Joana and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

 
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Have you ever had one of those weeks when everything you make is just, well, shit?

This has been one of those weeks for me. Dear Joana: happy new year, now all your work is a big fat turd.

As a result, my wastepaper bin is literally overflowing with the torn-up pages of my shitty attempts at drawings and paintings. The 100-sheet sketchbook I bought a month or so ago is down to its last few pages; the sad void between its covers emblematic of my complete and utter inadequacy.

To be fair, I've never completed a piece and thought, 'This is so great, I rule!'. But there is usually at least a small sense of accomplishment, or somewhat not hating the result, or feeling like I'm on the right track.

Not this week. It doesn't matter if I'm sketching for fun, working on a commission or illustrating for a personal project, every piece I've produced this week has left me with an overwhelming sense of doubt and defeat.

I've tried taking breaks. I've tried pushing through. I've distracted myself with snacks (#nevernotsnacking). I've gone to the gym, watered the plants, scrolled through my phone ad infinitum. I've looked through old work I like. I've tried taking the pressure off by drawing something super simple and low-risk and for my eyes only. Nothing has worked.

Instead, I've been walking around this week with a pit in my stomach; this nauseous, anxious feeling that stems directly from my failed attempts and the subsequent belief that I absolutely suck and why the hell am I even doing this. It's a horrible feeling that has filtered into everything else in my life. I've spent this week in an angry haze. And I know how completely ridiculous and frivolous and stupid that sounds. There are real problems in this world and I'm wringing my hands over some not-quite-perfect scribbles of my travels or meals I've eaten or whatever the hell else I usually draw. And that compounds the feeling that I am a shit person who should just fucking give up.

I've always been a person who creates things, even when I didn't really create that many things. But I didn't know that choosing to really throw myself into creating consistently and for a li'l bit o' money would be so. damn. painful. I know it's because I'm super green and that once I establish a foothold of some sort I might feel a bit more self-assured, but then again, is it? Does that pain ever really go away? That pain of knowing that in this exact moment, you are worse at your craft than you will ever be in the future? That in order to get to the less-shit work, you have to keep pushing through and producing the shit work?

Even if no one sees my shit work (and god knows the shit in my wastepaper bin will never see the light of day), I know it's there. I know I made it, that I'm capable of producing it. And that's ... gahhhhhhhh. That's hard.

And yet. I received an email the other day from someone who literally just felt compelled to tell me that they recently found my work, they loved it, and they hope I continue with it and find success. They thanked me for my work. I'm struggling to even find the words right now to express how that makes me feel. Like, wow. It's amazing how you can feel like a fraudulent piece of shit and then someone else can be so moved by your work that they email you about it—which, I don't know about you, but I think is a pretty huge deal because I can't tell you how few times (zero) I've emailed someone just to tell them I love their work. Also, note to self: start telling people I love their work just because.

I don't mention this email as a humblebrag AT ALL BECAUSE I SUCK. I just find it funny that I can be having the worst week I've had in a while and then this email just arrives in my inbox out of the blue. It hasn't fixed my bad week—I probably ripped up a dozen different attempts this morning alone—but at least I can kind of see things from a different perspective and remember that maybe I'm not that bad and maybe there is hope for me after all? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

TELL ME: Do you ever have bad hours/days/weeks where nothing seems to go right in your work? How do you deal? I need to know!

 

 

Style paralysis

 
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I’ve been experiencing a bit of a crisis of confidence lately.

I’m a newcomer to illustration. With zero education in the field (I have a degree in science that I’ve never used and a degree in journalism I’ve semi-used), I’ve fallen hard and fast for illustration in the past year. As evidenced on my interview project Outlier, I’m obsessed with learning as much as I can about other illustrators. I can happily spend all day at my desk making illustrations. Illustration is my happy place, and I’m glad I finally found it after always feeling my writing career wasn’t quite ‘it’.

When I started taking illustration a bit more seriously about a year ago, I kind of just picked up where I left off in high school and uni, stylistically speaking. I never really experimented or anything before launching Outlier—I just drew and painted the way I knew then.

Until I realised I was kind of hating both the process and the result. So I slowly started testing different approaches and styles a few months ago. I started opening my eyes a bit more to other illustrators and their styles.

And I started to feel a little overwhelmed at all the possibilities.

I’m impatient. I also have very high expectations of myself. And I’m prone to mental health issues. This has created a perfect storm of hating myself as I struggle to forge a clear, consistent illustration style.

I know it sounds totally self-indulgent and just, like, unimportant. Homeless women struggle to access tampons during their periods and so many countries are currently dealing with the devastating impacts of climate change and the High Court head-scratchingly allowed this farcical postal survey and, just, Trump. I know.

But my building anxiety around developing and refining my style refuses to budge. In my hurry to propel my half-baked career forward, I’ve been putting pressure on myself to nail my style, like, yesterday.

Instagram, unsurprisingly, is stoking that fire of uncertainty. On the whole, I find Instagram crazy-inspiring. But lately it’s been making me feel so bad about myself and where I’m at with both my style and career. I know it’s a rookie mistake (I’m a rookie, so), but I can’t help but compare my work to that of other illustrators.

The problem is those illustrators are established, often formally trained in the arts, and have been making work for many years. I’m comparing my insides to their outsides, as the saying goes. It’s dangerous territory.

I think some of my anxiety also stems from the fact that my work already has an audience via Outlier—a small one, but an audience nonetheless. It’s really painful to think about having to go through my trial and error phase on a semi-public stage. It would be nice to have been able to make the shitty work I have to make in order to get to the good work behind closed doors; to have been able to practice and hone in anonymity.

Which, sure, I can definitely do. But there’s never enough time to work on Outlier, which means I expect myself to nail my illustrations the first time, and quickly. There’s no room for error lest I delay my publication schedule, which means no room for experimentation or play. Which means my work stays the same. I feel I’ve stagnated, and I’m too afraid to shake things up.

Hence the paralysis.

At least I know my fear of looking back at old work as crap isn’t novel. Harking back to an interview I had with illustrator Evie Cahir late last year, I recall what she said about the terror of knowing your current work might (read: probably definitely will) one day embarrass you with how shitty it has become with the passage of time. She wasn’t necessarily talking about it from the same perspective as me, but I still find it comforting:

“The fear of knowing that in a year or two months or a week the work will be really stale: it’s scary shit!” Cahir said.

Preach.

And while I was revisiting an interview with illustrator Ping Zhu on the Great Discontent the other day, I noticed something interesting. This illustration is one of Zhu’s early works:

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In fact, the caption says it’s the first illustration Zhu had published, in the New York Times back in 2009. But if you’re familiar with Zhu, you know her work now looks different. Like, really different. Like this:

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And this:

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That is a pretty huge shift in style over eight years. I love all the pieces, but I think it’s fair to say you’d barely recognise them as coming from the same person.

And as I was researching my recent feature on Melbourne illustrator Carla McRae for Outlier, I discovered a pretty noticeable progression between McRae’s older work and her current style. Exhibit A is from around four or so years ago:

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And here’s some work McRae created more recently:

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Obviously, the fact that Zhu and McRae’s style has evolved isn’t a revelation. That’s par for the course.

What heartens me is just how much the illustrators’ respective style has changed over the years—and even more so, that they were professional illustrators at both point A and point B. They had to start at point A in order to get to point B. They would never be creating work in their own distinctive, beautiful styles if they hadn’t begun and then continued to make work.

When it comes to my own style, I can definitely see a marked shift over the short time I’ve been illustrating. This was the first ever portrait I posted on Outlier, of illustrator Dawn Tan:

 
 

And here’s one that’s just a few weeks old, of illustrator (I told you I'm obsessed) Lisa Congdon:

 
 

I mean, I like the first one. I think it’s proportional and true to life and ... nice? Some people might even prefer it to my current work. But it doesn’t light me on fire. And, like I said, I never enjoyed painting in this style, which is why I started pushing myself to explore different techniques in the first instance.

Like Zhu and McRae’s early work, it’s not necessarily worse. It’s different. It’s point A.

The more recent portrait I like a lot more. When I look at it I feel excited—which is how I felt when I was painting it.

I think that’s a good sign that I’m on the right track. But sometimes it feels like I’m drowning under the self-imposed pressure of getting it right right now. Of having a fully honed style that I can smash out without thinking about it too much. Of having my work immediately recognisable as mine. Of being confident in approaching publications and art directors with my work. Of knowing the work I’ll create in three months’ time or in a year will more or less be of the same style I work in today.

When I interviewed Congdon (see: portrait above) for Outlier, I asked her about how she developed her style.

“Finding your own style as an artist takes so many years, lots of experimentation, trial and failure, and working on making your style distinctive,” she said.

“In many ways, finding your style is really just years and years of drawing and painting.”

Which is a sentiment echoed by Cahir, that li’l go-getter:

“I think it comes down to practising; trying really hard at getting better. What I tell myself is that there’s no retrograde with skillset or work. If you create more, it’s not as scary.”

I guess I know what I need to do.