Burnout, Guilt, and “Productivity”

This post is half explanation, half me yelling at myself.

After my book came out at the beginning of April, my
productivity levels plummeted to zero.

I kept trying to tell myself that it was okay, that it was
natural, that I’d been working almost continuously since November 2017 and I
needed a bit of a break. My husband and friends and editor all told me the same
thing.

And you know what? They were right. You know what
else? I knew they were right.

But I still felt incredibly guilty.

This is called “burnout,” kids.

And the last several weeks that I’ve been mostly AWOL from
writing have been me trying to work through that guilt for just being tired,
and why it exists.

I’ve identified two major reasons:

1) Recovering gifted child guilt

This particular guilt manifests in different ways for
different people, but for me, it’s the problem of “Well, I didn’t finish this
the first time I tried, so obviously it’s never going to work and I should move
on to something else.” Which is a terrible way of doing anything, but hey, it
worked in grade school, so obviously it should work in my adult life, right???

(No. No, the answer is “no.” And again, “no.”)

2) Capitalist / “gig economy” guilt

Productivity =/= worth as a human being

We’ve all been told the exact opposite by so many for so
long that this has to be repeated over and over and over again until hopefully
we can absorb it.

We’ve been taught to devalue the pursuits we enjoy if we’re
not getting something tangible in return.

But we need intangible things, too.

Doing other things besides earning money is not “a waste of
time.” Hobbies—non-money-producing hobbies—are not only important, they are
vital. They let you rest, and just enjoy things. It’s so important for your
mental health and your emotional well-being.

Writers and artists need rest. We need sleep, and non-creating
time. We need to kill the myth of the starving artist…with food. And we need to
do fun things for fun.

So in addition to identifying the guilt, I’ve also been
working on trying to let all of that guilt go, and instead of beating myself up
for not being superhuman, I’m trying very hard to just be kind to myself.

I try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, without worrying
about how many words I’ve written that day.

I spend more time in the kitchen, and pay more attention to
what I’m eating, instead of grabbing whatever’s quickest that I can shovel into
my mouth while I’m hunched over a keyboard. And I keep water around, to lessen
my temptation for caffeine.

When I do sit down to write, I set myself a limit as well as
a goal. I say, “Okay, I want to reach a thousand words tonight, but I’ve got
other things to do, so I’m only going to write for two hours, and then I’m
going to go do something else.” I find I work better with deadlines, so giving
myself a time limit means I have to get the words out—they don’t have to be
good words, but they have to be on the page before two hours are up. And
telling myself, “This time is set aside only for writing,” helps to free up my
brain from worrying about other things.

I do things that aren’t writing: I go bowling with my
husband. We have a weekly board game night where we try games we’ve never
played before. I knit baby blankets and watch Poirot. I stay busy and enjoy myself and get away from my desk for
a few hours. Sometimes the “You Should Be Writing” gremlin starts poking me,
and I have to remind myself, “No, this isn’t Writing Time, and I’m not going to
write until it is.”

And that’s where I am right now. I’ve had about six weeks of
doing more or less nothing except trying to build myself back up to get back to
work, and…it hasn’t exactly been fun, but I’ve learned a few things:

  • Sleep.
  • Eat food.
  • Remember to hydrate.
  • Set limits as well as goals.
  • Do fun things for fun.
  • Be kind to yourself.

You’re the only one of you, and you’re the only one who can make
the things you want to make.

Take care of yourself.

I’m trying to do the same. 


How do you combat burnout? Tell us on the forum post for this blog entry!


Interview with Holly Heisey

We sat down recently with powerhouse creator Holly Heisey to talk about how they balance their various artistic pursuits, and their thoughts on freelancing, representation, and professionalism. Enjoy!


Dream Foundry: You're a creator who wears many, many different hats. Can you describe some of those hats for us?

Holly Heisey: Hats! So, honestly, as fashion statements and labels for creative pursuits, I’ve never been that good at wearing hats. 

I’m always trying to figure out what I want to be. Just one thing, like you’re supposed to do. But I have this driving need to make art and writing and music and at least ten different sub-interests for all the above. I want to do everything. All at once. All of it! I really want that instant-learning Matrix chair to be real. And possibly cloning. There are so many things to make!

I’m not sure I’ll ever face the reality that I can’t do everything I want to do in one lifetime, but I am trying to learn I don’t have to do it all at once. I try to limit how many projects I have on my plate at any given moment, but I always have my hands in at least a dozen front and back-burner projects and shift between them based on my current interest level, energy level, if my skills are up to what I want to do, and finances… in that order. 

My very first paying job was as a web designer, which led to work as an illustrator, which led to cover illustration and designs like I do today. Somewhere in there, I took a break and decided I would be a full-time fiction writer. I quickly decided I hated being a full-time writer when I also wanted to make art and music. And then I became an almost-full-time book cover designer because it was shiny and I got to illustrate glowing things and starships—and also got reliably paid, which is a nice bonus—but after a while I really wished I could spend more time on my own art projects and writing. I also have overlapping projects I want to work on, like comics and interactive fiction games. 

So my hats and interest in projects are always pulling me in different directions, and the challenge is to find some balance between them all. But I’m starting to think that the tension between my dual careers (and triple, if you add the distant third and mostly stalled career of making music) isn’t that I don’t have enough time to spend on each of them, but that I’m still looking at them as separate things. 

Like, I have a writing career, and I have an art career. Both are doing decently, sometimes one pulls ahead of the other, etc. But the reality is that they aren’t that separate. Things like when I illustrate my own stories or work on music I might use for an art tutorial video definitely shows the overlap. Sometimes I’ll make a project, like my ongoing passion project of making found-document-style alien poetry, and I’ll stand there for a long time thinking, “Okay, which career does this belong to? Art or writing?” I don’t want that tension. I don’t want to be just a writer, or an artist, or a musician, or any one of the above—I just want to be a creator that does all the above and lets it flow and overlap as needed.

So… hats. Yeah, I have a thing about hats!

DF: Do you feel a tension among your different creative pursuits? How do you choose what to work on at any given time?

HH: Definitely, and for a lot of the reasons I said above. Within specific projects, though, my biggest causes of tension are deadlines and money. Without those two things, I’d be pretty happily bouncing from project to project, adding a little more to each as the whim hit. That’s what I did when I was younger, before making my creative projects into careers. And, that’s what I’m searching for a way to get back to. That sort of world-innocent creative storm.

It’s hard balancing creativity—which is so dependent on what my soul wants to do and say—with outside influences, which are dependent on other factors and sometimes (often) take me farther from what I’m really longing to do at any given moment. 

I create because I have to, because if I don’t, it’s like a volcano building up inside me. It has to come out. But if I have, say, five projects on deck, I often end up choosing for any given day the one that can bring the most immediate income, or has the tightest deadline. 

Which is tough. I might desperately want to spend the next three days blazing through the end of writing my novel but have an art deadline I have to meet. Or, I might really want to finish making an epic space battle scene for a client, but I owe edits back for a story I sold. 

More often than not, writing takes a back seat for me to art, because art is what’s bringing 9/10 of my income. It can also be hard with the types of projects I’m working on. I might want to spend a solid month learning how to make better space art, but my next month of client projects are all character covers. I also deal with a chronic illness, which can wreck extra havoc with scheduling and then I get none of the projects on my plate done in the time I need to. All of the above can create a lot of angst, frustration, and strain, and over time, it starts sapping the joy out of making things if I’m not careful. 

I’m not saying freelance life isn’t worth it. It is so, so worth it. Everything I do (minus paperwork and, blah, taxes) is creative. I can set my own hours, shift schedules around, work in my pajamas, choose the projects I want to take on. And any one of these projects, given their own timing, I’d be jumping over. But falling out of balance—either with art and writing, or with doing too much client work and not enough of my own soul-work—can be so tempting and easy, justified by life stuff and expenses. More income in the present is worth little, though, if I burn out and my physical and mental health suffer, taking away my ability to do good work or work at all. Which has happened to me more than once, and it’s not a fun place to be. It’s a place that requires honesty of what I can and can’t do, and what my heart really wants to do, to get back to making meaningful creations again.

I’m working on that balance. Allowing myself more time to do personal work is a huge part of it. Learning to schedule less and know how to market spec projects like tutorials or illustrations that clients can license vs commission has helped.

I think somewhere in freelance work there needs to be a bit of mystical trust—kind of like the trust you put into creative work in the first place. It will, somehow, all work out. You give it your all. You pour your soul into it. And if it’s just not working, you adjust accordingly. 

Self-care is so important. And I’ve learned, especially dealing with a chronic illness that can greatly affect times of burnout and vice versa, that self-care might be the most important freelance skill you can have. You have to nurture your joy in creating your work above all else. 

DF: What are some ways one type of creative endeavor has informed and unexpectedly bolstered another?

HH: I study movies, TV, books, art, music, and comics I love obsessively. Sometimes from a story angle, sometimes from an art/composition angle, sometimes trying to pin an exact emotion so I can understand it. If anything has ended up making my creative pursuits overlap in crazy ways, it’s from this.

My study of cinematic visuals has led to dozens and dozens of movie still studies, which has led to getting a better grasp of cinematic techniques and framing in book covers. It’s also informed how I portray the descriptions of people and places in my writing, and my own internal visual sense of story. I have this weird sort of synesthesia when I’m writing that if I don’t like the “feel” of the colors and atmosphere I’m creating, the cinematic language in my head, I have to shift something. The characters, the mood, something. Once that cinematic language is playing in the right colors, then I can keep going. 

On the flip side, storytelling has greatly informed my art—as an illustrator, I’m always looking to tell a story. To catch a scene or character mid-motion. To convey a sense that there was a moment before this image and a moment after and letting the viewer fill in what those moments are. There’s almost always some sense of movement in my art, and I’m always trying to make that deeper.

And of course, in starting to move into comics and designing my own games and music, it’s basically all the above. Everything informs everything.

DF: You've engaged with issues of representation and professionalism on several fronts in your career. Are there common themes or shared issues across different areas you work in, or does each have its own issues?

HH: A common theme across all areas of creativity right now is the lack of portrayal of underrepresented groups—POC, LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, different religions, neurodiversity, different body types, etc. And I think some creative fronts are better with this than others, and in different ways. 

The literary world seems more on top of representing these groups than, say, Hollywood. Comics, even big-publisher mainstream comics, are also making a lot of strides, and webcomics are often subversively wonderful and way ahead of the game here.

The world of illustration and commercial art, though, is behind the curve. If you go on Artstation.com, which is the largest portfolio site for artists working in the gaming, movies/tv, and illustration industries, you will see a lot of gorgeous art. You’ll also see a lot of art that objectifies women, almost no art that portrays queer people, and even less that portrays disabilities. Body shapes are idealized. And while there is a lot of wonderful art featuring people of color, as artists on Artstation are from around the world, it’s still less proportioned to art featuring white characters.

 I think part of the problem is that a lot of this commercial art is done for and informed by Hollywood and the gaming industry, which in turn informs the visual language and design of our movies and games, and so the cycle repeats. The same is true for book covers. The people putting out the big projects are more likely to keep doing what’s always been done, which is—unintentionally or not—minimizing representation of minority groups. Because it’s worked before. This is even pretty rampant in indie publishing, where authors tailor their branding to what other successful authors are doing.

In the indie book industry especially, there’s a large issue going on with the lack of diverse resources for photo manipulation artists and designers. Many large image resource companies have actively discriminatory policies against portraying LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities, and don’t have many good poses portraying POC and diverse body types, but there’s a grassroots movement to make these diverse resources available. Several current and former cover designers—like Dean Samed with NeoStock, Regina Wamba with The Stock Alchemist, and Rebecca Frank with Bewitching Book Stock—are forming their own stock image companies and releasing diverse images as fast as they can shoot them, which is a wonderful thing to see.

DF: What are examples of multi-media or multi-format projects that have inspired or impressed you?

HH: The moment I decided I wanted to be an illustrator was when I picked up Tales of King Arthur illustrated by Rodney Matthews. All of the sudden, the world opened up, and I realized the pictures didn’t just have to be in my head or on the cover. There could be whole worlds inside the pages, too. I think, from that early introduction to mixing story and art, I’ve always intertwined the two.

Really good cinematic trailers are also a huge inspiration for me—the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok is almost perfect. I’ve been over it so many times. So much artistry goes into good trailers, in the leading of dramatic tension in such a short time, the colors, composition and mood, and the music which pulls it all together. Every moment has to be evoking or leading you to an emotional response.

I love pouring through concept art for movies and games. The beauty of the art, attention to practical details, and storytelling that goes into creating these images is astounding. Some concept artists have made incredibly detailed worlds around their art, like Noah Bradley’s Sin of Man project—which started with art and expanded to include stories as well. And the popular YouTube artist Ross Tran with his Nima project. I also love when writers like Brandon Sanderson incorporate worldbuilding in symbols, maps, and art into the books themselves, like in the Stormlight Archive series.

And I can’t forget comics! I have an obsessive love of comics. I especially love the art of Christian Ward in the recent Black Bolt series written by Saladin Ahmed—art informed story informed art. It was mesmerizing.

DF: If you had to share the most important lesson you've learned about craft in any format, what would it be? How does or doesn't it apply to other formats?

HH: I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen. To not be set in any one way, or rigid in my ideas, but to flow with where I’m going and listen to whatever I’m creating has to say. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I need time to step back and listen. And this applies to writing, art, music, life, all the above.

It’s okay, and sometimes necessary to step back. Or set a project aside. I often set aside stuck art to dive into writing or vice versa, or go binge watch something, take a walk, or read to get my mind off the problem…but honestly, it’s just clearing the mental space so I can listen. If I’m trying to bring everything I know to the table, or trying to follow certain rules or a sure formula for success, it just doesn’t work for me. If I trust that the work itself will always bring something new, that’s when I know I’m listening. And that’s when the really cool stuff happens.

DF: When you're developing a new skill, how do you approach it? How does your breadth of experience inform that approach? (Or, does it?)

HH: I’m always learning, and always reaching for something more, and always analyzing every creative thing I take in. For me, it’s compulsory. So when I’m watching a movie, I’m taking in everything. And if it was particularly good, I’ll spend hours or days in my head analyzing it afterward from every possible creative and emotional angle. Same with books, art, music, etc.

I don’t approach skill building in a traditional way. I’ve never been very good with standard courses—I basically designed my curriculum in high school around what I loved and schooled myself (I was homeschooled), and never felt the need to go to college. I honestly don’t think I would have done well in that kind of learning environment. I find something shiny, something I want to learn, and I find a way to learn it. And I become obsessed with it and can’t think about anything else. Whether it’s analyzing why something works, or trying to recreate something myself, or using tutorials on YouTube, or courses targeted to certain skills, it’s always a compulsion for me. If the learning isn’t fun, or I don’t have a driving need to reach a goal… I just won’t do it.

This is how I’ve been learning 3D software (which is REALLY intensive)—I do make myself sit down and do some courses in there, but they’re courses that I want to do so much that it hurts more not to. And I give myself the freedom to move around in what I’m learning, not just focus on one thing, or on linear learning, or on getting the basics. (The basics are usually boring.) I dive right in!

I definitely have some gaps in my skill set from this approach. But then, I have some really broad areas of knowledge, too. Like my study of all things cinematic that’s informed almost all areas of my creativity.

But, this is my approach to learning. I know my brain is uniquely wired. And the best thing I’ve ever done to help myself learn is to let myself learn the way that works best for me. When I push, I often end up hating whatever I wanted to learn. Nurturing your own learning style is really important.


How do you learn new skills and methods for your art? What's your experience when it comes to balancing different aspects of your work? Let us know on the forum post for this blog entry!


The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

Economics of Cons Roundtable

Dream Foundry Board President Jessica Eanes sat down over email with a panel of industry professionals recently to discuss cons and the details of how to make them work for you. You can find out more about each of our panelists in their author box at the bottom.

How do you know when you're far enough along in your career that it's worth it to go to cons?

Rachel Quinlan (artist): I'd say the basic requirements to start tabling at conventions is to have a small body of work and some money to invest in stock and a display. You can start at smaller local conventions to get your feet wet and slowly add new products and improve your convention set-up with each new event. And figure out some goals for the convention. I don't look at conventions as strictly sales events. It's also a way to network with other professionals in the industry, as well as being active in the community. I might have a convention where sales aren't great, but I get several original painting commissions later in the year, as a result of having tabled there.

Mike R. Underwood (author): For me, the first question when thinking about whether to attend a con is "what do I want to get out of the convention?" To me, that answer  is more telling than something dependent on your career stage. If you're not ready to submit fiction yet but you're writing and looking for more tools and perspectives on craft and business, cons might be worthwhile if you can find some that have good, informative programming. If you're submitting fiction and looking to connect with other writers at your career stage, attending a convention that has a workshopping element may be a good fit both for the specific feedback and for the chance to find critique partners for projects after the con.

Rachel: Mike makes a great point about the workshops. I go to a five-day convention in October that is specifically for illustrators (Illuxcon). In addition to having two nights where I table and meet collectors, I also get to take workshops run by some of the top illustrators in the field. It's an incredible experience.

Mark Stegbauer (comic artist): I don’t think there is a perfect time to start. You just go when you want to start. I started even before I had my first gig professionally. I went out to show my art and start establishing myself. I think it all depends on what you are offering. There is a market for pretty much anything out there. So if you feel like you’re ready and that it is worthwhile financially, then by all means go for it. I would recommend starting at a smaller local show. They are usually better for keeping finances down, and lots of the time if you tell them you are local to the show, they might give you a better rate for a table.

Rachel: I think it can also be worthwhile to attend some of the larger conventions before tabling, so you have a better idea of what everyone else is bringing in terms of stock and display.

Mike: If I'm selling at the con, I think about what I know about the con in terms of which sub-genres are likely to be popular, who the guests are, how big the con is, and how much of an insider SF/F prose space it is. Based on that, I adjust which books I'm bringing, how I'm preparing to pitch each book, and what my sales expectations are. I'm going to bring different books to a medium-size fan con like BaltiCon than I am to a big consumer show like Emerald City Comic Con.

The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan
The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan

What makes a con a good con for you?

Rachel: Nothing beats good organization, communication, and a short trip between the car and my artist table.

Mike: At this stage in my career, I attend some cons because of some combination of the following factors: 1) I want to keep up with friends in the industry, 2) I want to increase my visibility in the fan communities involved, 3) I want to sell books to this audience. I almost always want a con to fulfill two or more of these agendas to be worth my time and money. I revisit some conventions year after year (like ConFusion) because they're affordable, they let me maintain a presence in the Michigan fandom world (#2), and I get to see people I like (#1).

Mark: Any time I can make expenses back, it’s a good show. But also connecting with new fans, and meeting new fellow professionals makes a con a good one. It’s not always about coming out financially ahead.

Rachel: Mark and Mike are both right about making connections with fans and peers.  That’s the main reason I table at events.

What kind of preparation and planning do you do for cons?

Rachel: For me, it usually involves ordering prints of new paintings and taking an inventory of my current stock.

Mike: If I'm on programming, I make sure that I've done my research and/or preparation for the panels, especially if I'm moderating anything. Otherwise, I'll check to see who is attending in case there are people I want to schedule meetings/social time with and/or try to meet if I haven't done so yet. If the con is new to me, I do research on the types of programming it has, how affordable it is, and what the con's general vibe is—more professional, more fannish, small and intimate, large but still good for quality time, and so on.

Mark: I’ll usually look into what kind of show it is, if it’s more of a comic book show, or more of an anime show. If it’s something like a library show, I tend to bring more copies of my all-ages projects. I’ll also check inventory of my books and prints and see if I need to order more. I’ll also make sure my price list is accurate for what I’m selling.

Rachel: Mark's strategy of tailoring his stock for the type of event is super smart and I'll be thinking about that more for future events.

How do you evaluate whether a con was a success for you?

Rachel: Obviously, if sales are good, that's always a plus. If the community really seems interested and receives my art well, that gives me some validation that I don't receive otherwise. And it's great when I get to network with other creators. That can eventually lead to jobs and other interesting opportunities.

Mike: That depends on what I wanted from the con. Often a con can be a success just because I had a good time doing or trying to do what I wanted at the con—socializing, selling books, programming, etc.

Mark: Success is different for everyone. For some people it’s about doing better than their last show. For some it’s making more connections. For me, it’s about connecting with fans and making sure all my expenses are paid for.

The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan
The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

What's the most important thing you've learned, or the best tip you have, for ensuring you have a successful con?

Rachel: Just being friendly and attentive goes a long way.

Mike: I've learned to not build up hyper-specific expectations about the precise things that I want to have happen at the con, especially if they're not under my control. It's good to go in with a sense of what you want from the experience but it's also good to be ready to take opportunities as they emerge and to find a way to flow with things when things go unexpectedly.

Mark: I would say don’t set your expectations so high that you are disappointed when you don’t meet them. Also remember to not take rejection of a sale personally. What you do won’t always appeal to everyone, so always keep that in mind.

Rachel: Managing expectations is great advice for a creative career in general.

What's the weirdest or most surprising thing you've had happen at a con?  

Rachel: I once had a con-goer explain to me how a particular artist hero of mine created all of his work in oils, when in reality, he was known for using inks and watercolors almost exclusively.

Mike: The weirdest thing is quite possibly singing the Angry Robot theme song to the assembled populace of the opening ceremonies at Norwescon in 2017 when Angry Robot was the Featured Publisher. I'd listened to the theme song (cowritten by John Anealio and Matt Forbeck) a zillion times while prepping for my in-person interview to get the job I would go on to do for AR for five-and-a-half years, and then it never came up in the intervening time until that opening ceremony discussion, where I surprised not only the audience but also Managing Director Marc Gascoigne (aka my boss at the time) by being able to recall and perform the chorus of the song on command.

Other weird and surprising memories are almost certainly drawn from the various conventions I attended while running a publisher booth for Angry Robot and managing an unruly squadron of authors while we were all punchy and exhausted on the Saturdays and Sundays at the end of any given convention weekend.

Mark: I think probably having Jack Kirby, the king of comics, sit down next to me at an after-con party and just start chatting with all of us at the table. Awesome experience.


What have your experiences been as an industry professional (or newbie) at cons? Do you have advice for other readers, or questions to ask? Let us know and talk with others on our forum!


Luanaheim by Johanna Taylor

Interview with Illustrator Johanna Taylor

Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Johanna over email recently to chat with her about illustration, story boarding and composition, and crows.

You can see more of Johanna’s work at johannamation.com.


How did you start out as an illustrator?

I actually have
video games and RPGs to thank for that. I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid,
and I loved creating my own characters to fit into worlds like Hyrule, Kanto,
and Tellius. I also played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons in high school and
throughout college. I drew in the margins of my homework for many years, but I
never realized it was something I could realistically do for a living until
halfway through college, when indie games and 3D animated films started
becoming popular. I originally set out to be a graphic designer, but I fell
deeply in love with animation and the way art can tell a story, and I knew that
I wanted to be involved in that process, so I worked at getting better every
day and got accepted to the BYU
Animation program
. I was one of those students who wanted to learn and
master everything, and took classes for digital painting, character design,
storyboarding, 3D modeling, and animation.

After I graduated
from the program, I applied for a job with an independent video game studio
called Apocalyptic Games. I
became the creative director on a game, and was in charge of designing the
characters, props, environments, and even helped with the level design and
learned lighting and composition in Unity. Since then, I've been a freelance
illustrator and have contributed artwork for several indie games, children's
books, and comics publishers.

Dark Dicey by Johanna Taylor
Dark & Dicey by Johanna Taylor

What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into
it?

Freelancing is just as valid in this field as a full-time job at a major studio. As a student, it's easy to feel like being a freelance artist should only be a last resort if you can't find a "real" job in the industry, and it was discouraging when I applied for studios only to be turned down and feel like there was no other way for me to make a living doing what I love. A lot of studios and publishers reach out to freelance artists for projects if they have a style that matches their need, and I've been privileged to work with a few of them. I've also discovered that art is a marathon, not a race: there is no time- or age-limit for when you need to hit your big break in order to be considered successful or a "winner," or if you even need to hit a big break at all. A successful art career is a series of small breaks over a long period of time that build on each other. Like a marathon, which path you take, and how long it takes you to get there, aren't as important as staying in the race, making as much forward progress as you can.

What’s your favorite kind of job to work on, and why?

I really enjoy
character design, environments, and prop design, but my favorite has to be
fantasy illustration or character design with an epic, high-fantasy vibe. That
genre has always spoken to me, and I'm so happy to see it making a resurgence
in popular culture.

Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor
Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor

What’s your least favorite?

It's hard to work
on projects where the objective isn't clear, or the expectations aren't
communicated well. Communication is hugely important to me, and if contract
clients aren't timely with their feedback, or change their minds on major
design points too late into the project, it's frustrating to have to scramble
to satisfy their needs.

Tell me a little about your process—how do you decide what moment to
portray when you’re planning an illustration piece or a comic panel?

I think a lot about
what makes an interesting composition: what moves my eye through a piece, and
trying to answer the question, "What does this person's life look like and
how do I show that?" I also think about the character as though I've just
passed them by on the street and had about a minute to figure out who they are
as a person. What they're wearing, what they're doing, what they're thinking
about, where they're going; I treat the illustration like my elevator pitch for
that character's story, communicating as much detail about them as possible in
the simplest, most relatable ways. A lot of story can be gleaned from looking
at a character's posture, their clothes, their expression, and the way they
treat the environment around them.

Is the process of finding the dramatic moment to show similar to
planning out a storyboard, or is that totally different?

I think it's pretty
similar, actually. Composition is hugely important in storyboarding, because
you have to make sure all of your character's actions are clear enough to
communicate what they're doing and what they want, otherwise the audience will
be confused. But where storyboarding or comics have several panels to tell a
story, an illustration only has one. To me, the most interesting illustrations
are the ones where the staging is clear and dynamic as though someone took a
storyboard panel and painted it, but are comprehensive enough to tell a
complete story by themselves.

Peter Pan by Johanna Taylor

What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine
as an artist?

A huge chunk of my
job is self-promotion and financial preparation for conventions. I do draw
primarily for clients, and even get time to draw just for myself sometimes, but
I have to spend a lot of time networking on social media, creating and keeping
up with a personal production schedule, checking out which conventions have
open applications, and planning how much money to spend on printing, display
setups, and merchandise for those conventions. Freelance artists have to deal
with a surprising amount of math, accounting, and economics!

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to younger artists who
want to get a start in the industry?

If you have fun
drawing it, people will have fun looking at it. Drawing as a job is great and
should be fun by default, but a LOT of art jobs and freelancing will be spent
drawing other people's characters, worlds, and props. If you're asked to design
ten different chairs for a robot pirate, even if you absolutely hate drawing
chairs and robots and pirates, find a way to make the chairs fun for you to
draw. What kind of details can you add that make them the most interesting
robot pirate chairs you can possibly design? People can tell the difference
between art someone had fun making and art they hated every minute of making.

I noticed you list some of your hobbies as cross-country skiing and feeding crows—how did the crow-feeding start? Do they recognize you now?

Crows have always been my favorite animal. They're intelligent, family-oriented, and bursting with personality. I started out feeding seagulls regularly with my family (Utah gets a lot of seagulls), but over time more and more crows started cropping up. There was a murder of crows that hung around my college campus and I fed them any time I encountered them. They did start to recognize me after a while and would even bring me twigs in exchange for the nuts and granola I gave them. There was also a murder as large as 100 crows in the north where my mom lived, and feeding them was absolute madness! I used to keep track of where they migrated to, but they moved around so often that I no longer get to feed them as regularly as I'd like. I do keep a little granola in my bag just in case I run into some, though!


Setting Creative Goals... and Keeping Them

No matter what your art is (writing,
illustration, game design), you’ll often hear that you should work at it every
day. If you don’t do this, some people say, you’re failing as a creator.

Now, that might work for some people, but I’ve
tried writing every day on several occasions and it just doesn’t work for me.
It makes the whole thing a chore that I start to hate very quickly. Instead, I’ve
found that three scheduled sessions of at least a couple of hours keeps my
juices flowing, my motivation up, and my productivity on track.

The most important thing for me is that I have
a plan. Every time I sit down for a creative session, I plan out ahead of time
exactly what I want to achieve that day. And at the end of every session, I figure
out when my next one is booked for. That stops one or two days off from slipping
into more.

Another thing that works for me is to always
have deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed, and to make sure that I’m accountable
to someone else for those deadlines. If the only person I have to answer to is myself,
I will inevitably let things slip. What I would recommend is having a partner
in creation, someone else who also wants to achieve things and may need a nudge
every now and then. If you can arrange to meet up physically and keep each
other focused, then great! If not, maybe keep a chat window or video call open
during creative sessions and check in every half hour or so, to make sure
you’re both still on topic. And, if all else fails, just email each other your
schedule and your plan, and then report back after the session to celebrate
your victories. If you’re a writer who is more motivated by spreadsheets,
streaks, or games than by a creative partner, consider using something like 750words.com, 4thewords.com,
or getyourwordsout.net
to encourage you to meet those writing goals. Artists might get practice ideas
from artprompts.org
or the challenges, timed practices, and random poses on quickposes.com.
And no matter what your art, if you respond to gamification, something like habitica.com
might be just the thing to get you making the most of your creative time and
give you a sense of accomplishment as you make progress toward your goals.

That last point is important—make it easy to
celebrate your successes. If you have a big project, then just looking at the
whole thing may make it seem insurmountable. But if you break it down into
small tasks with sensible deadlines, you can have the satisfaction of ticking
off tons of little victories that you should absolutely congratulate yourself
on. If rewards help you (like “I can have a chocolate after I finish this
chapter” or “I can watch an episode of my favorite show once I’ve filled a page
with sketches”), then don’t hesitate to use that.

Most crucial of all is to find a system that works for you and just go for it.

What works for me is a rolling spreadsheet of upcoming submission opportunities (theme, word count, hard deadline, and possible publication all right there), sessions scheduled outside my flat with an accountability partner, and a list of very specific targets for each session. But the thought of all that organization might make you want to curl up and die. So try things out to see what fits, and once something works, don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t make sense. The only person it has to makes sense to is you. And if it keeps you creating, then it’s doing its job and you should stick with it no matter what.


Interview with Concept Artist Becca Hallstedt

Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Becca over email recently to chat with them about art, the gaming industry, and pickled vegetables. 

You can see more of Becca's work at beccahallstedtdesign.com.


How did you start out as a concept artist?

I've been drawing since I was very young, and I discovered concept art in high school through Tumblr, Youtube, and Blogspot sites. I actually originally went to an industrial design school because that's what all my favorite artists studied — folks like Feng Zhu, Daniel Dociu, and others —but I got bored of drawing hairdryers and shoes, so I transferred up to a game college program after three semesters.

My first job in games was as a paid 2D art intern at a local studio. I cold-emailed them asking if they would consider hiring a junior concept artist, and they got back to me less than a day later because they happened to need a Photoshop guru to help with GDC (Game Developers Conference) marketing materials. It was total happenstance. They slowly gave me more responsibility and I got some experience with UI art and visual development. My experience there led to my first true concept art job at Netherrealm.

Lucky Kirin by Becca Hallstedt
Lucky Kirin by Becca Hallstedt

What’s your favorite kind of work in the industry, and why?

I love creature design. I genuinely enjoy doing a variety of tasks like environment and prop design or character development, but creatures are the most fun for me. I think they always will be.

What’s your least favorite?

I don't have a specific task that comes to mind, but it can be very frustrating to work with folks that struggle to give honest or clear critique. The way that peers provide constructive feedback can make or break a job to me. I'd much rather work a job with less interesting tasks around people who communicate well than take on a gig with exciting assignments that involves consistently frustrating or confusing critique.

Wesley Fox by Becca Hallstedt
Wesley Fox by Becca Hallstedt

What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into it?

Everyone knows each other, so don't burn bridges if you can help it. This starts day one in game development, whether that's in college or in a job. Soft skills and being self-aware are super, super important, and those things tend to be heavily underemphasized in general. Learning how to be empathetic, generous, and proactive will always do you more good than being stingy and paranoid. When applying to a job, I send that same opening to friends that need work all the time. Either of us getting it is a win. Working together and being benevolent does surprising, wonderful things in this industry.

What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine as an artist?

I only actually work about twenty-five billable hours each week as a freelance artist, but I still manage to be busy all the time. Same goes for all my freelance friends locally. I think people assume that every freelancer works about forty hours/week, but so much work has to go into administrative stuff that you don't get paid for. Things like keeping up asocial media presence (all my work comes from Twitter,) emailing future clients, networking, keeping my portfolio updated, creating personal work so I have new pieces to show, and so forth take up a LOT of hours.

Courier's Beast by Becca Hallstedt
Courier's Beast by Becca Hallstedt

When you’re designing a new creature or other element, how do you start out? What kind of direction are you given from the client, and how do you go from there?

The specificity of the prompt varies heavily by task and client. Sometimes they know exactly what they want and, even if I as the designer don't think the idea is strong, it's my job to make the design look awesome. Other times, I'm handed really vague prompts with a lot of creative freedom. I like having a mix. Having heavy constraints and having a vague task each have their own unique challenges that are fun to tackle.

I can't overemphasize how much time goes into research and rough sketching when starting something new. Sometimes the sketch or lineart of the final design will only take fifteen to thirty minutes, but the prep work that goes into that drawing can take hours or days. The biggest lesson I've learned in the last year was to slow down and give those early stages a lot of time rather than trying to rush through them. Clients always prefer a badass final design that took an extra day over a quick, uninformed, unfinished idea.

How much backstory do you have in mind when you’re doing creature or character design, whether for yourself or for a client?

I think in context rather than about story. I like to imagine the circumstance of the creature while I'm painting rather than setting it all in stone before starting because I think that results in some very organic, interesting elements in the design. If I try to put all the pieces together before I even start sketching, I get frustrated and feel too restrained.

When I say context rather than story, I mean that I focus more on the personality, surrounding environment, and interactions this creature has on a regular basis instead of their life story. Sometimes once I have that context nailed down, I naturally work backwards and a more specific backstory comes from it.

Ebony by Becca Hallstedt
Ebony by Becca Hallstedt

What kinds of questions or thoughts lead your worldbuilding process? For instance, do you think about where a creature fits in an ecological niche, or more about what role they’ll play in a game or story?

I really try to ground my ideas in believability. I've historically struggled with storytelling, which results in a confusing design that viewers don't know how to place in the world. I have found over time that it's better to latch onto a few "cliché" aspects for a design and execute it elegantly rather than rejecting the obvious solutions entirely and making something the observer can't understand. Embrace some of the obvious!Just make sure you insert your own unique voice into it.

What one piece of advice would you give to younger artists who want to get a start in the industry?

Take yourself seriously. No one else will treat you like a professional until you do it first. People treated me like a pro my junior year of college because I did my best to speak and behave as one, and that got me jobs. Don't be an aspiring artist or a student artist. Just be a damn artist.

Snakeoil Potionmaster by Becca Hallstedt
Snakeoil Potionmaster by Becca Hallstedt

I saw on your website that you like to pickle vegetables — what’s your favorite? Do you have any tips or a recipe that you could share with us?

My two favorites are beets as well as sweet and spicy peppers. Use organic ingredients because the quality difference is HUGE. I usually wing it instead of going off a written recipe but here's my basic approach...

Becca's Good-As-Hell Beets:

Primary ingredients:

  • 3 beets, skinned and boiled (you cannot over boil beets, so be patient until they're easy to go through with a fork)
  • 2 sprigs of fresh organic rosemary (do not use dried, it sucks)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 thinly sliced organic Vidalia onion
  •  3 cloves of smashed garlic

Brine:

  • 1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup cup water
  • 2 teaspoon salt

Put primary ingredients in large glass jar like this one, distributed evenly. They should come to the top and fill the jar entirely. Bring brine just to a rolling boil and pour into the jar over the contents up to the very rim and refrigerate. Wait two or more days before eating. Great on crackers with sour cream and dill. Good for up to two weeks in the fridge. Save the leftover brine to reuse or for pickled hard-boiled eggs.

Best of luck out there, y’all.