My Daily Routine: Comics, Podcasts & Visual Development At Disney

People always ask me about my daily routine.

Sometimes this question is code for or coupled-with “Do you ever sleep?” and sometimes they just want to know what my work days are like at Disney.

Although a worthwhile productivity talk requires more words than this post can hold, I’ll share about my daily routine and my life at the studio. …which will give a little insight into my disciplines for productivity.

If you have more questions after reading this, please post them in the comments below and I will respond.

I try to wake up every day at 6:30 am.

Occasionally, I cheat and wake up at 7, but since I started my webcomic, I’ve been very disciplined.

I make a pot of Trader Joe’s Organic Bolivian Coffee, work on my comic for three hours (caffeinating all the while), groom, pour another cup of coffee to go and leave for work.

My sweet wife Angie usually makes a brown-bag lunch for me so I can get the most out of my lunch break.  (…more on this in a later post.)

Occasionally, I schedule breakfast or phone calls with close friends before work. Close friends are pretty much the only ones that override the otherwise selfish guarding of my morning time.  The meaning of life is relationships, right?

Oh, and I set aside one morning a week to record The Paper Wings Podcast or plan Paper Wings content and strategy with my business partner/ co-host Lora Innes.

On a side note: If you’re trying to achieve something and you can’t bring yourself to sacrifice a little sleep, TV or convenience for it, then it’s probably not meant to be.  But the key is to not blow your life/ marriage/ friendships up if your dream IS meant to be. I have danced (more like krumped) across this line many times in my life and I have to keep my selfishness-radar armed at all times or I’ll go full-workahermit in a flash.

“Workahermit” …I made that up.  It’s a combination of a “workaholic” and a “hermit”.

 

I arrive at Disney just after 9:30. 

It only takes me about 8 minutes to get to work.

The first thing I do when I sit down at one of my desks (one for real drawing and one for my computer + Cintiq) is look at my work from the day before.

This might be a physical drawing or a set of concept sketches, a digital drawing, reference photos or a work-in-progress “VisDev” painting. I like to change it up a lot.  It keeps my subconscious activated. …which makes the work more enjoyable and elevates my work.

Switching media often is my most effective way to find and maintain FLOW.

I assess the work from the day before, consider the approaching deadline and plan out how much time I will spend on each unfinished element. I’ve done this for so long that I can budget my time with surprising accuracy.  When I get changes from my Art Director, Director (or John Lasseter) the schedule can change.

 

I have one formal meeting every day with my Art Director, Production Manager and Art Department Coordinator.

This is usually a really fun time for me because I love my colleagues. It’s fun catching up personally and professionally. (Disney attracts really good people.)

The meeting is at my desk so we can all look at my work on my own machine.  I usually navigate through the files inside of Photoshop – a “show and tell.” My AD and I will usually do a tag-team thing where we each take turns drawing or painting over the piece and making notes on things to change or add etc…

I work with them to make an action plan for the day and we set expectations, re-assess deadlines etc… These meetings can be five minutes or thirty – depending on how much there is to work on.

At the beginning of the production that I’m currently working on (not yet announced), I was designing five or six characters at once.  That was insanity.  Now that a lot of big decisions about the characters have been made, I’m more focused on one character at a time and I have even finished a few of them.

 

We also have at least one weekly meeting with the director, producers, the PM, the ADC and the art department.

That’s where we (the art department) do a big slide show of everything we completed the previous week.  These ‘Director Art Reviews’ are great because that’s where I get the strongest sense that I’m witnessing the making of a movie.

The process of animation is so slow that it can feel like I just come in every day to draw and paint and that’s the end of it.  When we meet together to review everything and talk about it – that’s when you see it all come together.  You get the sense that you’re a part of this big, communal effort.  It’s also where I get the strongest sense of humility because everyone’s work is so amazing…

 

If I’m starting a new character (my favorite part of the process) I like to change my environment.

I collect and print out my reference and go to one of the cafes at the studio or to a nearby Starbucks.  I usually just sit and sketch all day long.  Sometimes I’ll have two or three days to just explore a character.  Other times the schedule is more compressed.

 

I often spend the entire day painting.

After I get art director and director approval on a design (line art drawing – sometimes with tone or flat color done in Photoshop) I move onto the VisDev painting.  A full VisDev painting takes about one week per character – sometimes less.

You can see a bunch of my really polished VisDev paintings in my portfolio.

 

I leave the studio around 6:30 or 7.

During crunch time on a production, I will work overtime.  Or sometimes I’ll do regular time on my main production but hop over to do OT for a different production, for the marketing department or for something involving Disney Consumer Products.

When I get home, I usually have dinner with my wife and we walk our dog together. Generally, I try to use mornings for me and evenings for others (family, friends and my Apprentices at Paper Wings).  I also try to make and return phone calls in the evenings.

Lately (as I’ve been working hard to launch my comic) I have been working past 8pm several evenings a week but I don’t really like to do that.  I’m never at my best when I work past 8. At my worst, I’m grouchy, slow and easily distracted.  Unless I’m addressing an urgent matter, I’m much better off if I save it for the next day.

 

That’s the kind of stuff I dump into my lunch breaks…

If I don’t have a lunch appointment with a friend, I use them to address all the random stuff from personal errands to checking in on friends to scheduling Paper Wings Tweets to researching prehistoric freaks.

But I want to write a post about “How To Get The Most Out Of Your Lunch Break” eventually, so I’ll save that topic for later.

 

Do you have any more questions about my daily routine?  Share in the comments below.

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{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Wiser

Great info, very interesting…gave me insights for my own schedule. What about weekends?

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oats

Scott, weekends are the wild cards.

I usually work a few hours on Saturday 12-5 with family and friends time in the morning and evening. I try to always take Sundays off.

Of course, with the comic launch coming up, I’ve been working a lot on the weekends but it’s going to buy me a HUGE breather after the launch… …which will be awesome.

I try to fill my weekends with family time and time connecting with friends.

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Scott Wiser

Cool. Same for me…Saturdays are wildcards, Sundays off. Haha, I read your comment below on getting up early…sounds so familiar!

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Chad Behnke

I tried waking up this morning. It worked *great* and I got a bunch of logo sketches done and it was awesome EXCEPT…..now I’ve been exhausted – literally bobbing – all day at work. Not that I had trouble waking up this morning, but I had trouble falling asleep the night before because my schedule isn’t quite aligned right.

Hoping I’ll be able to power through these next couple of weeks in order to change my internal clock. I do like the idea of working in the mornings better because a) it is outside of the influence of the rest of the day – a crappy day at work does not equate to a crappy day of projects, or no projects, and b) it is outside of the influence in scheduling. Since no one plans anything in the weekday mornings, it’s a consistent time block that is resistant to change. Having industry events and stuff to do at night makes it difficult to turn project work into a habit.

But my work performance might just have to take a hit for awhie…haha

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oats

I was fine for the first few weeks of getting up early. Then I had the same reaction as you – I really started feeling it around 4pm.

My body got used to it after about a month and now when I go to bed, I sleep like a rock and wake up before my alarm. Routine is key, I think.

I try to stay focused on hydrating w H2O all day which is great. Also – getting up to take a walk and talk to my wife or Zach or Joel or Lora in the afternoons really helps me power through the rest of the day.

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Beth

Man you are my new hero, you get so much out of one day! It’s everything I can do to wake up on time for work, let alone early enough to get my personal work done. I think I might have to give this getting up early business a whirl at least. Looking forward to more productivity advice, thanks!

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oats

Yeah, Beth. I definitely didn’t become an early riser until I started screenwriting. And for me, the reason I love screenwriting is because I love storytelling. And my comic is just a form of screenwriting that I can do on my own (of course, I have the help of my friends – but it’s still a largely personal effort).

I think you just have to find the thing you REALLY care about – that you REALLY want.

Check out my post called “Wanting = Working.”

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Laura Zarrin

Great post! It’s always fun to see how other creatives schedule their days and get the most out of their time. Thanks for the nudge in reminding me to schedule and sacrifice to reach my goals.

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oats

Awesome. It’s all about the balance. Work hard/ play hard.

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Praveen

Thanks for taking the time to share your routine dude. Even though I am not in the same field as you, professionally, I can certainly relate to a lot of what you said. Your hard work and sacrifice definitely shows in your art.

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Praveen

Thanks for taking the time to share your routine dude. Even though I am not in the same field as you, professionally, I can certainly relate to a lot of what you said. Your hard work and sacrifice definitely shows in your art.

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oats

You’re welcome. So glad it was helpful. What field are you in?

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Chad Townsend

Chris said – “A full VisDev painting takes about one week per character – sometimes less.”

WHuT!? do they give you that much time there? that’s amazing. I’m in the wrong studio… waiter check please.

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oats

To be fair, our VisDev paintings are very highly rendered – painting the eyelashes and whatnot – but yes, it is nice to have the time we need to make each piece really good.

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sam kirkman

You are my hero. Nuf said. :o)

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ChrisOatley

Really? That’s such a coincidence because you’re MY hero!

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Alyse

Great post..! I never thought of how simple time management like not oversleeping (one of my problems..) and not overworking, are really vital to being productive. I think I’m still stuck in college mode because I stay up all night trying to work on stuff, then I’m completely burnt out the next day. I’ll try to fix it up so I can get a little more out of my day..
Thanks :)

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ChrisOatley

I find that most artists find that groove (or lack thereof) in college and never get out of it. Routine is key. Your body needs it to know when to switch on and off.

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Alyse

Yea, it’s amazing how having a consistent bedtime and a consistent amount of sleep can have a positive influence your work habits. I’ve also been trying some of your suggestions for “Why NOT to Pursue Artistic Growth,” and it’s really helped me zero in on ways to improve my portfolio and working process. If I hadn’t read that article, I’d probably still be at a loss on how to really improve. Thanks so much! :]

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oats

You’re welcome! So glad it helped!

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:-DavePierce

Young man, your work is outrageously awesome! Clean, great color choices, excellent designs. You deserve all of the best this biz can offer. You’re another hero to me!

;-D

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ChrisOatley

Wow, Dave. Thank you? That’s really humbling. Thanks so much for your encouragement.

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Taylor Smith

Chris, thank you so much for sharing! This information has been really helpful and so have been the podcasts. Thank you for the inspiration :)

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ChrisOatley

You’re welcome, Taylor. “Helpful” is the whole point.

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Matt

It’s really interesting to hear about how you structure your day.

I was wondering if you have a time that you aim to be going to sleep by?

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ChrisOatley

Yeah, Matt, I generally fall asleep between 10:30 and 11pm.

And there’s not much I can do to stop it! Which is great, actually.

I am a super-light sleeper so the more tired I am, the better I sleep, and the more I sleep, the more efficient my routine is.

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Timothy Dumpleton

Hey Chris,

Just wanted to say thank you for the inspiration you’ve given me after reading this post. I even referenced it on my blog :) Love your work

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oats

Thanks, Timothy!

Love those links! That’s a HUGE HELP! Thank YOU!

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Timothy Dumpleton

Hey no problem, I love giving props to those who deserve it :)

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Marta

Chris, so good to hear you’re so normal:)
It’s so hard to give up the 2 ams, but so tempting to become an early riser.
I’ve tried once. You inspireed me to try again.

All the best!

:: Marta

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oats

Marta, the fact is SOME people work better at 2am. But I don’t think it’s the norm. I’ve been helping artists via this website since 2001 and most of them don’t have a groove. Their work schedules are very reactionary – crazy, actually.

Give it another try and stick with it for a month. See if that doesn’t work for you. I also recommend waking up earlier in increments. Or just start with an easy, consistent routine then move it up earlier 15-30 minutes each week.

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Lhazar

Hey Chris,

Amazing inspiration, as always. It’s a great insight into the life of a pro :D

I was wondering… have you ever considered yourself an early bird? I’m one of those people that feel groggy and sleepy during the morning, and kinda feel like going to bed very late. Do you think this can be changed through routine? Or it’s already hardcoded in each one of us?

As always, thanks for sharing with us!

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oats

I think one of the easiest things to change is our bodies. And our bodies are connected to our minds and, in my opinion, our spirits.

That said, there are definitely emotional, psychological, medical and chemical things that are complicated and more difficult to change.

However, teaching our bodies to wake up early, crave vegetables and water instead of sugar, endure more vigorous exercise etc… those things are usually not complicated at all. I’m going to write another post about this since so many people have been asking.

And changing our bodies has a TREMENDOUS effect on our sense of well-being, our ability to give and receive inspiration, and of course – our productivity.

Check out the comment above for some advice on how to get started becoming an early riser.

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Nathan Seabolt

Thanks again for some wonderful info and things to try out to enhance my process and squeeze more juice out of every day. It’s you and people like you that are really helping me keep plowing away at my creative dreams!

And also for the term “Workahermit”, which I’m sure I’ll be using (and explaining) to several people in the near future. :)

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oats

Yeah! Keep us posted, Nathan!

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Madzia

Do you have any problem switching between home/work projects?
For me it’s most difficult When I’m doing something interesting in work I can’t stop thinking about it in home. Or I just don’t want do anything other I’m afraid I could lose my flow.
And the same if I doing some project in home, I’m catching my self analising problems for my home project while being in office!

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Chris

Sometimes. But my time is so precious that I pretty much just have to get over it and work, regardless of how I’m feeling. Does that make sense? Usually I can get into a groove if I just commit to the task at hand for about 15 minutes.

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Beth

Hi Chris! Thanks for sharing your day! I was wondering if you knew Ron Smith? I guess he recently left Disney to go to another studio but I’m guessing you guys might know each other. He’s an old friend from growing up in Cincinnati!

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oats

Thanks, Beth. Hmmm… I’m not sure. I don’t think I ever met Ron. Love those Ohio folks through. Would love to meet him.

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anissa

Nice post. I was wondering, though… do visual development artists also work on the designs of characters, or do you guys solely focus on the backgrounds and such?

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ChrisOatley

It’s all dependent on the strengths of the individual artist. There are people who focus more on environments, but I focus more on character designs and visdev paintings of characters.

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anissa

Ok – so in Disney, do they generally separate visual development and character designers as separate gigs, or do artists tend to simply do what they are able, or most crafted, at doing? Sorry for all the inquiry – it’s just I’m planning to apply for the summer college internship and it would be great to get some insight.

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ChrisOatley

Yeah, it really just depends on the strengths of the individual artist. But that comes after you prove yourself in a more focused area.

For those wanting to break in, I definitely recommend you listen to the Portfolios Episodes of our ‘Paper Wings’ Podcast and subscribe to our newsletter and download our Portfolio Pitfalls guide (before it disappears!).

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anissa

Thanks. I’ll look for that in your site.

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Lee Wiley

This is great stuff, Chris! Projects and employment certainly demand and benefit from structure. And I think you are spot on, we most hold our relationships higher than anything, they are our very foundation and often the inspiration for our projects. Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how much sleep I ‘actually’ need to function, and as you know it is a Volatile experiment, but I too have found a groove that allows me to enjoy the best of my life (my family and friends), have a job, and work on projects.

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Susan Drawbaugh

Hi Chris! This is a great conversation!! I had something interesting happen to me the past week that has to do with routine. I’ve worked out of my home office for over 20 years as a freelance commercial humorous illustrator, and to supplement my income I just took a part time job as a cashier at a corporate boutique store. It’s been the hardest change of routine for me that I’ve ever gone through! Almost like breaking into the left side of my brain!! I lost my concentration, made the same technical mistakes over and over, and lost track of time and days!! My time working there has been four 7 hour days a week. I’ve found that I have a need to do creative work on my lunch hour, where I go off by myself and draw. Have you ever experienced anything like this? I began to think I was losing my mind LOL!! (actually, it wasn’t funny!)

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Noa Eden

how much do u earn a year? :D <3

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Jenna Matsalla

Wow! Was that ever insightful, thank you! I am a passionate artist and my dream is to get pretty much where you are, designing characters and/or concept art for Disney. I find myself doing the same kind of thing in the morning, too. I wake up just real early, drawing, working on commissions/projects, practising and improving certain areas of my craft, or just sketchin’ around in my book. People call me crazy, but there’s just so much to do and learn! Plus, I find I get more done and am more motivated in the morning.
This is probably a big favour, but it would mean a lot to me, but would you mind looking over my portfolio/work (http://j-art0908.blogspot.ca/2011/01/portfolio.html) and give me a couple of notes or helpful suggestions? I’ve learned it never hurts to ask and gaining different views on things in life gives my mind a whole jumble of things to think about and use in my day to day life.
Sooo… love your art, love what you do and how you do it, and here’s hoping we bump into each other in the industry one day! Thanks for the motivational boost! :)

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Chris Oatley

Hi, Jenna!

I’m working hard on creating a way to be able to review individual portfolios for everyone’s benefit. I get many portfolio review requests per week and it’s just super-time consuming and the workload would kill me if I tried to manage that. That said, It’s one of the top priority features for the site right now. Stay tuned.

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Kristine

Thanks! Can you link me up to someone dealing in clay/character dev?

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Chris Oatley

My friend Josh Sutton is AMAZING. Just Google him. He’s the only sculptor by that name.

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Azam R.

Whoa, you really are a productive man! I just read this article and found it a breather for me. I have been struggling to keep a daily schedule, let a long manage and budget my time. I studied Landscape Architecture which involves LOTS of drawing and sketching, mostly manually. You really made a busy weekly schedule seem so fun. kudos!

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Chris Oatley

Wow. That’s awesome. I’m so glad the post helped. Yeah, I’m a strong believer in routine!

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Dan

Thanks for the insight and amazingly you have replied to so many people it’s great to see . Keep up the great work . I want to be an early bird !!!!!! It’s a struggle when I get home from work at around 9.00 pm. Well I have to dream big !!! Thanks for the inspiration.

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Chris Oatley

Hey, Dan – Thanks for the kind words.

As for becoming an “early bird” — Just start small. Just try carving out 30 minutes each morning. Plan out that time before you go to bed at night so when you wake up you can just hit the ground running and make the most of it.

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Charles Kenny

Great post Chris. I totally agree on making the sacrifices, both small and large.

Sure, I would love to use the hour of my evening when I write a blog post or answer email and watch TV instead. Doing that won’t necessarily help me achieve my personal goals though, and making some sacrifices to achieve those is certainly worth it in the end.

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Michelle

I’ve never seen a word that better describes me at times than “workahermit.” XD I always assumed that in order to make it as an artist you have to sacrifice everything else. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But I might try a little bit harder at having a life outside of art from now on. Thanks, Chris!

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Abdul Husani

Hi there Chris, I’ve come to your website through Noah Bradley and I’ve listened to a 3 of the podcasts that you have posted up and couple of the blogs here and there and the information has been invaluable. Its has been really really helpful. Thank you ever so much.

It has been so interesting hearing about your routines and how you work, I really admire the circadian rhythm that you have for yourself. The advice you gave in your Podcast on how to start waking up early in small increments has really helped me. Currently go to bed at 1 wake up at about 8-9. Which is better then it used to be!

What I would like to ask is what are your views on exercise and if you do do any, what do you do? As you know we get very stationary doing our jobs and exercise become might become necessary.

If you do have the time to see this and answer I would very very grateful. Thank you for all the work you’ve on this website and paper wings with Lora Innes.

Godspeed! Abdul.

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Sylvia Lian

Hey Chris,

I just wanted to ask you, about how many hours of sleep do you usually get/around when do you sleep?
Apart from the “practise art often” advice, do you have any other advice on HOW to practise art? Say if I wanted to practise human anatomy, should I practise from reference or without reference or a mix of both?

Thank you for your website, I have found your resources priceless. I would appreciate if you could reply to my questions.

Sincerely, Sylvia Lian

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