Influences and Process – Tricks of My Trade

21 Feb
by L. Nichols

As a follow-up to my post about Rilke and work ethic, I thought I would talk a bit about various work strategies and some of the ways I implement them into my practice.

Obstructions, Rules, and Limitations

One of the most helpful tools for me to push my creativity and also to get me going when I have trouble starting is setting some sort of obstruction to work around. Sometimes this involves me working within a strict grid that I might otherwise not choose. Sometimes this means using tools I don’t usually use, or using them in ways I wouldn’t otherwise use them. Sometimes I will take random words and try to incorporate them into a page (sometimes quite literally with collage). Sometimes I will scribble on/mark the page and then work around that. But regardless of what path I take, it is the obstruction that helps me get there.

Obstructions, rules, and limitations are definitely not just my own personal tricks. Creative types from every field use this. Musicians often compose by picking a key and time signature. Or if the music is atonal, they will come up with another set of rules. Graphic designers frequently work within grids. Poets can choose various meters/structures/rhymes to work within. And then there’s the Oulipo writers who choose tight constraints. Etc. etc. etc.

(One of my favorite warm-ups is to use the paper I test my ink washes on and then create a doodle/drawing around it. This doodle eventually got expanded into a larger comic.)

I would even go so far as to say that the ability to learn which constraints to choose and what the repercussions of those constraints might be is one of the most important skills to gain as an artist. Choosing constraints that other people don’t choose can set your work apart. Plus, consistently working around constraints makes you learn to develop creative problem solving skills and maintain your mental flexibility.

From a more day-to-day practical standpoint, obstructions and limitations can also provide starting points for work that is otherwise just not happening. Let’s think about this and why this is. Imagine staring at a page. This page could be anything. Now, imagine sitting there and imagining all the possibilities. Imagine so many possibilities that it is completely overwhelming. You sit there stuck, not working. This type of creative block isn’t caused by the LACK of ideas. This type of creative block is caused by TOO MANY ideas. And if you find yourself overwhelmed at knowing where to start, maybe picking some obstruction and going with it will help get your brain going.

Time Challenges

Along the same like as obstructions, rules, and limitations is the idea of setting yourself a time challenge. I mentioned this in the Rilke post, but thought it needed to be talked about more.

One of the patterns that I’ve noticed when I find myself procrastinating is that I’ve built up in my mind that things are going to take a very long time. This idea of a task with no end in sight can be so daunting that I just sit, creatively paralyzed, doing things like surfing the internet and watching bad A&E shows. Seriously. I wish I could say that I did more interesting things.

But in the back of my mind, there is always that nagging “but you have stuff to do” which just leads to more guilt and then not getting things done. Vicious cycle. And a cycle that is hard to break if you’re very entrenched in it. Time challenges are one of the ways I use to break this, particularly when I have things that I have started but not finished.

Instead of setting myself a large challenge, I will set myself some tiny challenge. How much can I ink in one minute? How many dishes can I wash while I microwave lunch? What things can I tidy while the coffee is brewing? How much can I pencil in five minutes? Etc. After I have a good momentum going, I will give myself bigger challenges. How much of this page can I ink in an hour? Etc. etc.

In addition to actually getting work done, this technique has taught me to more realistically be able to estimate the amount of time it takes me to do certain tasks. Since I’ve started to do this on a consistent basis, I’ve found my productivity levels increasing simply because I don’t build up the idea of work to an unreasonable level in my mind. I’ve also discovered that often I can really surprise myself and this is simply amazing for keeping a positive state of mind.

(30 second gesture drawings)

Changing tools/media

This is also a form of obstruction, but like time challenges, I think this one needs more room to be talked about. One of the things I think is important for growing as an artist is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Otherwise, you just do the same thing over and over (and at best, just doing it with some more technical skill but little to no growth of ideas).

Every artist has their preferred set of tools/tropes/media. These are the areas they feel comfortable in. Areas they feel like they have the most control. Areas they enjoy, maybe. And it’s great to work here. But sometimes you should change it up. Work with your non-dominant hand for some warm-up sketches. Work with tools that are too large for your normal level of detail. Work around collaged paper. Work on found paper. Paint/color the page first and then work on top of that. Work with your eyes closed. Work without looking at the paper.

(60 second gestures done first with gouache. Working with the gouache instead of pen made me think more about the area of shadows/highlights. Maybe not a technique I would use all the time, but it definitely helped me think about objects in a different way.)

Working with different tools/techniques can force you to change the way you think about the way you’re looking at things and about the way you handle your tools. Maybe you realize you never thought about the shape shadows make. Maybe you realize that you always make certain gestures while drawing that you can’t do with your non-dominant hand. Maybe you learn about how to suggest shapes without outlining them. There are so many things to discover!


A body in motion is a mind in motion. I really can’t stress enough how important consistent motion is. Walk around the block. Run around the block. Go biking. Moving can help stimulate ideas. Plus, as an added bonus, consistent exercise will help keep you less depressed. I just spent my first winter without depression! It works!

Learn to think while moving. Learn to develop ideas and build up your memory. And if at all possible, you can bring along a tiny notebook to jot things down if you’re REALLY feeling it.


The last technique I’d like to talk about is the use of lists. Not just a regular to-do list. No no no. To-do lists can grow out of control! To-do lists gone awry can keep you from getting work done! Lists can turn into horrible things that just make you feel guilty about not getting work done. But if you have lots of work to get done with various deadlines, then there’s no denying that using lists can help you actually remember everything on time.

So, how can you use lists effectively? Use them to set down your worries so you can organize and prioritize. Expel your worries onto your list(s) and out of your head. Once the tasks are there, figure out what is most important. Figure out about how much time things will take (then multiply that by three). Figure out if there are any pressing deadlines and prioritize those. Try to find a plan of action, or at very least, figure out some place to start.

Keep a list of smaller tasks you can accomplish within 15 mins. Instant successes to keep up morale! Keep a longer term list for on-going projects. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by longer projects, set milestones. Break longer tasks into smaller ones. Sometimes post-it notes are the best way to go because you can move things around more easily. Constantly re-evaluate your priorities. Arrange your list accordingly.

Remember to celebrate your successes! Give yourself little stickers (I like gold stars!) for your successes/progress on longer projects. No matter how small, a success is a success! Use any good feelings from successes to keep yourself motivated. You can do it! You can!


And last but not least, remember to take breaks, take time to play, and take time for yourself!! You don’t want to end up burned out. Excitement is key. Energy is key. Maintain your energy and maintain yourself. Find what works for you and be gentle with yourself.

p.s. I would also recommend reading what other people in other fields say about their own processes. One of my professors, Henry Jenkins, was a huge influence on the way I thought about getting work done. That man is incredible!

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