As kids, I suspect most of us doodled in school notebooks, etc. My cartoon doodles were ink blot simple. At some point, I stopped. For decades, my only artistic-related creativity outlet was photography – which I first learned to do with a film camera when I was five.
That’s the backstory.
Enter the cartoon
Over the last few months, I’ve been taking a cartooning class. In the coming months, you’ll see why. Right now, what’s important is how cartooning helped me reach an epiphany re: “real work”.
The cartooning course starts simply by learning better hand / pencil control. You develop muscle memory as you would when running football drills or practicing dance moves. Next, we trace & hand copy – all intended to improve drawing mechanics, make you better at editing yourself, seeing how subtle details make a substantial difference in the impact & realism of a cartoon.
Up to this point, I’m doing fine. My cartoons are better than I expected them to be so far (low expectations), but I’m no Gary Larsen.
Then it happens. We’re asked to start adding a handful of doodles to our daily drawing tasks. This means I have to make up stuff. From scratch.
Result: I hit a wall.
My day was so scheduled with tasks, professional and personal responsibilities, etc (including the specific cartooning assignments) that by the time I was ready to doodle, I’d exhausted the creative juices that doodling requires. I was left with a painfully blank page.
A blank page is an awful thing. When writing this piece each week, I usually have a topic or experience that bubbled up as “topic of the week”. Occasionally, there’s something to discuss that takes a few weeks (like two pizza teams). When I start these pieces with a blank page rather than having a seed of an idea, you (the reader) can probably tell. Those weeks, my writing seems weaker, at least to me.
Blank page. Blank slate. Empty lot.
Back to the cartoons. I stared at the blank page & didn’t know what to doodle. Eventually I got them done, but they lacked creativity and felt uninspired. Something was wrong.
Then it hit me.
I’d been struggling with a similar problem on a greenfield project that’s moving too slowly (vs. my expectation). It isn’t that I wasn’t allocating focused time to it, but it was stuck.
The blank slate is a challenge. But why?
“Greenfield” projects start from an empty page, a blank slate, an empty lot. “Brownfield” projects work with existing assets / projects, like remodeling an existing house.
Looking in from the outside
Fenced-off focus time has always worked for me when I need to get serious work-in-the-business (skill) tasks & work-on-the-business (manager) tasks done.
Sometimes high level (executive / investor) work gets done there, but historically, I’ve needed more of that time – particularly as I see things today. It’s a classic operations trap (too much working in, not enough working on) that focus time usually cures.
However, focus time wasn’t doing it this time.
Here’s where cartooning provided the epiphany: The cartooning instructor suggested that I use references from line art, even when doodling. Why? Our mind fills in the gaps when we see fast moving actions like dancing and sports. This makes it difficult to visualize & cartoon a moment in time. Meanwhile, remembering those things is easy, like a movie in our head.
During the next doodle session, I realized the trouble I was having with doodling creativity was the same problem slowing down the creative process on that greenfield project. Worse yet, I realized that this could also affect higher level work & thinking on executive & investor level tasks.
My takeaway: I wasn’t using enough reference info for the greenfield project.
Your takeaway: Blank page projects are easier get rolling when using reference info (like seeds) to germinate creativity & accelerate progress. Give it a try.
Bonus takeaway: I’ve learned the “uninspired / unimaginative” thing can be my opinion only (rest assured, sometimes it isn’t). When I look at a page of cartoons right after I’ve finished them, I see through eyes that still feel the frustration of being unable to draw what the mind conceives. My reaction? “These need a lot of improvement.” When I look the next day, or even an hour or so later, they usually look much better. Let your work percolate a bit, then review it. Fresh eyes have value.
Photo by UBC Learning Commons