A New Survival Strategy – the Artist’s Edition

Hello, Friends! It’s been a while. Today I’m thinking about strategy. (Really, I’ve been thinking about that for a long time—but now it’s taking priority.) The reason? A couple of weeks ago, I had a bone-crushing headache that wouldn’t stop. I have migraines occasionally, but this one was different. No matter what relief tactics I tried, nothing worked. The headache lasted all day. All night. For four days. 

It was terrifying because it was relentless. I thought the worst, of course: all the words I don’t even want to think about, let alone type. I’m superstitious and don’t want to attract these things, but I most certainly thought them. Each time the headache would subside for a half hour or so, I’d try to do something like check my email, and a kernel of pain would bloom behind my eye.

Screens, I thought. My problem is screens.

As I lay on the couch for these days, unable to do anything except try not to think about the awful pain that pounded in my head, I thought hard about how I spend my time. Nearly all of my work depends on looking at screens. I write books; I edit manuscripts for clients; I draw on an iPad for illustration work; I do graphic design for clients; I handle Etsy orders and do all kinds of administrative tasks that require an internet connection. 

The result? I easily spend 10 hours a day looking at a screen—from the time I’m awake to the time I go to bed. I have glasses that help, but apparently they don’t help enough. 

When the headache finally stopped, my partner and I left on a trip we’d been planning for months (there was a moment of course, where I thought this trip would not happen because the pounding headache wouldn’t go away). We’d go to see his parents, and stay for 3 weeks. I promised to take two of those weeks as “vacation” time. It would not be a glamorous vacation, but it would be this: NO SCREEN TIME. 

Okay, not “none.” Who am I kidding? But these were the rules: 

  1. No work for two weeks. None. Period. 
  2. Screen time shall be limited to 2-3 hours per day. This includes email, social media, etc. 
  3. You will get outside at least once a day and take a walk. 
  4. You can read for an unlimited amount of time.
  5. If you even get a whiff of a headache, you will step away from the screen and do something else. “Nap” is an acceptable activity.

Meanwhile, a friend suggested this: Make a list of things that you’d do in your ideal workday. List start and end times, and be specific. This made me think hard about how much time I wanted to spend doing certain activities each day, and how much time I ACTUALLY spend doing such things. (For example: how many times a day does one need to check her email? Not every 30 minutes, as I have the habit of doing while I’m rotating between other onscreen tasks.)

The result? I actually succeeded in taking that time off. I even took a mini road trip with my fella, in which we explored a bit of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and stumbled on the mural in Dubuque, featured above. We didn’t do very much, and you know what? It was just fine. I accomplished very little, enjoyed the time we had together, and the world didn’t implode.

I’m now in Week 3, in which I’m trying out my ideal workday. (Spoiler alert: it does NOT include 10 hours of screen time.) This week feels like a kind of limbo period. There are plenty of things I need to get done, and plenty of tasks on my to-do list. But here’s the thing. I’ve decided that I have to be okay with getting fewer tasks done each day, or each week. Every day cannot be a sprint. Working for myself has been freeing in a lot of ways, but paralyzing in others. One side effect of that has been the compulsion to work longer hours, well into the night. But my body has been telling me lately that that is a terrible roadmap: finding balance is critical, and learning when to say “enough” is critical, too. 

So my new rule is this: limited screen time each day. Whenever I start to feel pain behind my eyes, I stop what I’m doing at the laptop and go do something entirely different or—gasp—rest. Because we should allow ourselves to rest and recover. It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m making myself do this so I have a sustainable life working for myself. It turns out my inner boss is kind of a workaholic, but I’m forcing her to chill out a little and slow down. Not every single task has to get accomplished each day. I’m only human, I tell her. Not a machine.

There’s this highly quotable phrase that freelancers use sometimes—it’s almost folklore at this point, and usually stems from “The print shop where I used to work had this saying…” The best stories claim it was printed on a sign on the printer’s desk, and said printer would frequently point at it as she spoke with certain clients. On this mythical sign (in beautiful typography, I imagine), was printed “Fast. Cheap. High-quality. Pick two.”

I have to remind myself of this sometimes, even as I work for myself. From myself, I demand high quality, all the time. I also want things done quickly. The expense, it turns out, is the toll that takes on my body. Sometimes it’s just fatigue and a little pain, but at what point does that expense become too much?

I know a lot of us out there must feel this way: the pressure to work harder, longer, and spread ourselves too thin. I know that’s not sustainable, and now I’m giving myself a new challenge: be gentler, work smarter, and treat myself like I would my best friend: with kindness and care. 

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The Great Mixed Media Experiment

The past couple of months have been super busy. I’ve started taking wholesale orders with some of my prints and greetings cards, and since I’m a one-woman operation, a big order can take days to fill. I’ve been working hard to come up with a weekly schedule that gives me enough time to make new work, though–it seems like an easy task, but it’s been hard to carve out enough time for myself. I’m delighted that my new business is growing, don’t get me wrong–it just means that now I have to learn to prioritize a bit better–and that means prioritizing myself, too. 

A friend of mine told me that I needed to create a Google calendar. “Make blocks of times you need for all of the things you want to get done in a week,” he said. “Then move those blocks around into a time frame that works.” It sounded simplistic when he said it, but I did it anyway. And you know what? It worked. My method had been too simple: I’d simply written down 2-3 things that I had to do each day: deadlines for clients, orders to fill, a new show to prep for. I hadn’t block out times in the day to do these things, but considered my days a success when I completed those tasks. 

But here’s the thing my friend was saying: I needed structure. I needed to have an outline for my day, to keep myself on track. My friend explained that if I was feeling overwhelmed, I needed to find more time in my day–I likely had more time in the day than I thought, he explained, and I’d find gaps if I made myself a schedule. 

I thought he was totally full of it, because I felt like my days were jam-packed. But when i took the time to schedule tasks during my day, I saw that he was right. I did some gaps in my day, and I could see how to arrange my tasks in a better way so that I (1) didn’t feel flustered during the day, and (2) could stop trying to “work in” certain tasks that could be scheduled for an hour. 

In case you’re curious what this looks like, I’ll drop a screen shot of my calendar below. 

I’ve done this for a few weeks now, and it’s made a huge difference in how I feel each day (less hurried, more relaxed). Because of this new structure in my week, I just said yes to a new project that turned out to be both freeing and invigorating. I was invited to send some pieces to an exhibit by the Southern Highland Craft Guild in D.C. I was delighted to be asked, and I wanted to send some new work. I had a few prints that I could frame, but I wanted to send one-of-a-kind pieces. I’d been wanting to experiment more with monoprinting and mixed media, and this gave me the perfect excuse. 

Mixed media was way outside of my comfort zone: I’ve dabbled in it a little, and experimented with using monoprint techniques to make big colorful prints with details and textures that I can’t really achieve with my usual linocut or woodcut printing. But in the past, I haven’t had a lot of success with it. I had 10 days to make some new pieces for the show, so I got out my calendar and scheduled myself a few hours of work time each day. Then I watched some videos by Tom Quigley, an artist who does some really interesting work with mixed media. After watching, I had a head full of ideas I wanted to try, and was eager to layer those ideas with some printing techniques, too. 

Quigley said in one of his lessons that “mistakes are part of the process.” So I took that to heart. I gave myself two rules here. (1) Have fun. (2) Don’t overthink things, and let myself make mistakes. I added layers of interesting papers (like pages from a road atlas and tissue paper) and then added layers of gesso and paint. The trick was to add light, translucent layers, and resist the temptation to pile on dark or super saturated colors. If I made a mistake, I’d just cover it up with another layer and keep going. 

This idea of covering up my mistakes and forging ahead was seriously liberating. If you know my work, you know that I do things that are meticulous, like woodcuts. If I make a mistake somewhere in the carving or the printing (especially with a multi-block print), then 99% of the time, there is no covering that mistake. It’s just wrecked. Sometimes I can start over. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it’s really disheartening to get almost to the finish line, and then make a mistake that ruins the print. 

But working this way, layering color, texture, and yes, even some prints on Japanese paper—was quite satisfying. I let myself play, I made myself get away from my comfort zone—just for 10 days, just to see what happened. Some pieces were more successful than others—I definitely had clear favorites—but overall this was a great way to try something a little different and loosen up and have some fun with the process. 

Will I be doing more with mixed media? You bet. Will I work as fast as I did last week? Probably not. 🙂 Sometimes I like the pressure that comes with a deadline, but more often I need to be able to take my time and explore while I work. I learned some things though this process, though–one of which was that my favorite pieces (pictured here) were the ones that I spent the least amount of time with. That’s not to say they were made quickly, but rather that I didn’t try too many processes on them or overwork them. It was hard to decide when these were finished, but for these two, it was easy. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. I’ve been learning that lesson a lot lately. 

I ended up with six new pieces last week, all of which are headed to D.C. I’ll be making archival print reproductions of a few of my favorites, and those will be available in my Etsy shop soon. 

Finding Balance: or, How I Realized I’m a Workaholic

There’s one thing that I constantly struggle with: finding balance between my work and the rest of my life. I have this tendency to get super focused on things I enjoy in my work, and spend countless hours on them, to the point that other parts of my life fall way down on the to-do list. Sometimes I get focused on things that aren’t necessarily much fun, but feel like big priorities for, say, a new business. 

For example: I recently decided that I needed to redo all the photography and mockups in my Etsy shop. This was a daunting task, even though it could be done while binge watching Lucifer. I knew it would take a long time (even with the great mockup I had for placing card designs), and it was one of those tasks that, once I start, I just want to plow through and finish. And besides–once some new photos are up, then the old ones just look extra bad. (Kind of like when you starting painting inside a house.) So there was all this pressure (self-applied, of course), to do that as quickly as possible and push all other tasks aside. 

The trouble was, I had other tasks that couldn’t be pushed aside: a developmental edit of a manuscript, a commissioned painting, prep for an upcoming guild show…and the list went on. I’ve been trying to make myself prioritize tasks a little better over this last year, and I’ve tried to make myself break big projects into smaller, more manageable parts. This, in theory, would allow me to juggle multiple projects and not go bananas, and also allow me to slow down and take my time with tasks that need more attention to detail. In theory, that tactic would also stop me from working 12 hours a day.

But lately, despite these plans, I’ve been feeling like a workaholic. Most days, I feel like I’m doing some form of work from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed. 

Several months ago, I quit my day job so I could focus solely on my freelancing and my Etsy shop. I thought that leaving that job behind would give me more hours in the day to focus on those things, but somehow I ended up feeling like I had LESS time to myself after I made that huge change. 

My latest trigger was when someone asked me, “When’s the last time you took a vacation?” I had to think hard. It was definitely pre-COVID. I thought harder and realized: before Christmas of 2019. That’s the last time I just took a few days off and did something fun, like walk on a beach. 

I tried to take a little vacation last week. My plan was to only fill Etsy orders, and spend the rest of the week doing fun, relaxing things: watch a movie, read a book, do something outside. 

Guess what? I failed. At the end of the week, I was still tired. I’d done too much every day. 

This week, I’m trying again. (It’s ridiculous to think of myself as failing at vacation, but here we are.) I’m doing less screen time, and taking more time to do fun things I’ve been putting off. One of those things is carving more lino blocks for printing. I’ve been doing so many other things lately that I haven’t taken time to make my own work. And the truth is, I really miss printing. So for a little while each day, I’m carving a block (like the one above). But here’s the caveat: I’m not allowed to carve for 8 hours each day. I’m not allowed to dive in in that way that means I don’t take time to do anything else and then feel exhausted all over again. I’ll carve a little. And then I’ll do some yoga. And then I’ll read my book, and watch a movie, and sit outside and watch the birds. 

It’s really hard to tamp down the workaholic in me and give myself permission to have some down time. It’s easier to do when I can go somewhere different and physically distance myself from all the work-like tasks I can get into at home. I have this feeling that I need to be “productive” all the time, and be using my time wisely. But I know deep down that unwinding and letting my mind wander a bit is productive, too. Those quiet moments are where the creativity sneaks in, and that’s when I get some of my best ideas. This week, I’m trying to remind myself of the importance of that, and get back into a habit of taking some time each day to recharge. This week, I hope you’ll find a way to take a little time for yourself and recharge, too. 

How I Made My Art Sales More Eco-Friendly (and You Can, Too!)

showing off my eco-friendly packaging
The Search for Sustainable Packaging

For the past several months, I’ve been searching for eco-friendly solutions to packaging in my online shop. (I realize this is one of the LEAST sexy things about art and creative endeavors, but it was important to me, and it was one of those aspects of selling online that was eating at me as my business grew.) 

As the sales in my online shop increased, so did the amount of plastic I was sending out into the world. I need packaging that protects the paper products I ship—like greeting cards and prints—and for a while I was packaging them in cellophane bags and bubble mailers. It’s because that’s what I learned to do, years ago. Cello bags are sized perfectly, they’re cheap, and they protect the product. But is that eco-friendly? Nope. 

Here’s the bad part: NONE of that is recyclable. Not cello bags, not bubble mailers. I try to re-use materials like those that I get when I receive shipments (I’m looking at you, Amazon bubble mailers)—but from a presentation standpoint, it’s not a pretty package for one of my customers to get in the mail. No one really wants to get a recycled, bruised bubble mailer that looks like it’s held together with duct tape and a prayer.

Still, when I used cellophane, I kept thinking of that gigantic island of garbage in the Pacific, and thought, You, my friend, are contributing to that. 

There’s lots of other horrifying data out there, too. Stories that explain how the US ships its plastic waste to other countries to be (theoretically) disposed of, like this one in the New York Times and this one in The Guardian. The short version: the US ships an overwhelming amount of plastic garbage to poorer countries—and it’s overwhelming them. And there’s the recent study discussed in The Washington Post that warns there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050 if we don’t make a significant change. 

I needed an eco-friendly solution that would protect my products and not contribute to the endless piles of plastic waste. Paper likes to bend, and shipping is sometimes a brutal process. I needed to ensure that my products arrived in perfect condition. (And as someone who lives in a rainy climate and often has soggy mail in her mailbox, I knew that water was a factor, too.)

The Solution

After lots of research and trial and error, I’m pleased to have found three items that have been a lifesaver for me and my business—and they might help yours, too. 

1. Glassine bags. This is a great alternative to cellophane. It’s basically a form of waxed paper (like what your bagel or cookie comes in at the bakery). It protects against water, and it’s compostable. See one kind here

2. Cardboard mailers. These are rigid and flat, and protect cards and prints. Bonus: they can ship as a “flat” (not to be confused with “flat rate”), which is cheaper than the “package” rate at USPS. (Check them out here.) Once caveat: To use these, your item does actually need to be flat—no thicker than about 1/4 inch (details are on usps.com).

3. Compostable padded mailers. This knocked my socks off: bubble mailers made from corn starch. (It’s true!! Why did it take me so long to discover these?) They are 100% compostable and are just as protective as the typical bubble mailers made from plastic. (Bonus: the kind I found say I’M COMPOSTABLE right on the front, so the recipient knows, too.) They are available here.

The result? Paper products that have two layers of protection, a nice presentation, and are completely recyclable or compostable. These eco-friendly products cost only a little more than their plastic-based counterparts—especially if you can buy in bulk. I’ll gladly pay just a little more for products that cut down on waste, and my customers appreciate it, too.