Category Archives: From the trenches

Report From the Trenches: On Craft

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I would like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to my university 2 Dimensional Art professor. He was a young grad student, teaching a pre – requisite to a class of excitable undergraduates. We had to make a color wheel. I went to the school bookstore, bought a pack of origami paper, and got to work. The result was okay, in retrospect. Circles of paper on plain white mat board cut out with a pair of scissors. I’d been doing collage for a while by then, I was hot shit. Totally developmentally appropriate for any 20 year old art student.

He said I needed to work on my craft. I was deeply offended (although I didn’t say anything, thank goodness).

Twelve years later, I get it. I’m working on my craft these days, all the time. I want my lines to be as smooth as the famous comic inkers of the 1960’s, I want my edges to be perfect, I want my mats to be cut perfectly square. It’s not as though I need all art to be perfect everywhere – for there is beauty in the imperfect – it’s that I realize that I can do better. I can get closer to the idea I’d had that drove me to make the piece in the first place, I can make the picture in my head more real in the work I do. It’s a process of learning to keep pushing to be better, even when it’s frustrating. I didn’t get it then – that even though you can be a good artist without paying attention to your craft, it’s so much more fun to be better than you thought you could.

So for this, I apologize, Professor. My cuts are a lot cleaner now, you know.

Inking by Adriano Benedetto – check out his work here, beautiful stuff.

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Report From the Trenches: Focus

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The next vendor over at my first farmer’s market sold cupcakes. Actually, she sold four things: two flavors of cupcake, 1 kind of cake, and 1 flavor of ice cream sauce. No elaborate product lines, no six colors of frosting. Just four things. Watching her sell, I learned a lot about the paradox of choice. People would come to her stall, see the four items, taste one, and buy it. People would come to a stall with twelve types of things, look blankly at them, and then move onto the next vendor.

I suppose there’s something to be said for focus in business. Making your customer’s decision simple makes a lot of sense. After all, they’ve already chosen to shop with you instead of some big box store with four thousand choices, maybe this is what they’re looking for anyhow. Better to choose four things, and do them really well, instead of spreading your time across a hundred. And yet, there’s something to be said for offering what your customer actually wants, not what you want for them.

It’s a balance, really, between the desire to maintain a focused product line, and the artists’ need to make. That’s why we do the work, after all. To create new things, to try a different approach, to constantly explore the new places in our imagination – this is why we make art. This summer, I started out with about 15 designs of four different products. I’ve been adding a few so far, and I think that’s good for now. Just as long as I don’t outgrow my booth, I guess.

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Studio Update: Custom Orders

This summer, I’ve been working on a few custom orders. Someone hears about the work I do, and out of the ether, I get the skeleton of a new project. We might not admit it, but for crafters and artists, this is the best thing ever. See, the hard work is getting the inspiration to get something new started. We spend days and days scribbling, erasing, procrastinating, and at the end, something might or might not work out. When it’s good, it’s super fun, but when you get stuck, it’s the worst.

So when this new idea comes out of the ether – either a teal and black themed thank you card set, or a patriotic congratulations card, or a floral design in hot pink and orange – it’s a huge gift. All of a sudden, I have some limits on what I’m trying to create – a deadline, a size, a color palette – and all the little decisions seem a lot quicker and easier.

The best part is when the order is filled and it’s time to come back to the studio and get to work on my other projects. Something about having the cycle of finding an idea, doing the design, and getting it done and out the door always seems to smooth out the bumps between me and a new idea. Maybe it’s the bit about doing the work that does it – something about just getting the knife moving through the paper gets everything else moving too. The best thing ever.

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The word from the trenches: Show Season

Shoreline Booth photo

If I haven’t been here as much as I thought, it’s because I’ve been in the middle of show season, and making product, re – packing my boxes, and updating the books like a crazy person. At the beginning of the year, I decided that 2013 would be the year that I focused on local sales and shows. It’s been a steep learning curve, but so far, it’s been a hoot.

I’ll be heading back to the Shoreline Farmer’s Market this weekend, and to a few other local shows this summer and fall. I love being surrounded by vendors who love what they do. Whether it’s the bicycle driven smoothie guys, or the organic farmers bringing garlic scapes and orange carrots, everyone is there because they love it. True, everyone has a business to run, but almost nobody is going to become a millionaire from selling carrots. You have to love the craft of it, the process of making your products and bringing it to the market. I leave the shows re – energized to work harder and to try new things back in the studio when I get home.

Best of all, I love the shoppers. I love hearing what people are up to, what they’re looking for, and what they think of my work. After months of working in the studio, it can be a little disheartening to see slow sales on Etsy, not knowing whether people even see what you’ve got. But in a show, I get to see people pick up the work, hold it, turn it over. I get to hear what something reminds them of, what they like about it, what they had hoped for. Better still, folks ask for what they want. “Do you have any irises? I wish the butterfly was in a card.” Finally! I get a new idea, or a new way of looking at an old one. Just what I’d been waiting for.

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Music to Cut Paper By

Microphones

So the thing about cutting paper, is that it’s slow. I mean, I’ve gotten faster since I first got started, but it’s no letterpress or computer based graphic design. There’s still the limitation of the hand holding the exacto knife, and the person sitting in the chair doing it.

And the thing about cutting paper, is that the knife is sharp, and you can’t un – cut paper. So you have to pay attention, which means that watching movies doesn’t work very well. I used to watch documentaries while I worked, but the catch was that if it had an interesting bit, all work would grind to a halt, and I’d come to as the credits rolled. Not a winning strategy for finishing projects.

My compromise has been to play music, podcasts, and other audio while I work. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been listening to:

1. Radiolab  You might have heard these science shows on NPR in the car, depending on where you live, but I ran into these as podcasts. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich spend an hour examining different scientific topics by talking to scientists, doctors, and people on the ground. Fascinating stuff. The production quality is amazing – something like an old fashioned radio drama meets Nova.

2. Stars of the Lid  If you’re someone who can’t concentrate if there’s talking going on, you should check out any of the Stars of the Lid albums. This Austin duo creates vast wordless soundscapes that stretch seamlessly into each other for hours and hours. Beautiful, haunting stuff, and provides a sound backdrop to the studio without sounding like Muzak.

3. Langroise Trio I ran into one of the albums of the Langroise Trio, “Volante”  at the library when I was looking for some background music for an event I was helping with. Apparently, this group resides at the College of Idaho, and has been creating haunting music together for twenty years. “Volante” tells a spare story over the course of the seventeen tracks, weaving more abstract works with a more narrative style.

4. The Moth  Now, if you’re the kind of person who can deal with doing art while listening to words, you should also be listening to The Moth. The Moth is an open – mic story telling event and podcast, where the only rule is to tell the truth, with no notes. You get everything from the hilarious to the heart wrenching, and all of it is really good. Really, really good.

What about you? What are you listening to in the studio this week?

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Stay on target… Stay on target…

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Momentum is a tricky thing. Too little, and everything slows to a halt. Too much, and everything spins out of control. And then when you’re tracking more than one project, everything really can get a bit out of control. Just in time for the craziness of the summer craft fair season, I’m starting to get the hang of tracking multiple projects at the same time. It’s something like letting one slow down a bit, speed up another, keep the third at a steady pace. Checking, rechecking, calibrating, re – calibrating. A cross between a switchboard operator and the Wizard of Oz.

These days I’m tracking a few major projects in the studio – developing a fine art portfolio, maintaining a product line for the business, and staying inspired by writing the blog. The current approach is pretty simple – an adapted Getting Things Done  system, merging a paper system with monitoring on the Iphone and Cozi – but so far, it seems to be keeping me on top of most things, most of the time.

The most powerful tool towards keeping the momentum at a sane pace has been balancing Next Actions with Tickler actions. Keeping the option to either actually do something about the project, or to remind myself to follow up on the project in a few weeks has been huge in the studio. It means that I have permission to set some things aside, so that I can follow where my energy is pulling me. It makes the creative steps more satisfying – I can doodle and design drafts without spending a third of my bandwidth on worrying that I’m forgetting something.

I’ll keep you posted as the summer cooks along – with any luck I can keep this going and maintain my grip on reality too. What about you? What systems are you using to keep track of your creative projects?

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Reboot

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And then, everything ground to a halt.

What with a work trip over the weekend, and being sick like a dog over same weekend, everything that was planned for when I got back flew out the window. The studio still looks like a booth blew up inside, I’ve still got about four half done projects sitting to the left, and a longer and longer list of projects to start on the list hanging on the wall.

Not exactly what I had planned, truth be told.

Time to start over, try again, dust everything off and see if we can still make something out of it. Time to let go of what should have happened, and pull forward into where I actually am. Today, that means returning the library books, putting away the stack of booth boxes, and knuckling down to finish the first project that’s due this week. Today, that means reassessing the timelines I’ve put together, see what will still work, what won’t, and moving on. Today, that means getting ahead on a few other projects so I’m not quite as far behind when I hit the next pothole down the road.

Having a plan for sick days/delays in delivery/whatever is an important part of any business, but I’d sort of forgotten that. You get to the point where you think that because you’ve kept up this pace for a while, you can definitely maintain this pace forever. Hah! So yes, this week is also about making contingency plans for the inevitable, and trying to remember that I shouldn’t feel so smug the next time I’m a little bit ahead. Humility is apparently what’s called for here. Who knew?

So what about you? What’s your plan for keeping your projects moving forward?

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Write/Re/Write

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As my creative process grows, I can tell that I started out as a writer. I start with a general idea, and make a bunch of sketches. I get my sketches exactly as I want them, ink them in, get everything tight, and see that a big chunk is all wrong, and I do it all over again.

Other artists don’t let it get that far, I think.

I’m learning how to look at the unfinished pieces, how to see how it might look when it’s done. But it’s not perfect. I still often get all the way to the end, realize it’s terrible, and then start all over again.

It’s still more like writing a poem than making a visual artwork for me. I start with everything – all the phrases, all the images, all the curlicues that could fit into the final version. The red sharpie comes out next – cut out the dead space, cut out the crowded places, put back in that last twist in the lower right hand corner. It’s a bit like doing a rewrite. Every bit seems essential, at first, until you start editing. Then you marvel that you ever included that bit in the first place. Over time, the true work emerges out of the eraser crumbs somewhere in the fifth draft, and the art is finally there.

What about you? What’s your process this week?

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You and Your Format

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Sometimes, it’s the scale that’s all wrong. I make a sketch of what I think will fit into a 4 x6 inch size, or 5 x7, I ink it in, and then the problems start. Everything is too crowded, it looks too fussy, and the logistics of getting the exacto blade into those curves just won’t work. Argh. So I start scaling it up – something that looks too baroque at 4 x6 looks positively spartan at 8 x 10.

I’m learning to play to the strengths of each size, I think. The smallest pieces, the cards and tags, call for my simplest work. I’m learning to save some projects for the small scale – the cleanest designs, the fewest twirls, the least literal.

I haven’t figured out what the larger work can be, yet. Part of me wants to cram as much activity into every square inch of the page, but I can see what’s coming. Start with an 8 x 10, realize it’s way too much for its own size, and then – scale it up. Who knows where this will end? At this rate, I’ll be churning out six foot panels in no time.

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Wednesday Project Update

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Now that I’ve got my basic product line put together for the summer (check it out at anawerks.etsy.com), I’m starting to think about a wedding line. Yes, some of this is self – serving, and yes, I do have seven weddings to send presents to. Hopefully I can make this a win – win.

I don’t really want to get sucked into the land of making thousands of hand cut invitations, so I’m trying to come up with a set of good wedding gifts, some wedding cards, and maybe a few items for the day itself. It’s sort of odd to be plunged back into the land of wedding prep after your own wedding is done, I have to say.

Wedding cards come first (I have seven to give out this summer, after all). I was working on these designs surrounding words of love, but two drafts later, I finally got that there was way too much detail for something so small. And the doodle I did in between drafts turned out better than anything else from the day.

Wedding gifts are next on the list (see above, re: seven weddings). I made my own sign (that never ended up being used) with our names and the date, which turned out quite well. I’m thinking of re – working that so that it could stand alone as a framed piece, maybe adding some border work or something.

So, folks – what are you working on today?

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