something you’ll remember; something that is explicit and maybe even long, using descriptive words that you know you will probably think of to describe the project. “MGWIP” is not a great file name for your untitled middle grade work in progress. “Middle Grade WIP – MG WIP – Boy Gets Lost In Woods” might be better (uh, if it’s about that).Also be intentional with your time. See tip #8.
- Sync everything to the same email account. If you’re going to use gmail, then when emailing yourself, email to that account. Sync your notes in your phone to that email. Sync your calendars so that you can schedule for yourself, and the reminder will show up everywhere. It simply takes a lot of work out of your searches.
- Take the time. It means that sometimes, you have to set aside 30 minutes to go through files. It also means that you need to make a decision about what you’re going to do and when. Sometimes, we can leave it to inspiration and that “pull” to a certain project – but when you’ve got lots of projects on the go, you need to have a plan. Maybe you wake up early to get more time in, or maybe you schedule out a few nights a week. You have to do what works for you, but you also have to do the work.
- Have a partner. This is someone who will hold you accountable. For me, it’s my art critique partner. In November, we were both feeling overwhelmed with all the things we WANTED to do, but were never getting to. We agreed to email rather than message a weekly to-do list. We send this on Sundays, usually, and then at the end of the week, we also send a little reflection. This is where we talk about how we did and how we’re feeling about it. Did we take on too much? Too little? We also make a conscious effort to keep the stories out of it. No excuses – we either did the work, or we didn’t.We decided to email because we regularly are in contact through messaging. It would be impossible to find the list at the end of the week, and there is something about the not-immediate pace of email that pushes us to pause, think, and reflect more carefully.
- Change. When your system isn’t working – when you can’t find something, or anything; when you are constantly overwhelmed; when you have nothing to show for a month of work – then it is time to change your system.
Dear Santa Claus,
How’s it going? I hope you’ve had a restful summer and that the elves let you get some sleep. I will be leaving you some treats by the stockings, assuming the dogs don’t get to them. I hope your travels are safe and that you don’t run into any issues, like kids who are awake or overprotective cats, or fire marshals claiming that sliding down a chimney is against code.
This year for Christmas, I would love some tools to help me with my writing. More specifically, I would like:
- A lot more time. I know I talk about stealing time and finding time and getting up early, but what I wouldn’t give for a few hours during the normal daytime to just get things written down.
- A vision of the novel from the tail-end – could I just skip that whole revision stage?
- An agent who gets me and all of my vision, who wishes to represent an author who writes picture books and middle grade novels, and who makes art for his own work and for others.
- A steady paycheck while writing and making art, without having to head off to a full time job every single day.
- More quiet.
- That old detached garage refinished into the finest, shabbiest-chicest studio and writing space ever. At least heated and mouse-free.
- A tribe. A real-life, in the flesh, meet up with me and keep up with me, kind of tribe.
- A quicker computer. I am so impatient.
- More time to sit and watch and play with my family. This is where the inspiration lives. And the magic and the joy.
I suppose you could bring me all of that, but what would I do with it? Sure, a quicker computer would be great, but when would I be reminded to slow down?
A steady paycheck – I have that, though I go off to work, but in that space lies so many ideas and stories that work their way into my writing and art. I’d better keep that job.
More time? I’ll probably just get roped into bringing MORE ideas to life, and then I will be asking for even MORE time. Greed leads to greed, after all.
Vision from the tail-end? I think I’d miss the magic and the journey. I care more about the process, anyway. It is more fun to be in a project, rather than trying to get it started.
More quiet? I’ve got enough of it. Maybe I need more noise.
An agent who gets all of my vision? I’m working on it. If you brought the agent, I’d be worried that they were only doing you a favour, instead of working with me for me and my vision.
The renovated studio would be awfully nice, but I already have a great space. I can wait for that one.
A tribe would be great, but right now I have all the tribe I need in my online critique friends and creative groups. I’m sure I’ll get there.
More time to sit and watch and play with my family – okay, you can bring me that.
Thanks, Santa – bring me that time with the family and I’ll have all I need.
PS: Tell Rudolph I said hi, and I am greatly concerned that his reindeer friends are using him for his nose.