When I rush into an illustration project and go straight to sketching without going through my concepting process, I feel like a blank page is just staring back at me. That feeling SUCKS. Let’s fix that.
As creative professionals, we are required to perform creative tasks on demand for our clients. Meaning, we can’t wait for “creativity to strike”. As though there is some kind of magical moment that opens up our creativity and allows us to create a masterpiece (that’s a total myth, but more on that later)
Don’t get me wrong, ideas come to me at inopportune times that are both unexpected and sometimes inconvenient. Often I’m in the shower, outside on a walk, or travelling. But I have built a system to be able to extract ideas when I need to.
Here are 5 exercises to help improve your on-demand creativity.
1. Keep a brain dump
Your brain isn’t meant to hold ideas, it’s meant to generate ideas. So find a place to put your ideas.
I keep an app on my phone and dump ideas in there for projects as I’m out and about. So that when I sit down to start a project I am not faced with staring at a blank page.
I use ClickUp for all my business management. I have a dedicated projects space and a brain dump list that I can access both at home and on the go. Some other apps you might try are Notion, To-Doist, Apple Reminders or Notes.
Exercise: Create a central brain dump
- Find an app that you can have access to on both desktop & mobile and create yourself a brain dump. If you prefer a more tactile approach, then find a small notebook that you take with you everywhere. And actually use it.
- If you have scattered notes in various areas, spend some time compiling them into one central location.
If you find you aren’t using the system you first set up, change it. Try it again.
*The best system for you is the one you actually use*
2. Create a ritual
Create a system so you know how to activate the creative part of your brain when you need to.
Find a good playlist, put on some noise-cancelling headphones, light a candle, make a cup of tea, start a time tracker. Whatever it is that you like to do when you sit down to create, create a ritual of it. This helps tell our brain that it’s time to get creative.
Here is my Creative Ritual:
- I do some of my best creative work in the morning, and I love illustrating after dinner when there is no pressure. In the afternoon I tend to be a zombie so I don’t schedule deep work time then, I’ll often run some errands or get out of the house, or choose a light task like replying to emails, or network meetings.
- I love to work in 2-3 hour blocks. I block it out in my calendar so that I can’t be scheduled for meetings during these times
- Set my phone to Deep Work, then put my phone in a separate room from where I’m working. This limits my visual stimulus to want to pick it up and check it…for no dang good reason at all. Oh you know what I’m talking about.
- Turn on the Toggl timer. The timer signals to my body I’m on the clock, so I’ll make the most of this time.
- Choose an affirmation, say it out loud, then set the card on my desk so I can see it when I glance away from my screen. My favourite affirmation is “My creativity is worth investing in” as it says to me, I’m worth investing in. And that really lifts me up and empowers me to dig in and do the hard work.
- I plug into a playlist & put on noise cancelling headphones. I find this helps me focus on what I’m doing, and remove all other distractions. It tells my body that we are getting ready to create.
- If I’m just starting a project, I’ll open up the brain dump to decide what to create. If I’ve got something on the go, I can pick up where I left off.
Exercise: Find your ritual
- Write out what rituals you have or want to implement in a list like I did above. You likely have some that you don’t realize, it’s good to write it down and get really clear on what those are.
- Create a focus mode on your phone that blocks out all distractions and call it “Deep Work” (or whatever you’d like!). When this goes on, no one can reach you for that time block you’ve set aside.
- Figure out what time of day you do your best work. Block out 2-3 hour chunks of time to create so you can’t be booked in a meeting during that time.
- Do this for 2 weeks and re-evaluate if those rituals were the right ones. Adjust and implement as needed.
3. Set an affirmation
This is a way to create a positive creative mindset for us to do our best work.
I used to think this was a little to woo woo for me, but what it was actually doing was putting me in a positive growth mindset instead of giving in to imposter syndrome before pencil had touched the page.
This has changed my creative practice and is one of the ways I have found I can now pull on-demand creativity more effectively than prior to implementing this ritual. I learned this from Emily Jeffords who is a 7 figure artist, mentor & creative entreprenuer.
Exercise: Create your own affirmation cards
Create 5-6 affirmation cards with positive messages on them (here are a few examples below from Emily Jeffords Affirmation Cards
You can also do a google search or check out Etsy for other affirmation card ideas. I like to use a heavier cardstock so I can re-use the affirmations, but you can use whatever you’ve got on hand (recipe card, construction paper, cereal box)
- My creativity is worth investing in
- My efforts are making a difference
- I am called to be creative
- Every day I am moving toward my goal
- I am exactly where I need to be
- The things I create bring goodness to myself and those around me
- My work deserves to take up space
- I trust in the process and I trust myself.
When you sit down to create, incorporate this into your ritual to set the tone for yourself and that creative session.
4. Find your process
Find the apps, software & processes that work FOR YOU.
Everyone has personal preferences on what apps to use, which caters to how they think. I’ll share what my process is, take what you need from it and leave what you don’t need.
Currently, I’m creating a series of fall illustrations for an Instagram challenge. Here is my process for those after I’ve done my creative ritual.
- Concept & Direction – word clouds/mind maps. I like to write out words to expand my ideas before sketching. For this project, I created a procreate document for each prompt and brainstormed word clouds that came to mind before the challenge started. This allowed me to work the 5 illustrations together to see the commonalities & differences.
- Concept & Direction – reference images & moodboards. When working with just one illustration, I can refer back to the word cloud and hop on Pinterest for some reference images and compile them in Milanote. I love pulling images from Pinterest over to Milanote into a reference board to give me an idea of visuals I want to draw. You can check out my video on how I use Pinterest & Milanote together.
- Rough Sketch – Start sketching individual elements and determine what could be a creative composition for the illustration to convey the prompts. Sometimes I will sketch a few different compositions in various thumbnails to help see it in a different way.
- Refined sketch – move elements around to refine the composition. Refine lines & shapes.
- Colour blocking – rough colour block to determine the colour palette OR if I already have a colour palette I’m working with, this helps to see how the colours will harmonize together in the composition. This is on one layer, quick & dirty, not always colouring inside the lines lol.
- Illustration – Here I am testing out different brushes, or if it’s later in the project and I have those established I’m drawing in colour! I tend to block out most of the shapes first, then go back in and add texture.
- Final touches – additional lighting and shading, details, colour correction, grain etc.
When I rush into an illustration project and go straight into sketching without having written down my word clouds and looked for some visual references, I feel like a blank page is just staring back at me. That feeling SUCKS.
When you hear the phrase, trust the process, that’s what it means. Find the process that works for you and avoid the temptation to take shortcuts. Your work will be stronger for it, and you will be growing as an artist when you create time and space to open up your creativity.
Exercise: Define your process
- Write down what your process is for your kind of artwork or design, from start to finish just like I did above. Focus on what time of day you do your best work
- What part of your process feels most uncomfortable to you? Is there something you can change in your process to help you move through it? (Hint: either you change something in the process or you change your mindset about that particular part of the process)
- Where have you made shortcuts to this process in the past that haven’t worked out? Learning this will help you become aware of what your process needs to be in order for you to create on demand.
5. Trust yourself.
If you don’t trust yourself, you’ll be creating from a place of insecurity, doubt & fear. That is where imposter syndrome lives.
I like to think trusting myself is like a muscle, I have to exercise it for it to be strong. If I have strayed from creating my own personal work for a while, I tend to have a tougher time trusting that I know what I’m doing and that I can create something that is both meaningful & aesthetically pleasing.
I have a board in my studio with changeable letters that says “Trust Yourself”. It’s a powerful message to tell myself when I’m at the beginning of a brief and I think I have no idea how to add value to a project, until I start.
Our thoughts influence our emotions, and how we feel about something. And our emotions tend to drive our actions, so if we can influence our thoughts then we can influence our actions. We can call on creativity when we need it, we just need to trust that we have a system and process in place, that will allow us to create on demand more effectively.
Your creativity is worth investing in.
The world needs your artwork & designs.
- Write “Trust yourself” somewhere in your workspace where you see it daily. Or put a stickie note on the bathroom mirror or on a cupboard door you frequently open. The more you see it and say it, the more you will start to believe it. The more you believe it, the more expansive your work will become.
I hope this gives you some tangible & actionable ways to open up your creativity and start to trust your process and yourself. Let me know in the comments if any of these exercises helped you or if there is something you would add to this list!