The swelling rage begins to expand and contract, making me feel like I’ve lost control. It’s 9am and my head has already gone. Thankfully, these days, moments like this are few and far between. Thing is, they’re real.
With the fee agreed, everyone happy after a conference call and the kettle on, it’s going to be fine, two day’s work, three at the worst. Then you start to try drawing a three-strand DNA helix and it looks awful. Try again. I was just warming up. Nope, still terrible. Get up, walk around, sigh a heavy breath and go in for the third effort. This one looks more like my girlfriend’s hair caught in the plughole. Back to the kettle. By 11am, no real progress has been made and the phone calls, emails and WhatsApp messages start to flow, adding to my sense of panic. I’ve fallen behind.
I think back to one of my earliest commissions, a double page spread for the now discontinued The Big Issue Wales. There was a beach scene and they asked me to draw water. Back then, I had about three weeks’ worth of experience, against nearly nine years I’m sitting on as I write this, but it doesn’t matter. When the head has gone, it’s hard to think rationally. I feel that I could be a freelance illustrator for one hundred years and still stumble across things that catch me out.
I call my friend, a fellow illustrator who worked on a large volume of science publication illustrations. He hit this same roadblock many times and in the end he learned the basics of Cinema 4D, a 3D modeling program that allowed him to sculpt his own visual reference. I’m not expecting any answers from him, but another human voice might help me escape the choppy waters in my head, before I go under completely.
I express my annoyance that I am not a scientist or a mathematician, just like I did at school during my GCSE exams. But we both laugh, because we both know that I am the only one who can solve the problem. The scientists and mathematicians would probably be rubbish at drawing; something I have to remind myself is not the case for me. This is just a blip.
First I clear my desk space. Then I tidy the room. Lastly, I head out for a 15-minute round of the park. This break I can ill afford, but if I stay here, growing more and more frustrated, I’ll get absolutely nowhere. My studio mate told me the same thing when I failed countless times to draw the aforementioned water for The Big Issue. I planned to stay long into the night but in the frayed state of mind I’d reached, that would have been a disaster.
In the park, I try forcing myself to enjoy the blustery trees and the optimum temperature sunshine on my skin. I manage it to a degree, but the devil is on my shoulder, telling me I’m a terrible draftsman after all.
Back in the studio, I return to the tidied desk with a fresh cup of tea and breathe deep, staring at the blank page. Slowly, I take the time to really study the first DNA strand, allowing my pencil to flow, staying within the dimensions to keep it consistent to the perspective. It looks ok. The second one takes a few corrections, but eventually gives the impression this might be a helix. Finally, I drop in the troublesome third strand and it looks about right. The rush is electrifying. I remember that there’s a reason I make a living from my creativity.
What I had marked in my diary as a task to be completed by 9.30am has dragged me into my lunch break, but I’m past the awful wall that is never too far away. It’s not creative block, more a drop off in confidence after consecutive mistakes. It’s a house of cards problem that I’ve seen end careers before now. The only way to deal with it is to remain patient, keep sight of the fact it will be ok, in time.
It’s one thing managing a schedule, it’s a different animal entirely when forced to solve a fresh problem under all different kinds of pressure. Write them down, come back to them later, they cannot hurt you. But our ability to create things that others cannot is why people pay us money. It never gets any easier and I’m fully aware that soon, another roadblock will be added to water, wind and three-strand DNA on the list of things I have to learn to draw in my style.
Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries and host of Arrest All Mimics, the Original Thinking and Creative Innovation podcast.
He works with WWE, EMI, Channel 4, The Guardian and The Premier League among others.
Want to hear from Ben? His recent podcasts will resonate with freelancers and creatives looking to hear from likeminded leaders in the industry. Visit: https://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics
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