Yesterday I was writing a contribution to an article about mental health in my line of work. And instead of writing a couple of sentences, I wrote a bit of an essay. So I thought I’d share it here, and I hope that it both sheds light on the subject, and maybe offers a little help to people who might be suffering from the stress the freelance artist life can hurl at you. At least they might know they’re not alone… So, here goes:
In the business of commercial art there are several black holes into which your self-esteem, and, by extension, your mental health, can disappear. Really these apply to any creative enterprise - drawing, acting, singing.. whatever.. But I’ll focus on my own area - illustration.
Firstly, there is the soul-bearing aspect of it. You are putting your most personal inner-you (whether it’s personal work or commissioned, they still come from the same place) on display. And if that display meets indifference, or criticism, it can hurt on a deep level. Over the years, as you gain experience, you can become battle-hardened and better able to roll with the punches. You might even agree with the critics. But the fact is you are exposing a very soft spot to the lances of opinion, and so you need to develop some armour to cope (more on that in a minute).
This is exasperated these days by the way in which we market ourselves - ie social media. Social media has given us something our predecessors didn’t have - a fan base outside of illustration enthusiasts. We are reaching a much wider array of people. But what happens is (sometimes) we can lose focus as to the real target, which is people who can pay you for your art, and instead put value on how many people like our work, regardless of whether they will help you put food on the table. If people don’t respond to your work, it can send in some very dark clouds. Wondering why you only have so many followers, or why a post got no traction, is a rough (and pointless) sea to sail on.
Second, there is the Horrendous First Few Years®. There are exceptions, but for most people, starting out in the world of illustration is incredibly hard. Jobs are few and far between, money is scarce and you are surrounded (bombarded even) by people ‘more successful’ than you (I put that in quotes because really they’re just further down the road.. those are air quotes). It’s so easy to feel worthless in this formative time. You need a large reserve of grit to get through it.
On a personal level, I happened to get married and have kids right at the start of my freelance career. Right when I was only getting a job every few months, and not bringing any money in. It was bleak. There were times when, even if I did get a job, I didn’t get paid when I was supposed to and I had to go home to say ’sorry I can’t pay that bill after all’. I have never felt worse in my life. I felt like Frodo when he puts on the ring in the movies, and then gets stabbed by the ring wraith. Countless times I was going to pack it in, but thankfully I stayed the course (with the help of my endlessly patient wife).
Being honest, there were many times I felt completely and utterly useless. But under all that black there was one little burning ember: I wanted - no, had to succeed at it, because I knew deep down I had the chops. To not do it would be a waste of the time and patience and belief of everybody close to me. I kept going.
Thirdly, and this is really very unfortunate, even when jobs are regular and you’re making a decent living, all of the above can still apply. You might get bored of, or even hate, your own art, or your audience might get bored of/hate it. You still look at others enviously (human nature I think). You still chase money and suffer at the hands of 60-90 day payment runs and stone-walling accounts departments. The pitfalls are there, regardless.
So if you are earning a living (or planning to) as a creative person, you need to fortify yourself against these things. For what it’s worth, here’s what I have found helpful:
Exercise. Honestly. I have done various forms of it over the years (without losing any weight, but hey ho), but the mainstay for me is walking. I might be deep in thought for the whole thing, or not thinking of anything at all. But it (or any form of exercise) get the cogs turning, juices flowing and I guarantee you will find yourself able to deal with stress better if you do it. Make it a fundamental part of your working day - it’s more important, and productive, than checking emails.
Mediate. I thought meditation was one thing, when it’s entirely another. It’s not sitting cross-legged Guru-style and saying ‘Om’ a lot. It’s just a way to learn to let thoughts happen and not battle them. You learn to switch your focus from white-noise thoughts onto just.. being. When I do it (not every day I admit) I don’t float on a cloud of lotus flowers back to my desk filled with the spirit of nature. I’m just able to get on with it. I don’t procrastinate, I just do stuff. When I meditate for 10 minutes, I am twice as productive as when I don’t. I learned from the Headspace app, but I’m sure there are more out there.
Prioritise. By which I mean, place importance on the proper stuff. Not getting new followers, or how many people like your last post. Not even scoring a dream client. Place it on the good things in life like your mates, family.. then on making better work, and enjoying that process. Take time to fill your head up with cool stuff, because that’s the well you need to draw from. Go to the cinema in the daytime without guilt. Read more than you think is humanly possible. Do something outside of the creative world. Don’t yearn to be as good as someone else at drawing, yearn to feel better about yourself in every aspect of life and that way you can deal with it when life proves itself, as ever, not-always-good.
Talk to people. This is so important. If you are feeling bad about yourself - really bad - you need to share it with someone you trust. Never bottle it up, ever.
These things will give you the armour I mentioned earlier.
Oh. One final admission, from a personal point of view. When I was younger, I was a bit of a party animal. In fact, it frequently got out of control. Thankfully I managed to avoid the slippery slope, and now I’m a confirmed lightweight. Focusing on achieving my goals kept me away from the slope and the black dog at the bottom. So if you’re young, party away - enjoy yourself. Because eventually you’ll need to decide between that and knuckling down to work. You can still party, but it takes days not hours to get over it. And it’s easier to make good work with a clear head than a fuzzy one.
I have become a fuddy duddy. But a happy one (most of the time).
I don’t have all the answers - far from it. But I can certainly speak from experience, and I hope there is something beneficial in this post for someone. Good luck, and as Blindboy Boatclub says: ‘Good Mental Health.’
For help with your illustration career, The Association of Illustrators are a great UK institution. Also follow The Illustration Dept. on Twitter for helpful advice, inspiration and a general boost if you’re struggling.