Last month I had the incredible opportunity to teach a workshop for Apple at their World Trade Center store in NYC. I was asked to present my story as to how I became an illustrator. For the presentation I also came up with a list, of things that I wish I had been taught while was studying art and illustration. I'm keeping this post simple. I hope it will be helpful to those who are thinking about making the leap to following their creative dreams. Many of the lessons are universal and can be applied to just about anything, but these are the things that stand out to me most. I get a lot of emails from students thinking about studying or are studying illustration who are afraid of pursuing it or just don't know how to wrap their heads around how to go about landing work. I also get emails from those who have a full time job not in the arts, and wondering how they should go about pursuing their dreams. Although I can't tell you what to do, and what works for me might not always work for everyone else, this list of 10 things are little pieces of knowledge that I usually end up saying and passing forward. So...enjoy the list and I hope it will inspire you!
1. Be Resilient. This is important. It is NEVER going to be easy. The more hits you take, the more rejections you get, the more ignored emails, it can be easy to just give up. To feel like no one may never care, or that you may never get anyone to buy your art. The list of discouraging things you can feel, can add up. And I am here to say, it happens to everyone. Especially in the beginning when you are green and you have a lot of growing and learning to do. I have found that the people who are successful are the ones who are resilient and keep going. That stay in the fight for their dreams.
2. Follow Your Enthusiasm. This is important to students and those trying to find "their style". Odds are you know have a style. You have a voice. Try to only create what lights a fire inside you. What inspires you, and enthuses you. Because that will always translate to better work. Period. IF you try to paint what everyone else is painting, because you think it will sell and your heart is not it...good luck. That's a recipe for flat, stale art. Be true to your world and what honestly keeps you excited about creativity. I promise you, that is the best way to make sure your work has a spirit to it that otherwise it would not have.
3. Stop Comparing. This is a lesson that sometimes I am good at, and other times I am not good at. It sounds easy to do, but we all know how hard it is. Especially in this day and age, when we are on our phones it can be easy to see everyone else doing such amazing things, posting perfect shit constantly that you start to compare yourself to it all and think negative thoughts. I try hard to do posts where I share my struggles or imperfect work. And I know that helps break down those walls. The best work I do is when I stop looking at what everyone else is doing, and look inward. When I get back to the basic things that excite me and keep me passionate and in love with the process of creating. That's when the magic starts to happen. When you realize you don't need to be like anyone else. You need to be you! Because you are irrrrreeeplaceable! (Insert Beyonce Giff).
4. Make What You Can Make, Well. When I was in school, studying art, I remember learning what I was good at. Things that came naturally to me. And the other things that did not. Some lessons and projects I could not do well. And some I just excelled at. As I have been professional now with my artwork for about 6 years I have discovered more and more my natural abilities and also what I struggle with. You can make things that no one else can. Remember that. It goes back to the comparing thing. Focus on your abilities and strengths and really use them to your advantage. And odds are you will get better with your weaknesses over time. But don't kill yourself over what you can't make. When did anyone ever think, "Wow I wish Matisee painted realistic looking people more". People loved Matisse because he did only what he could do, and it he did well.
5. Winners are Losers Who Got Back Up. It's pretty simple. You want to win. You're going to lose sometimes. The only way to get that win, is to take that risk of losing and falling flat on your ass. Remind yourself that it takes courage and give yourself credit for doing something, rather than doing nothing. Get back up!
6. It Takes Four Hours of Painting to Get One Good Hour In. I read this in David Lynch's book, and it was such a lightbulb moment for me. And its' so true. I easily forget how important warm ups, and getting into a rhythm are to executing good work on days where I feel rushed or distracted. Now it certainly doesn't guarantee the best work of your life every-time you sit down, but it certainly is a good reminder that the discipline of sitting down and working will allow the creative flow to happen. Allow yourself the time to create good work. It's worth it.
7. Be Authentic. Because of the way our world operates, we can easily start to see artist's who are authentic and those that aren't especially on social media. I have a hard time seeing this happen. And I try hard to make sure I am staying true to myself and being authentic to my own life with what I create and share. If you're busy trying to produce work that you think will sell, or caring too much about what other people are doing...you may fall into this trap. When I created artwork during dark, hard times in my life...my best work came forward because I was being authentic. And the same is true when you get inspired by something that excites you and creating what you see in the world around you. I have had people rip off my Etsy shop for years and paint the same subject matter in the same style as me. I just want to tell them...be authentic. I'm pretty sure your world is interesting and you can find things around you to paint that would produce much better work than by looking at what I'm painting. Sorry to sound a bit negative, but I think it's insightful and helpful to share that part of my line of work.
8. We Only Lose By Not Creating. I know so many people who want to do more creative things in their lives and are just so scared. I try to remind people that we can't make choices based on fear. And also to not be so hard on yourself when you make things that you wish were perfect. You are making something. And that is better than sitting in the sidelines and thinking about what you would make. Just make it! Do it today if you can!!
9. Failure & Rejection Are Part of Following the Dream. Use negativity to fuel you to become better! I have always admired people, especially athletes who go through such a battle of losing and then use that to fuel them to just work on their abilities to come back and win. I have used negativity to push forward, and a way to just say to the universe, "I am going to keep going! I don't care how many times I get knocked down!"
10. You Can Make A Living As An Artist! One of the most discouraging things when you decide to study art, or follow your dreams to become an artist is you can feel like the world is against you. I had teachers who projected onto me that it's not possible to do it full time. I meet people all the time who ask me, "So you do this full time? Do you have another job?" It can be hard for me to hear these messages of discouragement often. And it can make many people decide not to pursue this or study art. I am here, as are many artist's I know, to be an example to show you it is real and is possible! I wish I had more examples of people to encourage me, I did have a few though. And when I moved to Atlanta I met an amazing group of kick ass women artists who were doing it full time. I hope you know that you can do anything! It's a lesson I have learned and try to share with anyone who asks. So I like to pass it on!
In November, my boyfriend and I spent 10 days exploring Scotland. It was our first trip abroad together, and we got to explore the cities, seaside towns, Loch Ness, and The Highlands. It was stunning, and the people of Scotland had so much charm. My health was great the entire trip. My head was full of inspiration and excitement with the inevitable afterglow I always feel when I travel outside the US. I had a sketch book in tow to prepare for the long haul flight back home, and was able to sketch a little on the flight from Edinburgh to London.
We had a layover in Heathrow, and just as we were about to board for our flight home to Atlanta, I began to feel very faint and nauseous. My boyfriend asked if I wanted to stay behind, but I was not about to let my body stop me from getting on that plane. I blamed it on a combination of things: a lack of sleep, no food that morning, and the news of the election of Donald Trump that was all over the tv at the airport. I had never passed out in my life, and I sure as hell didn't think this was going to be the day that would happen. But I definitely knew deep down, that I was feeling something I hadn't ever felt before.
Then, less than an hour into the flight, I did pass out. Just before it happened, my head started to feel so light and my breathing became so short that I told my boyfriend, "I think I'm going to pass out". Next thing I knew, he gently nudged me and I awoke to see I had vomited all over myself. And I'm not talking a little bit; it was in my hair, and all over my jacket, tee, jeans, and my seat. I was embarrassed and horrified. Luckily, I had a wonderful British Airways crew there to help attend to my needs (they even gave me a change of clothes) and a boyfriend who did his best to make me feel comfortable. I was not looking forward to another eight hours on the plane, because I knew that I was most likely going to be sick and in extreme discomfort for its duration, but I did my best to keep calm and drink lots of fluids.
Once we got home, I spent the next few days in bed, very sick. In addition to the nausea, I noticed was that my heart rate was on the rise and didn't seem to ever fall back down.
We went to urgent care, and the doctor told me that I most likely had a stomach virus or food poisoning, and it would pass out of my system soon. She also told me that my heart rate was probably due to lack of fluids, since being dehydrated causes a higher heart rate.
So, I went home and diligently sipped water all night and day. My vomiting stopped, but my heart rate was continuing to get higher. It felt like my heart was beating outside my chest, and when I would get up and walk around it would increase so quickly that all I wanted to do was lay back down. I was beginning to feel like this was a big issue of concern, but I also wanted to have faith in what the doctor told me. I woke up the next morning feeling even worse and we returned to a different urgent care. They gave me fluids, and I was hoping that that would be my cure. But my heart rate was still high. They told me that I just needed to go home, eat, and drink plenty of fluids and I would be okay. But deep down, I just knew it wasn't okay.
Later that night, I felt a huge change in my mental and physical state. My intuition was really beginning to kick in, and my heart rate was becoming increasingly higher. It got so bad that I didn't even want to walk to the bathroom. I had the feeling that something was really wrong, so I told my boyfriend that we needed to go to the ER. By that point, I already felt that I needed to mentally prepare myself for some bad news, and to be admitted to the hospital. It's strange how sometimes we just know things, and I knew I needed to listen to my heart. It had never felt this way before, and it was obviously in distress.
As soon as they checked me into the ER, they noticed my heart rate was way too high. I had walked from the hallway to their entry and my heart rate was at 140. And I was feeling light as a feather all over my body. They took me back, and I laid in this white room that almost seemed like a bad dream. My doctor proceeded to ask me many questions and told me I looked pretty pale. They took my blood, and found my blood hemoglobin levels were very low. A normal level for a woman is between a 12-14. I was at a 4.6.
Holy shit. What does that even mean? That's how I felt. Why had I not felt any pain? What was happening to me? This is when your mind can't help but wonder and think the worst things. The doctor then began to ramble off a list of things that could be potentially be the culprit. That was not a fun thing to listen to. But a few things were certain: I was bleeding internally, I had lost a lot of blood, and I would need 3-4 blood transfusions right off the bat. I was admitted that night and sent up to ICU. The first test they wanted to run would be an endoscopy to see if I had bleeding in my stomach. I wanted to have hope that the first test would be the one where we would get answers and I could be released.
The following morning, three of my closest girlfriends—Maggie, Nicole, and Katie—came to be by my side and brought me flowers and a Beatles album I could listen to when I went home. My dearest friend Michelle visited too, and she brushed my hair, gave me a facial, and, most of all, gave me incredible emotional support. My boyfriend sat by my side and his parents came right away. I felt so loved and cared for, and all of the company helped time go by faster.
In the early evening, I was able to have the endoscopy that I needed—many of the doctors that I'd spoken to thought my bleeding might've been caused by a stomach ulcer, and that's one thing they wanted to check for. They put me under, and I remember waking up to hear my boyfriend and his parents say, "that's the best news"! I couldn't wait to hear. The doctor told them I had a tear in my esophagus that caused the bleeding (as a result of the vomiting a few days before), but it had already healed and I would be probably released the next day. It seemed too good to be true, and it was.
The main doctor over the hospital noticed that my heart rate was not going back down and my blood pressure was dipping as well. She also wasn't convinced that my blood loss was only a result of the esophagus tear. That meant more tests, a longer hospital stay, and the threat of a bigger issue at hand. This news was difficult for me to deal with, and I realized that when you are a patient in a hospital, your mental strength and attitude is the only thing you have left to control when you feel this helpless and your body is so vulnerable.
That night, I felt more mortal than I ever have before. My boyfriend had fallen asleep, and I sat in the quiet of the night, alone with my thoughts. It had been a couple days of testing with no answers to speak of, and my heart rate was still high, even after three blood transfusions. I started to feel overcome by anxiety and fear. I knew I wasn't invincible, and that seemingly healthy people die every day. I was not above that. I said a prayer. I wanted to be accepting of whatever the outcome would ultimately be. I told God I was grateful for the life I have been given. That I have been able to fulfill a lot of my artistic dreams through him, that I was so happy to have so many wonderful friends and loved ones, a compassionate boyfriend, and that I had traveled the world and seen many beautiful things. I wanted to accept that if this was it, that I was grateful for the 34 years I had been given. I also prayed that if I was able to continue living, that he would be able to allow me to share my story and make more art to help bring comfort to those in similar circumstances. And also allow it to help me heal and process this all out.
The next day, they finally decided to do a chest CT scan to see if I had a blood clot in my lungs. This is something that happens to many people when they travel abroad on long haul flights; if your blood doesn't circulate in your legs enough, it can cause a clot that will eventually break free from your leg when you are mobile again and travel to your lungs or other areas in your body. Blood clots in your lungs can be fatal, and in fact 1 in 4 people who get them, die from them. (I didn't know this at the time.) But once they told me they were doing the CT scan, I knew they would find something there. It seemed like the most logical answer to my condition.
After the test, I was sitting in my bed in ICU with my boyfriend and his parents when the main doctor called me and told me they had found a clot. She said that I would need blood thinners to dissolve the clot, and that I would need to be on blood thinners in a pill form upon my release. But they also needed to test other areas of my body to make sure I didn't have any more clots. When you have one, you can sometimes have multiple ones. Scary, right? Luckily, the colonoscopy and heart and leg sonograms didn't find any other clots, and the blood thinners were at work to help me heal. My body was getting a real cleanse, and a tune up! Haha. I had to laugh at some of these things in order to get me through. The night of my colonoscopy prep, I had the funniest nurses and technicians who helped me to get through and laugh about it.
When I was finally upgraded to stable condition, I felt hope. And ultimately when my body began to become more stable (when they finally took out the IVs that I had in both arms), I felt so free and happy. I felt like I had begun to win a battle. I ended up in the hospital from Saturday night to Thursday evening, and in those 5 days I cannot believe the whirlwind of emotions I felt. I know for a fact that I could not have survived without the amazing care from the hospital at Dekalb Medical, the sweet nurses and technicians, and all my family and friends sending me love and support. And my Instagram followers too! I needed the sunshine of positivity and well wishes to shut the dark thoughts out of my mind. Also, watching Dave Chappelle host Saturday Night Live on my laptop really lifted my spirits up, and a night of eating my favorite takeout pizza in our hospital room with my boyfriend and his family was one of those bittersweet moments of the experience that I'll never forget.
My heart goes out to those who have experienced—or had someone they love experience—similar circumstances. I think I'm still wrapping my head around what happened. And a way to let go of this and move forward in a positive way, I have painted some works and also am sharing this post as a form to let go. I want to do nothing but to put messages of hope and love out into the world. I'm grateful that my art allows me to open that door for a conversation of love, hope and positivity. There is always beauty to be found, even in the dark moments in life. And I'm glad I was able to see everyone around me step up to the plate for me. It makes me want to be the same for others.
Wishing you a fabulous New Year!
"It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.” - Rebecca Solnit
I have always loved creating solo because it allows me to connect with myself on a deeper level and create work that’s close to my heart. It also reminds me of my childhood; I was always so happy to close the door, sketch on my notepad, and let the time fly by.
I’ve been a full-time illustrator for about five years, and I’ve learned so much along the way. But the greatest—and most important—lesson I’ve learned was that when I stopped looking at what other people were doing and I painted what I was most scared and/or excited about, I was able to progress and create my most meaningful work.
Before I started using social media and sharing my art on platforms like Instagram, I created a lot of work that has been well received. Since joining Instagram several years ago, my audience has grown quite a bit, and it’s been amazing to have feedback and receive so much positivity from the connections I’ve made. I really do love the medium, but I realized that it was becoming a bit of a distraction for me—both from my work and from the introspective time I needed. Over time, I noticed a shift in my work and my thoughts about social media. Social media is constantly changing, and it’s amazing how quickly we can adapt to it. What is now commonplace for many of us—such as routinely checking our phones first thing in the morning and last thing at night—was not the norm a few short years ago. It’s mind-blowing! I began to wonder I was operating this way. I know I can be happy without looking at my phone, checking notifications, and viewing posts, so why had it become such a staple of my daily life and habits? I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be a downside to spending so much time plugged into social media on my phone.
What was happening to my free thought? Was it actually affecting my creativity? Surely, pausing the creative process to take photos, share them, and then receive comments/questions almost instantly was taking away from my work and creative flow. Was I becoming more concerned with the number of likes and comments I got from each post? Or, was I more concerned with actually making work that challenged and excited me? To be honest, it was beginning to feel like I was teetering between the two.
I have been distracted. I admitted that to myself, but what could I do about it? When you use Instagram both as a way of connecting with your audience on a regular basis and as a business tool to bring in new work like I do, it’s not very easy to abstain. But I was in a rut and felt like my work was becoming stagnant, so I knew i needed to do something.
I weighed the pros and cons in my mind, and soon, the answer became clear to me. I needed to step away from the distractions. I needed to slow down my process and really dive deep. I needed to paint only what I loved and what I knew would challenge me. Instead of looking for outside validation for my work, I would go back to what I have always done—make for me. I know my standards, and I know that when I reach them, I feel my best. When I don’t, none of the comments or praise the piece might receive matter to me.
I wanted to challenge myself on a new level, and to do that, it seemed necessary to take a full 30 days away from Instagram. 30 days would allow me to change my habits. It would allow quiet time. It would allow me the time I knew I needed to be scared. The time I needed to face my insecurities, doubts, and fears and learn to silence them. For me, the best way to silence those negative thoughts is to just sit and create.
“If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”. - Vincent Van Gogh
I know most people wouldn’t think that I struggle with negative thoughts, because I am a very positive person. But the fear of failure and rejection is something that never leaves me—especially when I sit down and start a new project. Every new client, freelance job, and painting is a chance to make something good, or to fall flat on my face!
“What if I can never make a painting as good as xyz again? What if everyone thinks it’s not original, it’s not any good, or it just plain sucks? What if no one cares? What if they laugh at me?”
I don’t care how many successes you have had; when you put your neck out there, it’s scary. If I wasn’t shaking in my boots the entire time, the feeling I got when I achieved my goals wouldn’t be as rewarding. So, in order to combat those feelings, I work hard on my positive thinking and affirmations. (I learned these patterns when I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron; a book I’d highly recommend for anyone, not just creatives.) And then I create.
Most people would probably agree that one of the hardest parts is actually sitting down and doing the thing that scares you. So I believe that just by sitting down to paint or create, even if the results aren’t great, you’re already winning a battle. A battle to do. To produce and create without judgement and just to enjoy the process is one of the best things we can do for our wellbeing and happiness.
I needed the break, to reconnect with myself and my work.
So I decided to start each day by reading for about 20 minutes from one of my books on creativity, positive thinking, and spirituality. (I have quite a few of them, and I’ll post my book list for you soon!) I would take notes in my journal, jot down all of my favorite passages, then write about my feelings and document the process. This time every morning helped start off on a positive and inspiring note. This was also a way to break me from the habit of looking at my phone first thing in the morning.
The other goal for this 30 days was to do more of the things that I know allow me to reconnect with my creativity and passions. Things like hiking, listening to inspiring podcasts, watching great documentaries on fellow artists, going to museums, and finding new music; these are all things I love to do when I need to focus on preparing my mind to create.
Before long, a rush of creativity hit me. I cannot believe how much I have wanted to paint and create nonstop. I came across so many inspiring things, and I revisited subjects that I fell in love with years ago. Each painting flowed into to the next and I was filled with so much enthusiasm. (Always follow your enthusiasm when it comes to what you should create!) It seriously has been so much fun! But for me, the greatest part has been that I’ve enjoyed and loved what I have been painting so much that I don’t need any outside validation for my work. I can feel it from within, and that is a huge lesson for anyone. We always have to believe in and love ourselves before anyone else can. So why wouldn’t it be that way with the things we make? Of course I’ve made a few things that I’ve been unsure about, but overall I feel like I have been discovering layer upon layer of new ideas, and I love that I have been able to slow down and really enjoy the art for what it is.
This is what I was searching for.
I hope this post will inspire you to slow down a little. Enjoy and absorb the world around you—not just the world on your phone. I also hope it will inspire you to create what you love. And lastly, I hope you’ll enjoy the paintings I made over the past 30 days. It was a personal capsule of time and art that I will never forget.