How to Prepare for an Art Challenge: MerMay Edition

May is one of my favourite months, not just because it’s the month of my birthday, but because I know for 31 days, all of my social media feeds will be flooded with flowing, rainbow-haired sea faeries and I will have no choice, but to shamelessly and indulgently draw and paint mermaids to my heart’s content. 

Something about drawing mermaids just makes me happy and maybe a little bit nostalgic for a childhood filled with Disney’s Little Mermaid, Peter Pan and Fantasia.
 
MerMay was created by former Disney animator Tom Bancroft. It’s a month-long celebration of everyone’s favourite mythical underwater creatures. 
 
I always think of MerMay as such a relaxed and carefree art challenge. Perhaps it has to do with the feelings Mermaids evoke for me. Daydreaming about them takes me to a faraway place: the deep, crystal-clear waters of a lagoon in a tropical paradise. Couldn’t we all use a trip to paradise right about now?
 
Mermaids represent freedom and Mermay is all about creative freedom. Mermaids can be anything you want them to be. They can be elegant, beautiful, and graceful — or exactly the opposite, like this blubber tail mermaid I painted for Manelle Oliphant’s Etchr Mini Workshop. 

They can be colourful or dark, friendly or mysterious, benevolent or evil. How about a goth mermaid?

There is such a wide spectrum of mermaid designs, from the more conventional (think Disney), to unique characters inspired by sometimes surprising combinations of underwater creatures, humans and even animals. What’s not to love about a litter of purrmaids?

Official Rules 

To participate in MerMay, all you have to do is draw a mermaid, post it on social media with the hashtags #MerMay and #MerMay2021. 
 
You can find a daily prompt list at mermay.com for inspiration. There are no other hard and fast rules. 
 

You can use any medium you like. Some people try to draw one mermaid every day, but you can draw as many or as few as you like. 

Planning for an Art Challenge 

When I commit to an art challenge I like to have a plan. There’s nothing wrong with taking a looser approach or doing a challenge just for fun, especially if you already have too much on your plate.

I like to use art challenges as opportunities to work towards a goal or practice techniques I want to improve.
 
So how does one plan for an art challenge like MerMay?

1. Set a goal. 

Decide what you want to gain or achieve by participating in an art challenge. 
 
Do you want to improve your watercolour technique or flex your character design muscles? Perhaps you want to kickstart your creativity or get inspired to make new work. Or maybe you just want to get into the habit of making art.
 
Be specific and write down your goal.
 

2. Set guidelines.

It may seem counterintuitive to restrict yourself when you are trying to be creative and let ideas flow, but for those of us who get overwhelmed by unlimited choices, setting guidelines for your challenge can keep you from getting stuck. Decide ahead of time what rules you will follow and write them down.
 
What will your schedule (realistically) be? What materials will you use? Will you restrict yourself to traditional media or a certain size canvas? 
 
Make sure that your rules support your original goal. For example, you might decide to sketch mermaids, but not colour them because your goal is to improve your draftsmanship.
 
Remember that this is your art challenge. Don’t feel bound by official rules if they don’t serve you. There is no art police!
 

3. Gather Materials

Make sure you have everything you need well in advance. 
 
There’s nothing worse than being motivated to get started on your challenge and realizing you need to order a new sketchbook or finding out those special pearlescent watercolours you wanted to use are sold out.
 

4. Prepare Your Ideas

Maybe you want to be spontaneous and do everything in May. That’s an admirable and ambitious goal.

But, most people don’t have time to come up with an idea and also turn it into a fully finished piece of artwork every single day for a month. 
 
If I’m using a prompt list I always like to spend some time brainstorming ideas. The dictionary and thesaurus help find unexpected alternate meanings for prompt words.

Once I have a list of ideas, I’ll make thumbnails for each one, and if I have time I’ll do some rough sketches.
 

Is it cheating to draw ahead?  

People on the internet have all sorts of opinions about how much advanced preparation is allowed for these types of challenges. But your decision to complete an art challenge is personal and it’s nobody else’s business how you choose to approach it.

I think you should do whatever you need to do to set yourself up for success. When in doubt, always refer back to your goal. If your goal was to improve your water control in your paintings, drawing a mermaid off the top of your head every day isn’t necessary to achieve that objective.
 
Art challenges can be fun and rewarding. They are a great tool for helping you grow your creative skills. They can also provide inspiration and encouragement to make more art and put it out into the world. I hope you’ll join me for MerMay this year!
 

Kristin Wauson is a children’s book author/illustrator and certified yoga teacher based in Austin, Texas. She’s a wife, mother of boys, a chocolate lab and a dragon (a bearded dragon, that is). When she’s not making picture books, you’ll probably find her fermenting something, baking or cooking up a new recipe. She is represented by Adria Goetz at Martin Literary Management.
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