How to Become the “Creative Type”

Whenever I tell people I’m an artist, there is one very common response I (almost) always hear: “Oh that’s so cool! I could never do that, I’m not really the creative type.” In the words of Dorothy Sayers, there’s nothing for me to do except “laugh deprecatingly”, so I do so and move on. At best, I felt sorry for the other person that they weren’t born as the “creative type.” But in recent years, I’ve started to reevaluate my belief in “types.” Maybe there aren’t creative/non-creative types… maybe some of us just haven’t found interesting problems yet.

I’m going to pull back the curtain real quick: creativity is another word for problem-solving. I know that doesn’t sound as romantic or grand, but basically that’s what us artistic people do. We solve problems. The only difference between us and, well, the rest of the world is that we found problems that are so engaging, so amazing, so consuming that we can’t stop. Not only can we not leave them unsolved, but we go out of our way to find new problems to solve.

For example: I’m an artist. What problem am I trying to solve? I’m trying to share abstract ideas, memories, and emotions with my audience. Not only that, but I’m specifically trying to spark similar reactions in my audience so I have to know how to communicate with them. Now, that’s a problem I love so much that I invested hours into education and study so that I could solve that problem for the rest of my life! Yay!

So how do you find the life-long problem that’s right for you?

So in order to become the “creative type” you need to find a type of problem that you love solving. It’s the challenge that you may gripe and groan over, but inwardly you’re excited: this is your turf. You got this. It might not be painting or writing, by the way. Maybe it’s fixing cars, or creating business connections. Maybe it’s home decor. Maybe it’s making the perfect cup of coffee (call me; I will be your audience.) How do you figure out what problem you want to solve more than anything else?

What challenges do you look forward to?
You know, the thing that genuinely makes you feel glad that you put that effort in, even if you didn’t succeed. It’s that thing where you don’t always have all the answers, but you can’t wait to look for them.

What do you take pride in?
It takes creativity to navigate a city when your usual route has been closed, and while you may feel kind of proud, you might not want to be a taxi driver. But what kind of success makes you feel really pleased? Is it calming a client? Matching shoes with a purse (and belt and necklace and hat)? Maybe it’s seeing the first buds in your garden. What makes you glow?

What do you want to be better at?
It takes creativity to move a piano up a flight of stairs, but I feel no interesting in becoming a better piano mover. But it matters to me if my drawings are any good. I need them to be good, to improve. It’s not enough to solve the original problem; what matters is solving the problem more efficiently and uniquely each time. You have to want to do that.

What teaches you the most about yourself?
Want to know what art taught me? That I wasn’t naturally artistic. You read that correctly: I have almost no natural talent. But what I learned was that I loved art, my innermost narratives clicked with an artistic medium, and that’s where I came alive the most. Painting may not matter to you at all. The important thing is to find something that helps you learn and grow. Maybe it’s providing excellent customer service. Maybe it’s writing a poem. Who knows?

There are all sorts of ways to answer these question. You may already be doing something creative (aka solving problems) and you don’t even realize how much you love it. Or perhaps you need to try something new to discover where your interest lies. Whatever the case may be, rest assured: we all have a good chunk of creativity inside us. It’s just a matter of sparking it to life.



The First Time a Drawing Made Me Cry

I’m taking part in a challenge to try and improve my writing skills but also (and more importantly) my discipline. Please enjoy (or at least tolerate!)

In an art history class I took a couple years ago, we discussed whether or not paintings could make people cry. Certainly movies could, and some music. Books (OMG AMY’S EYES) too. But paintings? Pictures? I didn’t really think so. They were too static. Too predictable. Too stiff. Too unreal. I had favorite paintings of course, and a short look around this site shows how much I love painting, drawing, and illustration. But crying?

Yes. Crying.

It happened when I was in England staying with my aunt, her husband, and her 7 amazing  kids. One day I got on a bus, and I went to the V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum for you Yanks.) So many paintings and sculptures, so much to see. I didn’t cry, though. I just smiled like the happy American I was and walked around. Then I think I got coffee and some kind of pastry and I went back to my aunt’s house, loving the bus system way too much.

The next couple of days, I didn’t travel too far until my aunt told me to make sure I visited the London National Gallery. I did.

Before I actually walked through the museum, I got a cup of coffee and a croissant. I sent a picture to my mom (despite the time difference), and then finally entered the rest of the museum. I think it had marble floors, but I don’t even remember. I know the ceilings were high, higher than I’d ever seen before. The windows were so tall and narrow, and everything made me feel tiny. I guess that’s what started the feeling of “I’m really in another world.” New accents, new bus system, new buildings. New rivers.

When I walked into the first room that actually had paintings, I know I sucked in a breath, in that kind of “inside-out sigh.” They were just so big. Books and Google can only give you so many inches and pixels. But here they were, several square feet of history and skill coming together to say something. I know that it was a little noisy, but after the first couple minutes, I didn’t even notice. I was surrounded by images that spelled out the narrative of my craft.

I saw a drawing by da Vinci. That. Got. Me. I was staring at marks from so long ago. I saw how he worked at understanding the muscles, the facial expressions, the hair, the fabric. I saw the architecture of a painting by one of the most famous painters of all. I just stared at it. I didn’t want to move. Whenever someone else walked through, I wanted to whisper to them, “I’m studying what he studied… My craft is his craft.”

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Virgin_and_Child_with_Ss_Anne_and_John_the_BaptistI’m not sure if I actually cried, meaning, I don’t know if tears actually fell. But it certainly felt like my heart was bursting. I’m so glad I was alone, because I didn’t want someone to ask me about it, about how I felt. Then I definitely would have cried. But instead, I simply stared and tried not to touch.

Touching it probably would’ve truly killed me, if the security guards didn’t do so first.

Ever since then, I truly believed that a painting can make a person cry. But I guess I sometimes forget that seeing a picture of a painting and an actual painting are not the same. Google Images don’t make me cry.

This drawing broke my heart in the most beautiful, joyful way.

3 Things I Learned from Working

A study I’m working on for my comic!

Everybody loves lists! And I’m still working, so don’t think that this is entirely retrospective or anything. Because it isn’t.

A lot of people treat work like some kind of inevitable hurdle that we have to get past in order to be happy. Work is treated like an unfortunate by-product of being human, something that we have to treat and cure.

As much as I love my couch and Netflix, I’m starting to develop a different attitude towards “work” in general. I think it’s an area of life that can really benefit people more than they ever know. Having a job isn’t just a chance to bring in money, it’s a chance to build a positive relationship with work. Even if the job is crap, even if the pay is low (or non-existent), there are 3 benefits that I think work can provide everyone, but especially anyone who wants to freelance.

  1. Skill – I’m not just talking about the ability to run a cash register, or deep-fry donuts, or toss a pizza crust. Workplace behavior is a skill, and it transfers into the rest of your life. Recognizing (and respecting) superiors, helping team members, concern for quality, and attention to detail; these are skills, and they’re AMAZING. I was a cashier for years, and the main skill I took away wasn’t scanning bar codes: it was the ability to learn a craft and be good at it. Interestingly, I wish I had thought about this sooner… what if I trained my writing and drawing the way I was trained on the register and managerial duties?
  2. Discipline – My definition of “discipline” is “strength of character.” Being disciplined means being very much in control of yourself, and making sure you’re doing what’s in your best interest (most/some of time, anyway.) In all of my jobs, I showed up on time, I did honest work, and I left when all of my work was done, and not a second before. I’ve gotten better about treating my personal work the same way, but I’m not quite there yet. Start at a regular time? Maybe for a week… Work a full day? Whaaaaat? It’s hard when you’re your own boss, but I’m getting there. And the benefits are already starting to show: when I draw and write regularly, I miss it when I can’t draw or write. When I work a full day, I have visible proof of my effort and I feel encouraged. Being disciplined is a great way to show yourself respect for your occupation, and it feels better than totally not caring and watching Continuum all day.
    And since you could potentially do both at the same time, why not?
  3. Habit – “I cannot tell you what I suffer for the want of seeing a good picture…” says Mary Cassatt, regarding her lack of work. This quote (from Mary Cassatt and Her Circle) really struck me last night. She later says, “Oh how wild I am to get to work…” Do I regret it when I miss an opportunity to work? Not just because I don’t like it when I’m lazy, but because a chance to create was missed. Habit means that something is ingrained, subconscious, practically natural. When I miss a phone call from a friend, when a favorite band came to town and I didn’t know, when I missed an invitation to coffee… these things make me sad. I want to feel the same way about work. My work should be so deeply set in my day-to-day routine that I feel honest (not just guilty) regret when I miss it.

What have you learned from work?

Visual Library: A Vocabulary of Pictures

I’ve been trying to identify and correct bad habits I have as an artist. “And correct” is kind of the important part, and it’s the part I usually forget. I am generally pretty quick to point out (to myself and a few “lucky” others) what I’ve done wrong in a drawing, but I generally “fix” it by hoping that I don’t do it again. This is probably the negative side effect of being out of the art classroom… no one’s there to make me figure out answers. Sigh.

But anyways, I’ve been trying to do better. One thing I want to work on is my visual library. What does this mean exactly?

cassatt-01It’s just like learning a new language or simply new vocabulary from your own language. You have to hear the word, then you repeat it, then you have to write it a few times, and then it finally sticks. That’s how you learn words, and with art and creative writing, it’s not really any different. If you want to get better at drawing people, you study and draw people. If you want to get better at writing mysteries, you read and write mysteries. It really is that simple.

You put out what you take in.

I’m going to improve (and increase) what I take in! I’m deliberately going to try to build my visual library! I’m probably going to drink more coffee!

And that brings me to the new plan for this blog! I thought this whole “visual library” thing might be a cool theme. This could be a place where I can post the artwork I’m taking in, and the notes I’m making in the process, and my visual studies based on my notes. I want to blog this for two main reasons: because I know it’ll help me be more accountable, and also because I think it’ll be helpful to other artists. To start with, I’m trying to improve my color theory by
studying Impressionists (such as the piece above, by Mary Cassatt.) I used to not like impressionism, because it wasn’t In_the_boxrealistic (I was THAT person), but as I got more and more interested in digital painting, the more I felt drawn to impressionism. I really liked the way they could do SO MUCH with so few marks! You can see an entire form, but if you get closer, you realize that there aren’t really any sharp details. The sophistication is in the color, I think, and the mark making. If you can make juuuuust the right mark, with juuuust the right color, then it gets a big job done.

To make a long(ish) blog short, I’m going to conduct an art crash-course for myself, and I’m going to share it with you all!

I hope you all enjoy (and benefit from) the ride!

The Case for Storytelling


Virtually all of us have a natural instinct for telling stories, and it comes out in day-to-day conversation. When your car breaks down and you’re telling your friends about it, you don’t simply say, “I ran out of gas this morning. But my mom picked me up, and nothing else really happened, so I’m fine.” How does that story go?

You talk about your panic when the car lurches and suddenly halts. You talk about frustration when you finally notice the gas gauge. You describe the tone of your voice when you desperately call your mom, and you imitate her voice when you talk about her response. You describe the agony of waaaaaiiiitttting for her to show up, then the mini-lecture you get when she arrives, and then you might laugh dryly at how horrible your morning was. Possibly, you throw in a “And then…” and move on to parking issues, clocking in late, forgetting breakfast, etc. Your audience nods, sighs, groans, and laughs with empathy, and they ask “What did you do?” “What did she say?” “How did you get here?”

This is storytelling at its absolute finest. An animated narrator, and an enthralled audience.

But I think storytelling as an art is severely underrated. We all use it everyday, but when we think about pursuing it professionally (as a writer, artist, musician, singer, whatever), we tend to shy away from it, thinking either 1) we aren’t worthy or 2) it’s not worth it. I saw “we” because this is still my Achilles’ Heel. Calling myself a storyteller still takes quite a bit of a conscious effort, but actually trying to BE  a storyteller… how do you even do that? How do you go about this mysterious art that we all do so effortlessly in our routine dialogue?

I usually call myself an artist/writer or writer/illustrator, trying to get all of my media into some kind of  “slashed” or hyphenated title, when “storyteller” would basically cover everything I do, and everything I’ll ever want to do. Comics. Prose. Music. It all comes from storytelling. But I personally have a really hard time treating it that way. It feels like I’m trivializing what I do by simplifying the title. But in reality, I thinking calling it “storytelling” is really opening up a much bigger and (potentially) more complex field of study. It isn’t just drawing… it’s drawing a story. It’s not just writing… it’s writing a story.

So basically I’ve figured out what I’m doing, and it’s way more complicated, but I also kind of get it now.

Incidentally, here’s a GREAT blog/journal entry about how story can improve a portfolio: PascalCampion’s DeviantART Journal

How does storytelling influence your art and work?

Your Comfort Zone and You


ss1Something I used to hear a lot when I first started as an art student was “Get out of your comfort zone!” We were always told to try something new, experiment, go crazy, etc, etc. I always associated this mindset with being adventurous. If you’re exploring new territory… you’re on an adventure, right?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these phrases and taglines can totally mess up your attitude, and I don’t think the comfort zone escapism is any different. Don’t leave comfort and familiarity behind… Expand your comfort zone.

Here’s what I used to trace draw: guys with longish hair and beards, and immeasurably dark pasts. Then I shifted to this whole weird elvish phase, then it was manga, then Western super hero comics, then some really weird American/Japanese comic hybrid monster thing, and now… Well it suddenly dawned on me that I can still draw bears, elves, manga, AND super heroes. I haven’t forgotten any of that. Especially not the beards. So my comfort zone, which was once limited to tracing off of drawing books, has now expanded to include a wide variety of styles, techniques, and subject manner.

Some people might say that their comfort zone is vampires, while others say that their comfort zone is spaceships. (“All we know is he’s called the Stig!” –Sorry for the TV quote.) But while I was thinking about how much bigger my comfort zone is now, I wondered how I would answer that question. What’s my comfort zone?

What if I convinced myself that it was something like… Stories? I’m comfortable when I’m telling a story. What. Mind blown. I can’t even imagine how BIG that comfort zone is.

And here’s the really crazy part: it doesn’t just apply to drawing, or writing. It applies to behavior. I’m a die-hard introvert. Most of my closest friends are imaginary, and my favorite past times involve socializing with fiction. And for many years, that was the limit of my comfort zone: family and imaginary friends. Anything else was a bit of a strain on my mental well-being. But over the last few years, that comfort zone has expanded: I like talking about writing, and I’m comfortable discussing it (at length) with people. Same with drawing. I’m starting to get over my deep-seated aversion to small chat with strangers, and if I’ve had coffee, I even look forward to meeting new people. I’m comfortable with a pretty decent degree of outwardness.

But I never forget the heart of my comfort zone: quiet time with fictional bearded characters.



Artsy-Fartsy Questions

MadameI put “fartsy” in a blog title. Ha.

In a previous blog post, I talked about asking the right question. I think that’s an easier concept for writers to think about questions. Visual artists have a harder time because they’re answering visual questions. For us, our questions don’t have “?” at the end, they just have the gut reaction of “something’s off.” And that’s just not much to go on.

So if you’re a draw-er, how do you learn to ask the right questions? That’s a good question. See what I did there?

In my previous post I mentioned that the right questions always lead to more questions, just like a detective mystery. The same thing goes for drawing and painting: Why doesn’t the head look right? Is it the eyes? The nose? Yes. How can I fix the nose? How do I draw a nose? What does a real nose look like? And then you do a study of a nose. Or if you’re a really good artist, you’ll do several studies. And never stop.

This line of questioning even works for more conceptual problems. Why is this drawing exciting, but this one is boring? Is it the way I colored it? The composition? Yes. It’s all horizontal. How can I redraw this scene with more diagonals? This page is jumbled and complicated. The characters? The camera position? The word balloons? Yeah. Simplify the dialogue. What parts of the conversation can I cut out?

This is what active thinking looks like. It’s crazy, and it can be really confusing until you find your rhythm. But once you really figure out how to think in terms of puzzle-solving and questioning, you don’t need to be conscious of it anymore. It just happens all by itself.

Have you ever tried seriously critiquing your old work? Not in a mean, self-hating sort of way, but really analyzing something, finding the issues, and finding the solutions?