Thoughts on making art

Production vs procrastination: The strategies I’ve developed to keep myself motivated

If anyone asks me what the most difficult thing about being an artist is, my answer will probably be self-motivation. This is not because I am horribly lazy. Being lazy, to me, means having a disinterest in doing things, or feeling like you can’t be bothered. I may have many flaws, but laziness is not one of them. My biggest challenges, dear reader, are self-doubt and self-distraction. In this, my most downright frank of blog posts, I would like to share with you some of the strategies I’ve had to develop to keep myself motivated, and how they have improved my creative output. But first a few words about the horrors that are self-doubt and procrastination.

I think of self-doubt and insecurity as the invisible mountains every creative person has to mentally climb before they get on with the all important Making Of Art. I imagine it as though some are more inherently more confident, so their mountain range is smaller and quicker to overcome. Others will find they are walking on smooth terrain for quite some time before – bam! – they suddenly meet with a vertical wall with almost no warning. In the past I basically got to the peak of Mount Self Doubt, set up camp and lived there. It took a long time to work out how to move on from this, but eventually I got down and started making things again,

Because I’m a visual person (and a little strange) I like to give most of my emotional challenges an image and a name – I find them easier to take on that way. Another way that I ‘frame’ my creative insecurity is the ‘rabbit hole of despair’ (which has nothing to do with the 1960s interpretation of this by the way). Quite dramatic a name I know, but that’s how my brain works. The rabbit hole of despair is a creativity killer. For me it can include any of the following:

– Fear my work is rubbish, and huge self-criticism and shame about everything I’ve made. Ever.
– Fear I’m a failure, often accompanied by pointlessly comparing myself to others.
– Being convinced I’ve done the wrong thing for the last decade and spending hours looking at courses I can’t afford, reading job descriptions I haven’t got the experience (or often interest) to do, or looking up house prices in towns I will never actually live (yes I really do this).
– Deciding to throw everything out of the window (metaphorically) and start afresh, often with the potential risk of undoing hours of work on websites, blogs or social media.
– Guilt that I’ve had hours to do constructive, useful things and wasted them on all of the above.

On the other side of this I have the challenge of Procrastination With Intent To Avoid. This is often harder to see happening at the beginning, but can be just as destructive. For me this can take the forms of volunteering, offering to meet up with friends, doing housework, or researching things that aren’t really relevant (sometimes good of course, but often just straight up procrastination).

The techniques that I’ve developed to counter these aren’t the most inventive, and I am not championing myself as an online guru here. But I have found some things that have really helped me to minimise my once regular visits down the rabbit hole:

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1. Writing down 5 dreams I’d like to achieve in my work over next 5 years

I didn’t invent this idea, obviously it’s one that is used in counselling and self-help books, but it’s been really useful to me. I make them quite aspirational things, things I’m maybe even too scared to share with other people, and I put it up in my studio. I could be setting myself up for disappointment of course, but I know they might not happen, and I’m ok with that. They will change as I do. But I find it useful to have a reminder that I am ambitious in my own way, and that I do have things I’m working towards.

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2. Reading or watching interviews with people I admire

I think social media has made it much easier for us to find people we admire which is great, but on the downside it can often feel like everyone has had overnight success we will never experience. I find watching or reading interviews with people whose careers I have deep respect for so helpful because (of course) none of them got there easily. Knowing that they too had to work extremely hard, failed at things, were rejected and nearly gave up sometimes reminds me to stop feeling sorry for myself and keep plodding onwards.

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3. Writing a 6 month plan

In the past I’ve often scuppered myself with poor time management and planning. For example I would see an opportunity I really wanted to apply for, get distracted by other things that needed my attention, and suddenly realise I’d missed the deadline or run out of time to make my application adequate. I now have a plan that covers the next 6 months to stop this from happening. I have different categories – opportunities, commission deadlines, publicity, events, etc, and I write under each one the important dates and what I need to do for this. I then make a more detailed plan each month working out how to fit everything into the time available, and add these things to my calendar. It’s not always beautiful to look at, and sometimes I fall off track and need to redo it. But it helps me to feel like I have a hold on things a bit better these days, and when I’m feeling down I look at the old lists to remind me of how much I have achieved.

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4. Talk to people who understand

If I’m feeling really unmotivated or like everything I’ve done recently has landed flat on it’s face, then nothing is more helpful then talking to a friend or family member who totally gets it. I’m very lucky as I know quite a lot of self-employed creatives, but if you don’t you could always reach out and bravely email an artist you admire, or participate on one the many forums out there. After talking it through with someone I often feel much more motivated, and I will try to do the same for others whenever I can (hence this blog!).

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5. Doing anything at all to make headway

I have a piece of paper on my pinboard that says ‘Do something. Anything!’. Especially in times when I’m under a lot of pressure I can find myself freezing – finding it hard to get on as it’s all too intimidating and I feel overwhelmed. I find if I do anything at all – something tiny and boring like a quick drawing, making a tiny papercut, sharing something on social media, replying to an email or even (when I can muster the inner strength) book-keeping – it breaks the spell of panic and indecision.

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6. Having structure in the rest of my life

For me, a big component to being more productive is to make the rest of my life quite structured. I do sometimes find when I have bags of time I will be low on motivation because I don’t value that time as I should. On the opposite side to this, not having any real time to be creative is also highly counter productive because it’s hard to find the energy to make amazing things after a long day at work or with children. I am endlessly tweaking this and trying out different combinations, but at the moment having a part time job is helping me to make progress on my art without endlessly panicking about money. And having clearly defined times for looking after my child, seeing friends or just reading a good old book also helps me to focus on my studio days. I’m not perfect at this – very few people are let’s be honest! But I do feel like I’m getting closer to finding a balance that works for me.

So…..there are a few of my strategies, and I might share some more another time. There are a few points I’d like to make before I end this post though. The first is that I am obviously in no way a mental health expert, but I do know if you are really struggling with feeling low, negative about yourself or struggling to get motivated with anything these can be signs of depression and perhaps it’s best to ask for some help from a professional. We all have things we need a bit more support with from time to time.

The second is to say, I’m no expert in this field but I think that it’s normal to struggle with motivation and procrastination if you are self-employed. I don’t give myself a hard time when things slip a bit these days, because I know I’m doing the best I can in my own unique circumstances.

The last thing I feel I should mention is no one is meant to work all the time. The constant and global nature of social media can make it seem like everyone is always working, the guilt caused by this can be intense. But we all need other things in our life to make us happy too.

Otherwise, what would we have to make art about?

Lessons learnt

6 things I do when I feel like I’m failing at social media

When I began Stories in Paper in 2015 my plan was clear: create my art, make a website and a shop, share it on a variety of social media platforms and wait for the momentum to begin.

18 months on and this all seems extremely naive of me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had some wonderful positives from my experiences on social media. I have met or reconnected with some really amazing creative people. I’ve had my work shared, some of my blog posts have actually been read by people all over the world, and I have made sales directly from these. I am grateful for every person who has given me positive feedback about my work or follows my progress (if that’s you then thank you!) However, on the days where I spend hours writing a blog post that 32 people read (again, shout out if that’s you), or I share a discount offer on Facebook that no one takes up… it can be hard not to compare myself to people with 100k followers who get to make art all day everyday and never even have to use a hashtag to get their work seen.

I think social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand it can be inspiring and useful to see other people succeeding, and it can keep you motivated when you get positive feedback (let’s all admit to the little rush of adrenaline when you log into Instagram and a load of tiny hearts are waiting for you) . On the other it can make you feel judged, like you aren’t achieving at the same rate/ scale as others, and set unrealistic expectations based on the people who become social media success stories.

I wish I had an equation I could share with you to get thousands of enthusiastic followers – trust me if I did I’d be using it. But I don’t. So based in my own experiences, I’ve complied a short list of 6 things I do when I feel like I’m failing at social media.

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1. Take a step back

We all know by now that social media is addictive. Not only has it been proven that we get a rush of endorphins by simply holding our phones, we all recognise that nice feeling when your work gets lots of ‘Likes’ or positive feedback. The only problem with this is that it also has a negative side – it can start making us equate the reaction to our posts on social media with how worthwhile our art is. I have known so many people who end up feeling disillusioned and like a failure because they have posted consistently for a long time and still have a relatively small number of followers (because in our society if you’re not a ‘winner’ somehow that automatically seems to make you a ‘failure’ for some ridiculous reason).

When I feel these negative self-judgements taking hold I’ve begun to step back from social media completely for a little while. I’ll won’t post anything. If I have to reply to messages I’ll avoid checking my followers (simply by not paying attention to my number of followers on Facebook and Instagram – this is hard because Instagram is cleverly designed so your number of followers is right at the top, staring you in the face every time you are on your profile.) Often during these periods I’ll be really busy with teaching, but if not I’ll give myself a week to concentrate all my working time on making things. And you know what? I actually gain followers during these periods. Sure I might lose some too, but my point is once you loosen that grip that social media has on you, you quickly realise that no one notices when things go a bit quiet at your end (despite what Facebook will try and tell you). I actually think it’s potentially more detrimental to post lower quality content simply to be ‘present’, then to spend some time giving it a rest and remembering you are so much more then an online profile.

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2. Explore a different world on the internet

I find that when I’m looking at the social media feeds of other artists I’m subconsciously  researching, thinking, analysing, comparing, taking notes etc. Which is the thing to do, because that’s how we learn and improve what we are sharing. What this sometimes stops me from seeing though, is the passion and the joy within it all.

Over the last year I’ve become a bit of a marine biology hobbyist. This is mainly due to the fact that I began to make images of marine life, and through this I became fascinated by learning about how these creatures live (thank you again art for endlessly enriching my life!). I started reading forums and following pages of marine biologists, underwater photographers and environmentalists, and I was blown away by the passion and knowledge these people have. It inspires me! I’ll never be a scientist (I don’t have the grades to be honest), but spending some time in the online world of marine biology enthusiasts can really help me to come back to the world of art and illustration enthusiasts with fresh eyes.

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3. Make some art just for me

I’m the generation that began to experiment with social media. I had a Livejournal (remember them?) when I was 17, but I didn’t join Facebook until I was 21 and I only made an Instagram account in 2015 (I was obviously seriously out of touch at this point). The reason I’m telling you my internet history here is because the idea of sharing every stage of your creative process to an audience is a relatively new one (bar a few pioneering conceptual artists). The notion of actually creating things to share online is a recent phenomenon, and I think it’s dramatically altered how lots of people engage with their creativity.

Some people do a brilliant job of this. They have built their careers on posting every day, and this seems to work well for many illustrators. I look forward to seeing little snippets into other people’s working process, and I love that the internet has opened people up to sharing this and demystified the creative act a bit. The regular posting approach also seems to be really helpful when people are working on a specific project, or where this kind of framework helps them to make a step forward in their practice (like the #100daysof projects which I one day intend to do). However, being an exceptionally slow worker, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to use these platforms to share the work I have been making, not to make work to share.

Like everything there are conventions in social media, and in our visually articulate society a consistent ‘feel’ to your pages seems to be one of the key elements to build up followers. But surely one of the most important parts of being an artist is experimenting. Feeling too scared to make new work that doesn’t fit into your ‘visual brand’ is boring and uninspiring! So when I feel like I want to take a brave new step I give myself the permission to play. I make something just for me with no intention of sharing it, happy to take those risks without having to show them with the world before I’ve had a chance to explore and enjoy them.

4. Make connections in the real world

I have had lots of opportunities arise from my website and Facebook page, so in no way am I suggesting you shouldn’t bother with having an internet presence. It’s obviously really important these days, and it’s wonderful that we can share our work with people online.

Still, most of my opportunities have come from meeting people face to face. I don’t always feel like it, but I never regret going to a talk or a show opening (and there aren’t endless chances to do this in Cumbria so people tend to make the effort). Meeting people who share your passions and getting to talk about them together is so much fun, and it always leaves me inspired. I find it pretty scary to go to things on my own, but I’ve gotten more used to it by slowly pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and it’s helped me to meet some wonderful people.

 

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5. Turn off my devices

Google for 30 seconds and you’ll find there are endless articles on how to build your social media following. As a general rule they say the same things: post at least once a day, engage with the community by commenting on people’s content, add people, join forums, offer giveaways. All of which is really good advice… it’s just so time consuming!

I’ve followed some of this advice, and I’m sure it’s helped people to find my work. But when you’re feeling burnt out with the endless internet self-promotion it can be hard to find real enthusiasm, and I feel like it always shows through. When this happens I try to give myself some time off the internet, be it an afternoon or a few days, to have some time experiencing the world off screen. Obviously it’s a good idea to let clients know when you’ll be difficult to contact, and maybe give your friends a heads up on Facebook if they’re used to getting in touch with you or you might stress some people out a bit. Then go out for a walk, and if you see something beautiful appreciate it (and the fact that you don’t have to spend 10 minutes crouching down working out how to take a nice photo of it).

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6. Try to stop comparing myself to others

As I said earlier, I think people should use social media in whatever way it suits them, and for some people who work very quickly posting every day can work really well. However, for those of us who have things in the way whether that be illness, caring for children, having a full time job, having a personal crisis or just being a slow worker, it can add a lot of unnecessary pressure.

I’m not immune to comparing myself to others and feeling low as a result. It’s hard not to, but I really do think it’s the biggest waste of time and energy. We are given totally unrealistic expectations based on other people’s extremely controlled representations of their lives. This comparison game seems to be seeping into everything – you don’t just have to make good work you also have to have a beautiful house, find time to go on amazing adventures, have wonderful pets or children who you have energy to hang out with, look good, eat well….it’s all too much, and our lives are not show homes!

My Instagram account is not me. It’s a series of considered images of my work taken in settings that I think compliments it. I’m really open with my friends but I’ve made a decision not share a lot of my day to day life as part of my business. A few years ago I shared a bit more, and have gradually pulled back. That is simply my personal choice, and I’m not criticising others who do. I’m also not trying to challenge the idea of ‘styling’ your home or your life, because if people want to do that it’s up to them – I respect them and think some people are very talented at it. I don’t share pictures of the chaos of the morning rush before nursery not just because the house looks awful, but because it just doesn’t have much do with my work. The consequence of this is sometimes my Instagram might be bit reserved, but that’s what I’m comfortable with at the moment.

Who knows, I may change my mind in the future. To me one the wonderful things about art is everyone is different, and we are all expressing our creativity as one part of our unique, complicated lives.

So there you have it. Those are the 6 things I do when I feel like I’m failing at social media, but what are some of yours? I think we all wish there was an obvious and easy to follow rule about how to make this work, but for me the secrets are persevere, and don’t let it ruin the thing that you love! Good luck!

p.s if you want to follow me on social media you can find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Sarie at me old china for inspiring me to get these thoughts together through her honesty. Her work is well worth checking out too 🙂

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Lessons learnt

My 9 biggest (and hardest) lessons from the first year of my art business

Around this time last year I took the first steps towards making Stories In Paper a business. It was something I had wanted to do for a long, long time. I’ve run a creative business as an artist and creative educator since 2008, but I had a solo show coming up in a local cafe and I wanted to focus it on papercutting. I had been making papercuts and shadow puppets for several years, and I thought it would be nice to make a small series of papercut bird images as part of the exhibition. A year down the line and this has led to my ‘Bird Spotting’ series, of which there are now 14 images, several other projects and lots of opportunities I never imagined! It was also really hard work, so to celebrate both sides of this year I’ve summed up my 9 biggest lessons (and hardest) lessons from the first year of my art business. As you can easily find better guides online to the practicalities of starting a business this is quite of a personal post, because I’ve really tried to focus on the biggest hurdles and successes for me as an individual in the hope they are useful to others too. Continue reading “My 9 biggest (and hardest) lessons from the first year of my art business”

Tutorials and classes

Shadow puppet theatre book

As it’s Halloween I thought today I’d share this tutorial on how to make a shadow puppet theatre book from my old blog as it might bring someone else some joy!

Throughout my different ‘phases’ as an artist (of which there have been a fair few!) I have always made little theatres and ‘rooms-in-a-box’. Something about making a tiny world to tell stories in makes me really happy. This small paper theatre isn’t too complicated in its construction, and it allows you to create changeable background layers so you can make as many different stories as you like. Its based on a theatre book design, and inspired by Victorian paper theatres or toy theatres.

Please decide for yourself if your child is old enough for the activity and supervise them while creating. I just enjoy sharing creative ideas for people of all ages 🙂
Continue reading “Shadow puppet theatre book”

Lessons learnt

12 things I learnt from opening my Etsy shop

A few months ago I opened my first Etsy shop. I have never tried to sell my work through an e-commerce website, and I didn’t know very much about it. So I thought it might be helpful to other artists or makers if I wrote about the 12 things I learnt from opening my Etsy shop, in the hope that my lessons will save other people time!

Of course there are lots of other online e-commerce or market places you can use to sell you work, and I wasn’t sure if I should use Folksy instead. However, as I am just starting out I thought Etsy might be a good site to try first, as they have so many users and I was hoping I might find an audience for my work through this. For the sake of this article I’m going to talk about Etsy as that’s the platform I use, but I think you could apply most of these points to any other online shop platform.

So, once you’ve chosen which platform you want to use, signed up and finally settled on a shop name what next? I hope the 12 lessons I learnt from opening my Etsy shop below offer some help to make your own shop become a successful place to sell your work! Continue reading “12 things I learnt from opening my Etsy shop”