How to balance personal & commercial creative work + Mixed media cat painting process

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Creative process, Nela's Art Chat, Tips for creatives, Video

Finding balance between personal creative practice and paid work can be a challenge. Our jobs may not give us 100% of the creative fulfillment that we need, and we also may have our own inspiration and ideas we want to follow. Personal practice is an excellent way to stave off creative burnout, and it helps us keep our skills sharp and develop our unique style. In this episode of Nela’s Art Chat, I offer tips how to justify spending time on creative practice, and incorporate more spontaneous creativity into your life.

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Full transcript is included below!

Tools used in this mixed media painting

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Finished painting

Click to see the larger image in my art gallery:

Felix - mixed media acrylic painting on canvas
Felix, acrylic paint and mixed media on 50x60cm canvas © Nela Dunato 2021

In the second episode of Nela’s Art Chat, I talked about the benefits of keeping your creative practice as a hobby instead of turning it into a profession. But I, and many others listening to this I’m sure, have both creative hobbies and a full-time creative career.

I firmly believe that even if you’ve monetized your creative skills, it’s good for your own happiness and well-being to have a creative practice that is fully separate from your commercial work.

In a creative profession you will sometimes need to make compromises and adapt your creative process to your clients’ needs, and the market. Of course, what you do for money should be something that comes easy and naturally to you, and if you’re literally doing the things you’d do even if no one was paying you, more power to you! If you’re a successful fine artist that does their own thing without any consideration of what the galleries and the collectors want, or a writer who has such a loyal following that will buy whatever you publish, then this is clearly not a problem for you.

But most of us commercial artists will be constrained by industry norms and deadlines, and that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. My point is, if you make money using your creative skills, you won’t always be able to do whatever you want, whenever you want it.

I get hired by clients to design their logos, brand identities, websites, and marketing materials. Copywriters get hired to write content for their clients’ websites and marketing materials. Music artists get hired to compose original scores for TV shows, commercials, and movies. Painters can get commissioned to illustrate books or posters, or to paint an original artwork for a patron. Our work is directly influenced by the clients who hire us, and we would not be very good at our jobs if we just did whatever we wanted without any consideration for the people we work with.

But many of us creatives are also inspired by our own ideas. We have a desire to create, that doesn’t have anything to do with other people’s needs and wants—it’s our own need to express ourselves that we have to respect.

If you just work as a creator for hire, and don’t experiment and play with your own expression, I think you’re missing out on a whole layer of creative possibility.

Having a fulfilling job is wonderful, but if you entirely conflate your creativity with your job, you might feel disappointed when the job doesn’t give you all the fulfillment that you need. It is extremely rare for a job to be 100% fulfilling, with no frustrations and no disappointments. I love my freelance design job, and I love my clients, and I still want more out of my creativity, and my personal work provides that to me.

I notice that when I only work on other people’s projects for months, I get burned out. It’s not because of working too many hours, but because of working in the same manner for too long. My brain craves variety, so when things start looking a bit too repetitive, I need an infusion of something different to shake me out of the lull.

When I consistently do my daily creative practice, I come to my client projects refreshed because I’ve had an opportunity to play and experiment with whatever interests me in that moment. It’s like a mini brain vacation every day!

Personal creative practice that arises from following your inspiration and your desire to express yourself has this weird way of energizing you, even when you feel tired. I have to remind myself of that because I’d often rather veg out on the couch and watch videos, but I realized that if I push myself to draw for a bit, after a couple of minutes I get into the flow and it no longer feels like it’s taking any effort.

By now you may be convinced that making time for personal creative practice is good for you, but the obvious question is: how do we do that?

We all struggle with finding the time for everything we’d like to do. I have a couple of tips and suggestions that can help with this.

1. Stop looking at personal creative practice as a luxury, and start seeing it as essential.

We’re often afraid that personal creative expression will steal time away from our client projects, and we won’t be productive enough. We put priority on our clients, and even when we do take the time to work on something personal, we may feel guilty, like it’s something frivolous, like it doesn’t matter. Some of us grew up with this damaging belief that we should be producing something for money every waking hour, and that we never deserve a break.

After 16 years of making a living as a graphic designer, I no longer believe that it is possible for most people to do high quality production-worthy creative work for 8 hours a day every single workday. I know that agency jobs expect you to do that, but not all of those 8 hours can be equally productive. Our brain needs recovery periods, also known as breaks.

Nowadays I prefer to work fewer hours a day on average, but be more focused while I’m working. And that’s the trick of how someone who makes their own schedule can free up more time for personal projects.

What you do in your personal time will contribute positively to your professional work. Feeling inspired and refreshed after personal creative practice, I’m more efficient and have better ideas for my client work, so I’m actually more productive. I may work fewer hours, but the results are better, and I don’t get depleted and burned out. How about that?

As we’re creating personal work, we’re also improving our skills, growing our library of techniques, and developing our unique style. Even if you can’t see a direct connection with your professional work, the benefits are still there.

Sometimes I’m directly inspired by my sketchbook experiments and use those ideas in my client work. One example is a music album cover that a friend of mine commissioned me to design. I had an idea of what kind of feeling I wanted to portray, and what kind of photography style to use, but I was unsure how to arrange the photography fragments. While I was taking a break from work, I played with paper cutting in my art journal and made a rose window looking page.

Papercut rose window in my mixed media art journal
Paper-cutting is one of my 6 favorite mixed media art journal techniques

Later when I went back to the album cover, it just occurred to me that I can use that page as a starting point for my composition. The final design ended up looking quite different, but the idea came from my personal art journal page.

Ethnicities album cover designed by Nela Dunato
Listen to this experimental world music album on Bandcamp

This is not the reason why I do my personal art practice, and I don’t want to add any expectations onto my personal work because that can mess with my process, like I talked about in episode 2 of Nela’s Art Chat. It’s just an unexpected bonus.

When I’m neglecting my personal art, it doesn’t only make me less content, but it also makes me less effective at my design job. Creative practice makes a ripple effect throughout our life.

I wrote more about this in an old article titled How to be an artist in a world of commerce, so if you need more convincing, I recommend that you read it.

2. You may need to give something up in order to add a new creative habit to your schedule.

No one likes to hear this, but that is the real secret to good time management. There’s only so many hours in the day. We may not be able to control how we spend all of them, but most of us indulge in some habits that don’t add to our quality of life. If you literally don’t have any time for personal creative practice, you may need to cut back on some other activities.

I won’t tell you to give up specific habits. You need to decide for yourself what is important to you and what you can live without. If you’re not sure what you can live without, you can try giving it up for a week. I do social media sabbaticals a few times a year, and I discovered that as fun as social media can be, I feel much better when I don’t spend so much time online.

I also limit my social commitments. If people invite you to attend events you don’t really want to go to, you’re allowed to say no, or to say no more often than you do now. Just say you’re busy with your creative stuff. If they respect you, they’ll understand.

If you’re self-employed, here’s another idea: try working less! I’ve already talked about it in the previous point, but I want to emphasize that this is a viable option. You might wonder, how could I work less? Well, that’s a question you can think about, and figure out some creative solutions.

By doing those things, I was able to free up lots of time in my schedule and do many things on top of my client work: I wrote and self-published a book, I volunteered on projects I care about, and I created lots of paintings, drawings, and sketches, and some videos as well! And of course I don’t do it all at once, there’s still not quite enough time for everything I want to do, but it used to be a lot worse.

If you are already earning plenty of money and you still can’t justify taking the time for enjoyable activities, look into that. How much is your free time worth to you? Do you think you need to prove to someone else that you work hard? Where is the pressure to work so much coming from? Who knows, maybe your biggest contribution to the world will come out of something you do while no one else is looking.

3. Organize your schedule to get the most out of your creative sessions.

I know lots of creativity coaches say that even 10–15 minutes a day is enough for creative practice, but I prefer longer sessions because then I can truly get into the flow and create something that I enjoy. 15 minutes of doodling squeezed in between other commitments is fine, but if that was all I did, it would not fulfill me. It’s just a snack, and in order to feel full, I need a proper meal.

About an hour of art-making is a good start for me personally, but I can’t do that every single day. But I would still rather have 1 or 2 longer drawing sessions in a week, than a 15 minute session every day. In 15 minutes I just get warmed up, and I want to keep going!

Maybe you can take a bit of time every day to do small chores, instead of letting them pile up for the weekend, and then use the free time on the weekend for your creative play. Or you can make phone calls while you’re doing chores, and you’ll end up with more free time as well.

It’s important to figure out what time of day it’s easiest to fit your habit in, considering your other commitments.

Morning creative practice works well for me during the spring and summer months when it’s easier to wake up earlier, and it’s really nice to sit outdoors with my sketchbook. But during the winter months and when it’s raining I don’t have that same drive and inspiration early in the morning, so I switch to drawing in the evening, while sitting on the couch instead of in my studio. In fact, I tend to be even more prolific when I make art in the evenings, despite being kind of tired from the day’s work. It’s not logical but it’s just how it is for me, and that’s why we need to experiment, because what we may think will work better, may not actually turn out to be better.

4. Don’t turn your creative practice into just another obligation.

Think of this as something enjoyable—a treat after a long day or week. It’s a reward for making it through. No matter how successful or productive your day was, you deserve it anyway. You don’t have to earn it.

If you’re more of a morning person, you can start by giving this gift to yourself, and from this full well of inspiration you can do things for others.

This is the time for you to fully be yourself, and not worry about what other people think or want from you. When was the last time you felt that way? And what kinds of activities make you feel like that? Do them more often.

If you really don’t feel like indulging in your hobby, sometimes it can be useful to take a break and figure out what you want. Maybe you’re bored with this activity and want to try something else. Sure, do it! You don’t have to persist in doing something if it’s no longer fun. That’s the difference between a hobby and a career: you can quit your hobby anytime you want, for any reason.

If you’re experiencing some type of “art block”, and you don’t want to quit, but you’re just not feeling the enthusiasm anymore, there are different reasons why that may happen, and each of them has a specific solution. If you’d like me to make an episode about overcoming art blocks, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it to my list of future art chat topics.

5. Combine your creative practice with another activity you enjoy.

Creative practice can be lonely at times, but it doesn’t have to be, and you don’t always have to do it indoors. This may not work for every medium, but writing and visual arts can be portable, so you can do it even outside of your home or studio.

If you’ve never done this before, here are some ideas:

  • Meet with a friend that also has a creative hobby, and create together. Usually when I meet with friends we spend a bit of time chatting, and then we each turn to our project. Good places to meet are parks, museums, libraries, and outdoor cafes with a beautiful view. (Related: 10 reasons why you should attend artist meet-ups)
  • Create while you’re watching a music concert or a theater performance. Visual artists can sketch people or objects on the stage or in the audience, and writers can make notes about interesting details and what impressions the performance is stirring up in you. It’s not impolite, though if you’re not used to it, you’ll probably feel more comfortable if you can hide your notebook from others’ view.
  • Create during the breaks while you’re hiking or sightseeing. Usually during a whole-day trip there will be some time to chill out that you can use to work on something creative. Again, it’s not impolite towards your friends and loved ones, assuming that you’re engaging with them while you’re walking around. When you sit down to rest, you’re allowed to do something you enjoy.
  • Create while you’re accompanying your family members to their activities. If you need to drive your children to a training session, you can create while you’re waiting for them to finish.
  • Create while you’re chilling out. I live near a beach, so that’s where I do most of my outdoor sketching and writing. I also mentioned that I sketch on the couch while I’m watching TV or videos. Creativity doesn’t have to eat into your time for rest, in fact it can be a part of your resting ritual.

If you’re curious about the art supplies that I use when I’m drawing on the go, check out the video where I shared my portable sketching kits.

I hope this was useful to you, and that it will help motivate you to dedicate more time to your personal creativity, because you really do deserve it, and amazing things can happen if you do it. Enjoy the rest of your day, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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