The search for my illustration style has been exciting, full of highlights, and at the same time, often tedious and frustrating. Because I wanted to reach clients, there were always thoughts like what might appeal to potential clients and what’s trending right now. So I tried my hand in different areas. But again and again, I hit a wall. I just didn’t enjoy the topics.
Without motivation and vision, I came across drawings I made as a teenager – a small A6 sketchbook. It was full of ink portraits of Hollywood stars and rappers. When I made these drawings, I wasn’t thinking about customers, the market, or my dream to make money with it. Nobody had paid me to draw this. It was my own drive. Maybe I’d better focus on that, I thought. I did, and it felt liberating.
When I think about advertising on the Internet and conversations with friends and strangers, it is strikingly often about the question: How do I get a lot of money quickly, without much effort? This is a legitimate, albeit risky, goal, as this incentive opens the doors to fraudsters and criminals.
10 years ago, I had the goal to earn a living with my illustrations. As I worked on it for months, searching for my style, I realized something at some point: no amount of money in the world would be able to help me do that. It wouldn’t have spared me the frustration I felt when drawing after drawing ended up in the trash can. Nor would it have made me realize that I’d be better off focusing on athletes and portraits, which I enjoyed the most. And finally, it couldn’t have given me the courage to publish my work on social media. That can only be done with the classic ingredient you can’t buy: Our passion.
In Singapore, I attended a design conference at a university. The host asked a successful creative director what advice he could share for young people and students looking for their own path. He replied, “Ignore the money. Focus on what you love and enjoy doing, and the money will follow you.”
Instead of asking ourselves what we need to do to become millionaires, what would I (continue to) do if I were already a millionaire today?
“You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.”
Chris Do (The Futur)
Business marketer Chris Do is talking here about how we have trouble seeing our own problems and the accompanying, most straightforward solutions. We can only see the world from our own point of view. People who give the most valuable advice often fail in their own lives. For the same reason, advertising and design agencies hire other agencies to develop their own corporate design. We are just too close.
I remember my classmate Laura. We were about 13 or 14 years old and sitting next to each other. While she was diligently taking notes in her notebook, I noticed something. Laura underlined headings and important points. Nothing unusual, actually. But the strokes were extraordinary: every single one was perfect. As if drawn with a ruler. No wobble, no quiver. They were all bolt upright.
I was amazed and asked her to draw several strokes in my notebook. She looked perplexed and drew several lines, one below the other. They looked like they were printed out even when I looked closely. Her friend on the other side had been listening and now noticed it too and said, “That’s right, they’re absolutely straight! Huh, how do you do that?”. It was fascinating.
But what surprised me the most was her reaction when I pointed it out. She was amazed at our enthusiasm, “Honestly?”. She had no idea of her gift. How could she not have known? Minutes later, as I turned back to my lesson, I saw Laura flipping through her notebook, examining her lines, and drawing more.
I don’t know what Laura is doing today. But somehow, I have the feeling that she still hadn’t forgotten that brief moment when she became aware of one of her talents. Just as I have not forgotten it.
When we recognize giftedness in people, we should let them know it. There’s a good chance they won’t have a clue about it, and who knows what direction their lives will take once they find out about it.
Sometimes we feel unmotivated, sluggish, and without energy. We all know this feeling. Yet we wanted to get so much done today. This mood can last for several days or even longer. The unpleasant thing is that we find it more and more challenging to get going each day. To get out of this hole, we can use a little trick that becomes easier the more often we use it: We consciously turn off our mind for a moment at the right time when we feel doubt and the nagging voice creeping up. For this moment, we leave all hindering thoughts outside.
When we decide to go our own way, in search of our vocation, we quickly realize that nothing and no one can take over anything for us. Perhaps a teacher can show us a shortcut, or compassionate fellow human beings can hand us a walking stick and offer us shelter. But we have to take every step. We have to face the uncertainty alone. It very much resembles times of grief or lovesickness. Not our mothers, not our friends, not all the money in the world can make it disappear. We are on our own. And that’s perfectly fine.
The first part was that the fear of the blank page can indicate being on the right path. It is important to us, so we should pursue it even more. Now we are talking about procrastination as a tool for quality.
Leonardo da Vinci was a genius in his art but a lousy freelancer. He was known for not meeting deadlines on commissioned work and even failing to complete much of it. It got to the point where his father had to do the condition negotiating, knowing how unreliable his son was at work.
But of course, he was never lazy. Doing nothing was as much a part of his creative process as the act of painting itself:
“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work less, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”
Leonardo da Vinci
One day Leonardo da Vinci was discussing creativity with a dissatisfied client. He demanded that Leonardo stop taking breaks. But Leonardo replied that “sometimes it requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate. Intuition needs nurturing.”
So doing nothing does not literally mean doing nothing. Ideas need time to take hold and mature. That’s why solutions or ideas often come to us during activities that have little to do with the task. The classic “aha” moment is while taking a shower or driving a car.
So we don’t always need to feel guilty when our bodies aren’t working. Our subconscious mind continues to do it. Without our action, however, it will never exist. We must be aware of this.
A tip when working with clients. Let’s not complicate the client’s life and our own unnecessarily. We need a buffer for schedule and fee for just this “doing nothing.”
Book Tip: Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography by Walter Isaacson
In 2003 I worked as a comic artist for an advertising agency. My boss at the time, Andrea, noticed that I was taking notes on my drawings during all our meetings and every brief feedback. She said this sentence, “The smart one writes it down, the dumb one remembers it,” which has remained in my memory. So often, we forget things. Yet we were so sure we would remember. Then we get annoyed when we have to ask the customer or teacher.
But taking notes is not only helpful in conversations with others. Without a notebook or sketchbook, a thinking mind is like a gold panning sieve with large holes. So many creative ideas, clever ideas, and ideal solutions slip through our fingers because we haven’t captured them at the moment. This can be recognized because long-forgotten thoughts jump at us when we browse our old notebooks.
On the other hand, we can also see it like Stephan King, who says: “A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around and sticks around.” So maybe we just need the fat gold nuggets in the sieve after all? The fat fish in the pond?
Sure, the sooner the dishes or paying bills is done the better.
However, in the creative process, we often read about the burden of procrastination, the first stroke on the canvas. The first step is always the hardest, it is said.
But what does procrastination mean in creativity? It means to be afraid. Fear of our own failure. It means being afraid of disappointing ourselves when what we create doesn’t look, sound, or feel like we thought.
However, it also means that it is important to us. We want to do it well. We want to give it its due. Resistance knocks on the door whenever we care about something.
So as soon as the often frustrating state of procrastination and uncertainty arises, we can see it as our compass. We are on the right track.
As stressful as house moves usually are, there’s something very comforting about them. We can finally sort out the things we no longer need. Some decisions are easier than others. It looks more organized, and we feel relieved to have parted with things.
One of the most frequently asked questions by design students is “How do I find my own style?” The way to get there is by observing or absorbing our environment with all our senses. That’s why many teachers and professors insist on sketching regularly, capturing our environment. More about this here.
At the same time, we closely observe our reaction to it. What do we like, and especially why do we like it. Why can’t we get that book cover out of our heads? Why can’t we get enough of that song? What do we particularly like about this painting? Is it the colors, the motif, or the loose brushwork? By observing our inner emotional world, it is as if we are trying to taste the ingredients of our favorite dish.
Now comes the most crucial thing: action. Without the act of creating, we are stuck in this world. We hold on to our discoveries. But we need to make room for the next ones. So we start taking action. We draw, write, design, compose or build. We create. Only then are we open to new things again.
The intensive observation pays off because the gained “ingredients” slowly start to flow into our work. The more we produce, the more intensively we “taste” them, and the stronger our intuition becomes.
One student said that she always feels guilty when she tries to copy work from her role models and lacks the motivation to start. “It’s not even my work.”
My math teacher at school once said, “Go ahead and make your cheat sheets. Write down the formulas, the example calculations, and the solutions. Then before you enter the classroom, throw the slips of paper in the trash can.” She knew that something was already happening in our minds when we write things down, and more of the subject matter sticks.
It’s the same with creative work. Let’s copy, trace, and replicate our heroes’ work as many times as possible. Eventually, something magical happens. The more we copy, the more a secret ingredient gets mixed in: It’s ourselves. In the process of creating, it is impossible to prevent our personality, our view of the world, our interpretation, our handwriting, our attitude from flowing into the work.
There is also nothing wrong with sharing this work with people, as long as we include the source of inspiration. There is hardly a greater and more flattering compliment than reading “Illustration based and inspired by one of my favorite artists Sergio Ingravalle.”
Only when we copy work and put our name on it, it’s like slowly pulling the cheat sheet out of the pencil case during the exam and painfully straining our eyes.
Sketching has many forms. For example, a product designer can visualize his idea through sketching. He slowly feels his way towards the project and can share and discuss the designs with others. The same is true for logo designers or illustrators when finding a suitable composition. So sketching is the first or preliminary stage of the process to realize something.
He is an artist, craftsman, and salesman in one, and all three “beings” feed on one essence: creativity.
The artist in him has learned to ignite the creative fire. However, the designer’s task is now to tame and focus on this fire. Only in this way can he aim laser-precisely at his customer’s problem and solve it.
The craftsman in him has the task of using skills to turn the inner world of the designer inside out. He is constantly improving his skills and looking for new possibilities to accomplish this. He experiments, changes, fails, frustrates, and keeps trying.
The salesman in him has the task of presenting the work of his two colleagues to the world. He looks for creative ways and opportunities to reach people who will benefit from the work.
A designer can only consist of these three beings. If he lacks even one, he is not a designer anymore. He transforms himself, for example, into a free and independent artist, an art dealer, or a master craftsman in his own business. However, all of them make a living from creativity, just as the designer does.
In the post „Using time pressure as a motivational power-up“, I wrote that time pressure can be an excellent incentive to get a lot done in a short time. With the help of little tricks, we can also create this positive pressure consciously and literally fly over our to-do list.
For example, one day, I worked on my laptop in a coffee store when I realized I had forgotten the charging cable at home. I got annoyed with myself and started working. After a short while, I noticed that I had worked off more than usual. I was focused and didn’t waste a minute.
The battery indicator on my laptop was my hourglass. It drove me on like a boss standing behind my back, nagging me. But it was a positive pressure. I accomplished everything I set out to do and still had time for a coffee with friends afterward.
Since then, I’ve left the charging cable at home more often. If you have found such hacks that increase your productivity, please feel free to share them with me.
When we meet someone with whom we feel butterflies in our stomach, we want to know everything about the person. We want to be with them day and night. Only time will tell whether love will develop from this or whether we will go our separate ways again. If we have a brilliant idea for an app, a Netflix series, or a comic, the warm flickering behind our chest starts. We think about it every spare minute, gather information, and can’t wait to see where the journey takes us. Both the research and the falling in love should never be seen as wasted time, just because nothing turned out for eternity after all. We just keep searching until we find the right one.