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  • Michelle Carlos

The Art of Doing Nothing

Updated: Jan 24

This post talks about how taking a break from making art or creative work prevents burnout and boosts productivity.



HAPPY NEW YEAR!

As the Germans say, Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr or literally a good slide into the new year! Isn't that a fun way to embrace new beginnings? It reminds me of the meme of a baby elephant mud sliding through the jungle.

I also hope you took a meaningful time off your creative work because that is our topic this month. If you have not, well, drop whatever it is your doing right now and just lie on your back and look up the ceiling. Breathe. You can always come back to this later.


woman pulls a child on a sled on a snowy lanscape
Snow in the Park | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

It's okay to take a break

Do you feel guilty not being productive during the holiday seasons? Do you worry about not optimizing your time for creative endeavors or losing engagement in your social media accounts because you have not produced any new pieces to post?


You know what? It is alright not to show up every now and then so you could take time to refresh and reboot the systems. Artists are not machines churning artworks all the time. Contrary to popular belief, artists who constantly post on social media are not making art in an instant like magic. They just make it look easy. Some may have amassed artworks in the past that they have saved for future use or are simply organized and have planned ahead for dull times. The problem is, if you are only creating for social media you also become a slave to constant content creation and you are more likely to feel social media fatigued—eventually. Then you may ask yourself if you are truly an artist or just a media creator. You lose sight of your purpose.


What if you are a professional artist with a full calendar of work? Yay to that! But there will be a time when you will need a break. While it might be true that you as an artist love your work so much that time flies while you are in the flow of things, the danger of working non-stop is that you will run out of creative juices and the quality of your work will surely suffer. You will deplete your energy sources and drive your mental health spiraling like a roller coaster.


Many pros have taken a break or even full stop midway through a major project due to mental health issues. Time and time again I would see artists announcing their sabbatical from social media or even art making. While there may be complex reasons why an artist could no longer continue working on a beloved project, there is no denying that burnout is one of them. Jim Kay, the extraordinary illustrator of the Harry Potter illustrated edition published by Bloomsbury, announced on October 2022 that he will not be finishing the last 2 books in the series after working for a decade to focus on his mental health issues.

"I have been struggling with mental health illness for some time, and it would be wrong to try and continue when I can no longer give the fans and the series the full commitment and energy it deserves.” - Jim Kay, illustrator

Much of our creative energy comes from the brain therefore it is crucial to take care of it. Respect it. In fact, I wrote a full Blog on how I dealt with a minor mental breakdown during our exodus as expats here.


This month, however I would like to jot down the benefits and downsides as well as a few suggestions on what to do while on a break from art making. Remember that what works for me may not always work for you but it may be worth the try.

'Diagon Alley' by Jim Kay | Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone | 2015 | Bloomsbury

Reboot to Refresh

Take advantage of the year end holidays. Across all cultures and in most parts of the world, the end of the year is usually the most ideal to take the time off. If you are a working artist, use the period between projects to recuperate. Finding the time is actually a no brainer and yet many fail to just hit the brakes because a lot of us are go-getters, especially when you come from a work culture that is founded in toiling the fields from dusk till dawn.


As a children’s books illustrator, I work on a timeline. This will change even though the contracts have been signed. You need to be flexible to adapt to your client’s schedule and at the same time be transparent to them when you have changes on your side. I have also learned to factor in my off days (i.e. weekends) and longer planned holidays into my project calendar. Calculate how much time you need to finish the illustration requirements and add buffer days to ease the stress. You will be surprised by how accommodating and understanding clients are when you are open about your work process. This shows your clients that you have a healthy work-life balance.


Winter Solstice | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

The time in between projects or even the waiting period from a feedback is great for refreshing your mind that has been saturated by drawing scenes, characters, research and so on. Use this to do non-creative activities. Take a stroll, enjoy shopping for groceries, wash the dishes, the list goes on. Sometimes the most mundane chore done within an hour is enough to recharge your overactive brain. Even geniuses like Albert Einstein took a year off after high school to accomplish nothing at all!

The time in between projects or even the waiting period from a feedback is great for refreshing your mind that has been saturated by drawing scenes, characters, research and so on.

Weekends are sacred for me. As much as possible, I dedicate the two days for my family or social or non-social activities so that at the start of the work week, I am actually excited and even itching to paint. However, one of the downsides in taking long breaks from your studio is that your fingers cramp. Start with big brushstrokes to loosen up and work your way to the finest details. Using traditional media prevents you from taking your work with you anywhere but also forces you to really slow down. You learn how to plan your painting sessions often times according to hours of daylight.


I cannot verbalize exactly how excited I feel each time I hold my brush again after a long period away from my studio. You discover the little things you love about painting like the textures the wet pigments create on a rough paper surface. Even sharpening pencils is a happy task!


Lighthouse | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

You are not an art factory

Though I have mentioned this already earlier, this cannot be emphasized enough. Just because you are passionate about your job you are required to make art one after the other. If you have deadlines to meet, then be sure to plot your tasks on a calendar and stick to it. In my daily practice, I have learned how to pace my work and target one artwork or illustrated page a day. A typical work day consists of 8 hours. This will also depend on the enormity and complexity of the piece. For example a double page spread might take 2-3 days. If it is a Garden of Earthly Delights kind of piece, then that will take much longer. Luckily I have not done anything like that yet.


Sometimes you will also feel like making more art unrelated to your current projects, which you would call personal work. This is absolutely fine and works for every artist I know including myself. It is a different kind of rejuvenation where you experiment with mediums, subject matter and techniques.

I for one have joined Instagram art challenges just for the fun of it. The latest was Jehane’s Twelve Days of Christmas. It was unplanned and I was only able to participate in the last 4 prompts because I had just closed shop for the holidays and had a few free days before we set off on a road trip. I did not even have to whip up my brush to create those pieces. Reusing, recycling and repurposing scanned old artworks into new ones was the key. You are in no moral obligation to create from scratch. Truth is, I make my most innovative art during these challenges.


Modern art masterpieces at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

(Clockwise from left: Matisse, Warhol, Picasso, Garouste, Mondrian, Chagall, Delaunay, Bourgeois, Klein.)



Explore Nothingness

Whenever I am in Paris, I take solo trips to the city center to just walk around until I land at the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore as a pilgrimage and to hunt for treasured books. This time however, I went to Centre Pompidou first to see the superstars of modern art, Picasso, Mondrian, Warhol, etc. I began from the 6th level where they held a retrospective exhibition of contemporary French artist, Gérard Garouste. I was not a fan but was curious enough to witness how his style evolved throughout his 50 years of artistry and madness. Then I worked my way down to the permanent exhibitions, where I finally saw those revered pieces by Matisse, Chagall, Klein and co. It took me all in all 4 hours. Since I was meeting friends in an hour, there was no time anymore to stand in the extended queue outside the bookstore but there was time to gawk at the glowing half-restored Notre Dame Cathedral as the sun set while I sipped matcha and ate late lunch at the bookstore’s corner café. It felt like living in my own movie scene!


The Notre Dame Cathedral glows at sunset!

That was the beauty of that day, which was meant to just see things. For a few hours my mind was focused on other people’s artworks not mine.

In a world that rewards hyper productivity, we tend to look down on inactivity. Productivity means getting things done the right way by doing less. And yet we are so addicted in ticking off our daily to-do lists because we were told that laziness or procrastination is a characteristic of every unsuccessful person. On the contrary, there is a long list of high-achieving personalities throughout history, from Buddha to Jesus Christ, DaVinci to Gates, who basked in periods of inactivity or sought solitude to replenish their minds with fresh thoughts and ideas. The Italians have a phrase for moments like this, “Il bel far niente”, which means 'the beauty of doing nothing’.



Catch a Falling Star | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

Productivity means getting things done the right way by doing less.

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