On starting over

You know how when you start drawing on a sheet of paper and you’re happy that everything is going well? You’re in the flow of things – swish, stroke, draw, paint. This is the best thing ever! 

But then, oh crap. A slip up. No biggie. Let’s deal with that.

Ctrl-Z.

Swish, stroke, draw, paint. Hmmmm.

You erase, move on. Re-do. Undo. Paint over. Undo again.

Undo. Undo. Undo. Argh.

There’s a nagging thought at the back of your mind. This isn’t turning out so well. But it’s half done! It’s almost there! I can almost see it, I just can’t feel it… yet.

So you continue to throw more at it. Layers and layers of lines, paint, and paper. Until you don’t know how you got here. Everything looks like a hot mess. Crap.

Since it took you this long to flesh out the whole thing you decide to keep at it. More. Undo. More. Undo.

GAHHH.

At this point you start to sweat. You’ve done something alright, but you’re not happy. It doesn’t feel right. Or for that split second when you rationalise with yourself that hey, that’s pretty decent. Not great, but just okay. Nothing wrong with it being just okay, right? Right? Plus, look at all this time you’ve put into it! 3 hours! 10! What about the time you lost sleep over it? Surely it means you’re onto something worthwhile? No? What? No?

Listen, you’re not getting that time back. What you can do is to not sink more time and energy into something that you know deep down won’t work.

We can’t turn back time, but we can learn from it. Take your finger off the CTRL-Z button. No more undos.

Take a deep breath.

You know what you have to do.

You’ve got to start over.

It’s hard. Look, I totally get it.

But shittier things have happened. Natural disasters wiping away cities down to nothing. Earthquakes that swallow up whole postcodes. Families get torn apart. People divorce. But people rebuild. That’s what they do. They start from scratch again. Things will and can collapse, but we have a choice to rebuild. It’s not a question of do or don’t. It’s a question of when. When you fall down, you dust yourself off, and get back up.

Sure, you’ll mourn what could have been. You’ll stumble along the way. That piece of paper could have turned out great. Your time, effort and energy didn’t have to be wasted.

The same could be said of every disaster, hardship or challenge faced by people everyday. That accident could have been avoided. They looked so happy. No one predicted that the storm would be that devastating.

Today, it’s between you and that sheet of paper.

Starting again is scary. But so is holding on to something that you know can be so much better.

It’s natural to worry about the what if’s when you put aside that mangled piece of paper. It’s the fear that your work will never be the same again. Or that you couldn’t possibly recreate it again. It may not be a bad thing though. Let’s face it – your new work could go bad. Really bad. Or, it may very well be amazing. You could even outdo yourself. You could discover a completely new side to your work. Serendipity could pay dividends – but only if you’re willing to take the chance to walk through that door.

The point is, you’ll never know what will happen until you start fresh, without all the baggage that came with the old.

When we put so much expectation onto that one sheet of paper, it’s hard to move beyond the sunk costs. Darn it, I invested time and effort into this piece – it should pay off! I should be able to finish what I started on this sheet itself! It should look great!

But life doesn’t always work that way does it?

I’ve recently learned the hard way how true this is. The act of holding on to something that you’ve poured your heart, sweat and tears into, one that no longer fits – is painful. Learning to let go, to set it free and to try again takes a lot more courage than we dare to admit. But that’s what we have to do, even if it feels like conquering Mount Everest. Even if it’s letting go of a piece of paper.

So do yourself a favour – take one small step today.

Time to take out a fresh sheet of paper.

White. Empty. Fresh. New. The possibilities are endless.

Ready? Go on, make your mark.

Again.

And again. And again.

Pretty soon, you’ll realise that starting over gets a little easier everyday.

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As I write about starting over, I’m hitting the reset button myself. I’m launching a new online class in September (based on the feedback you lovely readers have generously shared with me!) More details will be afoot in a couple of weeks, so watch this space!

Illustration by Ryo Takemasa

Drawing parallels in art and fashion

Anna Parini

When I was younger, I didn’t know how to pick out clothes for myself. I didn’t know where to begin. I had to march to the fitting room, try everything (maybe even twice) before I could make a decision. Even then, I had to ask someone else what they thought of it. I’d rely heavily on their opinion for that final push – yay or nay? It was nail-bitingly hard because picking out an outfit was more than just choosing which pants that would go with a shirt or a blouse. It was (at least what I thought it was at the time) also a statement of who I was and what I represented to the world.

I didn’t know who I was.

And so I didn’t know what to wear.

Throughout my teenage years, I wore a lot of hand-me-downs. These were clothes that my cousins no longer wore, but were in good condition and hence were passed down to us. I didn’t think too much about style back then – I wore what fit me, and I didn’t feel the need to go out and spend money on clothes because hey, I had them. My clothes were picked because they were already there – not because I picked them myself. And because of this, I was terrified of making the wrong decision when it came to buying my own. Unlike hand-me-downs or second hand clothes, I would have to fork money over for clothes, and that’s not even including the mental anguish that came from the sheer availability of choice.

You might remember that as a teenager, I had a bad case of cystic acne and wore braces. I felt like a badly melted version of Terminator. One person even called me Robocop, and others would ask (hurtfully) what was wrong with my skin. It took me many, many years before I started to gain confidence in my outlook, and to feel comfortable at looking at myself in the mirror. And even then, the awkwardness when it came to dressing myself was something I needed to overcome.

Drawing parallels

When it came to drawing, the problems I encountered were very familiar. I found it hard to nail down just one style or technique, and so I experimented a lot in between. Big thick lines versus small thin ones. I’d change mediums many times and tried so hard to like watercolour but gave up because it was hard to control (I know that’s the beauty of watercolours, but still). I went through periods where I experimented with collage, vector and brush and ink; and found out which worked for me.

How did I the problem with my wardrobe? It took some time, but I managed to navigate the choppy waters of being presentable by asking for tips from friends who’s dressing style I liked. I looked up references on how to dress better. I took the time to really look at myself in the mirror when I tried on clothes, identified how it made me feel and why; expanding my palette to include colours and prints and slowly taking more risks when it came to picking out pieces. Before, the insides of my wardrobe were swathed in dark colours (I still have this habit), because it was easy. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself, and I was comfortable being in the background. What I came to realise after I studying more about fashion and style was this: there is a formula to all this madness; just like how I learned which drawing style I liked best.

I found key things that worked for my body type: small prints, interesting necklines, details and hems. No garters at the waist, or fabrics that cling to the skin. No too-short skirts (I have varicose veins, ugh), or wide ones that would gather too much attention to my hips either. By creating a guideline of sorts, it made finding an outfit surprisingly simpler – I knew what would look good on me without having to try it on. Shopping became a fun exercise in seeing if I was accurate in picking out pieces that would play to my strengths while avoiding pieces that would exaggerate areas I wanted to play down. I’m happy when I’m comfortable, and to me, that’s a big part of being confident. Another example would be how some contestants on American Idol who has a great voice but chose the wrong song. We all have our limits (for now). We’re good at specific things. We accentuate the good and hide the bad. Why shouldn’t it apply to other things in our life?

The formula

As for drawing, I knew that I was good at brush and ink, and that I loved teaching more than I did dealing with clients. I love drawing on smooth paper and hate the sound that calligraphy pen nibs make when scratched on paper. Just like how we would flip at old photograph albums and cringe at what we wore before, the same thing happens when it comes to flipping through your old sketchbooks. Thank goodness we are able to grow and learn from our experiences!

In coming up with the syllabus for my upcoming class on personal style (I can’t fit everything into a book, unfortunately), the one thing I keep coming back to is that learning about your personal style is a process, one that is uniquely personal. Can we hurry or hasten the process? Yes we can, to some extent. Should we, though? It depends. I fully understand how some might take longer than others to figure out what style works best for them, whether it’s fashion, drawing, cooking, or even communicating. Some might have hit a snag, or others have allowed it to set them back professionally.

If time is no object, what usually works is this: having keen observation in learning and figuring out what works best for you. It’s very easy to forget that what comes naturally to you may not be the case with others (just like how it took me many years to dress myself well). So my advice is to talk to the people in your life: friends, family, mentors or colleagues who can help you gauge your personal formula, so that you can play to your strengths. Getting some help can often make you see clearer, make mistakes faster, and thus get quicker feedback. Pretty soon you’ll be able to decode the rest of life’s mysteries. Or some of it at the very least!

Share with me – what personal formula have you worked out that has served you well so far?

Also: If you need some help figuring out your personal artistic style (not the fashion kind!), here’s a free email course I created.

[Illustration by Anna Parini]

Things money can’t buy

Note: This was a post that I wrote for a local student magazine a few months back which I think would be useful to share here too. Enjoy!

Thomas Bayrle

Whenever I step into a classroom, the first question that I get asked is this: which profession in the design world makes more money: animators, graphic designers, or illustrators? Or how about multimedia artists or videographers? My reply was that there’s plenty of ways to make money – lots and lots of money perhaps. Not all of them are in the design industry. But all of it comes with a price. Heck, sometimes jobs that make the most money aren’t even legal, and you can bet that they’re dangerous. So again. There are plenty of ways to make money – not all of them are good. So herewith the question beckons: why all this talk about money first?

I can understand – I was once a student myself.

I was once so poor that I had to split a plate of economy rice with my friend. For those who don’t know what economy rice is, it’s a shop where they have 20-30 different kinds of side dishes that go with rice, ranging from meat dishes to vegetables, to other condiments. It’s popular with students because it’s fast and cheap – just grab a plate of rice and scoop up whatever you want and go to the counter to pay for what you’ve scooped. Back to the story: we had RM2.00 between us left for food. We went up to the lady in the restaurant and showed her the coins we had left and asked her what we could have from her array of dishes. I wasn’t sure if it was pity, or understanding – but she scooped what ever was left over from a few dishes and gave us each an egg to top it all off. We were thankful for the meal and conveyed our thanks to the lovely shopkeeper – whom we fondly patronised for as long as we studied there.

We weren’t flush with cash. We didn’t have shopping malls. And we didn’t even have McDonalds around each corner (this was in the year 2000). Money was tight – purchasing art supplies, books and endless trips to the printing house made sure of that. Whatever was left we scrimped on food. Bread was a staple at the time too – when we’re running out of time and cash, nothing fills you up faster than a roll of chocolate bun with a sticky black pseudo-chocolate filling with a side of lukewarm water.

It’s all very different now, of course. You have malls, left, right and centre. Fast food kiosks as far as the eye can see. Gourmet restaurants abound; and you’re spoilt for choice. Temptation in its many forms that clue you in on what money represents. And that’s just food. Let’s not even wander into the fashion industry, or the giant virtual malls that reside within the internet – one that offers a gateway to everything and anything your heart desires; open and available 24/7 with a mere click of a button and a working credit card.

I don’t blame you at all for thinking that cash is king. Money buys you lots of things. It buys you good food. Rad clothing. Fun toys. The best equipment and art supplies. And all these things make you happy. It’s a rather straight forward equation. Or is it?

The thing about money though, is that it doesn’t buy you freedom. When you’re doing things purely for money, you’re a slave to it. And it becomes your master. You’ll find yourself slaving away for him, in exchange for something that won’t be able to buy the things that truly matter. Things like love, friendship and time.

We’re living in a time where we constantly consume. We don’t create as much as we should, and this is a shame; because if we’re not creating, we are most likely consuming instead. Our eyes are fixated on screens while our wallets are empty. Our hearts grow heavy with greed; an endless, bottomless pit that desires more, more, more. The indescribable emptiness that spreads across our chest even as we move from one novelty to the next. One day we’ll find ourselves wondering what happened along the way that made us lose more of ourselves, little by little, piece by piece.

We’re all essentially broken – in fragments and bits, scattered around us in the people we love, the places we live in and the experiences we’ve yet to discover. Gathering those pieces and putting them together is what makes us human, and it’s what makes us special. We’re made up of everything, and yet we’re nothing. Money is merely an enabler and not the destination.

Do the things you’re good at, and the things that you love. Pick up the fragments and pieces of yourself through the work you do, so that you may put yourself back together. Figuring out how to do it is the best part about growing wiser. In the beginning you will be poor. You might have to share a plate of economy rice with a friend to get by (I hope not). But you’ll do better. The trick is to get better at the things you love, and to be nourished by the things you learn and the experiences you pick up along the way. Always endeavour to leave a mark. So much so that other people start to notice and respect you for what you do, and why you do it.

And you’ll realise along the way that the “why” isn’t always about the money.

It rarely ever is.

[Illustration: Thomas Bayrle]
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