I’ve touched on the importance of creating personal work many times in my posts, but I don’t think that I’ve ever made that the focus of an article. On the one hand, it seems a universally agreed concept: personal work is good for your growth. The thing is, I’ve also noticed how many people seem to struggle with carving out the time to do it. Between paid work, family, social lives, and the absolutely human need for leisure time, setting aside chunks of time to work on our own projects can feel like a luxury, a chore, or a mirage that you can never quite reach. I think we all know the feeling of the “big project” that we know would be really amazing and we also know (in moments of naked honesty) may never happen. And most of us let that future project keep us warm and cozy as it lives in our minds and then we go on with our lives and never actually do the thing.
I have a big project. With regular effort, it will take four to five years if I work it in between paid work. I’ve been thinking about it for at least two years and I have not completed even one painting for it yet. It’s a dream which I may never realize and I know it. But there are many other personal projects which I have indulged. Some of them (like my series of nudes, which has spanned seven years now) have had radical impacts on me and my work. Others were just dead ends. The fact is, we can’t do them all and we can‘t know which are going to pay out and which are going to fizzle into nothing. The critical thing is that we keep making an effort.
Your personal work is your laboratory
I’m sure many are already aware of the famous “20% time” policy pioneered by Google. In their own words:
20 percent time is a well-known part of our philosophy here, enabling engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren't necessarily in our job descriptions. You can use the time to develop something new, or if you see something that's broken, you can use the time to fix itThis policy is responsible for Gmail and a host of less sexy but still very important developments. I understand that the company has, in recent years, put this policy out to pasture in favor of more focused methods for large scale innovation. That’s a bit sad but also somewhat practical for the scale that Google is now working at. Self-driving cars might happen because one brilliant person had his Tuesdays free to tinker, but having a whole team work it full time is a bit more realistic. Still, it’s a shame to remove the policy all together because not all development is predictable and that is the whole point of 20% time and similar concepts.
-Google Blog, 2006
I don’t think it is difficult to link these ideas to what we do as painters. When we are working on the client’s clock, we’re not being paid for experimenting. The last thing most clients want are surprises. Our paid work is predictable, orderly, and the goal is to carry out expectations to the best of our ability. That doesn’t mean clients don’t want our creativity (though sadly some actually don’t, most really do), but they want our creativity applied in a very controlled fashion defined by our own past results. You can’t innovate in a meaningful way under those restrictions. If we want to break new ground within our selves, we must leave time to do that between paid jobs.
If we have major goals which can only be achieved in personal work, that tends to be where we launch major personal projects. Think of this as Google’s self-driving car. This might be like setting aside massive blocks of time to, say, create a graphic novel or develop entrepreneurial ideas. The goal is premeditated and the commitment is significant. Not all personal work needs to fit this grand ambition though. I am a big believer in the value of tinkering. I’m a big believer in 20% time.
Taking an unfocussed approach to your personal work may be riskier and you might not be able to monetize it (at least not so directly) as the Major Personal Projects, but it is more likely to teach you about you. It is more likely to let you grow, explore, and find unexpected rewards. The major projects are in some ways under the same restrictions as client work: you are goal focused. You are creating solutions instead of discovering questions. True 20% time can uncover questions and answers we never would think to ask. If I had never gone poking around with my Quickie series, something that started as a sort of lark, I might never have come to question and ultimately rebuild my entire painting process. I have no doubt I’m a better painter today than I would have been if I’d stuck to my predetermined script.
You decide your own path
Clients hire us based on the work which we have already produced. If an artist often paints scenes with animals, they will be hired for jobs that feature animals. It’s logical. Usually it’s pretty fair as well. We’re good at painting the things we like to paint, so being recognized for those things brings in more of that work. Sometimes, however, you might notice that the jobs coming in are taking you in a direction you had not intended to go in. The longer it goes on, the more entrenched you become.
Whether you don’t enjoy the corner you’ve been painted in to or you simply have other avenues that you’re eager to explore, the only way to break that cycle is to change the script and show the world what else you can do. Taking the time to continue creating portfolio pieces even though you are getting steady work is a way of course correcting, because otherwise your future is at the unguided mercy of the assignments that are already coming your way.
Own your work completely
With so much discussion in recent years over Work for Hire contracts and the potential wealth that can come from owning an Intellectual Property, this is often one of the top motivators that I hear people talk about in starting their own projects. Again, this tends to factor more heavily to those Major projects than to 20% type of stuff, but it’s an undeniable benefit to both. It is a good long term strategy to control the rights to as much work you create as possible. Whether you will make future revenue through licensing or 2nd rights or you develop something that becomes a profitable IP, building your own brand may have financial rewards in addition to the artistic ones.
An outlet for frustrations
Sometimes clients can be frustrating. Just recently I had two new clients in a row approve something and then change their minds when the final came in. Yes, I got paid a fair rate to fix their mistakes, but things like than can also be irritating and eat into your other jobs which makes everything more stressful. Having personal projects at the ready is a great way to let off steam (if you‘re not crunched for time of course. If you are, then they‘re more of a motivator: the carrot dangling in front of you once you finish the difficult job.) When I can’t stand to look at a job because I’m having problems with the client, I can take refuge in doing something for me because I want to do it. And I can do it my way without compromise.
This goes for frustrations in daily life as well. Sometimes we all need a place where we can be in control of things and personal projects are wonderful outlets for this. Not all personal projects need to be challenging and ambitious. It is also great for our mental health to just have fun as well, and more often than not the fun stuff can turn out pretty good.
Keeping your mind flexible
On the other side of that coin, there is an ease and comfort in letting the clients tell you what problems to solve. Sometimes we might not know what we want to paint and painting what other people want relieves us of that weight. That’s ok. Sometimes we don’t have much to say from the inside, or our inspiration tanks are low, or the idea generating side of our brain is just in need of some down time. The danger is indulging that comfort for too long and forgetting who we are.
I’ve known illustrators with long and very successful careers who, at some point along the way, lost track of what they wanted their work to be about and found creating personal work to be a struggle. We need to keep exercising the part of our mind that says “wouldn’t it be cool to see____ just because I like it” and “I want to see what happens if I _______”. I don’t think we ever lose that spark, but sometimes it can feel so buried that one starts to wonder. It’s healthy to remind yourself now and again that there are idea you want to explore even though nobody is paying you to do it.
And now, back to work…
My Summer has been busy in the best way. Deadlines were stacked at constant intervals that kept me always in motion with just enough decompression in between to be enjoying it. Times like that are hard on personal work though. Today, as I wait for feedback from one client and send invoices to another, I am excited to have a few happy hours in the middle of designated “work time” for whatever I want to do and I don’t intend to let them waste.