With this very... eventful year coming to an end, I've been reflecting on the progress I've made in life and in my career throughout the big grey cloud that was 2016 (sorry to be a downer, but bloody hell 2016, you gotta sort yourself out).
I stumbled into 2016 just going through the motions, hoping I could pay rent that month, and not really expecting much in the way of progress or work. I was at the stage where I just wanted to keep afloat, keep bills paid, and keep as sane as I could, I didn't really have time to buckle down and power up the ladder of my career. It started to feel stale, and that started to feel worrying.
What if this is the best I can do?
What if I only ever get small time jobs?
What if I end up being paycheque to paycheque for the rest of my working life?
Those thoughts dominated my practice, and I began procrastinating out of panic. I felt overwhelmed by this hurdle I had to clear, and I couldn't even work out how tall the hurdle was since I didn't know exactly what it was I had to overcome, it was just... there. It's tricky to describe, but when you're stuck in a rut having exhausted the list of everything you can think of to get out of it, it's a bit disheartening. This stress was so intangible and vague that I distracted myself. Browsing useless websites, doodling sub-par doodles, wondering around the house aimlessly, anything to avoid the ever growing worries.
With this boundless procrastination came guilt. Big ol' waves of it.
I've been raised to value productivity and efficiency above most things, to finding myself being super unproductive and inefficient lead to feeling massively guilty about all of it. I placed all blame on myself about the situation. "You're not getting work because you're lazy." "If only you sent out more emails you'd be rich by now." "All that time on Pinterest, you could be published by now." This just added to the pile and I retreated more.
I'm very fortunate and very grateful that this period of time didn't dampen my love for illustration. I still got excited thinking about illustration projects and new things to draw, I had plenty of faith in the practice, just not my practice.
I know this all sounds like a right bummer. Kinda depressing even. But what I'm trying to get across is that blips and troughs in your mood and drive can - and most probably will - happen. And it might come out of nowhere and surprise you in a horrible way.
The years leading up to this, the years I spent at uni and freelancing on the side, they were all shiny and full of hopes and dreams. Oh once I get out of uni I'm going to buckle down and be full-time freelance in a year and buy a house and a dog an a plane and a moon...
I guess what came afterwards is the reason I lot of people don't continue with their work in things like illustration. It's a big unpleasant surprise to find that all your hopes and plans don't come to fruition when you put in the work. And in the world we live in, if you don't have a stable income and stable job immediately, you're in real danger of falling into the 'living with your parents until you're 35' category. So panic drives people into full-time employment entirely unrelated to your practice and your practice eventually fades away completely.
It can be especially disheartening when you feel surrounded by people who are succeeding in exactly what you wanted to succeed in. They may be the same age, from the same background, with the same skills, but for some reason they were let into some special club of success stories that you didn't get into. They get all the big clients, seem to constantly be working on something exciting, and everybody loves them.
I could go off on a rant about social media and the way people 'censor' what they post to project the most positive and rose tinted version of their lives and careers, but what I'll say instead is simple that these successful people you find yourself envious of; 99% of them are thinking the exact same thing about others that you think about them.
They struggled through all this nonsense too, maybe they still are. Maybe they feel that you're the mega successful one and they're envious of, maybe they feel sub-par. But they will project something different in order to stay afloat. Just because you end up feeling this way now, doesn't mean you will do forever, it isn't hopeless.
I know this now, because despite this year being just about the worst in so many ways, things are starting to look hopeful as it comes to a close.
I've been moving away from many bad habits I've developed, either at university or during early life.
University accidentally taught me to pander to the tutors, to produce work I thought they would like in order to get good grades rather than work I would like and risk a slightly lower grade. I realised this in my final year when I was planning my final project. Dozens and dozens of ideas and plans floating around my brain in a mad, confusing, colourful tornado. I had no idea which one I actually liked, or whether I liked any of them. It was frustrating and stressful, even a part of my mind starting to think I'd lost the 'knack' for illustration. Then, maybe on a specific day but maybe over a few days, I realised why I hated all the projects I was coming up with. I was designing them for other people. I was thinking about what they would think and how they would respond rather than something that I'd look at and love. It was a good lesson to learn in terms of illustration and life. Other people's opinions do matter, I'm not saying just do whatever the hell you want, but I learned to not focus all my energy on pleasing everybody else. And because of this, my final project was the first and only project I produced at university that I actually liked.
Thanks to this realisation, it's made my illustrative life so much easier after university. It took a bit of relearning of the lesson once I graduated after slipping back into some bad habits again, but I feel it's better, much better, now. Especially towards the end of this year, I feel more confident in the work I produce for myself and my clients which is a vital ingredient for a good artist. If you hate your work, other's will feel that too.
I've produced work I'm happy to share online, I've attracted clients who have work for me that is unique and exciting, I've worked on personal projects (see my post on Tok for more info on my personal project at the moment) and liked the work I've produced for them. It's all looking a lot more optimistic as this year finally finishes.
It's still not all quite sunshine and roses, however.
The stability - or lack thereof - of freelance work is still a scary prospect. I still don't know what next month will be like, if I'll get any new work in or whether it'll be quiet. It's worrying moments like this that I'm grateful for my super convenient part-time job, despite wanting to be full-time freelance. I've fully accepted that I'm going to have to have a part-time job for quite a while until I can support myself, my bills, and my future dog *looks off into the distance wistfully* with my illustration income, and that's all ok.
There's also the ever present doubt voice in the back of my head. Yes I am much more happy and confident in the work I'm producing now compared to a few years ago, and yes I am aware that not feeling 100% happy with your work is a good thing and a drive to help you grow, but it can be a bit of a hinderance sometimes. If I'm trying something new, or I have a new client, or a high paying client, or anything of the sort then my little doubt voice decides to chime in with 'oh but what if they don't like that?' 'what if they refuse to pay for that?' 'what if this is all a big waste of time?'.
I'm gradually coming to realise that that little voice is irrational and unnecessary 90% of the time, but that other 10% is useful. If you ever feel 100% happy and content with what you're producing, you won't grow, you won't have a drive to improve and learn because you'll think it's all perfect. So I welcome that 10%, but I need to keep working on ignoring that irrational 90%.
I'm now about 4 years into freelancing seriously, 6 or 7 since my first paid client, and I'm finally seeing some real progress.
After all these years of worrying about whether I can make a valid and stable career out of something I love to do, I'm finally starting to see it as a real thing within reaching distance. I always knew it was possible, other people have managed to do it so I can do it too, but these invisible, intangible hurdles had always held back the ambition and kept the warning signs of 'what if it was all for nothing' up. But they're starting to fall away now, leaving potential and realistic goals in sight. I still have so much more to do and so much more to overcome before I can live the dream and go full-time, but rather than that being some mad pipe dream it's now something achievable.