How Long Did That Take?

During a #SFFWRTCHT last month I was asked this question: “How long does it take you to do a piece from first line to finish?”* I responded with something vague about always being amazed at how quickly some pieces come together and how slowly others do. And that’s completely true: The time from first line to finish varies enormously depending on the illustration project. (Even more tricky to explain is why an illustration that only took an afternoon to complete may be more successful than one that took several weeks). One of my art professors used to answer:  “40 years and three weeks” when people asked how long a painting took (the sum of his painting career to that point and whatever time the specific painting required), which was a witty nod to how much more than just hours goes into an art piece. But as a freelancer, knowing how long a project took is pretty important career information. So I’ve been working on that.

Usually I have several projects all going on at once. On rare moments it all comes together like this**, but often it feels more like this. Last year I started using  kanbanpad to help keep track of my progress on various illustrations. I had queues such as “Not Started” “Ideation” “In Progress” and “Finished”. Recently it’s become necessary to revise how I keep track of stuff in order to avoid over-committing myself: I now have a Google doc with a whole year laid out month by month listing jobs already committed to, so at a glance I know if I can take on another project this month or that month. Also I’ve also started using spreadsheets to detail each month even more closely: When a job is started, when it is finished, (how many hours it took). Even things like print sales, art shows entered, (blog posts written). This is pretty new, the methods still being tweaked, but I’m interested in seeing what trends may reveal themselves.

As the at-home parent, my work schedule fits around my son’s school schedule and between general household management needs. And those work hours are not all art making: I spend a lot of time reading through the stories I’ll be illustrating, prepping digital canvases, collecting and/or shooting reference images. Not to mention just “paperwork” type stuff: keeping financial records up to date, monitoring correspondence, posting recent work, promoting projects, occasionally revamping my websites. I recently spent several hours finally writing up my own artist/client contract for new clients and it took me an entire day to prepare art for shipping to an out-of-town show.

While I have not yet started keeping track of exactly how many hours a piece will take from start to finish, I do know that I can finish about 4-5 illustration jobs per month and still be sane and pleasant to live with. (Which is really good to know.) Here’s a few other things I’ve skimmed from the webs that apply to the topic at hand:

  • And this interview with creatives talking about their time management methods:

*thank you Paul Weimer for asking the question!
**thank you Bo Bolander for lovely herd dogs.
***thank you Remy Nakamura for pointing me to Scalzi’s article.

from start to finish, Illustrating Marisol Brook

In art, thumbnails are preliminary small scale sketches where you can experiment with layout and values before you jump into the final full sized piece. But I’m an impatient, trigger happy artist and I frequently overlook this step.  I work digitally and count on that to save me if I need to back-pedal or re-arrange an illustration to a better place. That doesn’t always work. Recently, art director Jon Schindehette, wrote about the importance of thumbnails, so as I prepared to illustrate Sarah Grey’s The Ballad of Marisol Brook, I began with these:

thumbnails for Marisol Brook

Water is a repeating theme in the Grey’s story; drowning, falling into water, reborn from water, etc, and that’s the symbol I wanted to play with in the illustration. From those thumbnails, I started working this direction:

the ballad of marisol brook by sarah grey WIP1

preliminary sketch for Marisol Brook

However, after working on this piece for a while, I felt it was losing its connection to the story. It’s a cool image and I’ll keep it filed for future use, but to connect it to what Grey had written, I felt I should switch it up a bit. So I did this:

a second preliminary sketch for Marisol Brook

As this version progressed I didn’t like all the horizontals so I took the layer with the red figure, rotated it, resized it, copied multiple versions across the page and played with creating variation in the pattern. (Like Jon Schindehette noted: “…folks that work digitally are more apt to skip [thumbnails] in their process. I found that observation to be quite interesting, and wonder if it has something to do with the fact that most digital artists feel like they can always “make changes”. Yep. Guilty as charged.)

Marisol Brook in Progress

There, I’d finally found my direction. So the real work begins:

Marisol Brook in progress

This part goes on for quite some time. “Finished” is such a subjective word, a teasing balancing act between overworked and not-quite-there. At the end, finding that point usually involves ignoring the image for a while as I work on other stuff, coming back to peek at it intermittently, make more notes, make small changes, leave it again, etc, until I’m satisfied that yes, indeed, it is “finished”

Final illustration for The Ballad of Marisol Brook. Written by Sarah Grey, published at Lightspeed Magazine


So there you go. A glimpse into my process. Speaking of process, here are some notebooks and sketchbooks from famous authors, arists, and visionaries (because I love that kind of stuff).  Also, here’s some more about thumbnails by Dan Dos Santos (because I really need to work on those.)



Last month I had made up my mind to not accept any new projects for a while. I wanted a break. It had been a rough summer and I was burnt out. I had a few obligations I was wrapping up and then I just wanted to step back and read a book. Then, as happens, I got an offer I could not refuse, so I’m actually now busier than ever. It’s a good thing—a great thing, really, but I realize I still need to re-evaluate stuff. It has me thinking a lot about how to do this creative life thing long term, how to take on a good amount of work while keeping my balance.

There is this romanticised image of the dedicated artist that I’ve held up as my ideal: the creative individual sacrificing everything for their art. Times past when I got a huge ASAP project I put everything else in my life on hold while I dove in and swam up stream to the finish. But I think if I’m going to make this be a long term thing in my life, I have to make the time to take the dog for a walk to the park. To help my kid with his homework. To be present for my partner (who takes a good deal of the load at home when I have a heavy project bearing down). I need to make sure I’m getting enough sleep. Plus, I signed up for another marathon, so I need to make sure I am getting the necessary exercise to prepare for that. I have wondered if things like training for a marathon are luxuries (ha ha) I can no longer afford, but I’ve learned how much I need those physical outlets for my mental health, so I’m keeping them on the table.

If it’s not obvious by now, I am a work-a-holic, more comfortable with a task than with socializing. So I need to pay special attention to taking care of my friendships and my loved ones. The other night, we went to dinner and a movie with friends and it was hard for me to turn off the radio station in the back of my head, telling me I shouldn’t be there, that I should be at home working. My online life is reduced to retweeting an occasional thing of interest and liking a few status updates. I miss my online life. It’s a balancing act I’m still figuring out.

Something else I’m working on: letting go of my fear of failure, the horror that I won’t be good enough. Here’s an interview with comic writer Kelly Sue Deconnick that’s worth listening to for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that right in the middle of it (at 33:24 minutes in to be precise), she says this about deadlines: “the month is going to come regardless of if you are ready, and sometimes you will not get it as all-together as you hoped, but you move on and do better next time.” That really gave me pause. It reminded me of something that artist Donato Giancola told us at the Illustrations Masters Class this past spring, something I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: “Occasionally, I have turned in less than top quality work. I am not proud of that. But it happens. You then keep working so that next time is better.” Those two comments made an impression on me, not as an excuse to do less than stellar work, but as a reminder that sometimes you are on your game, sometimes you are not, and you don’t let that keep you from moving forward.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. Work hard. Keep breathing. Find the right balance. Take care of my loved ones. Be a bit more gentle with myself. Stuff like that. I hope this all makes sense—I am writing it on my lunch break before I dive back into that offer I could not refuse.

So here, if you’re interested, a few people who have said it a bit more eloquently:  Lillian Cohen-Moore discusses how to deal with burn out. Then, Damian Walters-Grintalis talks about writing when you are broken and John Nakamura Remy talk about how he learned to stop worrying and love his goals. Finally, Amy Sundburg discusses priorities and social media.

Okay, that’s all. Time to get back to work.