Mermay 2019 – How it went & what I learned

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Thoughts, Tips for creatives

As I announced in my previous video, I took part in this year’s Mermay challenge and attempted to draw and paint mermaids every day during the month of May.

In this article I’ll show you my favorite mermaid drawings from this challenge, and share how I felt about the whole experience and what I learned from it.

Mermay 2019 – How it went & what I learned

The results

Out of 31 days that Mermay lasted, here’s what I did:

  • I drew mermaids on 26 days.
  • I skipped 5 days.
  • I completed 21 drawings in total, since a few took several days to complete.

I didn’t post every single drawing I did (I explain why later in this post), so if you check out my Facebook album or featured Instagram stories, you’ll see that some days are missing, although I did in fact draw.

The art

Allright, let me show you some of these mermaids! I’m not posting them in chronological order, but I grouped them based on the medium since there were a few themes.

On the first day I started strong since May 1st is national holiday and I was able to spend most of the day drawing and filming myself doing it. If you’d like to see the entire process from sketch to finish, watch my video: Should you do an art challenge? + Mermaid drawing process for Mermay.

Mermay 2019 day 1 mermaid
Mermay day 1 – Pentel brush pens in a Canson A4 sketchbook.
Click to see larger image in the gallery

The only other brush pen drawing I did was a tiny piece I drew over the couple of days.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 26
Mermay day 26 – Pentel brush pen in a Talens 12x12cm sketchbook.

I wanted to use Mermay to practice other mediums I don’t use very often and stretch myself to envision unusual creatures that depart from the Disney version of the underwater world, although of course I did come back often to the classic portrayal of mermaids.

I used colored pencils on these two sketchbook pieces. While not being my favorite medium, I think I’m learning how to like colored pencils for these quicker drawings.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 2
Mermay day 2 – Derwent Coloursoft and TOZ colored pencils in a Canson A5 sketchbook.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 4
Mermay day 4 – Colored mechanical pencils in a Canson A5 sketchbook.

In preparation for this challenge, I bought some toned paper at first intending to use colored pencils on it, but then decided to try pastel pencils instead. I enjoyed them quite a bit, though I learned that I’m not able to draw fine details on textured paper. Drawing on smooth surface of tan Strathmore paper was very enjoyable, and that’s what I will continue to use in the future.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 11
Mermay day 11 inspired by sea slugs – Conté à Paris pastel pencils and Koh-i-Noor soft pastels on A5 toned paper.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 12
Mermay day 12 inspired by the betta fish – Conté à Paris pastel pencils and Koh-i-Noor soft pastels on A5 toned paper.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 13
Mermay day 13 – Conté à Paris pastel pencils on Strathmore A5 toned paper.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 18
Mermay day 18 – Conté à Paris pastel pencils on A5 toned paper.

I did two digital paintings in Sketchbook Pro on a Samsung tablet with mixed results. I’m not used to this program and its tools work different from what I’m used to in Photoshop, so it was very frustrating. After the second painting went to Hell (it sucks so bad I won’t publish it anywhere) I quit and didn’t attempt to do another digital painting for this challenge. The first one was allright:

MerMay mermaid drawing day 3
Mermay day 3 – Sketchbook Pro on Samsung Galaxy Tab S3.

A while ago I wrote about my switch to writing and sketching with fountain pens, and naturally I did a couple of Mermay sketches with a fountain pen as well. This first one I like quite a bit since it was an exploration on different creature forms that I did super quickly straight in ink, no pencil. I definitely plan on doing those type of quick sketches more often, the results are unpredictable and… interesting.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 7
Mermay day 7 – Pilot Metropolitan F and FPR Himalaya Flex fountain pens with Rohrer & Klingner ink in a Canson A5 sketchbook.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 20
Mermay day 20 – Pilot Metropolitan F with Rohrer & Klingner ink in a Canson A5 sketchbook.

I also did one attempt at gouache, thinking I will learn to like it more, but no. I still hate gouache, so that was the end of it.

MerMay mermaid drawing day 6
Mermay day 6 – Gouache in a Hahnemühle sketchbook.

The final piece took me several days (and I kept working on it over the weekend in June). It was supposed to be the best piece, my favorite piece, but the result is… eh.

I absolutely loved the sketch and if I was only able to stick to it in the painting, that would be great. But I totally messed up her face, and the arms, and the background and I’m honestly not that happy. I like the lower half of the painting, but the upper half is just… not good. I need a lot more practice with watercolor, and I need to stop trying to draw fine details on such a small size because watercolor is just not meant to work that way.

MerMay 2019 mermaid drawing day 28 - Trophy
Mermay day 28 – Mechanical pencils & Derwent graphite stick in an A4 Canson sketchbook.
Click to see larger image in the gallery

Trophy - watercolor and colored pencil drawing for Mermay 2019
Mermay day 31 – Watercolor, colored pencils and pastel pencils on A4 300g watercolor paper.
Click to see larger image in the gallery

I filmed the entire painting process for that last piece so you can watch it on Nela’s Art Chat Coping when art turns out bad + Mermaid watercolor painting process.

Now that I’ve shown you my drawings, let me tell you a bit about what the whole experience was like and what I learned from it.

The good

I produced more finished sketches in May than I normally do.

This year I restarted my daily creative practice after a long time of ignoring it (mainly because I was working on my book). Even so, the majority of those daily drawings are quick doodles I do just to check off the box, and nothing I ever plan on sharing. I’m fine with that, not all art is meant to be shared.

Mermay and other creative challenges have this peer pressure element so you want to perform well. You want to do your best work and show what you’re capable of. And while most of my drawings were in fact quick doodles, I also dedicated more time to Mermay daily sketches than I normally reserve for art on a regular workday, which resulted in more finished pieces. Most of them are not great, but they wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t do the challenge.

I produced several pieces that I’m pretty pleased with.

Quantity leads to quality. Out of 21 works, there’s a couple that I really like, so that’s good. Usually I produce maybe one “good” sketch per months, so this was an improvement.

I experimented with techniques I don’t use very often.

Right before Mermay I bought some new art supplies like Strathmore and Clairefontaine toned paper blocks, and a couple more open stock Conte a Paris pastel pencils. (I often buy pencils and crayons by piece, since I usually use a limited color palette.)

Pastels are not my favorite tool, but they’re more opaque than colored pencils and blend so easily, so I did a couple of sketches with this technique. I don’t see myself using pastels much in my finished work, but I do like how quickly I can fill up a colored surface and make color gradations, which makes them very useful in studies and sketches.

My social media peeps got more engaged.

I mean surely because I shared posts more often than I normally do, my engagement stats went through the roof. But on a personal note, a few people mentioned they were looking forward to seeing what I’ll come up with next, so that is very nice.

The bad

Daily posting on 3 different social media channels is super time-consuming.

Often when considering taking part in a challenge we only account for time spent drawing, but we also need to account for time spent on preparing and sharing the work:

  • Taking a well-lit photograph or scanning the work.
  • Editing the photo/scan in image editing software.
  • Resizing and cropping the work to fit different social media channels (Instragram feed, Instagram story, Facebook, Twitter).
  • Preparing post description and hashtags.
  • Posting the work on all the channels.
  • Replying to comments.

I normally share my finished artwork and sketches when I have the time, and sometimes days or weeks after I originally made it. If I was particularly prolific during a single week, I will scan, edit, resize, and caption all the works in a batch and schedule them to post over the next few days. This saves me a lot of time.

When taking part in a public challenge, in order to get the most out of the challenge (accountability and connecting with other artists), you need to post daily. This means I can’t batch anything—all the works are photographed or scanned at my earliest convenience and shared the next day the latest.

I did post in batches on Facebook or Twitter a couple of times when I had only quick and not particularly noteworthy sketches to share (which brings me to my next point), but overall the daily social media upkeep was exhausting. Not to mention that posting a work of art on social media inevitably results in wanting to check your notifications more often to see if there are any comments, which means more opportunities to get distracted and waste time.

I felt pressured to produce and publish art I wasn’t happy with.

Normally when I do “bad” sketches, or just sketches I don’t feel are aligned with my overall vision, I don’t publish them anywhere. I find it very important to have this intimate part of creative practice that is not performative.

Taking part in a challenge meant I felt obligated to post art more often, preferably daily, and this meant that I sometimes published art I wouldn’t normally share. I did skip posting a few days when I actively hated the sketches I made and decided to not show them to anyone. But I still feel like my social media feed has some very low points that make me uncomfortable.

(This was also the case during my previously completed challenge Month of Fairies.)

I got tired of mermaids and wanted to draw other things, but didn’t have time to do both.

By week 3 I felt done with mermaids. Yeah I like them all right, but I got fed up and kept switching up mediums to make it interesting for myself, thought it didn’t always help.

While I was in Krakow, I took a break from mermaids for a few days so I could spend more time sightseeing and sketching stuff around me. But while I was at home working, Mermay sucked all my artistic energy and I got tired of it very quickly. All the ideas I had in the beginning started feeling stale and uninteresting.

I’m relieved that I can now focus on other ideas that don’t include any sea creatures whatsoever.

In conclusion

The core component of a challenge is that it’s challenging. That’s why we do it. If it were easy, we wouldn’t call it a challenge.

However, I’m not a fan of this particular type of challenge that relies on sharing work daily. I’m not likely to take part in such a challenge again. I probably will think of challenges for myself, but nothing that requires me to post daily on social media. Goodbye Mermay, Inktober, Art Every Day Month, etc. We had our fun, now it’s time for me to move on.

I still believe in the benefits of daily creative practice will all my heart.

I simply don’t feel that we must create something share-worthy every day. Publishing with such intensity reminded me yet again why I much prefer creating in digital isolation, and only sharing a fraction of what I make, on my own spontaneous schedule.

I understand that sharing only “perfect” works of art can create an unrealistic image in less experienced artists who feel bad when all they see in their feed is gorgeous art, but they can’t keep up with that expectation. For that reason I do share a lot of my quicker stuff, but there’s a difference between imperfect stuff that I feel represents my creative vision well, and works that I personally do not like at all.

I’m transparent in my sketchbook tour videos where people get quick glimpses all the stuff I don’t post online and see what a real sketchbook looks like (messy, banged up, sometimes with ink stains in places where they shouldn’t be).

But not every doodle and sketch of mine needs to end up on my feed, and when I don’t feel like posting or interacting on social media, I want the freedom to do so. The problem is, you never know in advance how you’re going to feel. Committing to performing on social media daily when maybe it would be better for your creative and personal wellbeing that you didn’t is risky. I promise to myself to not put myself into this bind again.

I’m still glad I did this challenge.

I don’t want to sound too negative, though it may be coming through that way because I’m exhausted. I’m happy to be learning more about myself every day. I learned a lot about what I enjoy, what I don’t enjoy, and what boundaries I want to place around my creative practice. While the experience wasn’t entirely pleasant, it was still a positive and beneficial experience.

If you want to get to know yourself, committing to a daily creative practice—whether it’s a month, or 100 days, or a year—provides ample opportunities for that.

I now think I learned enough from this type of art challenge, and I don’t feel the need to repeat it. I’m ready for something new.

Your take?

Did you take part in Mermay or some other art challenge and how did it go?
What did you learn? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!


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