The single most important skill a professional artist must learn to manage is also the most difficult master: time management. Closely linked to that is mastering self-motivation. I’m not talking about the motivation to achieve long-term goals like securing work or even changing the art industry. We all want that. I’m talking about the commitment and fortitude required to to your mind, eyes, and drawing hand every single day.
I’ve met many skilled artists and a few that blow me away with their work. But I’ve also heard as many complaints about how they either haven’t grown as much as they wanted to, or need to be around other artists who are working in order to get their artwork done, or burn out during finals, or are distracted by other activities (like playing games or browsing the internet). If this sounds familiar, then take it as a sign that you aren’t managing your time well. And if you aren’t, then it will kill your career if you don’t learn how to.
Why is that? Well, a few reasons. First, while you are doing other things, your future contender is training right now for that job you will be applying for. While you are inching along they are growing by leaps and bounds. Only the best get hired, only the best get commissions, and only the very best change the industry. The time to train for those juicy assignments is now.
Second, if you are a student and can’t deliver on your assignments for classes, then how will you deliver on assignments for your clients or art director? If you’re already working and unable or unwilling to deliver on time, then your reputation is already suffering. The field is very insular. That means everyone is connected and you will (or are already) developing a reputation for missing deadlines. Someone less skilled, but dependable, will be hired over you. If you are a student, you are building your reputation right now with your instructors. When you apply for work and ask them to recommend you, they will remember if you turned in late or incomplete work and won’t want to put their reputations on the line for you. The same is true with employers.
Third, if you can’t motivate yourself to work on projects you don’t initially enjoy, you are going to be very unhappy working in the industry and your work will suffer as a result. We and our clients get out of our artwork what we put into it. Most of the time, you won’t get to work on something you feel innately passionate about because it will be someone else’s idea. You won’t always have other artists to depend on to set your work schedule and atmosphere. Instead, you need to develop strategies to motivate yourself and get the job done on schedule and without burning out. Find a way to be passionate about creating art for its own sake. That’s why you’re doing this, aren’t you? Because you love to draw, paint, and design, right? If you don’t enjoy spending hours every day creating, you need to find a different line of work. If you do have that motivation, that passion, that hunger to create and improve, then an art director shouldn’t be able to tell which pieces in your portfolio you enjoyed creating more – and if asked you should be able to honestly answer that choosing one piece would be like asking a mother to pick her favorite child.
Are you ready to get to work, but just don’t know how to organize your time? Remember, this is a lifestyle change, and they say it takes 28 days to establish new habits. If you’re ready, use these tips for 28 days and I guarantee you will be more productive and grow faster.
Five Tips for Better Time Management
- Write down your goals and break them down into realistic, bite-sized, lists.
- Start with your ultimate goal and aim high! Be ambitious and aim for something like, “I want to change the art industry forever.” or “I want to be spoken of in the same breath as [insert favorite artist here].” or “I want to found my own company.” This is the point where you put a ceiling on your success. So shoot for the moon; that way, if you miss you’ll hit the stars.
- Work backwards and break that goal down into self-development goals for each month, then week, then day. These are achievements you will make outside of your assignments. It is the first step to organize your time and it will put you in a goal-oriented mind-frame. If you like, you can set aside rewards for each goal you meet. As a bonus, it will feel great when you get to cross those goals off your list!
- One of my mentors, Michael Buffington, once set a goal of drawing 1,000 simplified but realistic heads. Even as a professional, his craft improved immensely. Not many artists have that kind of commitment, but his book of 1,000 heads is set to be published in order to inspire other artists.
- Assign daily routines.
- This critical for those who procrastinate or burn out when deadlines approach. It’s important to both pace yourself and balance other demands on your time. If you have a blog or online portfolio, set aside time to update that. First, set your priorities – list them and put them in order in terms of both importance and immediacy – be ruthless about this but don’t forget your non-work needs. Then set time aside in order of your priorities. If you have a significant other, set aside time with them. Set aside time to network, research, get inspiration, exercise, eat, and sleep. If you don’t, your body and/or support network will quit on you, it’s just a matter of time.
- On a similar note, get dressed in the morning. Yes, it’s fun to work in your Pj’s all day at home and nobody will know if you do. But getting dressed for work is a routine, even a ritual, for establishing your working mood. You’ve already established this mindset for work and school, just apply it at home to counter that all-too easy temptation to goof off or spend too much time consuming information (See No. 5). It’s surprising how preparing yourself like this to work will set the tone for your entire day.
- Break down your projects.
- Feeling overwhelmed by a looming project? Try breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces. Focus on the project one stage at a time and then look at it in terms of 20-minute-intervals. You can work for 20 minutes, right? Well, when you’re done, take a 5 minute break. Don’t forget to set your timer!
- Pay attention to how long it is taking you to complete your tasks, and revisit your lists. You’ll want to update them and re-evaluate your short-term goals and bring them into line with how long it takes you to complete your tasks. Eventually, it’ll take less time to accomplish them, but for now this is a reality-check and a good way to adjust your pace. It’s also important to keep track so that you can give clients and/or your boss an accurate estimate of the time it’ll take you to complete a project.
- Set up an efficient workspace.
- Decide on the area you want to do your work in. This will depend your personal preferences and on what you are distracted by. Some artists can’t work if they’re by a computer connected to the internet (that includes smartphones) which are constantly pinging for your attention with email and Facebook alerts and texts. However, some artists need online reference photos or other resources and will instead need to turn off those alerts and summon the self-control not to give into temptation. Whatever space works for you, carve it out and make it your own.
- If you live with someone else, set up a sign that lets them know if you are available to chat or not. Have a kind conversation with them about what it means. This will both ensure that you can maintain your focus and that you won’t have to defend your boundaries against your well-intentioned roommate or loved-one. It’s pro-active and prevents arguments. If you’ve set aside time to be with them (see No. 2), they should be able to respect your work space and time.
- Keep your workspace organized and clean. Some people, like me, can’t think very clearly among a lot of clutter. But even if you like to work with everything related (and not) spread out over your workspace, you probably still won’t like your artwork marred by a glob of yesterday’s lunch.
- Draw Right Now!
- The availability of information (both related to artwork and not) is a wonderful thing. It inspires and motivates us to create something new and learn new skills. But too much consumption and not enough production will cripple your career. So take action!
- Maybe you’re staring at that blank page, ready to draw but afraid of creating something lame. The key here is to practice on cheap paper. Take out cheap copy paper, newsprint, or even the blank backs of junk mail you have laying around. Start with warm-up exercises and move on to quick 3 minute sketches. If it’s a bad drawing, you only have to live with it for 3 minutes before moving on. The important thing is to get those bad drawings out of your system and start carving away at those 10,000 hours to master your craft.
- So unplug yourself from social networks, email, the work of other artists, your phone, and this blog. Stop consuming and start producing! Stop thinking and start drawing now!
7 Time Management Strategies that Work
How to Work from Home Part 1 – Dress for Success
How to Work from Home Part 2 – Separation
Stop Consuming, Start Prodicing
Follow this link to see three videos of Matt Rhodes, Associate Art Director for the Mass Effect games, as he discusses the creation of the Asari, Krogan, and Salarian races respectively. I find his discussion of how he and his artists used model and animal references as launching points for their designs particularly interesting.
Designing Asari, Krogans, Salarians, and Batarians: Mass Effect: The Origin of Species – Features – www.GameInformer.com
Designing Turians: Mass Effect 3: Creating Garrus
What makes an alien race sexy and approachable to humans? What animal features make a race look predatory? Scientific and enlightened? How can designers differentiate members of these species? How would they look in different points across their lifespan? All of this must be considered when designing an alien character in addition to the practical elements of movement, weight, balance, and constructing armor and clothing.
This article sums up the the best advice I’ve heard given to illustration and concept art students:
Super Obvious Secrets That I Wish They’d Teach In Art School at Marvelous Mustache Factory.
And here I’ll expand on it:
- Carry a sketchbook and one or more sharpened pencils with you at all times. Many artists prefer Moleskin or a tone-paper sketchbook and two Prismacolor pencil pencils (one white and one dark toned). Tone paper lets you use the paper itself as a midtone, which means that you’re building up both shadows and highlights with your colored pencils instead of just shadows (as with graphite) or using the lift-off technique (the lift-off technique involves covering white paper with a medium tone of graphite or charcoal and then erasing it where you want the light tones and highlights to be). It’s much more cost-effective to use tone paper than to use white paper, and you’re less likely to smudge everything if you avoid using graphite pencils. Prismacolor color pencils have wax in their core which prevents smudging, and designers often use the Color Erase type in the industry because they’re so erasable.
- Artists should never be idle and never take the day off. Waiting for someone? Sketch. Standing in line? Sketch. Riding the bus? Sketch. There are people and objects and environments all around you. This will teach you to draw quickly. You can get creative and turn people into characters and simplify enviornments for animation too.
- If for some reason you are without a sketchbook, then this is what you do: draw without drawing. Don’t just look, see! Then memorize what you see. Note of the shapes and forms and values, then close your eyes and imagine it. Open your eyes and compare that mental image to what you see. Then draw it when you get home. This is how you build your reference vocabulary so that you can late rearrange these elements when drawing from your imagination.
- Set deadlines and goals. My instructor, Michael Buffington, challenged himself to draw 1,000 heads last year. The project took him three months, and in that time his skill improved dramatically even though he was already at a professional level. If you’re weak with drawing hands, then set a goal of drawing 500 hands. If you’ve got realistic heads down, switch to character heads and draw 500 of those.
- Remember to have fun. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or bored by assignments, but find a way to make them fun. That’s why we’re in the game, after-all, this is part of being creative. An art director shouldn’t be able to tell which projects you enjoyed and which you didn’t by looking at your portfolio. Don’t trash talk yourself either. You are selling yourself and your work, so be mindful of the impression you give. Just be passionate about what you do and show that you have fun creating.
- You’ll probably find that your artistic vision and knowledge improve more quickly than your skill level does. This can make you feel disappointed in your work. But if you keep practicing, your skill will catch up and you’ll start to like your drawings more. It’ll be hit-and-miss in the beginning, but everyone goes through that. With pencil-mileage comes consistently good work.
Finally, I’ll leave off with a helpful quote:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
— Ira Glass
Alex is available for freelance, internship, and contract positions. If you would like to work together, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm an Illustrator and Concept Artist with 15+ years experience world-building and telling stories. I am passionate about developing memorable worlds for film, books, magazines, and games in the imaginative genres. Recently, I've begun blending 3D ZBrush sculpting into my 2D work.
I graduated from Reed College with a B.A. in Psychology and pursued a brief career in Psychiatry research before enrolling in my first formal art class. I realized my passion for digital art, visual story-telling, and interactive media and left Psychology to earn my MFA in Illustration and focused on concept art for games in the Academy of Art University. From my studio in the San Francisco Bay Area I work with a variety of clients, publishers, and studios.