Daily Routine of an Illustrator
Updated: Feb 23
This post gives you an insight into my daily routine as a work-at-home illustrator of children’s books and what drives me to keep on doing what I do.
Make it count
How organized are you? How do you divide the hours of the day to optimize your daily activities? In school you had daily and weekly class schedule, right? Whether you are already working or still studying, you may have discovered that having a routine helps a lot with organizing your day. Even home-based folks like me follow a schedule to keep distractions at bay.
Right from the beginning of my creative practice, sometime in 2016 when we moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, I forced myself to become disciplined in utilizing and dedicating my day to making art in order for me to become a professional artist. The only way to achieve this is to treat my practice as a 9-5 kind of job. I was that serious in improving my skills. In my mind, my creative activities were not only hobbies but a training similar to training for a marathon or going back to university. It was a slow but steady process of re-education. As an expat back then, time was abundant but I knew that this privilege would not last, therefore I had to make every second count so I could earn again wherever in the world.
Becoming a hermit
Even before the pandemic lockdowns, I was already fully adapted in staying indoors with minimal social interactions. If you are an introvert like myself, keeping yourself busy everyday with creativity is a breeze. However, there are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week. How to concentrate and optimize? We humans have dedicated about 35 hours per week to work and the rest are for everything else. Most of our waking lives are spent in staring at screens, about 7 hours on average globally divided by computer screens and mobile phone engagements. That excludes lounging in front of the TV after work. Some of us may not be literally hermits but we are nonetheless absorbed and trapped by the Internet.
One time I asked my husband what he thought I was doing all day. He answered, “Instagramming.” Ouch! I felt judged. If I was indeed only instagramming the whole time living unemployed abroad, I would not be calling myself a children’s books illustrator now. For artists, Instagram is just one of the many venues for the finished product of your hard labor similar to a window display of a shop so your people especially potential clients will find you. It is also a source of visual inspiration. On the other hand, I could not blame him that he had no idea what exactly it was that I was doing at home while he was in the office all week. When he arrives I am already in the kitchen cooking or maybe checking my phone while waiting for the pasta to go al dente. I also post almost everyday only because I painted excessively I have amassed enough content to show.
For artists, Instagram is just one of the many venues for the finished product of your hard labor similar to a window display of a shop so your people especially potential clients will find you.
So I made it a point to involve him every now and then into my creative work. For your loved ones to support you, you have to let them know and understand that whatever it is you are doing is important. Be brave and ask them their opinion about your artwork. Like a town crier, announce your activity that moment so people around you know you are not just fiddling about with your gadgets or tools. Let them into your world.
In a span of 5 1/2 years as an expat and hermit, I have learned not only how to take advantage of social media but also sew my own dresses, bake cakes, do intermediate yoga, perform Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies, build my own website, write my own stories again, become an artist again through daily practice reinforced by online courses, get paid for making art, and more importantly I have rekindled my passion for the arts.
"Carpe diem!" or seize the day is my life's motto.
Becoming a creature of habit
Have you read Atomic Habits by James Clear? I have not but I thought it worth mentioning to emphasize the importance of creating and cultivating habits. This is so crucial to your success story that people actually write books about the concept that humans instinctively know but are just too stubborn to put into good use because we have become so modern and disconnected from the Earth's biological rhythm. Did you know that Chimpanzees follow a schedule for their survival in the wild as do other animals?
Author James Clear suggests that if we want to form new habits, we should make them obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
Contrary to common beliefs, artists are in fact notorious creatures of habit. There is a long account of the daily routines of famous creative people, who kept diaries in their time that are similar to the productivity apps nowadays only more verbose or romantic in the form of letters to loved ones. Charles Dickens claimed that he could never have achieved his accomplishments without having diligence, punctuality and order. He woke up at 7 in the morning, did other things before breakfast at 8, then began work at 9 until 2 in the afternoon, and exercised before transitioning into leisure activities towards the evening.
By dividing your day into small chunks of active work and repeating daily, you form functional habits that will guide you into reaching your main goal. By creating a conducive environment you are making it much easier for you to perform your daily repetitive tasks. Suddenly work is no longer dragging but rather stimulating.
“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” -- Charles Dickens
Sans alarm clock, I always wake up at around 7 in the morning. I am so in-tuned with my own circadian clock that even if I stayed up late the night before, I would still wake up around that time. Mornings are when I have the most energy so as soon as I bid my farewell to my husband, I carry on with my morning routine from freshening up, checking messages from my family on the other side of the world to getting ready for yoga.
Showing up to the mat
Prior to moving to Dubai my trip to the gym in Johannesburg was twice a week for one hour of supervised yoga. Later the lockdowns deprived me of my asanas. Since I already knew the foundations, I continued on my own to perfect my headstands. The relocation from South Africa to UAE disrupted the practice again but gradually I got back on the mat just to keep me sane from all the moving. The hardest part is showing up, really, so start with stretches or easy poses for five minutes and then increase the duration each day or whenever you feel ready to up the ante. These days, following a turbulent health problem due to untreated menopausal symptoms early last year and a straight neck syndrome, aka cervical kyphosis, I do guided yoga with Adriene for about 20-30 minutes 6 times a week at home. The key to creating a healthy habit is consistency. Besides if your job glues you on a chair, a little movement everyday goes a long way.
Break the fast
My favorite meal of the day is breakfast. I love it so much, I dream about what to eat in the morning the night before! Ever since I consulted a nutritionist to better understand my relationship with food so I could maintain my weight and prevent colon cancer*, I became creative in my meal preps. So innovative were they that my nutritionist asked for my recipes of scrambled egg whites and toast, smoked salmon on cottage cheese, eggplant omelet and rice and so on. If you have not been to a nutritionist, you have no idea how exact your measurements of your food intake must be in order to meet your daily caloric needs and macro goals. You also get a week’s worth of menu designed for you, which gets boring after a while.
*Colon cancer is related to uterine and breast cancer.
I documented my carefully prepped breakfast meals for future reference
In the beginning of my nutrition education and weight loss program, I would measure everything and input on my food diary app to calculate how much calories each meal contained even when dining out or traveling! Crazy, yes? But it worked and I lost 13 kgs in 3 months! A record according to my nutritionist. Nowadays I do not measure anymore because I have taught myself how to eyeball the amount of food I eat. If you are unsure, look at the size of your hand. For each meal, a fist is equivalent to your carbs, a palm is the size of your protein and a thumb is the amount of fat. Whether organic or not, what is important are the ingredients and nutritional values. You are also much better off with less processed foods. Make it a habit and take the time to read the back labels of the packaging.
When not in a creative mood or in a hurry, a slice of whole spelt bread, peanut butter, low fat yoghurt and a serving of fruit are staples. Breakfast is also the best time to do tea-food pairing!
At the end of the day, what you will learn is your relationship with food. Constantly counting the calories is also not sustainable and makes you even more prone to falling off the wagon. This clip from "Eat Pray Love" about Liz's love affair with pizza sheds light to the kind of attitude we should all be having towards food in any form. Proper nutrition starts in the mind and having a sound mind to make you function throughout the day requires proper nutrition.
In the Studio
Before heading to my studio at 10 am, all chores, admin stuff and even social media activities must be done because I am entering a zone, where the bulk of my day’s activities is concentrated. I was fortunate to have a space of my own for making art—the guest room is my studio and has been the arrangement since living as an expat in Johannesburg. You see, being a family of two has its perks.
A fully equipped atelier, which you can slowly build up, puts you in the right mindset to create. You want your tools to be accessible and complete as much as possible because you do not want to break that flow for not having the right tube of paint at hand. Of course you can always mix, but we artists have our own work habits, quirks and subtle nuances that we only recognize after years of constant practice. It is similar to when you are cooking dinner and you forgot one ingredient that may make or break the recipe you are following verbatim. Do you run out to the next supermarket while everything is on fire?
My art studios and makeshift ones over 6 years of relocation.
You want to know exactly where to reach for your brushes when in the middle of a painting, or which cable belongs to which gadget, what type of bulb to use on your desk lamp or where to put your mug of warm beverage. Placing your tools in the right spot is almost like a ritual as you do in a Japanese tea ceremony.
Likewise that sacred space makes you treat your job more seriously. After my nomadic albeit short stint in film production, I have advanced into a corporate environment stuck inside cubicles as a graphic artist and later my own dark room as a colorist. The color grading suite is so light controlled, we even measure the grayness of the wall! Believe it or not, that organized set-up and years of time-constraint workflow is reflected into my current illustration practice. As a watercolorist, I am like a sunflower—I follow the daylight.
Studio time is also divided into various tasks. In my previous post about my hybrid workflow, I took you through the many steps involved in creating a picturebook. Above is a quick diagram of said workflow.
As a Filipino, it is imperative that I eat warm meals at least three times a day so lunch is not an exception. Following my dietary plan, I cook my own meals as much as possible although most of the times it will be the leftovers from last night's dinner. Depending on my state of flow and hunger level, lunch break may occur between 12 noon or 2 pm. Lately it has become the former because I want to avoid snacking in between. This is also the time to eat more plant-based food or my beloved Filipino or Asian dishes, as well as catch up on the day's news or a quick YouTube crash course anything video.
Additional chores are also accomplished during this time before I go back to my studio. If I had to do some groceries shopping, I make that chore as an excuse to move a little bit and get my heart pumping from walking up and down 80 flights of stairs and up and downhill to and from the supermarket. A little Vitamin D and fresh air perks you up just as well to avoid that afternoon slump. Once back in the studio, I make sure that the tasks will transition into something much lighter such as scanning or Photoshopping. Most of the traditional art making happen in the morning when there is full daylight.
It is unforgivable for a tea enthusiast like myself to leave this out of my schedule. In fact, I drink tea the whole day—at least a liter of the good stuff! Be careful though because tea is considered a diuretic. Therefore drinking fluids especially water keeps you hydrated and from snacking. Since I am sensitive to caffeine, black, green, oolongs or Pu-ehr types are drunk in the mornings. Tisanes or herbal teas are best enjoyed towards the end of the work day while watching homing birds in our neighborhood garden.
In my dependent expat visa applications, I had to fill in “house wife” as my occupation. Because I was not allowed to work in those countries, writing that down saved us a lot of explanation at the embassies. I am a wife who also makes art for a living at home. As a woman you cannot only be defined by the one thing you do. You are many things and you can do many things.
One of those is cooking. I love cooking and the least I could do for my hardworking husband is to prepare a pleasant meal when he comes home (although it can be a hit or miss). Dinner is also sacred because this is the only time we could catch up on our day’s activities however monotonous or uneventful it had been. In my case, I get to see my favorite person and practice my German after conversing with myself all day! Like I said, I am a hermit.
Break your own rules
I know. I know. But monotony is the enemy, right? Depending on the season, my waking time changes as well, especially here in Germany where daylight savings time is still a thing. Also I try not to be such a control freak because living should have a dash of unpredictability and fun and spice. Balance is key and that is a practice that takes a lifetime to learn. You don’t believe me? At the time of writing, I have achieved hand standing without a wall for a second despite practicing for a year! Still, I was happy about that minute progress.
This entire routine is only a sketch of my daily grind and it is carefully designed according to my personality. It really helps when you know yourself. My closest friends already understood why I am a rarity in social gatherings. When meeting them, I need to plan ahead and adapt, likewise when traveling. In between projects, I try to shake things up by sleeping longer and doing things slower. In fact after days of confinement, I would crave for human interaction or fresh air.
As for nutrition, I do not deny that I also eat cake. I bake them, too! What I have learned in proper nutrition is, you may eat anything as long as you mind your portions and ideally use the good ingredients. That is why I cook.
Following a routine makes me more productive particularly when some days are difficult. Your bigger tasks become less daunting when you take it one step at a time.
Why go through all this trouble? Anyone who has survived cancer or any life-threatening illness would probably attest to taking care of themselves much better after the ordeal. It is after all my second chance in life! Moreover as an artist, I do not only invest in my skills but also in my overall wellbeing. I do not come from a place of self-righteousness but rather from real life experiences. Following a routine makes me more productive particularly when some days are difficult. Your bigger tasks become less daunting when you take it one step at a time.
Through art, I have found my reason to keep on going. Making art is not only a fulfillment of a dream but also a call to service. It is an opportunity to play a part in the society even though society may not always recognize your creative contribution. They just forget that our ancestors were artists first that paved the way to any civilization. Remember though, that in order for you to give, your cup has to be full.