Just to tie things off, a lot of the stuff I've shared over the last week I've found before COVID-19 and during it. It works for both my own art stuff and for my day job, and it's still stuff that I'm figuring out for myself. I'm sure the appeal of parts is fairly specific to the way I'm wired and probably won't work for a lot of work styles out there. But figured it was worth recording all the same. At the very least the next time I'm in a rut, I'll be able to remember some ways to get back on track.
I started working from home on March 9, so it's been almost two months. I started working on this chapter around the same time, so I'm averaging about one page per week, which is faster than I expected, even if it feels slow when looking at the project as a whole. This chapter has around 50 pages. I've finished six.... which means I have about 40 more. That said, only 12 more are the same 16-panel structure so I'm a third through those; after that it opens up into quadrant panels, full page splashes, and pretty stark pages with very little illustration at all. Hoping things will speed up by then! Might get there by... August? *shudders*
Above is an example of one panel with some two-point perspective. Below are all of the pages so far. All six of them haha. It's still satisfying to see them all together though! There are almost 100 individual panels here!
Escapism is such a useful tool, whether it's through movies, music, podcasts, books, or something else. Lately, I have looked for things that transport me to another time and place and that has mostly been through film. On an average week in normal life, I usually read on my way to and from work, typically an hour each way. With the current circumstances, I’m not commuting, so I'm able to repurpose that time for writing and drawing. Unfortunately, with less time accounted for in my commute, writing and drawing fall higher on my list of priorities than reading so I haven't read in quite some time.
Reading is also a more active form of entertainment in that it requires conscious engagement. I feel like it activates the same imaginative part of the brain that is accessed while writing and illustrating, which also require conscious engagement, so in a way replacing reading with writing and drawing is an equal swap - at least as far as engagement levels go. But I still feel there is an escapism void that can't be filled by my own work, so movies have been filling that instead.
Comics are an interesting blend of movies and novels; they are stationary moments in time but the reader must fill in the blanks between each panel. The visually represented moments are similar to film, and the reliance on the reader to imagine what's happening in the blank space mirrors the need to conjure up a mental visual when reading. It's fun to think about how movies insert ways to show and not tell, and how books find ways to tell without ever showing. For comics, the impulse I often run up against is to tell everything, so seeing how movies do the opposite is really helpful. For instance, a character may say they are doing one thing, but the next scene juxtaposes them doing the opposite. It creates tension and says something about how the character wants to be seen versus how they actually are.
Lately I've been looking for movies that are highly driven by memory and character development, high ranges of emotion, creative explorations of the passing of time, and introspection. Here are a couple that I've been thinking a lot about over the last couple weeks:
Call Me By Your Name: I read a review of this movie that compared it to the book, in which they suggest “The book is a mature and thoughtful vintage; in the film, we’re still picking the grapes.” I’ve yet to read the book (it’s on my shelf!), but the film exudes a nostalgia for a summery world that is at a total standstill, and so much of the characters’ motivations are shown almost imperceptibly through body language and double-edged comments. I love how subdued every moment is, but with a heightened sensitivity at the same time. The movie shows a past teenage romance being felt as if it's still in the present, as opposed to reflecting on it years later, and this causes it to feel more immediate. On top of this, Call Me By Your Name shows a world that is fairly isolated because it takes place in the summer when most people in town are on holiday, so there's a parallel of spending most of one's day at home with family and finding ways to fill the time. There are very few gatherings of more than a handful of people at a time, mirroring the contained world that we are living in right now. It is still magical and exquisitely rich despite the small-scale interactions.
Interstellar: While this is a fairly sensational sci-fi box office hit and it really speaks to my interest in any kind of space movie, what I love most about Interstellar is the cross-generational storytelling; the message is that heartbreak, longing, inspiration, and wistfulness can span any distance and any stakes. I also relate to the hurt the characters feel as their family is rendered inaccessible, causing thoughts and reflections that they had longed to share to be lost in the ether. In ways it's also about letting go of longing for a person's physical presence and focusing instead on their emotional impact, which I think we all experience when we suffer a loss. It makes me think about my grandmother’s dementia, and how there were so many parts of her that were lost before she was really gone. And how I wish that I had started writing about my grandparents earlier so I could share with them how deeply they impacted me, just so they knew. The most painful scene for me is when Coop - frozen in middle-age - leaves his elderly daughter on her deathbed, surrounded by her descendants, because she feels that no parent should experience the death of their child. I love the reversal of roles, of a child giving permission to their parent to feel release and forgiveness, when usually the parent takes the lead. Coop's son also loses a child due to illness, both of his children lose their father due to his mission, and his colleague loses her father due to time. There is a lot of loss across generations and experienced at extremely varied distances.
As much as I get energy from creating something and feeling productive, there are days where I need a day off. For instance, if I’ve put in two 8-hour drawing days over the weekend, have a long day at work on Monday, and am just not finding the motivation to draw later that evening, I designate it as a rest day and go all-in on the recovery (for example, a movie, ice cream, and comfy clothes). I’ve found that if I force myself to work when I’m not feeling engaged with the project, I won’t do my best work, and those feelings will only be compounded each day I feel that way. With creative projects, it’s important to feel excited to work, otherwise the lack of interest with show through.
There are little tricks that I use to see if I genuinely need a break, or if I'm just feeling lazy. Some moments of waning motivation are salvageable. It's one thing if I really can’t get into the headspace that I need to be productive, but it's another if I would prefer to just watch another episode of whatever on Netflix. In those moments, I try to find a quiet and introspective task like boiling water and making herbal tea. I put the cup of tea on my desk, set up the project I’d like to work on, and set up my workspace as if I am about to work. I let my tea cool for a few minutes, drink it while looking at everything in front of me, and often by that point, something grabs me and I’m good to go. Other times, I kick up my feet and start looking at pictures of my niece on Instagram or start making a playlist. If working is not in the cards, I try not to force it.
I have also noticed that I have a tendency to collapse after a long day of work and all I want to do is go to bed. If I’m feeling that temptation bubble up at 2 or 3pm, I will sometimes make a cup of lightly caffeinated tea to perk myself up but not keep myself awake at bed time. Usually at those points, my goal is to remove napping from my list of motivations; I know I will get sleep later on, but there is no need to dive into a nap at 5:30pm, feel disoriented when I wake up, and then struggle to go back to sleep when it’s actually bedtime.
I’ve been listening to Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s quarantine podcast, in which they share the insight, “You are not working from home; you are trying to get work done during a global crisis.” I try to remember that whenever I feel like I’m not being as productive as I'd like to be. While I've celebrated having more time and space to work over the last couple months, the normal measures of productivity just don’t apply right now. I try to walk the line between taking advantage of the extra time and not holding myself to an unrealistic standard given everything that is going on.
When I am writing comics, I need for the music I'm listening to to reflect the emotion I am meditating on in the scene. I also try not to listen to music with lyrics if I am writing because they will distract me and it can quickly become counter-productive. I will sometimes even note down what I was listening to while creating a draft of a scene so that when I return to it for final drafts, I can slip into the same emotional state I was in before. In instances where I've found a song that really suits the emotion of a scene, I will often listen to it on repeat so that it puts me into almost an emotional trance.
For physically writing out dialogue and narration in a final comic draft, I also cannot listen to anything with words. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get distracted and miss a word, skip ahead, or create some kind of grammar error.
On the other hand, if I am doing something that is more about technical drawing and measuring, for instance creating a physical space in a drawing, managing perspectives, or patterning, I often listen to light podcasts and audiobooks that are easy to digest and/or that I have heard before so that I can both focus and not focus on each. I've found that this makes the task feel more comfortable.
When I’m doing independently driven work related to my day job (answering emails, creating trainings, or assessing feedback), I try to find music that will keep me motivated. This really fluctuates depending on how motivated I feel. Some days I want 90s punk rock anthems to amp me up, other days I want ambient tones that help with stress release and focus, and sometimes I want hiphop music with a lot of bass to keep me plugged in. Some people are able to listen to podcasts while they work, but I find that I never actually get things done that way because most of the passive parts of my job are reading and writing based.
It's also a good idea to not listen to anything from time to time. If I'm plugged in 90% of the time that I'm at my desk, I start to feel disconnected or overly stimulated.
When working independently on comics or paintings, I usually take a break when I reach a stopping point. I often use part of the break to step back and assess my progress, while also taking time to use the restroom and grab a drink of water or a snack, and situate my body in a different position (for example, stretching my back and hips after sitting for a long time, lying down, or simply sitting in a different chair). With my day job, I will often take a break immediately following any meeting that is 45 minutes or longer. That may mean lying down for a few minutes and taking some deep breaths. Or it may be talking to Chris for a little while, either to unload to someone with an outside perspective, or to plan our next meal. We will often coordinate our lunch and dinner so that we have that as a rallying point at different points of the day.
I often try to establish a time by which I will have a reward of some kind based on what I am currently working on. This can take all kind of forms. Some examples:
• At 4pm I will take a break to make some herbal tea
• After I've gotten through the unread emails in my inbox, I will work on a slow-burn project that is energizing to me
• Once I finish this panel I will eat a pack of smarties
• Once I have finished this page, I will be done for the night and will watch a movie that transports me to a peaceful place
• Once I’ve finished all my meetings for the day, I will go for a walk around the neighborhood
• Once I’ve finished writing out this briefing, I will listen to an audio book while I cook a meal
Attaching an exciting or energizing habit to a practice you are not excited to do can create a symbiotic relationship between the two: the one you don’t enjoy gets the attention it deserves, and the one that you enjoy is savored even more because of the sense of accomplishment preceding it.
I think it’s important to associate certain spaces with certain kinds of work. For instance, I spent most of my time in my bedroom. My desk is where I sit when I need to be productive and at this point my brain associates work with sitting at the desk. I try not to work from an armchair or my bed because I want to continue to associate relaxation with those spaces. I’ve found that if I spend the day working from my bed and then try to relax with some TV from the same spot, I don’t feel any emotional distance from the work and the motivations of the two activities start to merge. The work feels less productive and the recreation feels less relaxing.
I try to wake up within the same time window each morning and establish a morning routine that allows you to feel little accomplishments. Make your bed. Feed your pets. Brush your teeth. Comb your hair. Make breakfast. Usually I give myself a few breakfast options so I still feel like I have a small menu to choose from, but I'm not scrambling for something to eat because too much was left undefined. Maybe it’s cereal and sliced almonds one morning, then frozen waffles the next, or an English muffin with peanut butter, or a simple omelette. The feeling of choice offers the sensation of control and indulgence - almost like a choose-your-own-adventure - even if what you really want is to grab brunch at the diner down the street.
Over the last couple weeks I've been thinking about how I'm adapting to working from home and what has been working for me. My job normally keeps me quite busy when I'm onsite, so working entirely from home has been a relief. I know it has gotten old for a lot of folks who are able to do their jobs from home, and for various reasons, but I'm still feeling really positive about not needing to leave the house. This got me thinking about how much solitude I can handle, and I think it's quite a lot. Even as a kid, on the weekends I would keep to myself in my room doing crafts or reading while a lot of my friends were doing sports or going to parties, so I think I've just been restored to factory settings.
This has come up before the pandemic too. Last year I learned about a personality type called “highly sensitive person”. As the name suggests, this is a personality classification that indicates a high sensitivity to various triggers in daily life. I'm not totally bought into the idea that personalities fall into one bucket or another and imagine that for most traits there is a broad spectrum on which people fall. But in reading about the idea of 'high sensitivity' there are definitely some highs and lows that I can identify with. For instance, when I'm engaged with a project I'm often submerged for hours if there aren't any distractions. And when I hear a story from a friend I feel like I can visualize it with them. On the other hand, throughout my childhood I was constantly told that I was “too sensitive” by adults because I would cry over little things and I often felt like the emotional parts of my personality were weak and fragile. I'm also very sensitive to criticism and I may take a simple offhand comment as a lack of trust in me as a person. Small disruptions like misplacing an object really get to me too, and I sometimes agonize over certain kinds of violence in the media.
On top this, three years ago as part of a work offsite meeting, I took the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is basically a personality test with 16 different classifications. Again, I try not to put too much stock in personality tests and think they should only be used to better understand your personal motivations and tendencies. Much like astrology, these things are pseudoscientific, but I think if there is something you can relate to that is inspiring or causes more self-reflection, that's great. In this case, I was classified as an "INFJ", which is basically the highly introverted bucket. The pillars of this classification are a gravitation toward meaningful connections + guarded personality/aversion to superficial connections, lofty goals + need to socially withdraw/recharge, creative nature + unrealistically high expectations and stubbornness, and compassion + oversensitivity. In reading through all of the material on INFJs, I felt like I had identified the source of a lot of my hangups and felt a little more comfortable in my own skin.
A few months later, I read Debbie Tung's graphic novel about her decision to leave her tech job and pursue a creative career. At the end of the story, she takes the Meyers-Briggs and is also classified as an INFJ. It was comforting to read through the experience of someone feeling the push and pull of managing the demands of a day job with the creative impulses of a personal career. Fastforwarding to today and the circumstances that the world is currently experiencing with COVID-19, I find a lot of her thoughtfulness about the sanctity of solitude and the value of chasing one's passions to be reassuring. Society is being told to stay home, so finding ways to cater to your defaults eases that adjustment.
When life is normal and we are not in the middle of a pandemic, things like a stressful commute, lots of meetings, and professional commitments are all out of my control and I find I am generally quite sensitive to all the hustle and bustle. I compensate for the sensation of being carried by the tide by building in subtle illusions of control in other parts of my life. I haven't done this consciously, but I tend to create order whenever I can: I use the same products everyday, make my bed the same way, organize my clothes by style and color, heavily use a label maker, and generally live by the "everything has a place and everything in its place" mentality. I have a high bar for order in my apartment, and get more upset over the messes of others than those of my own making. It's comforting to come home and feel that my environment is predictable.
With self-isolation/working from home, my daily life is free from a lot of my normal sources of stress and so I've been able to embrace routines even more. Despite being at the mercy of a global crisis, with small routines in place and without the need to navigate outside my home I feel a lot more centered. The catch phrase right now is "stay home", and because that is where I feel most at ease, the expectation is comforting in a way. I am lucky to still have a job and financial security and my health, and while I fret just as much as the next person about family members getting sick and longterm personal finances and the collapse of the economy, these little illusions of control allow me to let go of my existential worries.
The way things have been the last couple of months, I don’t have a commute, I don’t have to interact with strangers out in public outside of the handful of trips to the market around the corner, I don’t have a large part of my brain occupied by spacial awareness while I’m in a busy office, and I'm making less surprise small-talk. The roads are quieter, I can spend more time with my guinea pig, I have my own kitchen at my disposal, and I can be alone to recharge when I need to be. I still have virtual places to be at certain times during my work day, but meetings feel more under control when taken from my room and my desk, both meticulously programmed to my optimum comfort levels. I am also able to work by a window and out on my deck, whereas in my office, I usually don't see daylight. During a period when the passing of time has become quite imperceptible because each say is so similar to the last, I'm hyper aware of the weather (can I crack my window?), the quality of the sunlight (do I need to draw the blinds to avoid a glare?), and the change of seasons (does that tree across the street always bloom so slowly?). This helps me feel more at peace with the world outside - as scary and as unpredictable as it is.
Everyone is responding to the virus in their own way depending on their line of work and what helps them cope. Some are in an essential line of work and are keeping society running and as healthy as can be, some feel called to act through volunteerism, and others are learning something new or finding comfort in what they know. I'm certainly not an essential worker and in terms of volunteering, have only signed on to run errands for people in my community but have not actually had the opportunity to do so. So my area of expertise is mostly in "staying home" and finding ways to be productive, I'm going to try and share what has been working for me over the course of the next week.
Here's a little slideshow of what I've been working on since mid-March... the images are terrible quality because I haven't scanned them in or anything, but you get the idea.
Social distancing in response to COVID-19 has been a strange experience for me so far, as I'm sure it has for everyone.
I'm lucky that 1. I still have my job and it can be done 100% from home and 2. my natural default is to stay at home working on quiet things. I know that considering oneself an "introvert" is all trendy right now, but being in the comfort of my own home working on quiet things is where I'm happiest. I've slowly realized that it's how I recharge, so being able to do that every day - even take work calls from the comfort of my personal desk - means that my social battery is full much more consistently, and a fuller battery means that I have more energy to work on projects.
My company asked my team to work from home the week of March 9th, which was fairly early in the Boston area, and so it's been almost a whole month already. Time slips by pretty imperceptibly and the days melt into each other without the normal commutes and different surroundings to break up the day and mark the time. But I'm really grateful to have an activity that keeps my mind so occupied during such a scary time. I save at least 10 hours per week not having to commute, I get more sleep, and I can still stay up a little later working on projects without worrying about being tired at work the next day (I'm naturally a night owl, as much as I've tried to be otherwise).
In the last 3 weeks, the only places I've gone are the grocery store around the corner a total of four times, and the local Blick art supply store, which I rollerbladed to for a curbside pickup order of art supplies. That's it. Otherwise I've gone for walks around the neighborhood, sat on my deck, and stayed in my house. There are moments where I'm a little concerned about how much time has passed with me moving within such a tiny radius for days at a time - mostly because it's just strange - but for the most part I feel in my element being tucked away in my room with my guinea pig and headphones and a very clearly demarcated 8 hours for work each day that end exactly at 5pm. Then I usually eat dinner with Chris and spend 4-5 hours working on art.
I've made so much progress in the last month and it really knocks me on my butt how productive I can be when I'm not feeling tugged in every direction at work and getting deflated by the rough commute. It's like art school again, where the main expectation I had of myself was to be at my desk getting things done. The more I do that for my day job, the more I can build a routine for it on my personal time and it feels less intimidating to sit at my desk.
Obviously it's not all sunshine and daisies; there is a different kind of stress always looming, you know, the big, lumbering kind that comes with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and economic crisis and dread that I have the virus and am asymptomatic. When I go to the store, I've started wearing a mask that I use for oil paint mixing, just in case. And I know I'm lucky that I still have a job and that I can put myself at minimal risk and that Chris is still working, while so many people in my life have been furloughed or laid off entirely or have to put themselves at risk. Chris works as an electrician and technically falls under the "essential" category of work, but he also works with his dad and stresses every day about either exposing his dad to the virus or his dad being exposed on a job site. They just applied for a small business loan to keep them afloat so that they both have the option to stop working and stay home. Chris might even stop at the end of this week just to reduce the risk that his dad is facing, even though they tend to go everywhere together anyway and are exposed to the same people and surfaces. But he worries that if they don't get the loan, they won't have any income.
But it is a relief to carve out a quiet part of this bizarre period to work on something I cherish. I started working on much bigger paper, and am really invested in the idea of working with colored pencils all the sudden. I may incorporate watercolor washes still, but I do love simple contour drawings. That said, I kinda feel like the crayon/colored pencil look with monochromatic shading has been done a lot lately (especially with digital drawing platforms) and it's a bit uninteresting; I don't just want to choose to do it that way because it's popular right now and I know it will be accepted fairly easily. I still don't see that much watercolor out there in the graphic novel world and it's one of my favorite mediums because it can both be extremely bright and extremely subdued without feeling all over the map. I may still push to see if there is a way to incorporate it. But the last thing I want is to make unnecessary work if what I have stands on its own, or to trash something by incorporating too many ideas.
Looking over the year so far, I've made a ton of progress with thumbnailing which is a huge relief. It's not the most interesting thing to post about, but I've tried to force myself to chip away at that and now only have maybe a quarter left to thumbnail somewhere in the second half of the book. It still seems like a lot to go, but I was worried if I didn't start allowing myself to dive into the finished product, I would stall out and get discouraged.
A couple weeks ago, I decided to illustrate a full chapter as a test-run: working speed, efficiency, practice with different faces, level of detail, color pallet, material, size, and texture. So far I have three pages done and I'm loosening up. I'd like to have this as a proof of concept by the end of the summer (I know that seems far away but I'm still learning and drawing comics is still foreign to me). Then by the start of 2021, I'd like to have a couple chapters to start shopping around and see if this could go anywhere. But that's not really the important part. Regardless of where it goes out in the world, I need this story to be on paper and not just in my brain, so it will always be something I'm working on even if people don't appear interested in reading it.
Anyway, yesterday I accidentally messed up some shadows in the last two panels of the third page and they really felt like eye sores to me... so now I'm going to spend the next couple hours tracing everything. Womp womp. At least I can fix some other little things that were bugging me I guess.
PS: I think I can actually draw a bike now without the need for a visual reference! I love the feeling of being able to invent something in my brain and put it on paper without needing to crosscheck Google images; though I do have a rich collection of bike images and other tricky-to-draw things on a Pinterest page, not gonna lie. Reference photos are always super important, but it's a relief when you can stop relying on them all the time and trust your own brain. The easier that becomes, the faster the drawing goes!
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Brookline, MA.