Handling Problems the Creative Way by Holly DeWolf

Since 1975, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market has been a must-have reference guide for  emerging artists who want to establish a successful career in fine art, illustration, cartooning or graphic design. Beyond up-to-date contact and submission information for more than 1,700 art markets, AGDM includes informative articles and interviews with successful artists and art buyers. Read on for a  2012 AGDM article by illustrator, mentor, DYI’er, blogger and author Holly DeWolf. Also, be sure to check out ArtistsMarketOnline.com, the new online version of AGDM—you can try it for free with the 7-day risk-free trial.

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
—George Lois

No matter what you do in your career, there will be many bumps along the way. Call them hiccups or Hindenburgs. Either way, these disruptions can leave many of us scrambling for a solution. Don’t panic. You are not alone. No one is handed a magic wand for all the little disruptions that can come with this business. Time to get problem solving fast!
What doesn’t break you and knock you down can only make you creatively stronger. Resilience is being able to rebound from a difficult situation. How well you return to your normal creative self after rejection, illness and adversity says a lot about your creative nature. The good news is that falling down half a dozen times will help you handle anything this career throws your way. Don’t get rattled. Instead, try another approach.

“See problems as holes in the ground. You can dig deeper, or you can break new ground.”

Von R. Glitschka turned around a potentially bad situation in February 2002 after he got fired.
“I went into work about an hour early to catch up on stuff, and my boxes were packed, and they handed me a check. Getting the boot wasn’t fun, mainly because I [had] a wife and kids that depended on me and a mortgage to pay. But in hindsight it was the best career move for me. Forced me to leave a comfort zone that frankly was holding me back and has equipped me to pursue many things I otherwise would never have been able to do if I was working for someone else. My personality and drive [are] perfect for the flexibility of being my own boss, so it’s worked out great, and I get to spend more time with my family, too.
“The first six months were hard. I actually went on two interviews, but both stated, ‘You’re overqualified.’ My wife suggested I start my own business, and that proved to be the best advice anyone gave me. At the end of the first year, I was floored when we did our tax return, and I saw for the first time in a very pragmatic way how well I had done. Every year since, my business has grown, and new creative opportunities have presented themselves, and for that I am really thankful.”
You will have lots of practice with frustrating moments. The illustration road can be bumpy, just like any other small business. The way you handle it makes all the difference. Don’t question yourself. Most importantly, make sure you get back up after you’ve been knocked down.


Burnout can strike at the worst possible time when we aren’t feeling our best; it’s a progression that can leave you uninspired, bored and completely drained of any useful energy. Burnout is a red alert. It is your mind and body telling you to stop. When you’re too stressed, too tired and done with the same old, all bets are off.

creative burnout checklist

“It’s like, ‘Whoa, what the hell happened there? I am retreating within myself.’”
—Mitch Hedberg

Bad signs are a lack of interest to create and a lack of care whether you create or not. This could have disastrous effects if you forge ahead even though you know better. Missed deadlines and upset clients, mixed with much frustration, cannot be good for any illustration career. This will add to that awful feeling that something is wrong and that you do not feel like your normal self.

“My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night.”
—Edna St. Vincent Millay

If every little thing is stressing you out, you have to know something is off. Being easily angered and feeling lost are signs of a larger problem that needs to be addressed stat! What should you do? Do something different. Do something out of character. Do something for yourself. Burnout often is a signal that a holiday is badly needed.
Vacations should be the ultimate getaway, but oftentimes we take work along for the ride. We book vacations that may be too labor-intensive. The result can be coming home even more tired than you were before you left. Do your research. Make sure your vacation interests you. Better yet, if your brain is completely drained of any useful function, book a vacation to do nothing.
If you can’t take that much time off, for whatever reason, try a mini vacation. Good sources for this are a visit to an art gallery, concert or day course; attending a get-together; going on a day trip; reading a good book or spending a lazy couple hours at your favorite coffee shop. Do what works. Do something that’s going to distract you for an hour, a day or even a whole weekend. Imagine the possibilities! Having only a limited amount of time has a funny way of making us get creative with the clock.
Need a nudge? Throw on your iPod. Or go outside, close your eyes and just listen. Try to reinvent what you’re hearing. Here’s a goofy thought: If you catch part of a conversation, try to imagine the parts you missed. Fill in the blanks and create a new scenario. It’s sort of like creative commentary to everyday normal things—like watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Want a true escape? Try a mental holiday at home and do nothing. Sounds kind of Zen-like, but it works and can be a new spin on a short bout of boredom. Daydreaming and drifting off are art forms unto themselves. There’s a real importance to just shutting off. Think of it as a type of mental refocusing—it allows you to imagine anything and everything. You’re giving your constantly busy brain permission to stop. Empty time works well without any sensory stimulation and can become a great creative asset with practice.
From time to time, our brains need to go into a pattern of thought called “the default network.” Unconscious thought falls into this category when we’re reading, doing the dishes or driving. These tasks become automatic even when we tune out. This internal brain soup helps you discover new ideas. Connections are made to things you might have overlooked. Unrelated thoughts can mingle nicely to create new relationships. It’s a win-win creative tune-out.
A big philosophy I live by is this: The good stuff happens during silence. Believe it or not, but silence is good for you. There’s silence. and then there’s effective silence. This basically means you’re actively being quiet to gain something or open yourself up to new ideas, solutions and creative tinkering. I believe this quote from C. Krosky sums it up well: “Most of us know how to say nothing; few of us know when to let our silence speak louder.”


Procrastination is generally that missing link between productivity and being in a coma. It is completely-slacking-off time. You know you have work to do. You know you have a deadline coming. But your mind wanders off somewhere else. Everything becomes a distraction. All of a sudden an unorganized sock drawer ends up being the most important thing in the world. Next to come is the TV, and then you end up zoned out for three hours. If there’s one definite thing we all have in common, it’s procrastination.

“We will not know unless we begin.”
—Peter Nivio Zarlenga

Procrastination comes from the Latin word pro, which means “forward,” and crastinus, which means “tomorrow.” It basically leads to leaving action and tasks for another time. Some see procrastination as a coping skill against the stress and anxiety of starting or finishing a job or making an important decision. This loss of productivity often creates a huge amount of guilt associated with avoiding responsibility.
Fear can be a trigger. Who doesn’t get cold feet when dealing with the unknown? As you know, we usually avoid the things we fear. Feeling unorganized or unprepared can bring on this uneasy feeling. Sometimes the wires get crossed when we’re dealing with differences between urgency and priority. The next wrong move can be a distraction that takes you away from what needs to be done right now. As in the case of writer’s block, lack of inspiration or creativity can be the culprit. After that, you could start avoiding the project due to lack of interest because you’re spending so much time overthinking it.
Lumping everything together and wanting it all done now is a form of perfectionism. We often want things to go just right. It’s hard not to want to control every aspect of a project. Let go! This release can open the mind and allow it to be easy and free. I think we can all agree that in order to kick creative block in the butt, we must find some sort of release.
A useful strategy is what I call “chunking,” or breaking the task into small, manageable steps. This could be a really good time to throw in some “free” creative thought to mix things up. Another approach can be stopping for the day and returning tomorrow with fresh eyes and a fresh brain. Lastly, try visualizing the final outcome.
The good news? Creative blocks can mean a change in direction and a fresh beginning toward something new and exciting. What you started out with might be the opposite of where you thought you needed to be. You never know—you might like the results.


Rejection is one of the biggest momentum killers I can think of. Let’s face it, it feels rotten but is one of the unfortunate bumps along the illustration path. You can pretty much count on rejection (like bills or aging). No matter how many times you hear the phrase “Your work does not suit our needs right now,” rejection can make even the most positive person wonder what they’re doing wrong.

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off. Start all over again.”
—Peggy Lee

Most often you aren’t doing anything wrong. You may be targeting a market that doesn’t need your particular talents at this time. It could also mean they don’t fully understand what you do. Or maybe they’re looking for a particular style of illustration that isn’t yours.
A great site that lets you submit rejected work is The Designers Recovery Magazine (floggedmagazine.com). Their motto is, “We celebrate good designs that have been flogged in a monthly magazine.”

“You’re like some kind of superhero that can ward off success at every turn.”
The Drew Carey Show

Too often we question our work, our marketing style and worst of all our personalities! Keep in mind that even the best of the best get rejected. We can get too down on ourselves when we’re kicked to the creative curb. We are talented. How could they not want what we do? How is it they don’t see what we see in our work? Why don’t they realize how hard we’ve worked to get to this point?
We ask all sorts of “why” questions when we feel dejected and bummed out. So, what are they really saying when they throw your efforts a curveball? Number one, they are not rejecting you, they are rejecting the services or the style you provide. Sometimes they are rejecting all illustration services because they don’t need work at the time or it isn’t in the budget. Remember that this industry is based on many factors, and rejection need not be forever. Ask them to put you on file. Ask them for a critique. Ask for a little advice to see what they need from a potential illustrator. And, lastly, ask them if you can follow up in the future.

“I reject your reality and substitute my own.”

Reject your rejection. Don’t let it take away your creative power. Find another way. Find another audience. Stay true to your style, your creative voice and your goals.
Dealing with the inner critic
I often think we’re all born with a little critic deep inside each of us. We don’t need this critic’s opinions, negativity and nagging little voice. You can always count on it to rear its head when your work gets rejected or when you get tired and frustrated. The little critic can rule your creative brain if you let it.

“You’re like a pop-up book from hell!”
Gilmore Girls

I asked Jeff Andrews to describe how he handles that little critic inside. “I’m easily my own worst critic. Too often I agonize over the most insignificant little things in regard to a current project. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘We [become] what we think about all day long.’ If my clients knew the amount of work I actually put into a job, they’d be amazed. I tend to become a bit obsessed during the early stages of the creative process. A favorite catchphrase of mine is ‘Eat. Sleep. Design.’ The way I usually get around this, however, is by taking a systematic approach to the job, exploring and working through the task at hand in an almost militaristic fashion. And I like to bounce stuff off of my family and colleagues for critique as well. Feedback can be invaluable.”

“Experience is the toughest teacher because she gives the test first, and then the lesson.”

When that “voice” strikes, do you know how to talk over it to silence it? How much of it do you believe? The inner critic is basically a really bad dialogue within yourself. It can come from anywhere—from naysayers from the past, from mistakes and from past misunderstandings. Try to remind yourself that this voice is a completely separate entity from yourself. It comes from you, but it isn’t the true you.

“That’s it, mister! You just lost your brain privileges!”
—Plankton from SpongeBob SquarePants

Try to reprogram this inner chatter in the most creative ways you can. I often challenge my inner critic with silly rebuttals. It sounds odd, but I refuse to let negative script get to me. There is a time to create and a time to evaluate. There is also a time to look for real perspective. Others can never verify self-worth; you can only do that for yourself.

Perfectly imperfect

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, The saying above is “Practice makes perfect.” I have always preferred things to be great over perfect. The word great just sounds wide open to possibilities. As an artist, you can do a lot of creative things that can lead to many great things down the road.

“Practice makes great!”
—Holly DeWolf

Mistakes can also find their way into that great category, too. Mistakes aren’t as bad as we think. We focus on errors and blunders so intensely that we lose sight of all the good things mistakes can teach us. Mistakes allow you to reinvent the idea from a different angle. As I am well seasoned in the mistake category, I am willing to admit my goofs and bone-headed moments. My philosophy is if I can laugh at it, I can live with it and learn from it. I try to use that energy for good. Sounds like superhero thinking, but it’s better to use mistakes than to waste time wallowing in them.
Perfection is an illusion—it’s only an idea, not a human truth. Illustrators are in the business to solve creative problems in a visual way. Trying to be perfect only creates more problems on top of what we have time to fix.
Perfection is also a surefire route to Crazy Town. It can only lead to stress and unhappiness. A happy illustrator is a creative and productive illustrator. Why waste time on negative energy when you can be doing what’s really important? Perfectionism means only one option, too many rules and inflexible thinking; this leads to hair pulling—mainly your own. Basically, perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. Perfectionists believe it is best or worst and black and white.
I like to go the route that says, “Mistakes happen. Have fun anyway!” The level of creativity you require as an illustrator is pretty big. There are endless possibilities, decisions, mistakes and experimentations. Perfectionism requires too much energy that can otherwise be better spent on the fun part of your life and illustration work. When you’re worrying about things being “just right,” you lose that element of surprise many illustrators require in order to come up with new ideas. The wrong energy spent on the wrong things can lead to missed opportunities, and these missed moments could increase that unrealistic need to get things “just right” the next time—or else.
As illustrators, we are in a constant state of reinvention, and reinvention pretty much cancels out any concept of perfectionism. At some point you will have to break your own rules. No sense being rigid as a stick. Remember that your illustration career “ideal” is only a creative guidepost to work toward. It also helps to add some flexibility because there will always be deviations from your original career path. Focus on the benefits that led you to this career in the first place.

The antiperfection checklist

•    Step away: Leave an idea or an illustration you may be feeling critical about. Instead, look for inspiration. Something unrelated that can distract you long enough
to refresh your brain. Fresh eyes add a new perspective. It’s also wise to avoid looking at other illustrators’ work at this time because this can halt your productivity even more.
•    Shelve it: If it’s the wrong time or the wrong kind of energy or it just feels wrong all around, shelve it. Sit back and relax. You know where it is and that you can revisit it later. If you’re going to exert that much energy on a project, make sure you’re enjoying it. This simple act can let you love that idea again.
•    Get organized: It’s definitely beneficial to create some sort of order for yourself if deadlines are looming. Order can add a sense of control at those moments when you feel like you’re going to pop your disordered head. Mess has this funny way of agitating people. Mess can also be very distracting.
•    Define what’s really important right now: What’s the No. 1 thing you need to focus on? Making yourself do things on a regular basis even though you aren’t into it isn’t a good push in the right creative direction. Nagging yourself to do it all, do it right and do it exactly as planned can work against you.
•    Practice letting go: Do you really need to control every little thing, idea and illustration project? Sometimes the uncontrollable and unchangeable career issues can be quite liberating. I find these moments to be surprisingly refreshing.
•    Make a deliberate mistake: Do something imperfect, messy and really out of character. Create blindly without a plan, blueprint or notes. Break the rules (but make sure you break your own rules).
•    Distraction: Set up diversions for yourself. Distraction can be a wonderful thing, especially when it’s something really different, interesting or a bit odd. Moments like this help your brain wrap itself around things.
•    Embrace the concept of “good enough”: Accept that you need to be done. If you’re tired of looking at something, it’s a sure sign to call it finished. The project can be good enough right now. Down the road you can revisit it, change it or realize you love it.
•    Reward yourself: Hard work in creative thinking and illustrating needs to be appreciated from time to time. Take moments when it isn’t so busy to do something good for your creative ego. Do what you need to do. Need what you need. Want what you want.
•    Joke: Nothing stimulates my mind quicker than humorous banter. Humor—especially self-deprecating humor—works really well. If the person you’re talking to or watching can laugh at her mishaps and oddities, you can too. Humor is a great fix and in many cases it’s free. It’s cheap medicine!
Essentially, you’re letting go of the over-responsibility role that can be numbing your illustrious mind. We can exert too much of that all-important energy to perform great things in exacting specifications. Not only does this make life harder, it can also alienate important people such as friends, family and clients. Being seen as someone who does not creatively play well with others isn’t going to help your career. Allowing yourself to be less obligated for your work to be done “exactly as planned at this very moment” kicks perfectionism to the curb. All that’s required of you is to admit the truth that you’re a creative illustrator, and perfectionism has no business poking around your business.
Wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy of aesthetics based on the transient nature of things,
focuses on three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. This philosophy has a very nice simplicity to it and I think sums up life in a very down-to-earth, common-sense way. Wabi-sabi focuses on the concepts of being imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. When we stop forcing things to be something they aren’t, we develop new eyes and a much simpler way to live life. I believe that only when we let go of those things holding us back do we actually become our true, authentic creative self. It is then that your illustration career really benefits. It is then that you take your illustration career to the next level.


Moving always has a fine way of turning your work life upside down—it’s a stressful and tiring thing to dismantle your work space. There are so many things to sort through, organize and box up. And you either need to finish up projects or put them on temporary hold. Moving leaves your business basically up in the air and in the back of a moving van.

“I’m taking down the office now!”
Grosse Point Blank

Just showing your house can be a pain, especially if you work at home, and the realtor requires you to leave. You have to stop working on whatever you’re supposed to be doing, tidy up and vacate the premises. Depending on how many people are looking at your home in a week, you could be leaving a lot. It’s frustrating and tiring.
I haven’t stopped moving since 1988; it has been approximately fourteen times total so far. I’d like to say that I will be staying put for a while, but life sometimes has other plans. Being in home-and-office limbo can really put your life up in the air. There’s a lot of waiting that goes on, such as waiting to get your house sold, waiting before you move out, waiting for Internet and phone hookup and waiting to set up your space again.
I asked Roz Fulcher about her many moves across the country and if it altered her career at all. “With our frequent moves, I have found freelancing ideal. The beauty is I can take my job with me. The main difficulty, though, is switching e-mail accounts and contact information for each location. This has been a little easier now that I have an agent.”
What helped me in past moves was having a type of office on wheels. I have a large plastic storage cabinet I can move from room to room and place my mess into in a hurry. It fits nicely under a table so it doesn’t have to stick out like a bull’s-eye. A laptop computer helps so I can actually leave or go outside and still be able to do work.
Not having access to all your much-needed technology is one of the largest pains to deal with. It’s really hard to pack up the computer, which is your networking lifeline and promotion-controlling machine. My advice: Let all your clients know you’re moving beforehand. Have an alternate e-mail account you can access at a friend’s house. Your cell phone will have to be your much-needed lifeline. If you have a blog and participate in online sites, post something that announces you’re in the process of moving and gives an estimated time when you’ll be gracing the Web once again.
When you’re about to set up shop in your new digs, send mailers of your new address. This keeps you motivated, plus it’s a nice distraction while you’re in office limbo. This also makes a great excuse to send out a new promotional series.
Lori Joy Smith just recently moved from the west coast of Canada to Prince Edward Island. “Moving to PEI has changed my life in every way. We have a house and a yard, as opposed to all being cooped up in a tiny apartment. The lower cost of living here allows us to afford full-time day care for my daughter, giving me more time to work. It is generally much less hectic and stressful in Charlottetown than at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Vancouver. Life feels much simpler.
“I spent a great deal of time in Vancouver doing custom paintings and selling paintings to stores. It was never my intention to get into this market; it just sort of happened. It was nice to have a way to make money in between illustration jobs, but there was always a little voice in the back of my head telling me that it was taking me away from what I really should be doing. I found it hard to turn down a job—how often do you have people willing to pay you money to paint? Moving to PEI has pretty much stopped all of my custom work; I am finding myself with much more time to concentrate on all the big projects I have been dreaming about for so long. I wouldn’t say I have lost any opportunities, they have just shifted.”
Susan Mitchell took a longer trip from Scotland to where she now calls home in Quebec. “Because of the Internet, I don’t think where you live restricts your illustration opportunities anymore. For example, most of my clients are in the United States, and nearly all of the communication and sketching is done via e-mail. The final artwork is couriered to the company, and it usually works very smoothly. In an ideal world, it would be lovely to meet with clients face-to-face to go over ideas, but I have had quite a few chats over the phone trying to fine-tune projects, and that can work just as well.”
One other thing to consider when you’re about to leave your old space for a new one is the possibility of damages. This could involve hard drives, monitors and other very vital office equipment. Things get bumped, dropped and roughed up in the moving van. Your best bet is to get moving insurance. I highly recommend it. Often when you move these things in your own vehicle, some insurance companies won’t cover you. Another thing to consider could be renovations. Your office and home may not be quite ready for you yet. Lastly, rest up because you will be doing some serious unpacking.
After that you can spend time getting used to a new working space and getting back into the swing of things.

Those unthinkable events

A month before I moved back to Nova Scotia, I was attacked by my neighbor’s dog. As I fought to remove my right hand from his teeth, my illustration career literally flashed before my eyes. I thought to myself, That’s it, folks. My illustration career is officially over. I then went to the emergency room, bloody and bruised, and was immediately moved to the front of the line. Apparently, dog bites are very serious business at hospitals. I was cleaned up and bandaged and told that a public-health official would be stopping by my house to get more information. That was it, or so I thought.

“Man is so made that when anything fires his soul, impossibilities vanish.”
—Jean de La Fontaine

That very bad day ended up becoming six months of recovery, physiotherapy and missed work. I couldn’t even hold a pencil. During this ten-second bite, the dog had nearly ripped off my right index finger. On top of that, the dog had shaken my finger and wrist out of joint a half dozen times while trying to pull me over the fence. Needless to say, this had not been a warning bite. He’d wanted me for lunch!
What became very apparent was that the index finger is very important for even the simplest of tasks. Basic things like changing my daughter’s diapers or doing the dishes were extremely difficult. I will admit I’d taken that wee little finger for granted. Not anymore.
Kathy Weller is no stranger to overcoming an injury. “Early in my professional career, I started experiencing hand and wrist issues. I was scared. At one point, my problems were so severe that I actually was looking into pursuing other career paths. This was completely depressing—I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up my art career! As a last-ditch effort, I went to see an independent ‘alternative’ physical therapist. This person’s work was not covered by my health insurance, but I was willing to try anything. Seeing him was a smart and lucky move—the treatments not only helped me gain back mobility and strength but I learned that regular physical conditioning is integral to overcoming these types of ongoing, chronic injuries. He introduced me to a set of unique exercises that my orthopedic surgeon had never even touched upon. These exercises and the overall knowledge I gleaned from this person helped me eventually gain back control over my art career and my life.”
In the course of a day, how often do you think about your hands, eyesight, hearing and your overall health? We are often so busy with our lives, illustration assignments and promoting ourselves we focus on everything else but our health. Remember: Without those amazing hands, eyes, ears and overall healthy selves, we do not have an illustration career.
My hand is about 90 percent better. There are scars as a reminder. It feels tight when cool weather kicks in. All very minor things, considering it could have been much worse. I’m just glad I can bend my finger and that it’s still part of my very important hand. As a side note, I am a huge lover of dogs, and this did not sway my belief that dogs make awesome companions. To me, this was a random, isolated incident. My only fault was getting in the way of his very large mouth. Needless to say, it could have happened to anyone.

Go to plan B

Everyone should have some sort of backup plan. Call it plan B or a disaster plan—just make sure you have one. Getting munched on by a dog helped me devise a blueprint for disaster. What I learned from my hand injury was that I needed to reevaluate the importance of what I do and how I do it. I’d never given much thought to the concept of a game plan before that. Worst-case scenarios often have a funny way of forcing your hand, so to speak.

“Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.”
—Roger Crawford

The first thing I looked into was insurance. I’d had no idea there was such a thing as dismemberment insurance for artists. Who knew? It only makes sense, if you really think about it. The concept of dismemberment is pretty gruesome, and it doesn’t just happen to zombies in movies. I have come to expect the unexpected because, as it turns out, life is funny like that.
We tend to have insurance for our computers, cars and houses. These three things can be replaced if they happen to blow up or fall apart. Fingers, hands, legs and eyes do not grow back. The reality is we can have accidents and can run into man-eating dogs from time to time. Protect your assets.
So, say you get sidelined. Can you find some sort of additional income? What other creative assets do you have on the table? If you don’t know, you’d better get thinking. If you do, start coming up with plans. Breaking Into Freelance Illustration came about after that lovely pooch bit me. It was a concept I had shelved five years ago. I’d had to think fast to find some kind of income while my hand healed, so I took a chance, and the rest is history as they say. The funny thing is I have not ever classified myself as a writer. I mostly went with “idea generator.” Either way, this was a good move in the right direction.
A good plan is to make sure you have some backup funds set aside for any temporary setback in your assignments. And don’t go it alone. Set up a support system of friends, family and a really good babysitter.

Holly DeWolf is an illustrator, mentor, DYI’er, blogger and author of the book Breaking Into Freelance Illustration: The Guide for Artists, Designers and Illustrators. She currently lives in New Brunswick, Canada, living the creative freelancer’s dream.  
Excerpted from Breaking Into Freelance Illustration © 2009 by Holly DeWolf. Used with the kind permission HOW Books, an imprint of F+W Media, Inc. Visit MyDesignShop.com or call (800)258-0929 to obtain a copy.

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