Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Years Special Feature: Get In The Arena

Photo Credit Steampunk'D

Here We Go!

A new year. The champagne's been drunk, the mess has (hopefully?) been cleaned up, and the page has been turned.

Now, what are we webcomickers going to draw on it? And more importantly, how are we going to keep drawing?

More Than A Resolution. Resolve.

If you're like me as a creator, your secret, unspoken resolution is 'make something amazing'. But even the resolutions you wrote down revolved around your creative practices.  Get better at faces drawn at different angles, build a buffer, get something on paper....sound familiar?
If they are, I imagine the anxiety, disinclination and frustration that follows a bout of enthusiasm are probably old 'friends' as well. 'I'm not good enough', 'I'll never be as good as that guy',  'why do I even do this' 'I suck' and thoughts of that kind can feel like demons whispering on your shoulders, waves battering at your foundations. So how do we keep drawing?

Get In The Arena.

Ask Yourself: Why Are You Stepping Into The Ring?

Photo Credit Katrina Parker Williams
For this first week of a new year, I'm going to ask you to do something difficult: sit down and ask yourself why you do this. Why do you like webcomics? Why do you work on them?
I'm asking you because you need to know that you have a reason. At three in the morning, you need to be able to ask yourself 'why do I do this?!' and have an answer. Before we go anywhere in a passion, there must be purpose.

In his seminal piece 'The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance', K. Anders Ericsson wrote

'Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.'
Comic artist Krish Raghav hard at work

Angela Lee Duckworth expanded on this topic by focusing on what makes someone practice a skill for a lifetime. In her book 'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance', Duckworth points out many important aspects of grit, which she defines as the core of achievement. In her words,
“… achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions towards a long-term goal.”
 But perhaps her most important point is summarized in an interview she gave on the Freakonomics podcast:

"One thing that I found about paragons of grit is that they have extremely well-developed interests. They cultivate something which grabs their attention initially, but that they become familiar with enough, knowledgeable enough that they wake up the next day and the next day and the next year, and they’re still interested in this thing. And I think that is something that we can actually intentionally decide: “I want to be the kind of person who stays interested in something.” And so that passion really does have to come first."

    Think about it in terms of our Golden Age heroes. Peter Parker didn't do a whole lot with those cool new powers...until his uncle's death gave him a reason.
The Marvel Classic, Spider 
And the best artist/writer in the world won't do much with their talent if they don't use it.

10,000 Hours

Now that you're nicely inspired, let's get to work. A LOT of work. In his article 'How to Become Great at Just About Anything', Stephen J. Dubner writes " Improvement comes only with practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule”? The idea that you need to practice for 10,000 hours to become great at something? That idea originates from the research of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues. They were studying the most accomplished young musicians at a German academy. Turns out the baseline time commitment required to become a contender, even if predisposed with seemingly prodigious talent, is at least 20 hours a week over 10 years."

That's a LOT of work. Sounds intimidating, doesn't it? Sounds near impossible.
But this is the key: it isn't about what you do in ten years. It's about what you do every single day. The best creatives reach those lofty 10,000 hours by setting themselves a very simple goal: practice every day. And practice well.

Get To Business

So what makes good practice?


Take a page out of Matt Murdock's book and practice like a boxer. Boxers who step into the ring with the wrong mindset get their lights knocked out. First off, know what you're fighting for.

Don't be like Foggy!
You're not practicing to be perfect. Perfection is an illusion, and it's one too many people hide behind to avoid hard work. 'Oh, I'm not that good' means you'll never GET good.  And all the excuses in the world won't make you any better.
According to Duckworth, 'In general, gritty people don’t seek perfection, but instead strive for excellence.' In her Forbes article '5 Characteristics Of Grit', Margaret M. Perlis writes 
Photo Credit Irish Daily Craic
'Anxiety, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and clinical depression are only a few of the conditions ascribed to “perfectionism.” To be clear, those are ominous barriers to success.' 

Instead, get focused on excelling in your skill set. Improve on what YOU are doing. Focus on excelling YOURSELF. What the other guy is doing isn't important to you while you're practicing. The guy who gets distracted in the ring gets knocked out.


 Every study on improving skills states, in some way, that focus is key. Again, we can look to Matt Murdock for advice: set aside an hour of your day to work on your skills. I don't care when, but do it. No more excuses about not having the time. If yo care, you find time. Period. During comic time, you don't check Facebook, you don't zone out, and if you do, yo pull yourself back and work. Perelis said it best:
'it is important to commit rather than just show up for practice.  Or, to put it less delicately, it’s better to be a racehorse than an ass.'


To get the most out of practice, set yourself specific, quantifiable goals. Goals serve two important functions: they help foster a sense of achievement, and break the work of improvement down into manageable tasks.  When setting your goals, keep these points in mind:

  1. Define Your Skillset.
    Make a list of areas where you excel, areas where you need to do more work and areas you want to improve. If you have the means, ask another artist to help you with this. Seeing your work through new eyes can be a lot of help. Now you know where to focus.

  2. Well Defined Goals Get Results. 
    Say you want to improve on drawing hands. Drawing a page full of a hundred hands isn't actually going to help you improve; you're only repeatedly doing what you know how to do. Instead, get an anatomy book and set the goal of reading their chapter on hands and doing drawings based on one page a day. Or go to Drawing Lessons For The Young Artist and set the goal of working through one of their work sheets a week; every day, read the tutorial and draw its steps again. You'll be learning and you'll feel accomplished.
  3. Ditch Guilt. Roll With The Punches
    Above all, keep this in mind: bad work isn't failure. It's learning. Our culture loves the concept of the 'natural talent' and the savant, but those concepts are deeply flawed. It's not 'talent' that makes a skill. It's work. Constant, quiet, hard work. It's getting knocked down and getting back up. You lose a fight? You figure out why. You miss a punch, miss a deadline or an update? Try again. You get a rejection letter, a bad comment, a down vote?
    If anyone knows who did this great piece please let me know
    so I can credit them!
    Take every suggestion for improvement and work with it. I see too many people trap themselves in guilt. They start feeling so ashamed and frustrated by their project that they give up on it all together and go looking for something shiny, new and unencumbered by baggage. Don't. Do. That. And ditch shame. This is about your work, not about you. You are not a bad person because you are still learning. You need to accept that you will make mistakes, and you will grow better for them. That's how we learn.
  4. Substitute Nuance For Novelty
    If you're feeling bored with your project, it's your responsibility to change it up, take it in a new direction, rather than giving up. Dubner put it like this:So rather than constantly moving on to a new thrill, you try to find another level, another dimension, of the thing you’re already doing, to make it more thrilling. Whether it’s a research project or an arpeggio, a breaststroke or a soufflĂ© — wherever your interests lie.'
    In the analogy of hands, don't give up on practicing hands, just find a novel tutorial.

  5. This is a Marathon. Not a Sprint
    Practice takes time, but daily work really is the only way to get to the level you want to be. THIS IS NORMAL. In fact, Ira Glass pointed it out beautifully:

It's Up To You. Roll Up Your Sleeves.

To begin the year, I'll leave you with these words by the  great Teddy Roosevelt.

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