Productivity for Artists: 3 Simple Changes to Make More Art

The other day I realized something: I’m drawing more now than I ever have in my entire life. More than in middle school when I was becoming obsessed with drawing by copying Pokemon and Sailor Moon. More than in college when I had less worries and responsibilities. Even more than when my biggest freelance client was in the UK and I was done with work each day by noon.  

So the realization got me thinking: What changed that made this increase happen now? Where did this more extreme motivation to draw come from? Why does it feel easier or more enjoyable to draw now?

I’ve thought about it, written about it, and drawn about it. And I’ve come up with three changes that have led to me making more art:

  1. Large chunks of alone time
  2. A dedicated drawing space
  3. Experimenting with new materials and tools

Large Chunks of Alone Time

A while back, I read the article, How To Be Alone: Musicians Confront Solitude, by Ann Powers for NPR. If you’re an artist/creative/designer/maker, go read it! It’s very well-written and speaks to the contradicting nature of being an artist. One of the points that struck me most was this:

This was the same goal the secular pilgrim Cheryl Strayed sought when she walked 1100 miles alone up the Pacific Crest Trail in 1994. She found liberation from self while lost above the treeline, shouting into silence she ultimately couldn’t affect, realizing, was she wrote in her memoir, “Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”

Wandering the Pacific Coast Trail where she became a temporary hermit, survivalist and explorer — all roles that, for centuries, were primarily associated with men — Strayed realizes at one point in her journey that true solitude has changed her very definition of aloneness. She recognizes it as a form of connection, not privacy; as a way of inhabiting her real self by seeing how permeable are its boundaries. “Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was,” she writes. “Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.

–Ann Powers on Cheryl Strayed

You want to go be alone now, don’t you? I think this is a much more eloquent way of saying: We need alone time not to burrow into ourselves, but to move past our Self. And I think moving past our Self—our thoughts, our worries, our needs, our wants—that’s when exploration is possible, fresh ideas come to you, and art is made.

Giving yourself large chunks of alone time will give you the opportunity to dive deep like this. It’s fun to draw and make stuff with other people, but you also need that alone time to really incubate your thoughts and ideas and be open to new, experimental thoughts and ideas.

My art making really ramped up when I was able to have long chunks of time at home when no one else was at home. It gave me the chance to focus and get really sucked in, without interruptions or distractions. But my sub-tip here is: Don’t give yourself TOO much alone time. For one, you’ll probably get lonely and stir crazy. But also, it’s good to know you have a limited amount of alone time. This constraint will make you use the time you have, instead of relying on having it whenever you want.

And if it’s hard for you to actually get alone time in your home, try telling the people around you that you’re going to focus on something for a while and would appreciate them giving you some time to work. Since I’ve been focusing on using my alone time for creative time—and wearing big, puffy headphones to emulate it when I can’t have alone time—the amount of drawing I’ve done has shot up.

A Dedicated Drawing Space

Since I began working on my own, I’ve always had a dedicated Work Desk. It’s a small desk, holding my laptop, monitor, mouse, glass of water, stack of books… and it’s a little cramped. But recently, I bought a cheap new desk from Ikea and am now using that as my Work Desk with my computer, laptop, etc. And I’m using my old desk—which is the drafting table I’ve had since middle school—as my Drawing Desk.

The only things allowed on my drawing desk are: pencils, pens, markers, paper, sketchbooks, iPad Pro (for drawing only), and books.

I hadn’t thought it would be that different having a Drawing Desk, and I mainly just kept the desk for sentimental reasons because I was attached to it and didn’t want to throw it out. But since having this dedicated Drawing Desk, I’ve been drawing more than ever! Some sort of mental shift happens in my brain when I move from my Computer Desk to my Drawing Desk. My brain is like, “Ok body, I know exactly where we are right now, and I know exactly what we’re supposed to do right now”.

Part of it also might be that I don’t have to clean up my desk when I’m done drawing now, or set it up when I want to draw. Before, I had to clear off space for my sketchbook to draw at my desk, and afterwards, I had to put away my sketchbook or I wouldn’t have room to do anything else at my desk. But now, I can leave everything out and pick it right back up when I’m ready! I think also seeing the drawings and sketchbook and sprawled out markers on the drawing desk pulls me back and lures me in to draw.

If you can, I highly recommend having a dedicated drawing space, away from where you do your other work. I’ve been drawing for umpteen years, and have just now done it, but it really did make a difference. Claim your corner of the house or lug in a new desk, and mark your artistic territory!

Experimenting with New Tools and Materials

The final change that I believe led to me making more art was experimenting with new tools and materials. For a while, I was only drawing with pencil, as I had fallen in love with it, and thought it was my artistic thing, part of my artistic style. But since then I’ve realized that a style goes much deeper than a tool. Your style can and will be applied to whatever tool is in your hand, and the tool doesn’t dictate the style.

ALTHOUGH! I do think the tool can hint at new directions your style can go. Which is exciting and glorious. Every few months for the past year, I’ve gotten obsessed with a new tool. I wasn’t doing this purposefully, but now that I’m aware of it, and its benefits, I’m definitely going to keep up.

My progression so far has been from Pencil → Wacom Tablet → iPad Pro → Copic Markers → ?

And this isn’t to say I stopped using those other tools. It’s more than I’m just adding more tools to my toolbox, learning what each can do, and when each is most appropriate. And with each tool, my style and confidence grew as I learned more about the innate patterns and quirks of my style that carried over from tool to tool. Because in the end, all of those things are just that—tools. They aren’t what’s making the art. You are. And I am. So it doesn’t matter what tool you use, you can still come through. And I’ve found that using new tools allows me to loosen up in my work and experiment and explore new ways to draw, while also recognizing those commonalities that carry over.

I highly recommend not getting married to one tool or art medium. If you love watercolor or Photoshop, that’s great! You don’t have to give it up! But once in awhile, try sketching with a big, fat crayon, or dabbling in charcoal, just to see what happens.

These three changes might not be life-changing for every artist, but they worked wonders for me, and I’ve been enjoying riding this increased flow of art making. I love sharing my experiences and reflections with you guys, so I hope this has been interesting to you, and helps you get on the path to make more art!

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” ~Pablo Picasso

I love hearing about your experiences too! Are there any things you do that encourage you to make more art?