Creative Block

Every creative knows this feeling too well! Sometimes referred to as “Writer’s Block”, it’s that uneasy lingering feeling that can creep in when you least expect it.  For me it manifests as a lack of direction, weavering motivation and lack of focus. It can also come about when I’m overwhelmed by too many things to do with no structure in place.

How can one battle this? Or is that even the right question to ask? Some people think the right approach to tackling lack of inspiration is to let it be and try to help yourself by going on an inspiration hunt.  Then, perhaps out of the blue something out there will lure us back to our sweet spot and transport us back to being enthusiastic and optimistic about our work.

I think it’s good to give ourselves a break from our creativity and not fight inertia too much unless we have a deadline to complete something by.  Having a break from social media it’s actually a good thing too. Recently, I’ve stopped worrying about not posting on Instagram for several days. Sure, my following count suffers as a result but we’re humans not machines and anyhow, posting for the sake of it, means low quality artwork and that in itself is a recipe for less followers so it’s a catch 22 situation.

Currently, I’m preparing for a driving test and planning 2 trips abroad.  At the same time, my working situation has changed so a radical change to my working hours routine.  It’s that sudden change that is causing me to stop and ponder on what’s next. It’s all in my hands and it’s a scary thing too.  Just keeping busy isn’t a good strategy to get out of a creative rut.

I have a ton of stuff I could be doing creatively right now but I’ve also got a lot of other stuff not related to art which needs sorting out so I can’t expect for everything to stay the same.  Patience then is what’s called for and knowing that I haven’t lost “it”; “it” will come back once all the other ducks get in line and I’ve got the mental space to welcome “it” back.

How do you tackle your creative block?  Do you try to force it back in line or do you give yourself time to invite it back when the time is right?





Updating your Portfolio

The “dreaded” portfolio update...I say this because the work involved is always more than what you expected.  Not to mention deciding what artwork to show in public and what to keep private in the hope of selling in the future (applicable if you sell the copyright outright).

For me this step involved switching platforms and starting afresh on Squarespace.  So this meant learning a new platform and manually moving all my past blog posts one by one.  

The reason for taking this big step was so that I could create multiple password protected pages displaying artwork for specific buyers (different styles for different markets) something that isn’t possible on my previous portfolio site hosted by Weebly.

As you’d expect I’ve had to battle with new formatting taken from a template that I’ve customised but which didn’t quite work on mobile and of course getting used to a new interface which is still a learning curve.

But the biggest piece of work still ahead of me is tackling the hundreds of artwork files I need to reorganise and rename with a new system so that they form a cohesive and easily accessible print catalogue for sale and promotion.

Then the job of reworking old files to adapt to new seasons, colour schemes etc.  Starting a project like this is like opening a can of worms; you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into so best to approach it with a calm attitude and perseverance.

So to make the process run as smoothly as possible I’ll share a few tips…

  1. Find a week/month in your diary when you can afford to spend time concentrating on this project alone if possible and expect to be working on it for longer than anticipated.

  2. Use a project management tool like Trello to note every step of the process needed from start to end so that you don’t forget all the bits and pieces along the way. Since coming across this free tool online, I feel much more organised and at peace knowing what’s involved.  I like Trello so much I created a quick tutorial class on Skillshare to learn the basics.

  3. Use a program like Adobe Bridge to find and sort through all your artwork (even work you don’t intend to use so that you can gain perspective on what you’ve got to play with.  Using Bridge’s filters and labels is of great help and I’ve created a Skillshare class on this which has already helped many students do this.

  4. Decide on the size of artwork you’ll show publicly and stick to it (for my new site on Squarespace, 600px wide square made sense in terms of how the template I picked shows the enlarged thumbnails.

  5. Work on devising a numbering system that works for you.  You could vary the range to indicate work that is public and work that is for private viewing e.g. RT1100 and RT2100 respectively (using my initials in this example).

  6. Don’t forget about SEO and third party apps to help you track traffic to your site; it’s nice to know how much traction your site gets after making all the effort of setting up/updating your portfolio!

  7. Last but not least, tell the world you’ve got a new/updated portfolio and use social media to spread the word.

So how often should you update your portfolio site?  I think a big revamp is called for every six months with at least regular quarterly updates.  This is also good for your SEO ranking as search engines appreciate up to date information.

It’s important not to get overwhelmed by it all and plan in advance.  Every update will be different so there’s no quick formula to get it done.  One thing’s for sure though, seeing your old work against your newest work is quite satisfying as you see how far you’ve come!



Feedback for your Work

I’m not sure there’s much written about this topic so here’s my view on giving/receiving feedback, when it’s needed and what type of feedback can really benefit you.

I’m a big fan of following online webinars offering artwork critiques for up and coming designers on platforms I’m a member of and on Facebook Groups where they’re offered for free.  

There’s certainly a demand for this and plenty of budding designers who supply artwork for review.  The format tends to be quite loose and that has its advantages so you have people of different abilities, artwork ranging in genre and the atmosphere is quite relaxed so anyone can participate and input their own feedback too.  This is great and I think there’s much to learn from this for everyone.

But I also think that sometimes these sessions are not as helpful as they could be to the designer and I think that’s because the person doing the critiquing doesn’t want to be “too critical” and “hurt” the artist’s feelings/ego?? Or it might just be that they’re not picking up the things that could be raised in regards to the artwork or the concerns raised by the designer.

For this reason I think that the best type of feedback one can get is a paid for devlivered by a professional, perhaps in the form of a private portfolio review.  I am contemplating going down this route and making the £100-200 investment. In exchange, you get a 1-2 hours one-to-one professional review of everything you have done to date and specific industry related questions answered.  This could be something along the lines of what niche is my work best suited for? Writing a plan of action to get representation, whom to contact and how, tips of adapting your handwriting to suit a specific market or simply what to do next.

I have a growing list of established professionals that offer these services, each coming from a different part of the Surface Design industry, so message me via the Contacts page if you’d like me to share it with you.

So am I saying that I wish that the free art critiques out there were more professionally focused? I guess I am but from the point of view of the person offering their free time and expertise to an open call of designers of all levels, perhaps this is too much to ask.

As I progress in this field of work and gain more expertise myself, I think I’d like to be on the other side of the art critique giving my own honest feedback to designers starting out.  I seem to get a lot of satisfaction helping people out so this could be a great new avenue at some point in the future perhaps offered in conjunction with a fellow designer. But first I need to be mentored myself and I’m very much looking forward to that! Stay tuned for a review on this experience in the near future...


The Value of an Offline Education

I decided to write about my experience of offline education because ever since I stopped going into a live classroom environment, I have actually appreciated what I got out of it more.  I’ve been lucky to have had some great tutors along the way who inspired me. Perhaps this is the biggest advantage of offline education - the people aspect. I’m not for one or the other (online vs offline); I think a combination of both is best, especially if you work in an arts related field.

As an adult returning to education, the thought of committing to a course and schedule for 3 long years (the average length of a university degree) was too daunting for me.  I dropped out of the first year of a two year foundation degree course. I’m glad I did and the reasons for leaving are various...money etc. but I knew even then that it wouldn’t just end there.

For a start, London the city I live in is full of wonderful educational institutions offering a huge variety of courses.  Education in the UK is big business after all!

Anyway, I was familiar with one college in particular located in central London (Covent Garden) where many years previous whilst holding a full time office job, I took an interesting textiles related course.  Little did I know then that so many years later I’d be going back to do similar courses there and have a ton of artwork to draw from in my current practice.

The institution in question is City Lit College.   I was most impressed with the quality of teaching there and their facilities.  I found the expertise and friendly approach so great. Everyone was showing up to have fun and learn from each other - support was great.   Unlike my previous university/college experience were there was a real issue with motivation with the students I was around (kids!).

The practical textiles courses I’ve taken at City Lit involved creative stitching, learning various fabric dyeing methods and of course fabric screen printing.

I chose to also diversify my learning by taking a printmaking course which involved visiting the British Museum to draw inspiration for our project.  I loved the physicality of the process the most and to my satisfaction, never left class without dirty pair of hands! :)

Lastly, I couldn’t recommend enough taking the various courses on Photoshop for pattern design there.  The first one I took was called “From Art to Digital” and was so much fun as we got to do lots of playful mark making in week one followed by scanning and putting our work in repeat the following week.  The latter was a revelation for me and got me hooked straight away into learning this craft.

Since then, I’ve taken courses exclusively online with Make it in Design and The Textiles Lab which have a lot to offer from beginner to advanced level designers but I am also missing the classroom and considering giving City Lit another go.

As I want to develop my floral drawing skills and there’s a course there just for this, I’m ready to sign up! Watch this space...can’t wait to share the results and work in progress!

Working Freelance with Studios

There comes a point in a budding freelance designer’s career when a decision is made to approach potential studios to work with. With this post I’m going to share what I’ve learnt from working with a number of studios who contract freelancers from around the world to design prints for women’s fashion.  Studios work differently and offer different rates of artist commission which vary between 30-60% for each piece of sold artwork. The studios I’ve worked with have been based in London, New York and LA although I’ve noticed there are quite a few also operating from Australia and Brazil.

The process of finding the right studio involves a fair amount of web research to find companies whose aesthetic closely match your design handwriting.  This is a very important step to get right to avoid wasting your time along the line. It’s easy to just contact anyone who remotely shows work that you like or aspire to do but doesn’t resemble your current work output...or to contact studios who actively encourage applications from designers on their contact page just to see how it goes.  I wouldn’t recommend applying for the sake of it as my experience of this is that if it’s not a good match from the beginning you’ll soon end up frustrated with the work they expect you to produce.

When researching a studio it’s important to know the following:

  • How many designers already work for them...is it a small team or are there several dozens? This will impact you on the basis of competition and may be a sign of poor retention if they work with several dozen studios.

  • Which trade shows do they attend?  Some successful studios don’t attend any and still do well but ideally you’ll want your studio/s to show at a couple at least (preferably the big ones such as Premier Vision/Printsource/Surtex).

  • Do they require the work to be in repeat or not?  Colour separated? My experience has been that most don’t as this gives the client flexibility to adapt it as required.

  • Does the studio retain your work for up to a year after either party terminates the contract or are you able to “get it back” after 30 days of terminating the contract?

  • How much feedback will they give you on your work?  Some studios don’t and this can be quite frustrating especially if they don’t sell much of your work and you don’t know why that might be.

  • How organised do they seem? How good are they at communicating with their designers?  This is sometimes hard to tell at the beginning of a relationship but has had a major impact in my experience so far.  

  • Lastly, some studios impose an exclusivity clause which means you are contracted to work with them only.  This isn’t ideal in my experience as working with up to 2 or 3 studios simultaneously (full time commitment) makes more sense from a financial and creative perspective.

It’s also good to check their social media feeds to see how engaged they are and how actively they are promoting new work.  Instagram is the main means by which I’ve found studios to work with as they tend to post there every time they are recruiting freelancers.   I have also used LinkedIN to research studios and contact some of the artists they work with to ask them questions about working with the studio.  Both Instagram and LinkedIN are definitely good channels to be on as some studios directly look for designers to recruit via these channels. Do bear in mind that it’s a big no-no to show in social media any original motifs you are creating as part of the work you’ll submit to a studio.  This is mostly the case for apparel where the studio sells the artwork’s copyright outright and not on a license agreement.

Once you’re signed by one or more studios, you’ll receive design briefs on a weekly or monthly basis.  The scope of direction given by the studio varies immensely from company to company. You may be asked to submit anything from 3 to an unspecified number of designs (you decide) or there might not even be a submission deadline at all which makes it very flexible for you.  For women’s fashion, you’ll generally submit a group of designs fitting a chosen theme with 6 individual and unique motifs. For other markets such as stationary or quilting you may be asked to produce a collection group instead which consists of say 2 “hero” prints, 2 complimentary prints (less detailed work) and 2 filler prints (e.g. dots/stripes/one small repeated motif from one of the main prints).

Some studios like to have more control than others sending you moodboards or individual picture files to reference for the theme of the brief they’ll want you to complete. Some include a colour swatch to work from as well.  Some also require you to send initial work completed for approval first (say the first 2-3 designs) so they can give you feedback along the way and know that what you’re working on is in line with the overall brief aesthetic.

Once the work is completed you’ll be asked to submit a layered (Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator) file with copies of the file in other formats and resolution as well such as JPEG or TIFF.  This is for the purpose of their online catalogue and sample printing requirements. You may also be asked to place the final artwork onto a template which may also show a unique artwork file reference number.  Files are usually sent via We Transfer or Dropbox.

Interested buyers will be able to see your work online after requesting a password to access the studio’s online catalogue (valid for a limited time)  or at a trade fair where your work may be displayed on paper or on printed fabric. Buyers also get visited by the studio’s sales reps whose job is to travel around the world on an ongoing basis making appointments to showcase the studio’s latest collections.  Depending on the market your work fits in and how detailed it is, it may sell for anything from $300-$800.

As a freelancer you’ll be asked to raise an invoice for every sold piece and may receive notification of a sale as soon as a client buys your print or you may just receive a monthly notification of sales.  Clients are requested to submit payment between 10-30 days of purchase and it’s important to know this so you know how long you may need to wait to receive payment yourself.

Final points - working for a studio on a freelance basis is a great way to develop your skills as a designer completing lots of briefs which may challenge you to design themes you may not have thought of working on before.  The pros of working for yourself and being location independent are great but like with any freelance work contract, there is no guaranteed salary at the end of day hence why it’s so important to find the right studio that is most likely to sell the type of work you enjoy producing.  It’s important to remember that freelancing with a studio is a mutually beneficial relationship and shouldn’t be one-sided in favour of the studio. You need to be as happy and comfortable to work in collaboration with a studio and vice-versa.



Is Surface Pattern Design for you?

Lately whilst figuring out how my career as a designer is going so far I’ve come to consider what the pros and cons of choosing the freelance path in design. By the way, is it just me? But it really annoys me when I listen to podcasts for example and people label anyone remotely involved in design a designer and you have to listen 10 minutes before you realise what type of designer they are..web/graphic/interior/computer games etc…

One of the interesting things in my case is that I’ve come to this practice from a non-specialised field...I wasn’t a fine artist, a graphic designer or a fashion designer before I got started...I think that makes a huge difference as to what people find challenging about surface pattern design.  Leaving your paints and brushes aside for a while to transition to learning a computer program trips a lot of people and many don’t persevere the initial hurdles and give up...I can relate to this giving up guitar lessons! :)

As I wasn’t too rooted into any of these, I think I found it easier to take on surface pattern design as a career...all the rules were new to me so it wasn’t a question of re-learning things.  The key here is differentiating the practice of art with that of design and I’ve observed how some artists making the switch to design struggle with “restrictions” that come with working not just for yourself but as part of an industry which as the name suggests is a means of production for an end product.  Art can meet and serve commerce well but ultimately it is not a slave to it...design on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to production so disregarding this can be a costly mistake. In other words, you have to have a different state of mind to make it as a designer if you’re coming from purely an art for art’s sake background.

It’s also important to develop an understanding of the industry as a whole as this helps you identify your niche which will ultimately be what makes you stand out.  You just can’t be a designer of all things to be really successful. This takes time and effort! However, one of the first things you can determine quite early on is whether your style suits a more illustrative or painterly handwriting….meaning, will you spend endless hours mastering Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop?  Ideally, you’ll get good at both but trust me, specialising in one over the other complementing your natural style is beneficial.

Making a commitment to the making it work for the right reasons is important too.  It’s no use being a struggling artist and thinking that going down this path purely to make money from your art will lead to success.  What I mean is that surface pattern design is an art of itself and your artistic talent alone won’t take you far. You can’t disregard all the other parts of becoming a designer in the post millennium era such as learning the tools of the trade, developing your design handwriting (how your natural style translates to design in your particular niche e.g. women’s swimwear).  Plus keeping an eye on what is likely to sell, knowing the studios you can work with if you want to freelance, knowing the jargon, being super adaptable, adopting new technology trends e.g. apps, trending colours, themes/motifs etc. Ultimately, who doesn’t want to make a buck from their artistic talents? Becoming a successful surface pattern designer however is not for everyone.  If you hesitate for a moment for more than a moment, you should really question whether you’re in it for the long run or are just wasting your time. Like the owner of a successful studio recently told me: “yes it’s a very competitive field but we can’t find really good designers”.


Out & About London - Part 2

It was a busy end of June taking in the CSM and New Designers degree shows plus 4 talks at the latter event.  In addition, I also attended a Meetup networking event for freelance surface pattern designers organised by the lovely Her Print Studio in Bethnal Green.  This is something I will definitely attend again as there were some lovely people there and everyone eager to share their experience of working in the industry.  It can feel so insular working from home day in and day out and not speaking to people in your tribe doing exactly the same thing as you!

It does make me wonder how all this would be a lot harder to do if I were not living in a happening thriving city like London.  

July’s got to a nice start with a long weekend in Norfolk for my birthday which was such a treat!  The salt marsh landscapes in summer and birdlife is quite a sight.





Out & About London - Part 1

I decided to start a series of short blog entries covering all the events and places I am planning on visiting in the coming weeks.  There’s a few gallery exhibitions, social/networking events and end of year students’ shows I will be visiting so I plan on sharing a bit of that with you.  London is one of the best places in the world for art and fashion so I hope this will be useful to anyone remotely interested in this scene.

I started yesterday on a glorious but super hot day visiting the William Morris gallery a fellow artist called Lara Harwood.  She told me about this exciting new venture she’s doing combining travel, art and teaching. I love the idea of going somewhere new to explore and taking direct inspiration from it with expert guidance in whatever field you work in...ceramics, drawing/painting, textiles...definitely something I will seek to do in the future and it’s also a great way to travel solo and meet a like minded group to share your passion with.

In the afternoon, I travelled across town to the Chelsea college of Art which is opposite Tate Britain.  It was a mixture of Fine Art, Textiles, Graphic Design and Interior Design student work galleries. I was especially impressed with some of the Textiles work which was really high quality.  Not a lot of printed textiles on show but interesting mixed media for sure.




To Wacom or not to Wacom?

My Wacom drawing tablet and pen are part of my design arsenal and I can’t believe I waited so long to have them!!   I hadn’t really played with one before and knew that they can be a learning curve...I guess I wasn’t so keen on putting a break on everything I was tirelessly trying to accomplish to get to grips with a new gadget which didn’t feel too natural in my hands to begin with.  Well, perseverance with a pinch of patience and a few Youtube tutorials later, I was hooked and didn’t look back.

There are so many advantages to using a drawing tablet - even if you don’t do much digital drawing or painting.  For a start, with the Pro version I have (small size model), I find myself using the 6 “hot keys” all the time which have increased the speed in which I get work done.  You can virtually set them to do anything you want so I decided to experiment a bit and after some trial and error I’ve configured them like this

1. Deselect (CTRL/CMD + D)

2. Duplicate Layer (CTRL/CMD + J)

3. Fill layer (ALT + DEL)

4. Image Size (SHIFT + CTRL/CMD + I)

5. Save for Web (SHIFT + CTRL/CMD + ALT + S)

6. Show Desktop

Basically, any frequently used Photoshop shortcut that requires 2 or more simultaneous key clicks using your left + right hand (I’m right handed) I can now do with the press of one hot key in my Wacom tablet.  This means I hardly ever need to put the pen down to make full use of my right hand.

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There is also a wheel in between the hotkeys which can be customised for other different functions but I haven’t bothered to investigate yet...maybe it’ll open me to a new world of possibilities but I must say, I’m pretty content with my current settings.

The pen the tablet comes with in the Pro version is fantastic and super sensitive (you can change its sensitivity of course) and the 10 additional spare pen tips it comes with a real great bonus too.  Within the pen itself you also have two buttons which again can be set to do whatever you want. I have mine set to “Undo” and to “Right Click” as these are probably the two most used functions for me.  I can also use the opposite end of the pen as an eraser though I don’t tend to use this as it’s faster pressing hotkey “E” on my keyboard.

Which brings me to my last point...one-key keyboards shortcuts in combination with a well customised Wacom tablet go along way to improving your productivity as a designer.  There’s not many commands within Photoshop where I’m still opening drop down menus...if there’s a keyboard shortcut, I’m using it.

So overall, I’m super happy with my Wacom and would highly recommend the quality of the Pro version which doesn’t come with any special program software such as Corel Paint etc like the cheaper “amateurish” versions do.  After reading less than complimentary comments on the feel of the pen after prolonged use on these cheaper Wacom models I decided on the Pro and I must say it has elevated my game to a new level.

The only less positive points I’d add to this commentary are that I’ve managed to scratch a small section of the glass surface of the tablet by what I can only think was applying too much pressure to the pen’s tip.  I realised that the rounded tip appeared damaged and its roundness lost which meant a sharp pointed tip which inevitably caused scratches. After changing to a different type of tip I see the same happening and I wonder whether it’s just me as I don’t remember reading any negatives in this regard?

Anyhow, Wacom isn’t the cheapest out there and I’m sure there’s equally good tablets that can do the job just as well but if you want to go with an industry standard, Wacom won’t disappoint and if you intend to elevate your design practice to the next level, the Wacom Pro tablet is your friend!