Frequently Asked Questions :: Making Use of Studio Time

01/23/13

desk

{my studio work table in October 2012}

Hi friends! I’m back today with another installment of Frequently Asked Questions. Before I get to today’s question, I wanted also to let you know that yesterday I was profiled on Design*Sponge’s Biz Ladies series. I answer lots of questions about starting, building and sustaining my small art & illustration business. You can check it out here!

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Okay, back to today’s question. Recently I’ve been getting emails from people asking about one thing in particular: how do I make the best use of studio time? I think this challenge is especially formidable when we don’t have a paying client job that forces us to the studio or kitchen table to work. In other words, how do we motivate ourselves to get to the studio when the purpose is simply to make new work and not necessarily to finish a deadline? And then, once we are there, how do we use the time efficiently?

Note: for many people their “studio” is their kitchen table or the desk in their living room. What I’m really talking about here is working, whether you have a studio outside your house or not!

On getting yourself to the studio:

+Create a personal challenge or daily/weekly project. Do you respond well to parameters and structure? Do you enjoy a personal challenge? Start a “drawing a day” project or “a new medium a week” — or something unique that gets you making new work on a regular basis. Collection a Day 2010, 365 Days of Hand Lettering, and The Reconstructionists are all personal projects that have forced me to create on a regularly. And while none of them paid initially, they all led to more work in the end and in a couple of cases, book deals. The key for me was not just doing the daily practice, but sharing it publicly on the internet. That held me accountable and increased my visibility as an artist (which leads to more work).

+Make set studio hours. Often when we are self employed, we lose the structure in our day that we may once have had when we had a job. So until we find a good routine, we may feel lost or overwhelmed about how to organize our time. When I was first starting out as an illustrator I didn’t have much paying client work yet, so getting myself to the studio was hard. It seemed like I prioritized everything before getting to the studio — even going to the gym! So one solution to that was to set “studio hours” that I adhered to every day or every week. Once I set them up, I went to my studio during those hours to make new work whether I had a deadline or not. Here’s the crux of it: treat getting to the studio and working on your portfolio like you would a job.

+Find something that inspires you and use it to stimulate a new body of work. Jack London once said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” There are always things that interest us. In fact, many of us have interests that keep us up at night reading or scouring the internet. For example, for years I’ve been obsessed with Nordic culture and landscape. Since 2011 I’ve used that personal interest to make over 40 new pieces of personal work (paintings and drawings based on my obsession). Over time, these pieces have led to fine art sales, gallery shows and illustration work. Use your passions to drive your work.

+Get goals around building your online portfolio. Your online portfolio is one of the most important reflections of who you are as an artist or illustrator. Use building and perfecting your portfolio as a way to motivate yourself to make new work. The stronger your portfolio, the more work you will get. Set goals around strengthening sections of your portfolio and use studio time to work on meeting those goals. Are there specific kinds of illustration jobs you’d like to get? Make work that reflects your interest in those jobs.

On using time efficiently once you are in your studio:

+Turn off the internet and your smart phone. Need I say more?

+Set your alarm to take regular breaks so that you don’t burn out too early in the day

+Bring food, water and snacks. Stay nourished.

+Bring headphones and music or podcasts that help you keep your head down and your hand drawing.

+Set small goals for what to accomplish each day.

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Frequently Asked Questions :: Supplies

11/30/12

{the view from one of my work tables, taken in 2010}

One of the questions I get frequently is: What kind of supplies do you use in your work? So today I’m going to share a little bit of that with you. Art-making is a process of experimentation. I think it’s always smart to occasionally try new supplies (whether it’s a new medium or a new brand of medium), just to see if you might like something a little bit better. Taking advice or tips from other artists is also helpful. I have learned so much from the recommendations of friends.

Again, as always, my disclaimer: I do no speak for all artists here. I speak only for myself. These are the supplies I like & use. They may not work for you.

1) Paint. I use gouache. I occasionally also use acrylic (which mixes easily with the kind of gouache I use). I also occasionally use water colors. I like gouache because it is smooth, and it works well for me on a variety of surfaces. It is easy to both use thick (out of the tube with a little water) and to thin out (like water color with a lot of water). It does not have the “grip” that acrylic has, which can make it difficult when you are painting on a smooth, hard surface like masonite, but with practice that becomes easier. My favorite brand of gouache is Acryla. The color selection is lush and they mix nicely. It is more opaque than many gouaches. And that might be because it’s an acrylic-based watercolor paint. Many other gouaches are used with the binding agent gum arabic. Gouache is matte in finish, while acrylic paint can be a bit shiny. I like this, especially when I’m painting on paper.

2) Pens. One word: Micron. I love this pen, and I have about three in each width, from very tiny to thick. I do all my lettering with Microns. They are permanent and acid free. Finding the widths that work best for you (I tend to use .03-.08 the most often) can take some time, but I do use other widths for detail work or filler. I get most of my Microns at Flax Art & Design in San Francisco where you can pick and choose from a variety of sizes and colors.

3) Pencils. I use a regular old #2 for most of my drawings. And a good quality gum eraser. I sharpen often. I also use blending stumps and fixative.

4) Brushes. I don’t spend too much money on expensive brushes. I tend to use brushes that are about 6 inches long (I prefer these to long handled brushes), and I sometimes even buy the cheaper variety pack. I go through brushes very quickly (even expensive brushes). I tend to use angular, bright and flat brushes, along with liner brushes for detail work. Some of my brushes are so tiny that you can barely see the hairs on them! This is a great brush shape chart. I like brushes that are smooth (important for the kind of work I do), but also stiff (I don’t use water color brushes which can be softer). Experimenting with brushes is also important! It took me years to figure out what kinds of brushes work best for me.

5) Paper. I work on watercolor paper and regular drawing paper, depending on what I’m painting or drawing. I buy whatever is on sale, but I always look at whatever I buy to make sure it feels right (yes, touch the paper before you buy it!). I keep a variety of weights and colors around. I sometimes prefer painting on off-white paper rather than pure white because it scans better and looks less washed out.

6) Panels. I work on both wood panels and gessoed masonite panels. I like cradled panels the best because they are ready to hang. Sometimes I work on canvas too. I’m not wedded to any brand. I tend to buy what looks good quality and seems affordable.

7) Other. I also use Exacto Knives and scissors for paper cutting. I also use painters tape and a metal ruler for creating straight edges. I love circle and other shape templates. I use a Black and Decker Hand Sander to sand edges and smooth surfaces or add some distress to my work on wood. I sometimes also use transfer paper to transfer my sketches to the painting or drawing surface. When doing collage I use archival quality glue or glue sticks. Sometimes I use a glue gun when I’m making three dimensional work. I also own a miter saw to make frames for my paintings.

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I didn’t go to art school, so much of what I’ve learned about supplies has been through experimentation. Sometimes I don’t even know if I’m using the “right” materials! But I love what John Cage said once: “Art is whatever you can get away with.” And, as a mostly self-taught artist, that as been my story.

You can view previous FAQ’s here. Happy Friday.

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Frequently Asked Questions :: Transitioning to Full Time Artist

10/18/12

Hello friends, I’m back with another Frequently Asked Questions post! I inadvertently took a break from FAQ while traveling and am finally ready to get back to them!

So today’s question is one I get a lot. It’s about making the transition from full time employment to self employment: How did I do it? And any tips?

{The usual disclaimer: I’m going to share with you my personal transition story and a few things I learned along the way. This is my story only, and is not meant to be scientific expert opinion!}

My story:

I was really lucky. I had worked for the same non-profit organization for several years (and worked with many of the people at another non-profit organization for years before that). So I knew my boss and my colleagues well. We were friends. They all knew I was an artist and that I was beginning to show and license my work. So when I did begin the transition to leaving my full time job to make art, it came as no real surprise to everyone. So, I guess that leads us to Tip #1: don’t hide the fact that you are a serious maker from your coworkers. When you leave your job, it will not come as a surprise to anyone. You might even get a lot of support for your choice.

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I’ve been in a relationship now for four years, but when I began the process of becoming self employed (and it is a process), I was single. So it was really important to me that I made decisions that were financially responsible, because I had nothing to fall back on, not even savings! I decided that my first step was to go part time at my job, instead of leaving entirely. This gave me some steady income but also more time to work on building my art practice. Again, I made this transition easily because I had worked with my boss for years, and she supported my life choices. I realize this kind of transition isn’t possible for everyone (nor is it the right thing to do in every situation), but it can be helpful. That leads us to Tip #2: make the transition less abrupt by working part time for awhile as you build your new business.

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Around the same time I went part time at my job, I began talking to a friend about opening a retail shop together. The shop would sell some of my art, prints, etc, but it would mostly sell the work of other people (stationery, housewares, etc). The purpose of opening the shop was to generate some extra income. It would allow me to be fully self-employed, and would provide me with another form of income. I just wasn’t making enough from my artwork yet to make a living on that alone. When we opened the store, I finally quit my job entirely. I made art a few days a week and worked in the store a few days a week. Technically it wasn’t too different from working a part time job, except I was fully self-employed (and it was a lot more fun!). This leads us to Tip #3: When you make the move to quit your job, think creatively about how you can supplement the income you generate from selling your work with other entrepreneurial endeavors (things like teaching classes, monetizing your blog or opening a storefront like I did.)

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Eventually my art and illustration practice began generating enough income that I could move on from the brick and mortar shop. I loved owning the shop with my friend (and it was great experience), but I really wanted to be a full time artist. It’s important to remember that supplementing your art/making income with other stuff (a part time job or another entrepreneurial endeavor) may need to happen for a number of years before you can spend 100% of your time doing what you love. It took me several years! Also, in the meantime, I was working really, really hard to promote my work and to build my portfolio. This leads me to Tip #4: work hard (even before the transition to full-time self-employment) to build your portfolio and let the world know about what you do. I say a lot more about this in this FAQ post.

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I’ve been working as an artist and illustrator since 2005, but it’s only been in the last two years that I’ve been working full time at it. I still supplement my art income on occasion with things like teaching and public speaking (and those things are on the topic of art-making, so they feel really authentic). If you think (and take action) creatively about how to make a living (ie: what else can I sell? how else can I make money in ways that feel authentic to me?) you will have a greater chance for success.

 

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Frequently Asked Questions :: Why Don’t You Allow Blog Comments?

08/30/12

{Gemtastic, graphite and gouache on paper, 2010}

Today’s FAQ: People can’t leave comments on your blog. How come?

My answer: Let me say first that I think comments are great. I think blogging is an extremely valuable forum for discussion about all kinds of issues–about politics, child-rearing, art, design, life, etc. etc. So if you have comments on your own blog and value them, I get why you do. If you enjoy commenting on blogs, I get that too.

Here’s a bit of my personal story: In 2005 I started my first blog which I kept for a number of years (it no longer exists on the internet). That blog allowed comments, and I found that I got way too wrapped up in:

a) Whether people were commenting at all. For example, if a post had no or few comments, did that mean it sucked? Or was boring? Did it mean that piece of art I posted was horrible? I put much more weight on comments than I should have.

b) Whether I was obligated to respond to all comments and questions. I just didn’t have time, and yet I felt a responsibility as a show of appreciation to my readers. If I went to bed without responding to my commenters, I felt horrible. I didn’t like feeling that way.

c) Occasional negative comments. I didn’t have many, but they would appear every now and again, some from trolls, some from earnest but cantankerous readers. I felt like I gave those comments way more attention in my own mind than the hundreds of positive comments I would receive in a month. I didn’t like that either.

So, in the end, all of this caused me to close down my blog. Instead of being enjoyable, blogging felt stressful.

So when I decided to start blogging again, I asked myself what would keep it enjoyable and sustainable for me. The answer? No comments. And you know what? I’ve kept this blog for almost a year and it hasn’t felt stressful once. Not having comments helps me avoid get too wrapped up in what other people think about my work or my life decisions.

What I love is that if folks want to tell me how a post made them feel or if they have questions, they usually email me. After this past Tuesday’s post, I got six lovely emails the same day from readers. I also get a lot of feedback on Twitter and Facebook.

The lesson here? Make your own rules for your life, and let what feels right for you be your guide.

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Frequently Asked Questions :: Do You Take Commissions?

08/22/12

{Painting commission I did for a client in 2011 of her daughter’s pet chicken “Fluffy”}

Today’s FAQ: Do you take commissions?

My answer: Yes! BUT, it also depends. Mostly it depends on how much time I have in my schedule, so that’s always the first thing I consider when people ask. When I do say no to commissions, it’s usually because I’m buried in other deadlines . But sometimes there are other reasons I say no to commissions. Here are some common requests:

1) Tattoos. No. I love tattoos. I have a whole bunch of them on my own body. But I’ve come to realize after about 6 or 7 in the last year, that designing tattoos for other people is not something I enjoy. Mostly I think it’s because tattoos are so personal and, well, permanent. I tend to get really anxious when I design tattoos, and I realized it’s because I feel enormous pressure to get them just right, which is practically impossible. So, mostly, I don’t design tattoos anymore.

2) Blog headers. No. More frequently lately I’ve been asked to design blog headers. This is another thing I tried out because people were asking and then realized it wasn’t my thing. Mostly, for the same reasons that designing tattoos feels hard for me. Blogs are personal. Blog headers need to show who you are, and I’m never sure my artwork can show who someone else is. Also, I’m not a graphic designer, so layout and incorporating text, etc. is not my skill set. I think it’s best to hire a graphic designer to design your blog header.

3) Dog portraits. YES. I love doing them if I have time in my schedule. Always. Need a good, clear high resolution photo, but if you got that, I’m game. Yep, I also do other pets like chickens and cats (see Fluffy, above).

4) People portraits. Sometimes. This is another tough one. People are hard to paint if you don’t know them, because you aren’t always sure you’ve captured them (and one photo doesn’t always tell you enough about a person). Worth asking, but I can’t always say until I see the photo you’d like me to use as reference (I always paint from photos).

5) General fine art commissions. YES. If I’ve got time and you’ve got money, I’ll paint you a birch forest or mural in your kids’ bedroom or whatever. I do require some art direction (you give me as much specific information as you can about what you’d like me to create for you) and a lot of lead time.

6) Wedding invitations. Sometimes. Depends on the style you’d like me to use and how involved your idea is. Always worth asking. I’ve done a few invitations lately that have been really fun projects!

Have an idea that isn’t reflected here? Email me! It never hurts to ask.

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Frequently Asked Questions :: Making Illustration Your Full Time Job

08/17/12


{Recent illustration work in progress}

I have decided to start a new category on my blog called Frequently Asked Questions. I get emails + tweets pretty often with questions, and many of the questions people ask me fall into specific categories. So I’ve decided to address some of them here once a week or once every two weeks. I’ll take one question at a time. If you want to read all the questions + answers as they accumulate, you can jump to the Frequently Asked Questions category here.

{Disclaimer: the answers I offer are based on MY experience. When I am speaking about art and illustration, I am not speaking for all artists and illustrators, just myself.}

Today’s FAQ: I really want to make my illustration work a full time job, but I have no idea how to get there. What do I do?

My answer:

There is no one clear path to making illustration your full time work! Here are some suggestions for getting your work out there:

1) Build your portfolio with work that you are proud of and work you’d like to do for potential clients. In the first few years of my illustration career I had very little work. So I spent most of my free time outside my job (I was still working part time when I started as an illustrator) making art that I thought would appeal to potential clients. Soon enough, this work led to jobs. And then jobs led to more jobs. Don’t wait for work to come to you.

2) Use social media to tell the world about what you do. Start a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account and a personal blog. Post pictures of your work and link to them every single day. Tell people your story. Show your humanity. Build a base of people who like what you do and are likely to share it with others. Many of the first jobs I got were from connections I made through the internet. This is still how I get most of my work today!

3) Build/design a beautiful, clean website that highlights your best work. If you can’t do that yourself, pay someone to do it. This is such an important investment. Many art directors will judge you based on your website (or whether you even have one), not necessarily the quality of your work.

4) Show up + network. Go to design, art and illustration conferences and talks. Get over your shyness and interact with people in the business. Support other artists and illustrators. Make friends. Be a nerd.

5) Write down a list of your dream clients or projects. Figure out ways to make connections with those clients. Tweet at them, like them on Facebook, find someone who knows someone who works for them. Take risks.

6) Sign with an illustration agent. This is not for everyone, but working with an agency can be a fantastic way to get new work + manage complex contracts. I work with Lilla Rogers Studio. Much of my work comes through them (clients find me through them). They also handle all my contracts (I don’t ever have to deal with money or weird difficult conversations with clients). They promote my work and provide enormous support.

7) Consider licensing your work. Get a booth at a show like Surtex. Contact companies that license artwork. But always make sure these are companies with whom you will be proud to have your work associated.

8) Work your butt off. Being a full time freelancer requires enormous sacrifice. No one is hustling work for you. You need to do that yourself. Sometimes that means giving up parts of your social life in order to prioritize and promote your work. Sometimes that means spending your extra money on a new website instead of clothes or dinners at your favorite restaurants.

9) Be as original as you are able. Develop your own style or set of styles. Be your own person. Art directors are looking for fresh work that is new and exciting. They want your unique perspective on the world. Show them what that is.

10) Be patient + positive. Making illustration your full time career takes time and enormous amount of hard work. Very few people get there right out of school or overnight. Stay positive about your own work + path and support others in theirs.

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