How to I work on creative projects with kids around and a full-time job?

I was always amazed by how people can keep on doing their creative passion projects without any financial reward.

After I had been working in animation for a while, I became aware of people around me who would work on personal projects in their spare time. One of these people was Adam Phillips, who had been taking out prizes for his short films at Flash Forward, and had just launched bitey.com.

Let’s face it, Adam is an exceptional man- a kind of freak of nature with an almost super-human drive to produce work. Because he was a different class of person- super motivated, driven, exceptional, I never thought of him as an example to follow.

As it turned out, he ended up getting enough notoriety to put together some freelance work and enough of a following to quit Disney and strike out on his own.

Another source of inspiration was a bloke called Zaldi. He had no single, unified project like Adam, but every week he would arrive at work with the latest project he was working on the night before: a sculpt of a Disney character, a comic, monster sketches.

One day for our weekly professional development we had an especially emotional presenter visiting our studio. He was talking passionately about something or another (possibly stories and acting?) and once or twice he teared up for no apparent reason.

The next day Zaldi come in with an interactive Flash cartoon he’d made the night before. You push the buttons to interact with the character and 50% of the time he’d burst into tears. I couldn’t believe the ingenuity of it- and done with less than 24 hour turn-around! For an idea of his eclectic interests visit his old blog.

I’m sure there were other projects going on with the roughly 200 artists working at Disneytoons, Sydney, but these are 2 examples that stand out in my mind. How did they find the time? How were they learning new skills so fast? What motivated them? I ask these questions now but at the time I didn’t give it too much thought. These were just exceptional individuals.

At Disney I was drawing and getting paid for it. I was doing what I loved and steadily improving. As a result, I thought I had reached an kind of next level in my creative life: I now felt like all my creative work had to have a financial reward. Unfortunately, this meant that without that incentive, there was little motivation to create.

The act of drawing was starting to lose its appeal for me. Later I began to understand some of the dynamics going on behind my motivation drop off. In Drive, Daniel Pink investigates the factors that motivate people. If the work is rote or routine, financial reward is enough. However, if the work involves any level of creativity (like drawing!), there needs to be an intrinsic value in the work if we’re going to be motivated to persist with it.

Threats of being fired and failing your boss only go so far- in the end you have to really want to do the work. Since I now seemed to equate all creative work with an income, it’s value changed for me. I looked for that extrinsic reward (money, recognition) If it wasn’t there, I didn’t do the work. This meant that my creative work outside of the workplace dried up. I couldn’t motivate myself to draw outside of work. I found other good things to do with my time, of course. But drawing for the fun of it wasn’t a big factor in my life anymore.

Fast-forward 10 years and now I have 3 kids and a full-time job. And I’ve never been as creatively productive as I am now. How did this happen?

Cut stuff out of your life: Habits

Part of the reason is motivation. To begin with, at the beginning of 2014 I began to listen to podcasts about visual development artists, CG animators and comic artists. (Pencil Kings, Chris Oatley’s Artcast, Steven Silver’s Artcast) I realised that these people were continually working to improve. They were also actively promoting their work.

I clicked through to some websites and was suddenly inspired to start drawing again. I dug out some old sketchbooks and resolved to draw every day.

I noticed that I had a desire to draw but other things would eat up my time. Let’s face it, video games ate up my time. I started to read about the discipline of making art. As artists, we often retreat to the safety of the routines we know and love instead of doing the work. Our brain tells us: you’re not good enough, so why waste your strength?

Some books that were especially helpful here were Conquering the artist’s struggle (Silver), Ignore everybody (Macleod), Manage your day-to-day (99U), Do the work (Pressfield).

Another element in all this was the study of habits and routine. I came to realise that we really are creatures of habit- often we just go about following a script. We have a certain amount of energy to spend every day on decisions, for everything else we follow a routine. A great book about learning to break that routine is Superhuman by Habit (Tynan).

Get focussed: Goals

I began to log the days I drew in the sketchbook and worked on my oil paintings. But as I continued to listen to podcasts and the Youtube channels, another piece of advice came through: have a project.

In his book Lynchpin, Seth Godin says: ‘Projects are the new resume’. If I want my work to be known, if I want to get work in illustration, painting, comics- I need to make something more than a portfolio. I need something people can invest in.

This led to the idea of setting personal goals. What did I really want? I had vague ideas of ‘getting paid to do what I love’ and ‘being recognised as an artist’, but there had to be more focus.

The fact is, I already have a great job. After Disney I switched careers and became a church pastor. There are many enjoyable and meaningful things about this work: I get to contribute to the community. I invest in people by teaching about Jesus and being available for people at pivotal times in their lives: weddings, baptisms, funerals. I have flexible hours so I can be with my family and regular pay to support myself. So there wasn’t the urgency there might have been if I was in a dead-end job with no time for my family.

The biggest motivating factor was looking back on the previous 7 years are realising- I frittered away my spare time with DVDs, books and video games. There’s nothing wrong with these things in themselves, but it was the wasted opportunity that hit home for me. My painting and drawing hadn’t really improved since 2006- the year I stopped working at Disney.

I thought about my goals and what I wanted to do next. I thought about the things I loved as a kid- Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Asterix comics. I thought it would be a huge waste to go through my life never attempting to make a comic story. I wanted something to show people when they asked about my art- not just my sketchbooks or life drawings. I wanted something my kids could read and enjoy.

Only, I was nervous about my ability to do it. Would I have the willpower? Had I learnt enough about routine and goals and artistic growth to follow through? I decided to do a test run. Start with something small.

I was listening to a podcast and a familiar name came up. An old acquaintance: Karen Beilharz had written short comic scripts, sought artists for each story, and collected and published them into an anthology, dealing with the topic of depression.

I got in contact with Karen and asked her if she had any scripts lying around I could work on. Turns out she did! After making a couple of these, I was ready to start my own project. Karen even agreed to read my script and make comments, so I set up a monthly schedule to get feedback on the pages.

Find the time: Schedule

Now I had the idea that I wanted to make a comic and the will to do it. But where would the time come from? I realised I would have to cut out some other things to make room. I had already started waking up early to work on painting and drawing. Now I had to focus this discipline into making the pages.

It was painful to realise that I couldn’t do everything. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about how our society tells us that we can have it all- we can be anything we want to. The problem is that when we grab on to every opportunity, we fail to develop and improve. We need to be selective in what we choose to do, or we stretch ourselves too thin.

What were some of the things I liked to do? I like to paint (in Photoshop and oils), animate (in Flash and Maya) and draw. My goals at the time involved all these areas. Picking one to focus on would be hard. I would have to postpone the others.

I picked comics because it was a project I could make from start to finish, and post online as I go. The online webcomics that I’d seen had blogs alongside them, and I thought this would be a good way to connect with people.

My script ran to about 150 pages. I tracked my progress for a few months and realised I was finishing a page per week. At that rate, I would be done in 3 years!

I wrote the schedule in a notebook and began ticking off the tasks. I spent roughly an hour each day on the comic. I had 30 mins in the morning, and 30 mins in the afternoon/evening. Sometimes I has more, sometimes less.

There was a little anxiety at first- trying to stick to the schedule, but after a while I began to make a bit of a buffer, which felt more relaxed. Fortunately, I am not a perfectionist. My philosophy is: ‘next time it’ll be better’. When I’m not 100% happy with a background, or I think my character design could have been better, I don’t go back and tinker with things. Usually.

I already have plans for the next comic story after Sneaky Goblins, so that means I can think about how I would apply the things I’ve learned to the next comic.

Stay motivated: Keep it up!

After a couple years of this, drawing the comic now just seems part of my life! Before I pick up a book or playing a game or watching a TV episode, I do a bit more of the comic.

The advantage of making a comic is that the progress is obvious. At the end of the month I have 4 or 5 new pages that weren’t there a month ago. If you have a project like a super-detailed oil painting or an intricate sculpture, it might be harder to see the progress. When I’m working on a painting and it’s going slowly, I take progress pictures. If I’m working in Photoshop, it’s even easier: I save a series of numbered JPGS. That way I can cycle through the images and watch a mini-time-lapse of the painting coming together.

Do whatever works for you, but find a way to keep yourself motivated. I sometimes think about having the finished 150-page book in my hands and giving it to my boys. In 40 years they might pull it out of the shelf and show their kids: ‘Look what Grandpa made.’

So here’s my advice in a nutshell: 1. Having your own project is good for you! 2. Examine your habits: cut down distractions. 3. Have a goal: find a project and a format. 4. Make a schedule. 5. Find ways to make it sustainable and stay motivated.

Are you working on a creative personal project? Have you struggled to stay on track, or have you breezed through? What has helped/hindered you? Leave a comment below!