I'm chatting to writers, painters, poets, illustrators, musicians (and more) about their experience of taking part in a creative challenge. Last week I spoke to Amy about her 365 etching project (you can read her interview over here), and this week I had a wonderful interview with Durban based creative, Liz Sparg, about creative community, newness, illustration and following your nose.
Claire: Hi Liz, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me this morning.
Liz: Hello Claire, I’m looking forward to it!
Claire: Let’s dive into talking about your creativity challenge, shall we? How did you get started with your 100 day illustration challenge?
Liz: In 2015 I discovered Inktober midway through the challenge, did the remaining few days and decided I definitely wanted to do a full challenge the next year. In 2016 I signed up for one artwork per week, or 52 artworks in a year. It was when I started that challenge that I began using Instagram way more than I had been and it was Instagram that helped me discover a range of other artists. Through them I stumbled upon a Skillshare course. Its funny how all these things lead to where you end up. The Skillshare course was about creating repeat watercolour patterns which I thought sounded fun. I signed up for a live workshop over a few weeks and I just loved it.
Claire: What was it that you enjoyed about the Skillshare course, and where did that lead you next?
Liz: I loved the fact that you could use your art to make something practical. From there I got side-tracked (again) when I discovered an online illustration course through Make Art That Sells with Lilla Rogers. Lilla Rogers is really good at helping artists understand how to make money from their art through practical means like designing patterns for home decor goods, for example. I’d always done illustration but until then hadn’t considered I could make a proper living from it. I enrolled in her 5 month Assignment Bootcamp in March 2016 and in that process became part of an online art community. After completing the bootcamp I then I signed up for their Illustrating Children’s Books course. It was amazing! It was super challenging: it pushed me, and it changed the way I approached illustration. Typically I would have painted or drawn from real life, or from a photograph, but this course helped me to draw from my imagination in order to tell a story. Through the online community with Make Art That Sells, I began to run into the same people over and over. A group of them decided to start a 100 day illustration project and set up a facebook group for it and invited the rest of us to join, and that is how I ended up doing my current 100 days of illustration. By the way, we’re using the hashtag #MATS100days if you want to have a look.
Claire: That’s an amazing rabbit trail!
Liz: It is! The reason I gave you the rabbit trail is because my style of art has evolved based on the things I’m discovering through these online communities. Platforms like Instagram have pushed me in a direction that I never even thought of a year and a half ago.
Claire: I’ve heard so many people say that Instagram opened things up for them in terms of inspiration, connections, ideas, and learning.
Liz: Instagram is amazing. As an artist there is just so much inspiration. On Instagram, I generally don’t follow friends like I do on Facebook. I follow people whose work I love. It’s like a feast for the eyes. It feeds into your subconscious and influences what you do. Instagram has also been a great way to share my work and get feedback immediately. Its taught me to put myself out there and become comfortable with that. I put the “perfect” stuff on my website, but I treat Instagram as a sketch book.
Claire: So you’re on day 17 of your 100 day illustration project. Do you have a particular goal for this challenge?
Liz: Originally it was to produce more work. Drawing is like exercising a muscle: the more you work at it the better you get at it. So that was the main thing. I started off with a botanical theme I thought would be easy, but I quickly got bored of it, and switched it up to focus on children’s book illustration working with storytelling and characters creating a little mood or theme. It may change again if I get bored! At the moment I’m loving it because it allows me to do anything really and I am learning as I go.
Claire: Here’s a question for you, and it's something I struggle with. Some artists select a medium or technique and they dive into it, focus on it and get better and better at it. It's the only thing they do. I’ll give you an example. I came across a lino cut artist who for five years or more has been doing the same thing. They’re really good at what they do. My response to that is so ambivalent. Part of me really wants to be able to do that, but another part of me completely revolts against it. I’m really interested in these issues of boredom, focus, sameness, and newness. With all the things you do - graphic design, textile design, web design, illustration, 2D animation - have you settled that this is just who you are, and how you are? Or do you ever feel the need to do just one thing?
Liz: I like to do a lot of different things. I don’t wish I was more focused although I do see the value in it. I feel like there’s value in learning, and changing and doing things differently and taking opportunities and following your nose. That's how I ended up where I am. I never set out to do web design, or illustration. At varsity I studied a BA degree with subjects I enjoyed. I follow what I enjoy at this point in time and run with it and see where it leads me.
Claire: By the way, I’m not looking for an ideal answer here, I am just interested in how different people work.
Liz: I get excited by new projects and challenges. Sometimes so much so that my ‘real’ work gets sidelined. But yes, newness excites me, it energises me and keeps me going. Perhaps if I had a long term business goal, my approach might be different. I used to be a competitive rower, I rowed for South Africa and had my sights set on the Olympics. I rowed and trained every day and I was very goal oriented. When I retired from rowing nearly 10 years ago I became “anti-goal” orientated. That’s a lot of who I am at the moment. Those years were so focused and rowing consumed my whole life so I said to myself I don’t want something to take over my life like that again. (Ironically, running your own business tends to take over your life!)
Claire: True! But perhaps it's a more multifaceted take-over?
Liz: Yes and there's a flexibility in that as well. I go where it takes me.
Claire: I suppose different people have different values. For some people their priorities are mastery and perfection, whereas someone else might value learning, new knowledge and curiosity over mastery.
Liz: I think I’m learning that I’m one of those people.
Claire: Then again, you don’t lose your knowledge of web design when you learn textile design. It all builds on your existing knowledge.
Liz: Yes, that’s true and everything I’m doing does tie together. The graphic design and the web design and the illustration all fit together. A client might need a website, a logo and an illustration. As an artist or a creative person, the world is your oyster. You don’t have be stuck in one way of doing things. If you’ve found your niche and you love it and you’re really good at it, then more power to you! Maybe I just haven’t found that ‘one thing’ yet!
Claire: I listened to a podcast (I forget the details, I must look it up) that dealt with sameness and niche work. The author being interviewed had written a best-selling book and his publishers assumed his next book would be in a similar genre, but it was totally different! The publisher’ asked, ‘Well, how are we supposed to categorise you, how are we we supposed to market you?’ And the big question, ‘How do we build a brand around you when you keep changing your style?’
Liz: That makes sense. I did struggle with my brand, partly because because I do so many different things and I wasn’t sure how to pull all those things together. Did I need a separate website for my illustration, or did I put all these things together? If I want to attract publishers I need to be taken seriously as an illustrator and if they go onto my current website, they might wonder what it is I really do! Branding is a challenge. If you are doing so many diverse things, how do you present yourself to the world? That’s also a struggle with social media. Right now I only post my illustration to Instagram, but with Facebook I used it more for my graphic design and web design work. I share that with my network there. But it is quite difficult. I would never post web design on my Instagram. And how are we supposed to market ourselves? That is a challenge! And then what if I change my focus? I spend all this time and energy marketing my web work but perhaps in a year’s time I’ll want to do less websites and more illustrations.
Claire: I totally understand! Here’s another question for you - do you ever struggle with being stuck for ideas?
Liz: Yes! When I started with this 100 day challenge I started with botanicals and I got stuck. There wasn’t the enthusiasm there. But with the switch to storytelling I got unstuck. I also switched from drawing every day to three times a week so there is less pressure and the ideas are flowing. Getting stuck can be a problem but from the conversations I hear within the artistic community that's quite normal. Everyone goes through it and you just have to keep going and then you find you’re on the other side.
Claire: Are there any tools or techniques you use when you feel stuck?
Liz: I have a standard fall-back - something one of my art lecturers taught many years ago. If you don’t have a subject to paint just do a self-portrait. I used to do that often. I now have a collection of self portraits because whenever I haven’t painted for a while and I need to get back into it I do a self portrait. It's a way to get back into your work. I also found I like to paint cheetahs for some reason when I’m stuck. They’ve become a theme for me.
Claire: That’s a really great tool!
Liz: It gets you back into the groove and the self portraits are a nice collection to have as well! You can see how your style changes over the years.
Claire: You’ve mentioned you’re part of a number of online creative communities. What role has community played in your creativity?
Liz: Inspiration is a big one - gathering inspiration, and seeing what other people are doing. Some of the work I’ve seen being part of these online communities is phenomenal. I’ve often felt envious and that pushes me to be better. When I show my work to friends and family they might say, ‘Oh that’s fantastic’. But when I look at the work other illustrators are producing I think, “My work is crap!’’ I know that sounds negative and it can be - some days you can be too hard on yourself - but it can also challenge you to push yourself harder and go further. You can see other people's work, feel a sense of envy but use it as a positive thing.
Claire: Tell me a bit more about the concept of envy as helpful.
Liz: There was a stage when I couldn’t get my head around creating characters, different scenes, moods and interactions. It was all so new to me. I used to see how beautiful other people’s work was and would compare it to mine. But I watched a very helpful short video on envy* and learned that envy can help me identify what it is I really want. It was great to get that feedback from myself and see that growing in my illustration is something I really want. We were talking about community though...
Claire: Yes, we were. You mentioned inspiration as an important aspect of creative community.
Liz: Oh yes, inspiration is the first thing I’ve taken from these communities. The second is encouragement. To hear that other people struggle with the same things I do is immensely encouraging. In the group someone might ask, “Is anyone else really struggling to get this challenge done on time?” Someone might say how they haven't done their laundry in a month trying to stay on top of things and you realise we’re all just human. You don’t beat yourself up as much as if you were on your own.
Claire: Is there anything else you’ve gained from these communities?
Liz: Opportunities. I wouldn’t have even done this challenge if it weren’t for these communities. New challenges, workshops, learning, opportunity. You don’t always find these things on your own.
Claire: Are you part of any ‘real life’ communities?
Liz: No, sadly not. A couple of years ago I joined a painting group but I don’t do well painting in a group. I’m a bit of a homebody and I like my own space. But having a few people you can just chat about ideas with, show your work, get feedback, bounce ideas off of. It would be great to meet with like minded people once a month and share ideas. I think the trick is to find your people, and I’m not quite sure how to do that. This conversation we’re having right now is really great! I do have a friend who is an interior decorator and when we get together we just talk for hours non-stop about all the ideas we have! You don’t even need a big group, just two or three people. In that sense it's really great. Meeting informally, chat about what you’re doing.
Claire: Your illustration is quite a big theme, and we haven't yet spoken about where you want to take your illustration. Where do you see that going?
Liz: I’m currently working with a South African author who's written some lovely stories. We’re putting together a pitch for publishers. I’d love to get picked up by an international publisher. I’m working on my portfolio and gearing towards that. When I look back over the years I see that children’s books have been a theme for me. I’ve done this kind of work before for several clients who wanted illustration work. I illustrated an activity book for a group of game lodges, and also did some illustration for an author who was self publishing. This was at a stage when I wasn’t really thinking of going into illustration so seriously. Another aspect of my illustration is fabric design. Once this illustration pitch is out of the way I’ll focus more on developing a range of fabrics and working out the details of costing and manufacturing. Illustration wise, these are the two avenues I’m following. I’m just putting myself out there and will see where it goes.
Claire: As someone who seems unafraid to jump right in and just start, what would you say to people who have a creative a project in mind but are struggling to get going?
Liz: I’d say ‘just start!’ On a more serious note though, if you’re really struggling to start there’s probably a reason. Maybe the project you’ve set yourself isn’t 100% true to who you are. Don’t force yourself to stick to the project rules, make it work for you. Be open to changing things up and do what comes to you. If you’ve committed to lino cuts but you end up doing oil painting, don’t beat yourself up about it!
Claire: A last question for you Liz. Are there any resources you’d recommend? (Books, youtube channels, instagram accounts etc.)
Liz: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It helped me so much in changing my mindset and removing a lot of resistance I had about my work. Skillshare is another good one, and the first three months are only 99c. It is especially helpful for traditional artists who want to make the shift to digital. There are a couple of Instagram accounts I love: Kirsten Sims a local illustrator. I love her style so much it kills me. And of course I follow a ton of other MATS students who do beautiful, inspiring work. I also follow a lot of nature, ocean and animal photographers like National Geographic.
Claire: I have now asked everything I wanted to ask plus everything I didn’t plan on asking! I really appreciate your time and openness Liz. Thank you so much.
Liz: It’s a pleasure! See you when you’re next in Durban?
Claire: It's a date!