Sunday Mailbag

April 12th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Considering your recent surgery: If your ‘normal’ level of output of artwork (for want of a better expression) is affected for some reason such as illness, injury etc, do you find it hard to regain the motivation you had before? I try to draw every day but find that if I go for a period where I have no significant commissions or projects, or when I recently suffered from flu, and I found it really quite difficult to motivate myself again. When I did grasp the pencils again I didn’t think the quality of my work was as good. Do you have any tips to prevent this? Or to cope with this?

A: As far as my shoulder surgery goes, it was surprisingly inconvenient to work with only one hand. It slowed me down but I muddled through. Now the left arm, although still in a sling for 3 more weeks, is functional enough that it can rest pain free on the drawing board and support the parer, so it’s easier now. No, I don’t really find it hard to get back to work after any time off… usually I am anxious to get back to the drawing board.

Your question eludes to a larger question concerning working in a creative field such as art, writing, music, etc.: how much should “creative motivation” (i.e. your “muse”) govern your output and work?

From a freelance illustration perspective, the answer should be “not at all”, but realistically it does have an effect on one’s work, both in productivity and sometimes quality.

A fine artist can afford to work when the mood hits them (usually), as they create their art on their own terms and according to their own pace… at least ideally. Illustrators create art on other people’s terms (read: art directors/clients). We cannot easily afford to put off working on something just because we aren’t “in the mood”. Everybody goes through periods where they just don’t feel much like working, and in a creative field that can have a real effect on the work itself. I know when I am in the right frame of mind, the drawings can fly almost effortlessly from the pencil, and at other times it’s a struggle just to draw a single face or hand. Nothing seems to go right, and it can be very frustrating.

I think there is a difference between a true creative “block” and just being lethargic. The former truly does not happen to me all that often. The latter does all the time. I’ve found I can work through not being “in the mood” by setting little goals… just getting through the background or the main figure of a sketch before stepping away for a little while. Sometimes I just have to suck it up and keep on drawing. I usually find that after a while I discover the groove and “get my head” into the project… after that it get’s easier.

A true creative block is different. Say I am drawing along and hit a part of the job I just can’t get right. I draw erase draw erase draw erase and it just isn’t happening. That is the time to step away and do something completely different for a while. Coming back after even just an hour of different work like doing bills or sweeping the garage will often give you a fresh eye.

Of course deadlines are the Great Motivator. There is nothing like a deadline to wipe away perceived blocks and get the creative juices flowing… which is why I leave everything until the last minute!

Thanks to Rob Howell for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. VEe says:

    Great post.
    I just try to work through it when I’m tired. When I have a creative block and nothing goes right, I step away and just doodle anything. I try to stop worrying if the drawing looks good because I’m just trying to have fun. Or I try some drawing exercises to keep the brain working.

  2. Philbert says:

    I was cured of my “creative block” when I started working for newspapers. There were times when I had just literally minutes to conceive and execute an illustration. You learn rapidly to try to turn “mistakes” into “personal style” and you have no choice but to do the work and let it go. I found it helped me in the long run. I don’t belabor a drawing anymore and just live with the results…of course, my stuff sucks, but fortunately there are a few gullible art directors out there.
    (Actually, I have such a loose and sketchy style that I can get away with murder, and I’ve murdered a few in my time.)


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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