Blue Jays

Not going to lie – it was really hard to draw this week. It was the week that the kids were home because of the pandemic, but the school hadn’t gotten their plan together yet, so it was a “scramble a schedule of pseudo-learning activities together so they don’t kill each other or conspire against me” week. And it was mostly successful, as no one is dead. But I didn’t feel like drawing.

Just now, I was outside on the balcony, staring into the gray and overcast North Texas sky, thinking about how this outbreak came at the exact right time to wrap up the hardest year of my life. But before I could spend much time focusing on when exactly I must have brought this Egyptian curse on myself by defiling a mummy in my youth, I noticed the blue jays bobbing around the apartment. They’re my favorite birds that live around my home, and it looks like they’ve decided that spring has returned, so so have they.

I walked back inside, grabbed a sketchbook, and did a quick drawing.

While watching the birds going about their day, I had a few quick thoughts (all at once) on how to deal with life right now.

EMBRACE THE STRESS

Easy to say; hard to do. But do you think that flying south for the winter is a blast? No. I’m guessing it sucks. And then you have the return trip. Which probably sucks. But these guys do it every year. When the temperature around here starts to drop in the winter, they don’t throw up their wings and decide they just can’t deal, man. They rise up and get to work. And we have to do the same thing in the coming weeks and months. For me, this means that every morning before I wake my kids up, and I look at my list of things to get done that day, I can’t panic, and I can’t let it overwhelm me. I just have to accept that it’s going to be stressful (it may very well straight up suck), then put on a smile and start making breakfast.

GIVE GRACE TO YOURSELF, THEN GIVE IT TO OTHERS

The next step after accepting that things are going to be hard is to give yourself some grace. You are not going to get everything done today. You are not going to be the perfect parent. You are going to forget to do the dishes. You are going to fall asleep on the couch instead of playing the sixth educational video about why soap is important that the school has recommended. And it’s okay. Just go ahead and forgive yourself for all that stuff before you even put pants on. All that you can expect of yourself each day is to do the best that you can. That’s it.

Once you can do that for yourself, don’t forget to do it for the other people in your life. Chances are a lot of them aren’t going to embrace the stress as well as you do. They’re going to get overwhelmed. They’re going to have short tempers. They’re going to emotionally shut down. If you have little kids, they might just go insane every 26 minutes. And when they do, remember that some mature, cool-headed person gave you grace when you lost it in the past. If we are all willing to give help to those we can help, and actually receive help from those who can give it, then we’re all going to get through this in one, mostly recognizable piece.

TAKE HOLD OF OPPORTUNITIES

The blue jays weren’t just sitting around; they were living. It rained last night, so half of them were collecting blown off twigs and leaves for their nests. The other half were murdering little frogs in the rain puddles to take back to their chicks. We should do the same. Metaphorically. Don’t actually kill a bunch of little frogs…. I’ve already made that mistake once as a kid (maybe that’s where the Egyptian curse came from…).

I’m guessing you have a lot of extra time on your hands all of the sudden. Well, maybe you now have the time you’ve always wanted to volunteer at your local food bank (or simply donate with the extra cash you’re saving from not going out right now). That big project you’ve been dying to get to, that you fall asleep thinking about every night? Go for it. Paint your first oil painting, build that card table, illustrate that graphic novel, learn Japanese, finally learn to balance a checkbook, whatever. Build stronger relationships with your family and friends. Check in more, share your heart, reconnect with your spouse, learn your boyfriend’s middle name, or spend more time with your kids (you have no choice anyway). You have a once in a lifetime opportunity now to build the skills, habits, relationships, and life you’ve always wanted. Do it now, and when things get back to normal, that new normal will be so much easier and fulfilling.

BELIEVE IN PROMISES

When the blue jays migrated, did they know for a fact that better feeding grounds were waiting down south? Or when they got back in the spring? No. But something deep in the back of their tiny, tiny bird brains promised them things were going to be fine. In the same way, we each need to have faith that things will get better, and that promise is stronger than this virus. Because I believe that, because I belive that God has a plan for me, and a better tomorrow for my family, I can continue to work remote during the day, draw silly animals at night, and laugh with my kids in between.

WRAPPING UP

So, because I saw some blue jays (now joined by a group of sparrows) flitting between the magnolia trees and the rooftops, I was given the clear message to wake up and remember to embrace stress, give grace, and rest on faith while working towards a better tomorrow. Maybe the coming year really will be an improvement.

PROJECT UPDATES

  • In an act of taking my own medicine, I’ve given myself grace by pushing a few illustrations I’d scheduled to make this month into April, knowing that I’ll need that time to focus on my kids and getting all our schedules rebuilt.
  • I did, however build and launch my Society6 shop! I’ve got six of my favorite pieces up there available as prints, canvases, notebooks, and cards.
  • In a second round of sucking it up and practicing what I preach, this week I’ll begin development on a science fiction graphic novel I’ve been dying to make since 2009. It was originally conceived as an animated short, so the first chapter is already fully boarded, so I’ll just have to translate that into comic pages. But first, I’ll be revisiting the character designs, and those sketches will be hitting my instagram in the coming weeks.
  • And speaking of my instagram, a promotion of a recent painting is wrapping up now. I’m pretty happy with the response, and have picked up 12 followers, and a ton of views of my work and website.
  • Tonight, I’ll be drawing last week’s Inktober 52 prompt “tower” (I’m falling behind, but it is what it is), so until that’s done, here’s my last one for “elf,” inspired by my daughter.

Work/Life Balance

Need to start this post off with a huge disclaimer: I haven’t been the best at work/life balance in the past. Actually, there have been seasons in my life (as I expect with most artists) where I have been terrible. There have been times where I have taken on too much work in order to provide for my family and move my career forward. But it was never worth it, because it just took me away from my family, and I apologize for that. Even now, when I have a much better handle on schedule, my kids tell me from time to time that they don’t think it’s fair to me that I “have” to work late at night, instead of watching TV or going to bed. They are great kids, but more about that below.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about work/life balance. I’ve read up on it, and listened to some good podcasts about it (3 Point Perspectives, in particular, did a great episode on it). When I was younger, it didn’t really matter. At that point, you’re barely even responsible for yourself, let alone any other relationship, so it’s no big deal to spend all day on artwork and projects in class (high school to college to film school), then go home and just spend the rest of the night drawing or painting or watching Fraiser reruns or whatever. However, now that I’m 35 and have hit my 1/3 life crisis, I’ve discovered that work/life balance is the biggest issue facing adult artists, hobbiests, crafters, writers, and anyone with creative interests. How are we supposed to focus on getting all the great stuff out of our heads and into the world and, you know, have a life?

I’m a single dad (and I’ll be approaching this subject from that point of view), so maintaining a healthy work/life balance is especially important for me. That’s because, right now (since my kids are 7 and 5), the “life” part of the balance is making sure everyone is fed, clean, clothed, rested, not fighting over whose R2D2 that is, and where they need to be at all times… me included. So let’s look at what a normal day of the week looks like for me.

Weekdays

Weekdays start when my alarm goes off at 6 a.m. This is all dependent on if I haven’t been kicked awake by a groggy kid sneaking into my bed before the alarm. Once I’ve fought myself awake, I do some light exercise (pushups, curls, crunches, etc.), make coffee, read a chapter in the Bible, and get myself ready for the day. I don’t want to gloss over two of those points (and no, one of them is not “make coffee” to all you people reading this blog while wearing some kitchy meme-worthy shirt about the importance of coffee in your life). For artists, maybe more so than for everyone else, exercise is crazy important, because our jobs and interests generally call for us to sit, hunch, and/or do repetitive motions all day. So, do not skip moving your muscles around and stretching. This seems really obvious, but I can think of two times in the last five years where I have thrown my lower back out just because I’ve been sitting at a computer working for too long, and I’m relatively young and healthy, so you’re definitely going to get screwed up too. Also, the Bible reading. Whether you’re religious or not, study, prayer, and meditation are incredibly useful tools for aligning your heart, soul, and mine. I strongly recommend.

Alright, it’s 6:30 a.m., and hopefully I have both my hair combed and my pants on, because it’s time to wake up the kids. Neither are what I would call morning people (especially my son), so I carry each to their respective bathrooms where their clothes are waiting for them, kiss them on the heads, tell them something intentionally annoyingly chipper/motivational, and go make breakfast. At this point in the morning, we enter the “herding cats phase” as my kids tend to constantly forget what to do to get ready for school unless they are constantly reminded. By 7:20 a.m., we’re all ready to go (give or take my son’s hair being combed, as he is a little boy, and has not fully bought in that this is something that should actually happen every day), and we leave the apartment, get in the car, and do school drop off.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “This is supposed to be about work/life balance, and all this guy is talking about is Life.” You are correct, but not how you think you are. I intentionally start the day off only with the Life part of the divide, to serve as a reminder that that’s the part that is infinitely more important. Family is more important, relationships are more important, so if I have some work to do in the morning, then I wake up between 5 and 5:30 to get it out of the way before it can impact Life.

Okay, the kids are safely in the hands of the Texas public school system, so now Work begins, and I’m usually in the office between 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. I play the part of Lead Graphic Designer for my day job, an actual creatively rewarding job that allows me to mix in illustration, video, motion, and animation throughout the many projects I touch on a daily basis. But the best perk during this season is that I work with people and in culture that respects the need for a healthy life, and I have great flexibility in schedule to be there for my kids. Sick kid and I need to work remote? Done. Emergency or meeting at the school and I need to cut out quick to attend? It ain’t no thing. Easier said than done, but I suggest every artist, until you have the ideal, dream job, when all you do is draw monsters or sculpt miniture cacti all day (or whatever you’re thing is), to get a job like this, because flexibility with kids is best thing you could ask for.

Dad Stuff

Case in point, last week I was able to chaperone Teddy’s field trip and do Reading Buddies with Omi (which is an every Thursday thing). Thing is, these Life vacations are only possible when you have Work locked down, and you have the faith of your co-workers that you’re gonna get everything done. Most artists suck at deadlines (I won’t use “creatives” because I find that term is always used when explaining why an adult can’t get things done in time, balance a checkbook, or tie their shoes). Sometimes, I suck at deadlines, and I always suck at routine. So I’ve learned in the last year that I need to schedule my day out into chunks, sometimes down to 30 minute blocks, to assure that I get all my priorities done. I use the app Todoist because it’s synced between my phone and work and home computers, and I plan out my projects, chores, and family time each day. It’s kinda my robot secretary. Okay, I’m just going to call it that from now on.

Okay, back to Work. When I’m at work, I’m at work. I stick to my list as best as I can, prepare for and attend my meetings, and knock out all my planned projects. I’ve found that, in conjunction with Todoist, that timing my work is super helpful. I use the app Be Focused for that, and I have it set to work intensely for 50 minutes, then take a 10 minute break to get up, move around (again EXERCISE, kids), and check emails and texts. Rinse and repeat. Before I know it, it’s about 5 p.m., I’ve been machine-level productive, and it’s time to pick up the kids from after school care.

We’re back squarely into Life now, from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. In the past, I’ve let Work bleed into this time, and it’s always been a disaster. What happens every time is that the kids and I lose patience with each other, stuff around the home doesn’t get done, and the work ends up sucking anyway. No – just focus on Life now. During this time (which I’ve already sketched out in Todoist as soon as I got to work in the morning), I make dinner, maintenance clean the kitchen and living areas (while the kids are supposed to pick up their rooms – hahaha), do bathtime, make lunches and pick out clothes for the next day, and watch TV or do an activity, and read together. The only Work that I allow to exist in this space is Inktober drawing, because Teddy and Omi do that with me.

By 8:30 p.m. the kids are in bed and totally, not faking-it asleep. Now the final block of Work for the day can start, and it’s the stuff I’ve been dying to do all day. This isn’t day job stuff, but freelance graphic art or logo work, or personal projects, designed to push my illustration career forward, or just for fun (in a perfect world, it’s both). I’ve found that doing digital artwork on week nights is better than traditional media, since there’s no clean up involved. I’ll listen to music or an audio book while working until about 10:30 p.m. (unless I’m on an deadline or get sucked into something, then all bets are off and 1 a.m. is on the table). At that point Work can stop, and I focus on some Life just for me, usually a little TV or reading, before knocking out so everything can start again at 6 a.m.

Weekends

Weekends are totally different, and by design. On the weekends that the kids are with me, Saturdays are for weekly chores and family time (parks, swimming, etc.), with only a some project work mixed in. Sundays are completely set aside for Life, with church in the morning and time with the kids to play and relax the rest of the day. My brother’s family also lives in town, so we hang out with them on the weekends sometimes too. On weekends that the kids are staying with their mom, I have Friday night blocked off for personal time (dating, movies, dinner out, etc.), and Saturday/Sundays for big traditional artwork projects. That’s when I’ll get complicated stuff drawn and inked, and if I want to do a painting or sculpture, I’ll do it during this time, because I can focus for long periods of time without having stuffed animals thrown at my head.

Wrapping Up

So, that was way longer than I planned. You might be asking, why so much detail? Well, for some of you, you’re generally interested in what my days look like, but mostly it’s because I can answer in that much detail. And that’s only because I made figuring out my work/life balance problems a priority. Because I know how everything breaks down in so much detail, I’m able to volunteer regularly at my kids’ school, mentor a 7th grader on Fridays, take my kids to ballet practice every week, be there for the people who I care the most about at the drop of a hat, and still get a ton of work done in the office and at home. Basically, what I’ve figured out after a lot of trial and error, is that by focusing on God, my family, and my health first, the artwork takes care of itself, and I’m way more productive in quantity and quality.

Project Updates

  • Still waiting on a client to release the products associated with two huge poster/t-shirt designs I’ve finished. I’m extremely proud of them, and can’t wait to share them here and on social. Once released I’ll do a deep dive into the full project, and share the design process.
  • Just found out yesterday that official fan art can be sold on Teepublic for Adventure Time and Venture Brothers, two of my favorite animated shows of all time! This is great, because I was planning on doing big illustration projects for each property already, and now I’ll also be making Flat Pop collections for each over the next month to sell.
  • In December, my kids and I discovered “Gravity Falls,” and it quickly became our favorite shared TV show. So, I’ve decided to create a multimedia collection of fan art pieces around the show, including small sculptures, Flat Pops, a poster design, and entries in my new Redrawn series. So look out for those projects to start popping up in the coming weeks and months.
Little White Lie, 11×14″ Ink and Watercolor
  • What is Redrawn, you ask? It’s a brand new series of paintings that I’ve wanted to start for a long time, in which I invision classic characters from animation in my traditional illustration style. The first was “Little White Lie” which was recently shown at the “For the Love of Artists” exhibition at the Kettle Art Gallery.