When your strengths make you weak

Jean Jullien

It’s 2 a.m.

I was tossing on the bed, yawning till my eyes watered and yet, there I was. No closer to sleep. I opened my palms, laid straight and imagined myself relaxing one muscle at a time. The corpse position. That usually worked, and I’d wake up in the morning. It was not to be – ten minutes later, my eyes were still brighter than an owl’s.

Darn it.

Before lights out, I was doing a search on my phone for harnesses. Specifically, dog harnesses that would help Bessie (my 12-year old dog) retrain and regain the use of her back legs. Nerve damage, the vet said. Arthritis was another. She couldn’t control her left leg last Wednesday, and her right leg is stiff, so getting up was a challenge. She’s not in danger of any sort (except for wounding her backside from all the dragging around she’s doing), so that’s my consolation.

My mind spins all the time. It goes into overdrive when I need to do something. Anything. Especially when it has to do with family. And Bessie is family. Sure, she’s not dying, or in pain. But the crux of being (too) creative for my own good and taking no for an answer is at the back of my mind, there’s always a voice that says “what else can I do?”.

So my Google search history is rife with keywords like “dog”, “harness”, “back legs”, “DIY”, “nerve damage”, “how to heal” and “physiotherapy”; in multiple combinations. My mind makes a mental tally of the materials I have on hand that could be fashioned into a sling that would support her back legs while she walked. Tough cotton calico, some bag straps, or how about that unused tote bag that I could tear the sides of, so that it could support her weight and save my back at the same time? I made quite a number of iterations on the design – all of it in my head. Velcro, knots, and sewing. It felt like I watching Project Runway for canine accessories.

I was reminded of the time when Cookie was ill. I had educated myself on canine cancer so well that I could understand the vet when she voiced out medical jargon, I knew exactly what she meant, and I spoke the same lingo effortlessly.

When I woke up the next day, lethargic and dazed after not sleeping well (for the past week), I realised I have a problem.

“I might be suffering from anxiety”, I told Mr. T.

And it’s caused entirely by myself. I like things to be organised, and to me it’s because I like to have some semblance of control over what I do. The loss of it has the ability to freak me out on a subconscious level. And when I say control, I meant over myself (not other people!)

Waiting, to me is painful. Because I can’t just sit there and fidget. I need to do something. Anything, that can help the situation. Don’t even get me started on my optimism, which I’ve heard from some people can be too infectious for my own good. And so I look at things from every conceivable angle – down to the downright silly. I formulate a Plan A, B, and C. I come up with plans and explanations for myself as a coping mechanism when things go wrong. And always, always a backup plan. There’s no such thing as not trying in my vocabulary.

This skill that I’m good at – thinking and creating solutions to problems – has been the bedrock of what I do. I love to analyze, think and contemplate. I love to measure and experiment. It’s made me sharper; as teacher and student. I can parse information and data to arrive at a hypothesis. I can see (and prove) if they’re true, through many different ways.

But when it comes to matters of the heart, this skill of mine, has turned me into a ball of mess inside. I feel like throwing up randomly. When I stop what I’m doing. While lying in bed. It manifested in me getting massive motion sickness at a movie. Bessie isn’t data nor information. She’s furry, black and brown. She doesn’t like hugs. She’s my first dog. She’s seen me as a university student, struggling to finish my final project – and stayed up with me. She’s the first to greet our family in the morning and when we come home from work. And I’ve short-circuited myself by thinking too much. The equation that I’m seeking can never be found; it can never add up to an equal or finite amount, because it’s not tangible.

So my new plan is to just do everything I can, and hope for the best. It’s also time to exercise more as well, as it usually helps disperse my worry-wart tendencies and calms me down. It’s easier for me to focus on other things instead of myself (I bet it’s the same for a lot of you out there), so I need to remind myself every now and then that it’s okay to slow down and take a breath. Optimism is totally fine, except when it’s bordering on denial.

I’ve learned that my ability to rein myself in emotionally is merely an illusion, especially when it comes to furry folk, family and friends. And maybe that’s okay. For everything else though, it’s game on.

SHARE WITH ME:

What about you? Do you have a strength that can also be your weakness? What’s your paradox? Share with me your stories (so I won’t feel so alone!)

[Illustration: Dog by Jean Jullien]

Review: Unlearning to Draw & The Kitchen Art Studio

 

When I reviewed three of Peter Jenny’s books in the Learning to See collection 3 years ago, the books offered great tips for beginners and also serves as great refresher material for more experienced artists.

Three years on, Jenny – professor emeritus and chair of visual design at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland – has come up with another two books to add to the collection: Unlearning to Draw and The Kitchen Art Studio, published by Princeton Architectural Press. 

 

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In Unlearning to Draw, the author encourages the use of family photos as the basis for creating new works, as looking at other people’s pictures may be uncomfortable. Through his exercises, he pushes artists to set aside the personal meaning behind these personal photos and find your own meaning behind them instead.

What caught my eye was this quote in the section on “Defamiliarizing the familiar”:

When we blink, what changes is not the distant, but the nearby. Television would have us stop blinking altogether, encouraging us to rely on someone else’s view of the world; but when you take a closer look at your own photos, you will continue to form your own pictures.

Using your own family photographs enables you to experience an added dimension to art-making, as can be seen in the various exercises within the book (22 in all). The idea behind using personal mementos is at once intriguing and haunting – especially when it involves the various emotional memories past. The thought of digging out photographs of my grandparents still make my heart ache, so I’d say this would be a challenge for me (a good one, nonetheless!)

KitchenArtStudio_cover

 

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In The Kitchen Art StudioJenny turns to the kitchen for new materials; playing with ingredients and opening one’s eyes to the many textures, smells, colours and form that food offers. Much like cooking, art is a process of transformation through experimentation.

The book welcomes the participation of entire senses: eyes, nose, ears, hands and mouths to create new works of art through unexpected, and yet familiar materials. The images within the book is beautiful – an invitation to look closer at our larder (and fridge!) for a universe that exists outside our own.

These two books are excellent addition to the previous three books in the Learning to See series: The Artist’s Eye, Drawing Techniques and Figure Drawing, and are available for purchase via Amazon.

Happy weekend folks!

[Flipthrough of the books by yours truly; the rest of the images are courtesy of Peter Jenny]

Q+A: How do I compete with Fiverr and 99Designs?

Dear Amy,

I’m trying to market my illustration services to businesses within my area (I live in US) and I’ve gotten really good feedback. Trouble is, they’re not hiring me. They mentioned that they’d rather use someone from Fiverr or 99Designs because it’s cheaper and with the latter, they get the options of being showed many more designs from different designers and illustrators instead of just a few one person (aka me). I’m angry. Angry at this whole industry that demeans us as designers, artists and illustrators. How can I compete with someone who’s willing to do things for $5? I can’t and I won’t.

~ Kendra

Dear Kendra,

(For those who don’t know what Fiverr is, it’s a website that connects people with others who are willing to help them out, for $5. 99Designs is a website that offers crowdfunded ideas for logos, etc; gathering a pool of designers to pitch their work for a project)

This is a tough question, and it’s a complicated one at that. I do want to point out that my ideas and points differ quite wildly from the masses – but with good reason. So instead of dwelling on the negative, I’d like to offer three viewpoints for opportunity, from where I stand.

PRACTICE GROUNDS

I’m aware of the Fiverr culture that has been permeating the internet, and it can be extremely hair-pulling. But the ones who do offer their services on Fiverr, they’re usually creatives who offer their services for cheap to gain some recognition and traction for their work: first timers, new graduates or self-taught artists who wants to show off what they can do. Think of it as a $5 coupon for the first trial – if people liked working with them the first time, they’d most likely work with them again the second time, and it shouldn’t cost them $5 anymore (unless it is, then I’m not sure what their business model is for the long term).

The fact is, it’s a free market out there. Willing buyer, willing seller. Suppose you use the platform as a way to reach and connect with others instead? What can you gain from it? Or perhaps you pit your skills among others in 99Designs. If your work is good, you’ll shine among the rest. I’ve seen works on there – it can swing wildly between mediocre to well done. Like cream, the good ones always rise to the top.

Both of these websites to me, are great practice grounds for those who are looking to spread their name out there. Of course, there is a question that will inevitably arise – what are the quality of clients on there that you’d want to keep (especially since they’re used to paying such a low price?) The answer is this. The good clients – the paying clients – already work with great people. They know the value of a great artist or designer, and they’re willing to pay for the work done.

I recently was brought into a project involving a food-based startup. They wanted to redesign their logo after they had used the 99Designs platform. I frowned. I wasn’t frowning because they had used the platform. But rather, I was underwhelmed at the quality of the submissions that resulted. There were about 50 different logos for them to choose from, and yet none of them fit the company at all. There wasn’t a proper understanding or context from which these designers could build from, and it was glaringly clear that the startup needed help from someone who knew what to do.

Of course, if the clients are happy with their selection – it doesn’t matter. Their choosing to work with platforms such as Fiverr and 99Designs might be a bit of a gamble too. Or perhaps to them it’s not the most pertinent detail that needs ironing out. Or maybe they don’t know where else to turn to. I like to think that I give people the benefit of the doubt enough to not point to them as the sole problem. Willing seller, willing buyer, remember?

DO IT FOR YOURSELF

I know there are a lot of people out there who get really angry about this. The fact that artists are not being paid enough (or at all). And while I do agree with some of the arguments out there, I like to see things from both sides of the coin.

Five years ago when I was just starting out as an illustrator, I didn’t mind doing things for free. I didn’t mind because I had nothing to lose. Future income wasn’t something I held in my hand right now – I had nothing. My biggest worry was what if no one ever saw my work. Or that I didn’t get a chance to prove myself. So I put my hand up when someone asked if I would be willing to do work for a charity organization. Why wouldn’t I? I had time. I didn’t have money. If I stayed where I was – waiting for the right opportunity to come along – the equation would remain the same. What did I have to lose?

Five years on, I still get referrals from that stint. Good, paying ones too.

Maybe I got lucky. Or maybe it was also because I didn’t know whether I was good or not. And so by extending my hand, it was an invitation to get the feedback I needed from my market. If I wasn’t any good at what I did, then I wouldn’t have repeat customers; and it would be a chance for me to learn from my experience and improve. If I was deemed worthy, then I’d start charging for my efforts because I’d know I’m valuable. Remember that your value is almost always in the eye of the beholder.

I’d seriously doubt anyone who said that they have never been in the same position as I did – young, eager, and hungry. The only difference is, is that when I take on a job, no matter how big or small, I do it for myself first. Sure, clients will still get what they want at the end, but so will I. A lot of the whining I hear these days stem from those who feel as though they’re being ripped off, and that they are powerless to dictate the rules. And that’s not true at all.

Don’t play the victim.

START FROM YOUR STRENGTHS

Everyone can draw. The ability to draw doesn’t make you an illustrator. It’s the same with photographers and designers too – everyone with a camera can take pictures, just as much as anyone with Photoshop can design. The beauty lies in the value we are able to provide, which can’t wholly be summarised in our work. It lies in personality, process and story. It lies in the many variables that make up what we do.

Now, we can’t have people dictating that those without qualifications can’t practice or try their hand at a craft. Or even charge for it. That’s bigotry. That’s fear. Fear of being overshadowed by others who are more skilled than you (and perhaps, even cheaper than you). Fear of losing out to the many artists out there who you feel are competing for a slice of a shrinking pie.

Instead of working in fear, how about creating work from a place of strength? Say no to things that won’t allow you to shine. Recommend others who you know are more well suited to a job. Concentrate and seek out clients and briefs that gets you all giddy with excitement. Take on work that you’d be proud to show off in your portfolio. Don’t just do it for the money. If money is what you’re after, get a day job instead.

Accepting that the rules and landscape has changed for illustrators and designers everywhere is the first step to embracing it.

You say that you won’t get into it because it demeans your profession. Fair enough. But think of it this way: If your work doesn’t get seen because you’re holding out for more money, then you lose. Every time you don’t get to practice what you like doing, it’s already costing you opportunities. You’re losing. It’s a paradox.

The question then becomes: how much are you willing to lose before you’re open to the idea of trying something new? Something that might not pay off in the beginning, but pays dividends as you go along – you’ll learn to be quicker, more nimble. You’ll learn how weed out good clients from bad, and to know which projects are worth taking on and those that aren’t worth your time.

You can’t learn all those things twiddling your fingers and sitting on the side bench. You’ll need to get in there and roll up your sleeves.

It’s dirty. It’s tough. But it’s necessary.

Just remember to not be a victim.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS:
This is a really interesting topic and I’d love to hear what you think. Do you have any experience with any of the platforms mentioned above? What other opportunities do you see? Or perhaps you have some advice for Kendra? Share them with me in the comments below!

Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

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