Self-Assigned Projects for Experimentation and Growth

A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Highlighter, The SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Region's Newsletter.

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Week 39, Dragon and Bee

If you ask my students what I tell them most often, I imagine they would say “it’s all about the process” and “you only get better at something by doing it repeatedly.” I like to compare the growth of an illustrator to the growth of a musician. To be an adequate pianist, one must practice over and over and over again. So it goes with illustration.

In 2016, I decided to apply my own advice as I was working to develop a broader portfolio of illustrations specifically related to character design and storytelling. I gave myself a long-term project that I called Critter of the Week. I set up a few basic rules and committed to publicly sharing the illustration each week regardless of whether I really loved it. After all, this exercise was experimental and for the purpose of growth—I couldn’t expect them all to be portfolio pieces, but maybe out of 52, I’d get a handful that I felt great about.

For me, the experience was invaluable. It allowed me to explore a variety of mediums and hone my process and craft. It gave me an opportunity to evaluate what I needed in my portfolio and work on pieces that might fill a few holes. In 2017, I signed on for representation with the Bright Agency. While this project wasn’t the reason I was offered a contract, I know that it helped me develop a more robust body of work and gave me more confidence in my ability to be an illustrator.

If you’d like to tackle a long-term self-assigned project, here are a few considerations:

Project Length: Everyone works differently and has different time constraints. Evaluate what you want to create and what kind of time that takes. Pick a project length that pushes you to meet a deadline but isn’t too stressful. If the deadlines are spread out too much the project might fall off your radar. If it’s too condensed, it may feel like a burden. Find that sweet spot that is achievable for you.

Pick a Theme (or focus): This is absolutely based on your own needs/goals. Is your goal to grow your portfolio, are you interested in pattern making, learning a new technique, working on your own picture book dummy, or trying a new style? Your focus doesn’t have to be the subject of the work, it can be using a limited color palette, or printmaking, or making work with digital tools, but having a defined theme gives you a foundation off which you can develop ideas for the next illustration.

Give yourself a Deadline: This is especially important if you are doing something weekly or monthly. Pick a date or day and time that your illustration is due. This helps you manage your time, which will ensure that your project doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Share your Progress: Look, we hate sharing work we don’t think is impeccable. And, maybe social media experts who focus on brand building will say that you shouldn’t share images that aren’t perfect. But, every illustrator knows that not every drawing they make is a masterpiece. Committing to sharing your work helps keep you on track. The deadline has more meaning if you know that someone is waiting to see what you’ve made, even if it’s just your friends and family that you’re sharing with. If you’re worried about flawed work, you can be clear that what you’re working on is part of a large project for growth and experimentation. But, it’s good to remember that what may seem flawed to you might seem flawless to a viewer. And, who cares what others think anyway? This is about and for you.

Be Flexible: Most importantly, this is your project. You have the right to change the parameters whenever you need to. If you miss a deadline, that doesn’t mean you’ve ruined the project, just post it when it’s done. If you’ve bitten off more than you can manage, scale it back to something that is manageable. If you start down one path—say, working with a particular medium—and you’re over it halfway through, then change the parameters. This is (and should be) for and about you and your growth.

Now, go make something!

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