Unlocking your creative potential

By Dacey Orr Sivewright

Posted on 10-27-2020

Creative work may trade on individuality, but if there’s one thing many creative professionals have in common, it’s the need to overcome self-doubt. Some artists struggle figuring out how to get started on their chosen career path, while others procrastinate, for fear their work will never be up to par. And with the pressures of deadlines and high expectations, even more experiences pros can lose sight of the inspiration that led them to art in the first place.

Still, whether you’re busting out of a rut or just looking to stretch new artistic muscles, plenty of go-to methods exist to help you break out of the routine and tap into your potential. When the demands of creative work start to close in, consider these tactical exercises your creative escape hatch.

Use strategy to turn a side project into your big break

“Some creative people chafe a little at the word strategy,” says illustrator, podcaster, and public speaker Andy J. Pizza. It makes sense: Strategy is all about starting backwards from a goal and figuring out how to get there, while creativity thrives when you follow an idea where it leads you. But in his Skillshare class, Six Exercises to Create a Successful Side Project, Pizza shares his blueprint for reverse-engineering success in the creative field of your choosing—and it all starts with the humble side project.

First, choose a goal, and pick something concrete and measurable that allows you to really know when the task is complete. “Look for the benchmarks of success,” Pizza says. Think specifically about your industry, market, and niche. “What’s the perfect client? What’s the perfect customer?” Draft the creative brief you wish you’d get from that client: Name the problem you’d solve and the scope of the project you’d like to get, including a specific list of deliverables. Then get to work. Building your portfolio in the specific field you’d like to pursue gives project managers and editors an idea of what you can do—and on the flip side, it’s a great way to figure out if a new specialty is even right for you.

Stop self-sabotaging

Overcoming your own negative impulses, from procrastination to perfectionism, starts with identifying patterns: zeroing in on the moments when you feel most inspired, so you can replicate those circumstances when you’re feeling down. But it’s also important to identify the triggers that can send you spiraling in self-doubt. “One of the very first ways we self-sabotage is comparing ourselves to others,” says Emma Gannon, the speaker, podcaster, and bestselling author behind Unlocking Your Potential, a 45-minute class that offers clear, concise steps to build confidence in yourself creatively. This comparison trap, often triggered by social media, lies at the root of many self-defeating behaviors, but there are concrete steps you can take to minimize their effects.

If procrastination is your hurdle, try breaking the task up and tackling the most overwhelming segment first, or seeking out accountability by telling friends and family about what you’re working on. If you’re struggling with perfectionism, Gannon suggests sharing an unfinished work with a colleague (or three!). Struggling with negative self-talk? Try thinking about what you would say to younger you, if he or she struggled with the same assignment; likely, you’d be much kinder. Gannon advises that you face the anxieties holding you back by writing them down, list-style: Often, seeing your worst fears on paper can remind you how small they really are.

Keep a journal

Logging your thoughts, experiences, and feelings on a regular basis can offer valuable insight to your fears and weaknesses—and you don’t have to limit yourself to words on a page. “Illustrated journaling, or illogging,’ as I like to call it, is fantastic,” says visual storyteller Mimi Chao. “Not only do you get all the benefits of regular journaling, from remembering events to chronicling your life to reflecting on issues, but you can really also use it as an opportunity to simultaneously work on skills that you want to improve.” Landscape sketches, portrait drawing, lettering, or graphic design can all have their place in the practice. In Chao’s ten-part class Draw Your Life: Intro to Illustrated Journaling, she shares a thinking process to help you sketch out a weekly journal entry, a habit sure to engage creatives of all stripes.

Pluck moments, images, and phrases from your week—check your calendar, or the camera roll on your phone, to jog your memory—and use your favorite design or drawing methods to place them on the page. (Chao shares several templates to get you started, but she strongly encourages developing your own presentation style.) Stop at rough sketches for a bare-bones record of where you’ve been or continue to flush out your designs for a more polished final draft. The point is to get your thoughts and experiences out—from there, it’s up to you how advanced each entry can be. “As you make more and more of these, it really turns into a fun visualization of your life,” says Chao. “Almost like your own graphic novel.”

Make time for inspiration

Even if journaling isn’t quite your cup of tea, it’s important to hold space in your schedule for expression. “Take out time to create for yourself, so you can figure out who you are as an artist,” says illustrator Laci Jordan. “It’s so impactful.” For Jordan, creativity begins with research and inspiration—a step she outlines in her class, Digital Illustration for All: Discover, Cultivate and Share Your Unique Personal Style. Start by visiting your local library or bookstore: Art history books and design anthologies can be a relaxing way to absorb how other artists use shape, color, and texture. Pay attention to what you naturally gravitate towards. Do the designs have anything in common? Are there any techniques you can apply to your own work?

“Looking for inspiration is super important, because it gives you an idea of what can be done, in illustration and beyond,” says Jordan. She uses Pinterest for this purpose, too, with public boards that cover broad subjects like “Texture” and “Place” alongside private compilations that cater to specific projects. The platform’s algorithm can work in your favor—one striking image can lead you to a trove of similar posts—but be wary of getting too comfortable in front of the screen. “You have to get out in the world,” insists Jordan. “It’s so good to read books, and it’s so good to be on the Internet, but you have to go live your life so you can be inspired by the things that come naturally.” Stay open and receptive to new ideas, and your unique style will find you.

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