When I was still in art school, a teacher once said that as an illustrator, you should always be making enough work so that every six months you’ll have enough new pieces to create a brand new portfolio. I never forgot that advice and believe it to still hold true today. Creating new work on a consistent basis is key, not only good for promotional and marketing reasons, but for your own personal development as an artist as well. The rate and consistency at which you put out new and exciting work will eventually bring in jobs, create customers, and ultimately grow your career from a hobby into a profession. This may sound like an obvious task for an artist, but for most of us, it can be a daunting one. Even as a professional, I will sometimes fall into the “inspiration trap”, waiting for just the right idea to hit me and just the right time to execute it. In my experience, this trap is one that can often lead to artist’s block and lack of consistent production. If you want to make your art your career, perhaps the first helpful thing to realize might be that art is a job. It can be the most rewarding job of your life, but it’s a job nonetheless.
Chuck Close probably put it best when he said : “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work”. I try and live by that quote as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love when the muse comes to visit unexpectedly and I wind up staying awake for hours past my bed time with the world of ideas pouring out of my pencil, but alas, that doesn’t happen all too often, at least not for me. And trust me, I also get into my slumps at times where I feel like I’m desperately trying to grab on to some external source of inspiration to get me going. We’re artists, but we’re still human and as humans we often look for the easy way out. In this case, the easy way out is hoping and waiting for the ideas to come to us rather than actively pursuing them. I struggle with this regularly, I think most of us do. What I always come back to though is the simple practice of just putting my head down and getting to work, whether I feel like it or not. It may take several attempts, there may be some resistance, but eventually something worth while always comes out of that process.
While I believe in rolling up your sleeves and getting to work, I also believe in working smartly and intently. Over the years I have tried many tactics in the art of staying productive and I’d love to share some of them with you. If you’re currently stuck, maybe these suggestions will get the wheels turning a bit and help you get unstuck. If you’re not stuck, perhaps you can just bookmark this for the next time you get stuck 🙂 None of these are groundbreaking ideas and I’m sure most of you do some of these already, but sometimes a little reminder of what we already know can be helpful.
Set goals and make plans.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish” – Antoine De Saint-Exupéry
If your goal is to have a certain amount of pieces completed in one month’s time, break that goal down into small steps. What will you have to accomplish weekly and daily in order to achieve that goal? If you’re making three panel newspaper comic strips, you’re output and approach is probably going to be different than someone creating oil paintings, but both will need a plan of attack in order to be productive and stay consistent. Personally I’ve found that making handwritten lists and taping them to my wall has really helped me break my bigger goals down into weekly plans of action. When I get off track and a bit distracted, it’s helpful for me to stop for a minute and take a look at the list on my wall. It always helps me refocus on my goals and get back into a productive state of mind.
Assign yourself work.
For an illustrator just starting out or a student still in school, a common question might be ‘How do I put out consistent work when I’m not getting hired consistently?’ My best answer to that would be that your output of new and interesting work shouldn’t be contingent on how much work you get hired to make. Whether you’re just starting out, a busy professional, or a student still in school, making self initiated work is a part of the gig. If you are looking to get more jobs, assigning yourself the kind of work you would like to eventually get hired to create is not a bad idea. You can illustrate articles from magazines that weren’t illustrated. You can draw portraits of the kinds of people you would love to get hired to draw. You can illustrate your own covers to classic books or your favorite novels. The list goes on. Be your own art director and hire yourself to do something cool!
Re-create old work.
Most of the time when I see older work of mine, I cringe at the sight of it. I think that’s a common trait among artists. However, sometimes those older ideas might have some value to them. Sometimes when I dig into very old work, I find there to be a certain sense of imagination that I may have lost touch with or simply grew out of, or maybe I was playing with certain themes that I just forgot about. Looking at it with fresh eyes, I may be able to take that idea and turn it into something really interesting with the skills I have acquired since that idea was originally conceived. Whether you just redraw it or use the old piece as a jumping off point for an improved idea, looking through older work can be a super valuable exercise. If you find yourself super embarrassed or critical of your older work, use that to your advantage, sometimes it can be a great way to identify your weak areas and work on ways to strengthen them.
Create a series.
Sometimes the idea you’re trying to create might be better suited as a series of pieces rather than a standalone image. As artists, we all have themes that seem to inspire us and keep us regularly revisiting them in our work. (Think Degas and his ballerinas, or Georgia O’keeffe and her flowers) These pieces tend to work really well when collected together, or sometimes they even read well as a group if they have some sort of narrative running through. You can collect the series into a small book or zine either to be used as a promotional item or to be sold. You can even have a show at a gallery where you can display the work on the walls, who knows.
Make a super awesome gift for someone.
Pick someone (or several people) really special to you and decide to draw them an awesome piece of art. Make it so awesome that they’re going to want to get it framed and hang it on their wall. That little bit of pressure in wanting to really impress someone can be just the right kind of fire to get you inspired and create something really nice. You will not only have made someone really really happy, but you also will have created a brand new piece (or pieces) for your portfolio. Sweet deal!