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The fear of drawing people (and how to get over it)

Here’s a confession: I used to dread drawing people. Drawing animals was my thing, and the thought of human-like hands and faces made me cringe. Whenever I found myself in a situation where I needed to draw human characters, I would sneakily avoid the discomfort zone by drawing abstract figures that lacked faces and some other physical details. That worked quite well for fashion illustrations, but I knew that eventually I would have to take the bull by its horns.

After making a conscious decision to get over my insecurities, I asked myself where the fear of drawing  people was coming from. The answer was quite simple: my fears spurred merely from the lack of practice. I shied away from sketching people, because I had never properly trained myself in drawing them. That is why I always struggled with proportions and perspectives and would rarely be happy with my sketches. Of course, I never expected to be Da Vinci 2.0, but next to lacking the skills and knowledge of drawing human anatomy, I hadn’t developed my own unique style of drawing them either. I couldn’t draw people with realistic proportions and details, nor did I have my own style of drawing them…and that was more than enough to make me insecure.

Today things are very different. I draw human characters with zen-like joy and have left the fears behind me for good. Blimey, I have even been paid to draw custom portrait illustrations, which have become one of my favourite type of commissions!

Knowing that there might be other creatives out there trying to cope with their own insecurities, I decided to compile a small inspirational first aid kit on how to get started with overcoming your creative phobias. So here’s to you, fears: goodbye and good riddance!

Leave your comfort zone (comfortably)

Kindly force yourself to do the things you fear and challenge yourself to practice in a fun way. When I realized I desperately needed practice with drawing people, I decided to give a go at life drawing classes. However, as easels felt quite intimidating, I chose to approach the discomfort zone through my comfort zone and spent the first sessions drawing with my trusted ol’ pencil in my tiny sketchbook. It was a soft and comforting welcome to the fear zone.

Don’t worry about acing everything

Trying different styles and techniques is great practice, but you don’t have to become great at everything. Try water colour, inks, pencils and pens. Go for life drawing classes or try drawing manga. Experiment and don’t stress about creating only masterpieces. My life drawing sketches were never anatomically astonishing. However, I did my best even with the most challenging poses and dressed the naked models with colourful underwear to keep the process of practicing lighthearted and fun. Moral of the story: even if your sketches won’t end up hanging in a museum, each of them will help you improve.

Watch and learn

While avoiding comparing yourself to others, be open to learning from people around you – online and offline. Take part in drawing challenges (like #franuary initiated by Fran Meneses to practice animal drawing skills), watch tutorials, attend workshops, meet up with peers who can guide you or imitate styles and techniques you see on Instagram (Obvious side note: Imitating is good for practice, but copying is very, very uncool!). I created a private Pinterest board of inspiring examples of human characters drawn by other illustrators and used it as a base for experimenting with my own style. That was very helpful.

Give it your own twist & enough time

Next to studying human anatomy at life drawing classes, I spent plenty of time just doodling different kind of characters, playing around with their features. Would exaggerated proportions be my thing? Or funny noses and angular shapes? Perhaps cartoonish, boneless limbs? Sketch by sketch I got closer to the type of characters that what felt truly mine. Learning and developing a style that I now feel strong about took me years, so don’t worry about not reaching your goals over night – it’s a process.

To hustle or not to hustle?

creative_desk_busy_work_by_emmi_ojala

I recently listened to an episode of Design Life FM podcast. The topic of the episode was the hustle mindset. At the beginning of the show, the two hosts raised a question of what hustling means to different people. The answers that were given evoked so many thoughts in me that I felt like I needed to share my own answer as well. You see, hustling is a word I’m all too familiar with.

It all began when I moved to the Netherlands and started studying fashion and branding. Having dreamt about studying in that particular school, learning the ins and outs of branding, I was ready and willing to devote myself to it 100%. Yes – I was there to hustle! We were taught to live and breathe fashion, to always be on the lookout for inspiration and bust our asses off for great, creative results. Our teachers wanted us to succeed and expected only the best from us. My to-do lists were quite impressive, and I didn’t miss any opportunity to make use of my time. The early morning commutes were spent studying or polishing homework from the night before, and the same continued on my way back home. Weekends weren’t days off; they were simply extensions of the working week. The ambitious bubble me and my fellow students lived in nourished the hustle mindset; our communal hunger for learning and becoming better and better encouraged each and every one of us to keep pushing ourselves further. We were what you could call serial hustlers. Someone had written “no rest for the obsessed” on the wall of the school’s bathroom. 

After a while, keeping myself oh so busy started giving me a feeling of accomplishment. Writing to-do lists and scheduling my days wasn’t a way to work smarter or balance my days better – it was something I did simply because it made me feel accomplished and somehow important. The longer the lists, the cooler I felt, hustlin’ and all! At that point things weren’t so great anymore. I started noticing that the harder I tried and the more I pushed, the more I also struggled. Creative ideas didn’t come to me anymore; I needed to force and squeeze them out of my mind. It was patently clear that I really needed a break…and yet, it was hard to let go of the urge to hustle for the sake of hustling.

Hustling can mean different things to different people. Whereas some see it as a positive force and a creative gear they can switch on and off, to me the definition is much like Femke’s definition of it on the Design Life FM podcast: “working obsessively, striving to achieve something by putting everything else aside”. It is far too common in the creative field to lift the 24/7 hustlers on a pedestal as passionate strivers, making it seem like devoting yourself fully to work is the only way to get anywhere. That gives me the shivers. Being dedicated is great, but devoting your entire life solely to whatever it is you are passionate about isn’t going to do you any favours in the long run.

Today my way of working is very different from the dark times of excessive hustling. Of course, I might occasionally work long hours, but that’s no longer the norm. If you see me pulling an all-nighter, it’s not because I am prioritising a deadline over my sleep or spare time – it’s because I am simply too enthusiastic to pause.

All in all, obsessive hustling for the sake of hustling isn’t really that cool. How about declaring ourselves independent from the workaholism praising world and working within our own limits instead?

How to find your focus?

I recently started working on a personal project that has been stuck on the “yea, I should do it” stage for quite a while. The concept still needs polishing, which means that to get started, I’ve had to simply sit down with a pencil and a notebook, write down my thoughts and think. I don’t tend to struggle with motivation when I get to work with my hands, but when it comes to having to do something that will occupy my mind 100%…well, that’s another story.

I often think back to my teenage years, when I could spend hours sitting in my room alone with some music and a diary or a drawing project. Time would fly by as I would immerse myself into writing somewhat embarrassing stories, metaphorical poems and such. I still remember how it felt to be in that productive bubble, where nothing would disturb my thoughts. What happened to it? Why do I struggle getting into that mode now? What has changed?

When I decided to get started with this project of mine, I positioned myself in front of the living room table, which is where I usually work. However, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to concentrate. I figured that a more comfortable, relaxing environment might do the trick. So, I took my pencil case, laptop and notebook to the bedroom and arranged the cushions on the bed around me. “From now on this will be my creative oasis,” I announced to my boyfriend, as I put on Jamie Cullum’s playlist and sat in the middle of the pillows. It worked, but after being productive for a while, the laptop started luring me into the world of Social Media. Facebook was just one click away and so were blogs, Pinterest and such. Maybe I could browse a bit, just for inspiration? A few minutes later, my productive bubble had burst and I was surfing on websites that had nothing to do with my project. 

A few days later, I returned to my oasis armed with determination to get further with the project. This time I didn’t take the laptop with me; although music usually helps me switch to creative mode, access to internet easily ruins it. So there I sat, in complete silence, ready to work on my project. However, I wasn’t inspired at all. The silence bored me, and I ended up just staring out of the window, counting birds. Something was missing from my oasis…

CD-player-nostalgia-linesidrew

What you see here is not just a 90s revival. It’s the key to my creative bubble, a good ol’ CD-player that will play me Jamie Cullum without giving the option to procrastinate online. Just like back in my teenage years! And guess what? It works beautifully for my creativity, and it’s also pink and darn cute!

Turns out 90s technology is crucial for my focus.
What’s crucial for yours?