In part one of this series we learned how money, though often a reasonable and appropriate goal for a personal project, can also be it’s undoing.
In part two, we explored the first of five different personal project types: The Geek-Out.
Today we’ll explore The Skill-Builder.
Unlike some of the other project types, the prize of a Skill-Builder project is always the same: improved skill in one or more areas of the artist’s creative career.
The Skill-Builder is similar to The Geek-Out in the following ways:
- The Skill-Builder can generate an additional revenue stream over time.
- The Skill-Builder isn’t primarily about money.
- The Skill-Builder is often a long-term project.
- The Skill-Builder will die without passion.
While an artist will initiate a Geek-Out project without any significant financial motivation, The Skill-Builder is often (at least for the majority of the readers of this blog) motivated by the hope of better gigs, a bigger fan base or a new revenue stream.
Although money might be a long-term motivation, it is not the prize.
…not for The Skill-Builder.
Skills are the prize here.
…and money is often the eventual result of long-term skill-building.
Remember: The success of a personal project is defined by the prize.
If your Skill-Builder project does nothing but level-up your skill(s), the project will still be a success.
I’ll begin with a couple of examples of successful Skill-Builder projects.
Next, I’ll pass the mic to one of my first Painting Drama students – Mark Morse (whose work is featured at the top of this post) and he’ll share how his Skill-Builder project “saved his creative soul.”
Exercise In Disguise:
Geek-Out projects are mostly about passion.
They’re mostly fun.
Skill-Builder projects are more like Mickey’s Mousercise.
Mickey’s Mousercise, which aired on The Disney Channel in the 80’s, was an early-morning exercise show where an effervescent female host with epic bangs led a group of kids in an aerobic workout.
The “walk-around” characters from the Disney theme parks participated in some of the routines in order to make exercise seem like fun. (They didn’t fool me.)
My point is that art isn’t always fun.
…and if you want to get paid to make it, you will probably need a highly-competitive set of skills.
The Skill-Builder can help you target the skills required to reach your next artistic goal and make exercising them seem like fun.
He wanted to get better at drawing with ink so he decided to do 30 ink drawings in 30 days.
Being the amiable guy that he is, Jake invited his blog readers to join in the fun.
With a catchy name, a modestly-sized (now huge) community and an accessibly-audacious goal, a perfect Skill-Builder project was born.
Jake’s whim went viral.
Three years later, everybody knows about Inktober.
…and everybody knows about Jake Parker.
Lessons From The Inktober Challenge:
- Artists aren’t anti-social.
- A catchy name goes a long way.
- Specific but simple rules will keep us focused.
- Community Skill-Builders must be just tough enough to catch on.
Inspiration In Your Pocket:
Several years ago, when she was trying to launch a career in graphic design, my friend Janean worked as a nanny.
(Side note: Be sure to check out Janean’s Spot Colors series. You’ll love it when you see it…)
We were ranting about why bigger budgets never make better movies and why a good director’s first film is often the best.
During this rant, Janean made the following observation about kids and what professional artists (and filmmakers) can learn from them:
“Take a group of kids to a farm, lead them out into an wide open field and they’ll get very still and quiet. …but lock them in the play area at the mall and they’ll go crazy.”
Limitations are inspiration.
Blank pages are intimidating and blockbuster budgets are a distraction.
That’s one reason why Inktober works and it’s one reason why I never recommend vague “sketch-a-day” projects.
That also might be why it’s so hard to get people to join you in sketchbook challenges. The limitations are vague at best. …nonexistent at worst.
When the boundaries of a Skill-Builder project are clearly defined, creative block is minimized if not entirely removed.
The thing I love most about Stephen Silver’s Character Design Shuffle App is that it is, as advertised, inspiration in your pocket.
The “inspiration” Silver is talking about is a clear set of limitations.
The app is like a slot machine that spits out a list of random words.
…then you design a character based on those words.
It’s super-fun and challenging.
For Stephen Silver himself, the app was more of a Fan Base project (we’ll get to that project type two weeks from now).
…but for any of us,The Character Design Shuffle could sustain one or more long-term Skill-Builder projects like an artist sketchbook.
It could even generate an idea that sparks your own Showcase or Fan Base project.
The simple Facebook integration also makes it easy to add the communal element to your project – just like Inktober.
Could you do 30 Shuffle Characters in 30 days?
If you could do 60 Shuffle Characters in 60 days you’d have yourself a hilarious sketchbook to sell…
Lessons From The Character Design Shuffle:
- Limitations are inspiration.
- Vague or nonexistent limitations can sabotage a project.
- Drawing something is better than drawing nothing.
Before Mark Morse takes the stage, I need to tell you about another inspiring project that was born at The Oatley Academy recently…
One of my favorite parts of my job is cultivating friendships with my students.
As we’ve become friends, Chris has told me about several awesome projects he has in the works but the project he launched this week will be, for many of you, a fun and creative new way to think about your own artistic growth.
The IlloLife RPG basically turns your artistic journey into a living role-playing game, complete with a guide to creating your own character card.
The idea immediately caught on with other Magic Box students (The character cards are especially hard to resist…) so Chris decided to invite everyone to the party.
You can find the official rules and connect with other the Illolife Players in the Illolife RPG Facebook Group.
How A Personal Project Saved My Creative Soul:
by Mark Morse, Creator of thegatelessgate.com
About four years ago, several key experiences converged, instigating my first personal creative project, the effect of which has reinvigorated my creative life and has facilitated the longest stretch of productivity, learning and artistic enthusiasm I have ever known.
It was a wonderful surprise for me as it arrived at a time when I had very much lost my way in the pursuit of art making.
As a child and young adult drawing had been a constant companion. But after stepping away from a graphic design career in my 20’s, frustrated with my inability to bring my aspirations into focus and tired of the self doubt around my work, I put those dreams aside for a period of 15 years.
Of course that time was not empty of creative side roads. I travelled and followed other adventurous passions, including my fascination with Zen Buddhism, an interest that has occupied me for many years and prompted me to encounter it directly at both a Japanese and American Zen Monastery.
I still maintained a sketching habit and enjoyed experimenting with tactile mediums like clay, paper mache and wood.
However, this seemed more like tinkering to me–its application at a professional level could not have been more remote.
The shift that eventually occurred is a wonderful story in my life. I was approaching my 40s, married with a growing family and working as a school custodian.
While attending a dinner party, I gave a quick sketch to a close friend that started an inspired conversation.
The sketch was based on one of 48 Zen stories from a 13th century Chinese collection called the Mumonkan, or Gateless Gate.
My friend suggested that it would be wonderful to see me do a drawing for each of the 48 stories and challenged me directly to do so.
I made him a promise that I would. So occured the first bit of luck in my upcoming journey, a promise to a friend that would’ve left me feeling horrible had I not followed through with our agreement.
With this, I encountered the first great lesson in how a personal project would change my life: accountability.
The Importance Of Sharing And Accountability:
Making that promise turned out to be very powerful.
That small dose of accountability got me to work, but more importantly it provided the fuel to get me thinking creatively about how to continue working.
Three months into my project, looking at growing piles of crumpled up paper, unhappy with my work and having missed several personal deadlines, I needed help.
It occurred to me that if one friend could get me working, what about all my friends?
At the time, I was not familiar with the online world of social media, so I did it the old-fashioned way and sent out an email to a group of friends stating the goals of the project and asked if I could share my effort with them. For the next year, every week, I would do one drawing and then send it out to the group.
Initially, I saw this as simply expanding on my sense of responsibility, but the real surprise came with what I received in feedback.
The power of a positive statement or critique was huge and added yet more momentum to my effort. A few years later, I made a natural transition to sharing the work more broadly online which soon made me aware of the same benefits.
Making myself accountable to my work, sharing the work and thinking creatively about how to continue were now tools just as important to me as pencil and paper.
I sensed momentum, productivity and learning.
Which I also noticed was providing a bit of a shield from doubt, confusion and lack of skill.
Taking a closer look at what was happening, I realized the importance of working with material that inspires me.
I love an awesome Spider-Man drawing, but if I draw him ten times, I’m ready to move on.
But I had been carrying around books on Zen stories for the last 15 years.
I had gone to monasteries and a few mountain tops.
Transferring that preoccupation to drawing connected me to a renewing fountain of inspiration. A combination that synced me back up with my 10,000 learning hours.
I needed the kind of drive that keeps you up at night and causes you to pull out your sketch book on bus commutes.
With the pace of adult family life, not to mention overcoming previous fears, there was always something to postpone work, I needed that little extra push to return me to the drawing table.
Which led me into my next lesson concerning the power of productivity: habit.
The Power Of Habit:
As I evaluated what had caused so many speed bumps in my past, I realized that what really mattered was if I was drawing or not.
Any one drawing is better than no drawing at all.
And I made a promise to myself to ignore anything that would cause a pause in my effort and to make careful note of anything that inspired another drawing.
I was ruthless about it, but this habit allowed for a body of work to be generated.
- It allowed me to witness those moments when I knew another step forward had been taken.
- It allowed me to live with and move on from bad drawings.
- It allowed for the continued stream of feedback from others.
- It brought up new ideas, got me experimenting, got me pursuing educational opportunities.
- It allowed for multiple little successes.
How to pursue success is tricky, but I’ve learned that being productive seems to allow for it naturally over time.
Success may be little at first, but each one is another source of momentum for me. It has made me more aware of times when I need to ease up the reins and notice those special moments, let them sink in, be celebrated, and allow them to feed another few drawings.
Lastly, my personal projects have allowed me a unique voice that says, “Hey world, I’m an artist!”
- It demonstrates passion, enthusiasm and the richness of the person I am, in the way I want it to be known.
- It introduces conversations and ideas I had not previously entertained.
- It’s not generic.
- It does not cater to other needs.
- It has woken me to stop waiting for permission to proceed.
- I own it through and through.
Although I still feel very much at the start of my career as an artist, I have fulfilled my original promise to my friend and am now expanding into other explorations of Zen tales.
For a guy who once thought he had put away art-making for good, I’ve experienced some very wonderful firsts:
- First art show.
- First full-time illustration job.
- First solicitations for freelance illustration opportunites.
- First sold prints.
I am learning every day and drawing every day.
I’m now deeply aware that it’s not just about what happens when pen hits paper, but also the many aspects that bring me to that moment and once finished, inspire me to begin on the next.
I know I owe it all, without exaggeration, to the journey facilitated by my personal project.
A Final Word From Chris:
You know why Mousercise didn’t work for me?
As friendly as the kids in the colorful leotards seemed on TV, they weren’t there in the room with me.
I love how Mark’s story confirms that clear limitations and a community of trust are often the key to a successful Skill-Builder project.
When I started this series on personal projects, I heard from a lot of artists who have no idea what kind of personal project is right for them.
As I already mentioned, the main goal of the series is to help you decide.
…but if you’re one of the good folks who don’t know, The Skill-Builder might be the best place to start.
Many of the artists who read this blog just need to relax and focus on fundamentals. A Skill-Builder project can be a fun way to do that.
What’s Your Favorite Skill-Builder?
What’s the best Skill-Builder project you’ve ever seen?
Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Also: If you have any questions or encouragements for Mark, post away! He’ll be here to answer.
Next in this series: Attract your dream clients with The Showcase!