Pros’ Productivity Tips for an Artful Year

Pros’ Productivity Tips for an Artful Year

Every December we start with a noble goal - "grow as an artist" or "improve our craft."

...but what does that even mean?

A lofty goal quickly becomes an even loftier burden: What was I THINKING? "grow as an artist"?? HOW? Practice every day? Practice what? What about off-days? Or worse: What if I'm practicing every day, but still feel like I'm sliding backwards? How do I make sure my resolution actually works?

As I was reading "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less", by Greg McKeown, I understood that being productive isn’t as much about how to get MORE things done - it is about how to get the right things done.

...and once you find the right thing to do, then it’s a matter of setting up your routine and habits to accomplish your goal.

So, how do we set up a creative routine? How do we build up productive habits? These professional creatives were kind enough to share some of their favorite productivity tips with us. (My favorites are Lemia and Stephen’s. I'm excited to implement these strategies in my own creative process!)

Curious about their insights? Then let’s hear it from them!

- Ânia

Erwin Lian

Erwin Lian: Keep it fresh

Erwin is the creator of The Perfect Sketchbook, the finest watercolor sketchbook ever. Over the years, Erwin has successfully launched multiple versions of the sketchbook through crowdfunding campaigns. We are working with Erwin to release the next iteration and we understand the huge amount of work that goes into creating a physical product. fact, anyone who is committed to any project knows how hard following through with it is. That’s why I was curious to know how Erwin managed to pull it all together while creating striking watercolor paintings, teaching workshops and traveling the world:

“Over the years, I realised that I am a much happier person when I get to try and experiment with different things. By trying new things, I am forced to re-calibrate and freshen my thoughts before moving onto the next thing.

For example, the making of The Perfect Sketchbook granted me exposure to how things worked in the factory and how selling and fulfillments were completed. Through these multiple real-life interactions, I gained a much better understanding of how I can make a better product.

I take on a 'Laissez-faire' approach and schedule time for each individual project before I jump on to the next one. I love to focus on one project before moving on to another. 

...having said that, I do try to make time to paint and sketch no matter what projects I take on.

The fact that I can make a difference to the greater community also propels me to accomplish more daily.”

Erwin Lian

Stephanie Law: A little bit every day goes a long way

Stephanie wows the internet with her stunning watercolor paintings. Between working with clients like Blizzard and Wizards of the Coast, creating books and displaying her work at gallery shows, she managed to create the Mini Palette and bring it to life on Kickstarter. 

When I asked Stephanie what routines she established that allow her to create quality content on a consistent basis, here’s what she said:

“I draw and paint every day. Even if it is just a little bit, or just sketching, I think it is important to constantly work the creative muscles. In fact, I feel it is sometimes more important to do the little bits than to always be working on grand projects because I have found that the sense of play and exploration are key to not freezing up from expectations.

Another aspect of reliable content is planning and time management. Knowing how long a project will take me to accomplish and then making sure I begin working on it in keeping with that overarching timeline so that I don't rush or feel like I am constantly up against a deadline allows me to put the necessary time and attention to each project that I engage in.

When I am working on larger scale projects that involve many pieces of art as well as a cohesive theme, like a gallery show, or a book, I begin work 6 months to a year in advance. In the early stages it is very nebulous work where a lot of brainstorming and word-association happens, but as I begin to close in on my goal then the concepts become tighter and more explicit as well.

If I get stuck for ideas what I love to do is to just create abstract textures and patterns on my pages and then I go back and begin to pull imagery from those random forms. I let my mind freely associate and define the imagery that emerges from my subconscious. This often leads to more purposeful art, inspiring a whole series from what begins as abstract shape and line.”

Stephanie Law

Darren Yeow: Maintain momentum (...and strong coffee)

Between a family with two lovely kids, creating the best art bags in the world, co-founding Etchr Lab, studying a multitude of topics and making awesome art, Darren sure seems like he found a rhythm that works for him. When I reached out to ask him about his routine, here’s what he said:

“For me, momentum is the key to getting things done. So I typically aim to get the ball rolling early in the morning, knock out a couple of easy housekeeping tasks to get early wins, then bite into the really important tasks and try to get them done before lunch.

Most days, I break up the day into chunks or sprints or mini-timelines and plan accordingly: before lunch; after lunch; before dinner and after dinner. 

I get started by brewing a strong double shot black coffee, get to my desk at around 6:45 most days then sit down and make a to-do list. I generally think of about 7-10 items that I’ll strive to get done for the day, I’ll put a 1-2 low level tasks to get my engine running, like responding to emails or cleaning up my file structure, then I prioritize the 1-2 super important items that definitely get done, so that even if they blow out and the rest of the items on my to-do list need to get pushed to the next day, at least I’ve progressed on the really important things.

Then, I rinse and repeat daily."

Darren Yeow

Lemia Crescent: Start small

As a social media influencer, Lemia Crescent has been publishing weekly videos on Youtube for the past 7+ years, and as a result, she's built up quite a following.

I was dying to know what this felt like and how she managed the workload:

“The key to uploading consistently is to make it part of your routine. I figured, hey, I'm doing the art anyway, I'll just record it and throw it into a video.

It started to develop into a schedule when I realized that Friday was the best day for uploading, I would make it my goal to make one video a week. All I really needed to do was put aside a bit of time to edit videos.

You'll find that the more involved you get on Youtube the more you end up doing.

...and then the schedule changes. You need to invest more time.

It went from one video a week about checking emails, talking to companies, shipping out orders for items, freelance jobs, streaming on twitch, and all that stuff. 

I think when you go into business for yourself, you really need to be self-motivated. You don't have anyone you can "hand out" work to, everything falls on yourself. The hours can be really crazy, so it's important to look out for your own happiness and mental health. Your well-being is more important than your work. 

Start smaller, and add things to your schedule as you go ...but make sure you're not overworking yourself.

I see a lot of people who have written passages about how they've been doing too much and it killed their love of the craft and how they have no time for friends or family and they've been working way too hard.

Don't push yourself too far too fast. Trees don't mature in a day.


Lemia Crescent

Jake Parker: Time blocking

Jake Parker created one of the world’s most popular art challenges, "Inktober". ...but that wasn’t enough for him.

Jake also illustrates picture books, creates his own comics, teaches at SVS, started Art Drop Club, hosts a podcast… and still leaves plenty of quality time for his family.

How does he manage all the things? Here’s what he said:

“My productivity tip is the time-block system.

The time block system requires auditing your working habits and discovering when you are the most creative, productive, and focused. It takes some time experimenting, but the knowledge gained about your habits is more valuable than the time investment.

I broke my days down into time blocks of 2-4 hours and monitored how much work, and what kind of work was getting done in these time blocks. I experimented by trying to do administrative duties in one time block then trying out creative tasks in other time blocks. Then I would switch them around and record my results. Here’s what I found worked for me:

  • Early mornings (4am - 6am): Best time for tasks that need creative thought and productivity
  • Mid-mornings (6am - 9am): Best time for helping around the house, getting kids ready, and exercise.
  • Late mornings (9am - 12pm): Best time for productive tasks that need creativity
  • 12pm - 1pm: Lunch break
  • Early afternoon (1 - 3pm): Best time for productive tasks that don’t need creativity
  • Late afternoon (3 - 6pm): Best time for administrative tasks, email, meetings, phone calls, and interviews
  • Early evening (6 - 8:30pm): best time to spend with family
  • Mid evenings (8:30 - 10pm): Best time to fill my creative bank account (read, watch films)
  • 10pm: Asleep

Once I had this schedule laid out it was just a matter of looking at my tasks for the week and inserting them into the appropriate time block for the most effective use of my time and energy.

Example: Inking my comic is a task that requires a high level of productivity but is low on the creative demands of my brain. On the other hand, writing and figuring out comic layouts require lots of creativity. Since I’m more creative in the mornings I filled those time blocks with writing, and my afternoon time blocks with tasks like inking.”

Jake Parker - Inktober

Stephen Silver: Leave room for life to happen

Stephen Silver is widely known for his stellar character design work for shows like Kim Possible, The Clerks and Danny Phantom. He also published over 10 books, teaches multiple classes, travels for workshops, hosts a podcast and spends time with family. Just like Jake, Stephen has his plate full, so I was curious to know more about his specific approach:

“My routine is Monday through Friday, I usually don’t start my day ‘till about 9 AM and starting to work on about 3 to 5 things I set aside for the day. I think it’s important just to really structure that and try not to go beyond what you’ve set out to do.

I usually stop working at about 5 o’clock. I don’t work on the weekends and every time the kids are around or home, I always make time to go see what they’re up to, spend moments with them, walk the dogs, watch a TV show, go to the movies and dinner...

It’s all the little moments that count. There is no future event in my belief that will occur that will ever make you feel like you've conquered life. There are going to be a series of special moments, so enjoy them while they're here so you don't have to long for it so much in the untold future.

The key really is for me to be present as much as I want to and can.

I honestly think if you’re struggling to find time for art you’re not necessarily doing the art, or knowing what sort of art you want to do. It’s important to have a goal - the bottom line is: just start.

Goals are going to change and you will have to adapt. Whether you’re trying to learn, or you’re trying to create your own intellectual property, you will work on that in the best frame of mind to make it more effective and you’ll get to it when you get to it.

The most important thing is, you have to set aside those little moments whenever it may be there. There is time - you have time. There are really no reasons for not having time. It exists and you can find it.”

Stephen Silver

What’s YOUR productivity routine like?

All of these professionals are incredibly successful, but their productivity styles couldn't be more different. Every creative has a unique approach to making the most of their creative life. 

What about you? Do you use any of the techniques our guests shared? ...Or do you have something completely unique?

Don't be stingy - share your most powerful productivity tips in the comments! :)

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