What I wish I’d known in my 20s about making art

Friday, 14 June, 2013

This is a workshop I gave for the Sydney Comics Guild (SCG) last Saturday. It came out a bunch of old blog posts (primarily this one and this one), so if you've been reading my blog for a while, it will feel repetitive (apologies). A couple of people asked me about it so I thought I would put the whole workshop online so I could refer people to it. Also, I realised afterwards that there were a few places where I didn't link things very well, so I'd like to take the opportunity to do that here.


(I got everyone to introduce themselves and answer the following questions):

(Then I introduced myself, because while most the people who come along to SCG know who I am, they don't necessarily know my background and why I would be speaking on this subject.)

About this workshop

I had the idea for this workshop for several reasons.

When I was young, as I said, I wanted to be a writer. But the adults around me told me, “You can't make a living from doing that.” That's clearly nonsense: people do. Look at Stephen King. Look at Neil Gaiman. Look at JK Rowling, for pity's sake! It's just that most people have no idea how to make a living as a writer.

It took me a while to actually take writing seriously—mostly because I wasn't serious about it (and I think I still believed the adults who told me you couldn't make a living from writing) and mostly because I dithered in other things for long while.

And then when I turned 31 (I'm 34 now), I realised I had been in my job for about five years, and while I loved my job, it wasn't as interesting to me because it wasn't as challenging anymore. Also, I think I was ready for a change.

I realised that I had never given writing a decent shot. So I started to think seriously about cutting back on work and trying to write part-time.

Then I got pregnant. (I have since read that this is quite common for women thinking about a sea change!) I'm trying to make do with the time I have in the circumstances I find myself now. However, now that I have less free time than I did before and far more responsibilities, I feel like I really wasted my 20s.


What's so significant about your 20s?

Well, it's because it's that time in your life when you've got the least amount of responsibility and the most amount of negotiable time. (By “negotiable time”, I mean time that you can decide what to do with. Non-negotiable time is time spent at work, at study, on household chores or your closest relationships. Negotiable time is what you spend on things like leisure, socialising, exercise, and so on.)

When you're in your 20s, high school is over and Uni is practically over. You're usually not married (unless you're like me and got married early) and you usually don't have kids. (Kids put a massive limit on the amount of negotiable time you have.) You may still be living at home, supported by your parents, which reduces your living expenses and therefore your need to work.

But even if you're living out of home, you're in a relationship or you're in full-time employment, you have more negotiable time than if you've got children.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in Outliers—the part where he discusses people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and what made them so ultra successful in their field: it's partly because they got started around the time when the personal computer suddenly became affordable and they were at the right age—that is, fresh out of university but not yet married with kids yet. So they were able to dedicate a lot of their time and energy to computing and therefore were able to make great innovations in the computing industry.


So what I hope to do is to share a bunch of things I wish I'd known about 10 years ago. It's a very eclectic mix: not all of it will be applicable to you, and I certainly don't have all the answers. But I hope that overall it will be helpful and you'll benefit from my experiences as you strive to make creativity an essential part of your lives.

Right. So let's begin.

Occupation: artist

Can you make a living from making art? Yes. As I said, people do—people like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling, to name a few in the writing world. (You can probably think of a few in the comics world.)

The question is, “How?” How do you make a living from making art? Most people don't know. That's why, when I was growing up, I was never encouraged down that road by the adults around me. People manage to make a living from making art, but it's like it happens by magic for them.

Making a living from making art

But before we go any further, why am I talking about “making a living from making art” at all?

Well, firstly, I'm assuming that we don't subscribe to the notion of the artist in his or her ivory tower, creating and putting stuff out there but not necessarily being part of or contributing to the world. (Though if you want to do that, that's perfectly fine for you. Go ahead! The rest of this workshop will be just as useful.)

Secondly, unless we're being supported by someone, most of us need to earn our keep in some way to continue having a roof over our heads and food on the table. It's just that we'd rather be paid to do something we love instead of we hate, something we're only mildly interested in or something that bores us to tears. (Obviously a whole other set of issues arise when you're suddenly in the fortunate position to be paid to make art, but we'll deal with those another time.)

Thirdly, it's the question that's preoccupied me for the better part of two decades. And maybe it preoccupies you too.

My writing degree

So back to the question at hand: how do you make a living from making art? Where do you begin?

Well, one way to do it is to go off and study. As I said, I've got a Creative Writing degree from the University of Wollongong. The thing is, it was pretty useless.

Oh, it useful for some things. In four years of study, I learned the following:

  1. How to look at creative work critically.
  2. How to edit.
  3. How to give feedback to others (and conversely, how not to give feedback).
  4. How not to run a writing workshop.

That's it. Here's what it didn't teach me:

  1. How to have a career and make a living from writing.
  2. How to keep on writing when the going gets tough.
  3. How the publishing industry works.
  4. How to find a good agent.
  5. How to submit work to publishers.
  6. How to negotiate a good publishing contract.

—that is, all the business aspects of being a writer. So while my degree was useful in honing my writing skills somewhat (as it also, at times, made me not want to write at all), it wasn't so helpful in teaching me how to be a writer, so to speak.

I gather it's much the same at art school.

How to be an artist: Neil Gaiman's advice

So how do you make a living from making art?

This is something that David Mack said in answer to my question to him about what advice he'd give to would-be creators wanting to make comics. It's actually plagiarised from Neil Gaiman:

  1. Start (for many people will talk about starting and never do)
  2. Finish (for many people will start and talk about their current project when the reality is they haven't touched it in several weeks, and many people will never finish what they've started)
  3. Once you've finished, show it to someone.

Starting is hard because being confronted with that blank page with all its possibilities is terrifying. Even when you have an idea and/or something to say.

Finishing is hard because life gets in the way, your enthusiasm and/or motivation wanes, the work gets frustrating, and so on.

And showing you work to others requires allowing yourself to be vulnerable—to open yourself up to the possibility of rejection and/or criticism. (Although learning to take criticism well is a good skill to acquire—particularly criticism that will help you grow as a creator. More about that another time.)

(Incidentally, if you haven't watched Neil Gaiman's “Make good art” speech from last year, you should [19:55min]. It's good for you.)

Careers in the arts

When you try to make a living by making art, you're essentially a freelancer. If you work in comics, where does your income come from?

If you're a comics writer, your income comes from the following:

If you're a comics artist, your income comes from:

(Please note that it's different for professional inkers, colourists and letterers.)

This is why you need to

  1. Start.
  2. Finish.
  3. Show someone.

It's so you have something—a number of things—that you can use to generate income so you can keep on making art. And hopefully over time, your income from making art will increase so that you can make art full-time, instead of in the corners of your time.

How to make time to create art in spite of everyday life

The thing is, in order to do 1, 2 and 3, you need to make time. We all have very busy lives, doing whatever it is we do—study, work and (in my case) parenting. Where can we find the time to do it?

How much time do we have?

Well, believe it or not, there's always a way. All of us have the same amount of time: 168 hours every week—7 x 24 hours a day. It's just that we choose to fill it in different ways.

For example, 8 hours of sleep a night takes 56 of those 168 hours. (I envy you who can still function on less. If I get less, everything tends to go to pot.) That leaves 112 waking hours. How do you spend those?

If you work full-time, another 35-40 hours goes on your job. Perhaps another 10 hours goes on your commute. What else? Housework? Personal grooming? Exercise? Building relationships—like with your family, your significant other?

A study put out this year by the Pew Research Centre in America states that if you don't have kids, you have roughly 32 hours a week to spend on leisure time if you're a woman, and 37 hours a week if you're a man. (By leisure time, they mean watching TV, playing games, socialising and exercising.) (Incidentally, if you do have kids, mums have 25 hours a week and dads have 28 hours a week of leisure time. That's a drop of 7 hours per week if you're a mum and 9 hours per week if you're a dad.)

I reckon you could probably spend some of those hours per week making art. It may mean jettisoning other things. It may mean saying no to things you'd dearly love to do. (Like Andy Go in Mythomania [Warning: NSFW.]) It may mean using your other time more efficiently so that you have little pockets of time you can use productively.

Timetable exercise

I know this is a bit daggy, but hopefully it's helpful. Here's a timetable for the week (PDF). Fill it in. Block out the non-negotiables of your week—study time, work time, sleep time, time with your family or your friends. Then have a look at what's left.

An ideal goal would be 1.5 hours of time to spend on your creative work. (I'll talk about why 1.5 hours later.) 3 consecutive hours is even better.

If you can't manage that, work with what you have. In fact, restrictions on your time may make you work more efficiently. I think before kids, I used my time far less efficiently. It was only after I became a mum and my time became so much more finite that I became more productive with it because I could see the boundaries around it and I knew I'd never get it back. Without restrictions and boundaries, time stretches on into infinity, which can be terrifying.

If you have no time in your timetable, think about what you can move or sacrifice in order to make time.

Aim for a slot once a week. (I know some people say once a day, but I find that impossible.) If once a week doesn't work, try once a fortnight. If once a fortnight doesn't work, try once a month. Just find some time.

What works for me

This is what works for me.

Around the end of 2011, I was finding stay-at-home motherhood quite hard. It wasn't because of sleep-deprivation; I was lucky because my baby slept quite well through the night, and I weaned her at around 15 months so I didn't even need to be there for feeds. It was more the relentlessness of everything: every day it was the same thing, and though I tried to do things to make life a bit easier (for example, getting my mum to babysit on Friday afternoons, or going out to playgroups or seeing friends), I kept finding that I'd get to the end of my week and have a total meltdown. I wasn't coping.

I started thinking about going back to work and applied for a job. I thought ideally I'd like to work two days a week but split them over four days—i.e. four half-days—so that I could spend the mornings with my daughter and then the afternoons at work.

Then the job fell through. At the time, I was pretty devastated because I had spent the past four months working towards building a new life around the job—doings things like scoping out childcare centres, finding one I liked, getting my daughter acquainted with the place, then booking her into short stints of occasional care, and then later, longer ones; planning where I would park after I'd dropped her off so I could catch a train to work; arranging who would do the pick-up; and so on. I felt like all that work was for nothing.

But in a way, it was a blessing in disguise because I realised that it wasn't so much that I wanted a job, it was more that I wanted to be part-time at home and part-time in something else, and since I was in the very fortunate position where I didn't have to work (though it would have been better in terms of childcare fees if I had), I thought why not devote that time to writing? I'd never given writing a chance. I'd never taken it seriously and tried to get stuff done. I had always wanted to be a writer. Now was as good a time as any.

So with the blessing of my husband, that's what I did. These days, from Monday to Friday, I spend the mornings with my daughter and then four of the five afternoons a week I spend working on creative projects, church volunteer work, and other bits and pieces that keep the household running. My daughter is in occasional care for three of those afternoons; for the other two, I have a standing arrangement with two sets of grandparents whereby they babysit for me for a fixed amount of time. I have money put aside that I call my writer's grant, and I pay for my daughter's childcare fees out of that. Whenever I happen to get some money for my writing, it all goes into that.

I'm lucky though: my husband is supportive and his job pays our bills. I don't need to work at the moment, which is very nice. And I can afford childcare.

That's obviously not the case for many of you. But for most of you, you don't have children. Children make your time all the more finite because they take up so much of your time, so any time away from them has to be carved out—usually with the agreement of someone else.

So time: block it out. Make it non-negotiable. Say no to other things. Or swap things around. This is your creative time and you never get it back again. So guard it fiercely.

How to make the most of the time you have to make art

Okay. So once you have the time, how do you make the most of it? How do you stop yourself from frittering it away—losing countless hours to Facebook or games of Tetris?

David Mack

We can't all be David Mack: what he does is he likes to work when he's fresh—which is usually just after he's woken up. He'll work until he's hungry, which is around lunchtime, then he'll have lunch. And then because he normally feels sluggish after eating (because his body's digesting), he'll spend the time after lunch answering emails, making phone calls, doing admin and all that sort of thing, as that's usually the time when he has less energy. Then when he's had enough of that, he goes for a walk or does some other form of exercise.

He said that he liked that feeling of working when he's fresh so much, he wondered if he could engineer things so he could have it twice in one day. So when he's on a deadline, often he will sleep for three hours (i.e. one sleep cycle that includes one REM cycle), work for 12 hours, then sleep for three hours, then work for 12 hours, and so on. He says he can do that for about two weeks, and then after that, he has to have a full night's sleep.

Now, while that is a great and inspiring way to live, since we can't all be like David Mack, how can we make the most of the creative time we have?

1. Rest

Firstly, when you come to it, make sure you are well-rested. I said I worked four afternoons out of five; on the fifth afternoon, I rest.

Seriously. I do. It's not being lazy. It's just that it's the only time in my week when I have the opportunity to do absolutely nothing. I'm an introvert, and the thing about having a family is that you're never alone.

So on Wednesday afternoons while my daughter is in childcare, I rest. I don't see anyone. I don't do anything that's not relaxing or restful. I don't write. I don't do work. I don't even do housework. (I deliberately arrange things so that the bulk of the housework—laundry, cleaning, cooking and so on—happens at other times of the week.)

How do I spend the time? I read. I knit. I listen to podcasts and knit. I watch DVDs and knit. I do whatever I want alone in my house. I enjoy the afternoon. And then I go pick up my daughter and do the dinner/bath/bedtime routine, and life picks up the pace again.

The thing is, that little pocket of rest time basically acts as fuel for the rest of the week. I've noticed that when it gets to Tuesday night, I am in great need of rest. And if I spend that afternoon working, I'm shattered for the rest of the week and am just not as productive.

I think you'll find that if you haven't had your rest time, you will be less productive during your creative time because your body will want to rest. If you've filled the rest of your week with work/study/exercise/socialising and you haven't made time for rest, once you sit down at that desk, wanting to work, you can try all you like, but you'll probably end up procrastinating—reading Facebook or Twitter, surfing the web, playing games and so on.

2. Work with your strengths and weaknesses

Secondly, work with your strengths and weaknesses. In my experience, most people in the world fall into one of two camps: structured or unstructured people.

What do I mean by that? Well, structured people tend to be more organised and less flexible, and they tend to think naturally in terms of categories, grids and segments. In comparison, unstructured people are less organised, more spontaneous, more organic and more flexible.

The advantage of being structured is that it allows you to divide and conquer easily, and get quite a lot done in the most efficient way possible. The disadvantage of being structured is that it can result in inflexibility and an inability or unwillingness to change or look at things from a different point of view. It can also result in planning fatigue: sometimes you just get so sick of planning and organising, you let certain things go that perhaps should be more of a priority (e.g. scheduling in things like holidays and time off).

In comparison, unstructured people tend to be good at flexibility and improvisation—changing tacks as the situation demands. Unfortunately, being unstructured also means they tend more towards disorganisation and chaos because that's what they're comfortable with, so to operate differently requires a great deal of effort and thought because it doesn't come naturally. The problem is, being unorganised, unstructured and unplanned usually starts affecting their lives negatively at some point.

In my experience, most people in creative professions tend towards unstructuredness. (I am a bit of an anomaly in that I'm both structured and creative.)

Now, if you're a structured person, how do you get things done? This is what I do:

If you're an unstructured person, how do you get stuff done? This is what I have observed about the unstructured people I know:

Now, even though I'm a structured person and unstructured people drive me bananas sometimes, I'm NOT saying that all unstructured people need to become more structured, or vice versa; there are things that both types can learn from the other. Structured people can learn things like flexibility, spontaneity and alternative ways of thinking from unstructured people. (For example, I find it hard to be flexible and spontaneous, and so that's something I need to keep working on because in parenting you have to be.) Unstructured people can learn things like organisation, planning and efficiency from structured people.

I'm saying you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. For some unstructured people, adopting some of the methods and strategies that work well for structured people may serve you well and prevent future headaches. For structured people, staying loose and being spontaneous may help your creativity.

The point is: work out what works for you and do that. If you're structured, set aside some time to plan. If you're unstructured, it might help to enlist someone to nag you. If you're easily distracted, remove all distractions. If you're prone to procrastination, do what David Mack does and have several things on the go so you can “rotate procrastinations”. If you work best with other people, work with close friends. (David Mack often hangs out at Brian Michael Bendis's house. They both like working late at night, so they'll stay up late listening to music or podcasts, or half-watching movies while drawing or writing.)

Work out what works for you and do that.

3. Be disciplined

That said, regardless of what type of person you are, you need to develop discipline. What do I mean by this? It's basically about sticking to your creative time and showing up, being prepared to work.

Sometimes you don't get much done—or certainly not as much as you'd like to. Sometimes you'll be affected by things like fatigue or sickness (and really, when you're sick, your number one priority is to get well so that you can get back to creating art as soon as possible). Sometimes you will have frittered away that time. But that's okay: it's about showing up and being ready to work.

And often it gets easier. People often use the metaphor of exercise when it comes to making art and it's totally true: the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So turn up. Put your nose to the grindstone. Work as best you can. Repeat.

Even if you don't get much done, after a while, those little bits of progress you make bit by bit often amount to something significant. Neil Gaiman said that when it came to writing, the thing that clicked for him was something Stephen King said: he said that if you filled an entire A4 page every day for a year, at the end of that year, you would have a novel.

Turn up. Be prepared to work. Work.

And if you do, you'll be able to do tasks 1 and 2 (i.e. start and finish), which means you'll then be able to do task 3: show someone.

4. Work with your body's natural rhythms

I said earlier that 1.5 hours was a good amount of time to set aside. (3 hours is better, but that's harder to achieve.) Why?

Basically it's because the body has its own circadian rhythms and whatnot. Newborn babies have a sleep cycle of about 45 minutes. Adults have a REM cycle of 90-110 minutes. Interestingly enough, those time periods and rhythms translate into waking life too. And you can use them to further your creativity.

Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of The Energy Project talks about this (31:11 min). He said that everyone has a finite amount of time (168 hours a week) and that time is not a renewable resource: you can't get any more of it, and once you've used it, it's gone; you can't get it back. However, energy is a renewable resource: you can get more of it, and you can change certain things about your work habits in order to get more of it.

So with the body's 90-minute cycle, the best thing to do is make the most of the beginning of the cycle because that's when you'll be freshest. Towards the end, you'll start flagging, so take a rest before embarking on the next cycle—go for a short walk, get something to eat, give your brain a break, etc. And then start again.

I'm not so rigid in the way I work. I don't work with one eye on the clock. But what I try to do is stay aware of these things so that when I'm starting to tire or my brain is wandering, I know it's time to stop and take a break.

5. Know what the next step is

Finally, my last tip for you about making the most of your time is to know what the next step is in the work you're doing.

For example, once you've finished chapter 1, you know you need to move onto chapter 2 (and work out what's happening in that). Once you finish pencils, you know you need to move onto inking. Once you're done with that scene in the cafe, the next bit involves a fight scene between a ninja and a giant.

You get the picture.

Know what happens next to keep yourself motivated to keep going. Or it helps you to get back in “the zone” the next time you come back to your projects. Some people even like to end their creative time by deliberately keeping something hanging in order to give themselves inspiration for the next time they work on the project—e.g. writers not ending a sentence so they can finish it tomorrow.

Being a structured person, I like lists and will often make lists under each creative project I'm working on, outlining the steps I need to take for it. (I use this program called WorkFlowy that syncs between browser and iPhone app, and I use it for everything—not just creative stuff, but everyday stuff too.)

The other thing that works sometimes is creating a job sheet (see Anthony Johnston's post on “Getting Things Written” for a good example of a job sheet for comics).


Okay. That's all I had to share on this subject. I hope it's been helpful.

If you have any feedback about the above or want to share your own tips on what works for you (or things you wish you knew when you were in your 20s that you know now), please leave me a comment. I'd love to hear from you!


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Place where you can hire play equipment for parties, etc.

How to recalibrate the home button on your iPhone.

Unsolicited manuscripts accepted by Pan Macmillan with certain conditions.

Thought Balloon is a group blog in which the writers tackle a new theme every week? month? with one-page scripts. This URL is for their Phonogram ones.


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