Studio Saturdays: Art Challenges

Taking part in art challenges is a big—really big—trend in the art world, including mixed media. Artists challenge themselves to complete a creative endeavor each day for a month, several months, or a year, such as draw, paint, make a collage, or do an art journal page.

Have you been tempted to take on a challenge? It may seem daunting, but the rewards are incredible and far outweigh what you think might be the negatives, such as not having enough time or the right set up or materials. If you’re curious about taking part in a challenge, you must read the inspiring article “Collage a Day” in the November/December issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine by artist and creativity coach Robyn McClendon, who challenged herself to create a collage a day for a year. As she explains, “This 365-day project has made me more prolific, and I am never at a loss for ideas. ..The practice encourages the desire to try new techniques. Because it wasn’t at all intimidating, I felt like I was playing, and just enjoyed the process. The idea of making mistakes didn’t exist.”

Outdoor sketching
Here’s me, out sketching, with a pared-down assortment of colored pencils. (Photo by Mark Elson)

Last month I took part in InkTober, which is an annual challenge to create an ink drawing a day in October. Devised by illustrator Jake Parker, it’s grown into a worldwide phenomenon, with thousands of people taking part and sharing their work on social media. While I didn’t create every day, I did on most days, and I saw my work—and my disposition—improve. Even if I didn’t love what I drew, spending just a bit of time during the day to slow down, focus, and create something was kind of miraculous.

If an art challenges aren’t feasible now, the following information is helpful for simply setting aside time to make art, whether it’s on a regular basis or not. And when you do feel up for a challenge, you’ll be well prepared. Here are some tips that will help make your challenge successful:

Get your gear in order. Having supplies at the ready means having few excuses not to create. Your supplies will be tailored to what type of challenge you’re going to do, of course, but think about what you like to work with the most, and what makes sense. For example, if you plan to work on art journal pages, you might choose a few shades of acrylic paint, some pens, and some collage scraps. I tend to use a lot of supplies for my art journal pages, but narrowing down the field can actually be freeing—with less to choose from, you have fewer decisions to make, and more time to create. Having less to work with can also force you to flex those art muscles as you mix new paint colors and see ephemera in a new way.

Journals for art challenges
Working in several journals at once makes art challenges more fun.

You can change your supplies up every week, or every couple of weeks, to keep things interesting. Also, it can’t hurt to throw in a few new supplies here and there, either ones you’ve been wanting to try, or those that are languishing in your studio because you haven’t gotten around to using them. Keep everything in one place, like a shoebox or plastic bin, and put them back after using them.

The substrate you work on during art challenges is important as well. If you work on paper, make sure it’s appropriate to what materials you’ll be using. I find 140-lb. watercolor paper to be a great overall paper to work with, since it holds up well to wet and dry mediums. Sketchbooks and journals come in all shapes and sizes, or you can make your own.

Here’s what I typically have with me every day: a small case that includes graphite drawing pencils, permanent black pens in various nib sizes, watercolor pencils, blending stumps, water-soluble graphite pencils, and a few odds and ends, such as water brushes, erasers (kneaded and white), a pencil sharpener, a white gel pen, and a black calligraphy pen.


When I sketch outdoors or travel I pare down to a few pencils (watercolor and graphite), one blending stump, a couple of permanent pens, one eraser, a sharpener, my water brushes, and sometimes a small glue stick. If I have room, I also take a small drawing board—this makes it much easier to steady my sketchbook, and work on both sides of the page. If I’m feeling ambitious I’ll also take this mini watercolor tin:

Portable watercolor tin
A miniature watercolor tin is portable and great for working on art challenges while out and about.

Quick tip: You can make your own watercolor tin from a vintage tin or any small tin with a lid. Choose one that is large enough to hold as many pan watercolors as you’d like, and glue a small magnet on the bottom of each pan.

At home, here’s what I keep close by when I’m doing an art journal challenge: Acrylic paints, black and white gesso, some permanent pens, a few markers, washi tape, brushes, scissors, some collage ephemera, a glue stick, a couple of stamps, and a few stencils. I change up the supplies every week or so to keep things fresh.

Art journaling supplies for art challenges
For art journaling every day I change up a selection of paints, mediums, pens, and ephemera.

The smaller journals I work in are part sketchbook, part art journal. I usually do some pencil sketches while out and about, and when I get home I finish them in pen, and add watercolor or acrylic paint, journaling, lettering, ephemera, washi tape, and sometimes dried leaves and flowers, and fabric scraps.

One revelation from my participation in art challenges was that the sketches I did were not just an exercise; they became great starting points for art journal pages that I could work on later. Realizing that relieved the pressure to feel like I had to finish a page then and there. And when I was low on inspiration, especially, I could go back to these pages and continue adding to them. Here, for example, was a sketch I did of my glasses for the InkTober challenge:

InkTober art challenge sketch
During the InkTober art challenge I drew things I used every day, like my glasses.

And here it is after I added to it:

Art journal page
The sketches I do during art challenges become prompts for art journal pages later.

Set a time: You know your schedule best, so if there’s a certain time every day that works best for sitting down and creating, stick to that. My schedule is different every day, so I think ahead the day before about what time would probably work, and do my best to stick to it. Committing to that time requires some discipline and occasionally re-prioritizing or juggling things, but it’s never more than a minor inconvenience.

Set a place: A studio is not a must-have for taking part in art challenges. A corner of the bedroom or a spot on the couch, anywhere you find comfortable and workable, will do just fine. If you’re looking for the right space, follow Barbara Roth’s suggestion from her article “Cozy Art Journaling Corner” in Pages magazine, Winter 2015, and find a comfortable spot in your home to work. She wanted an area that was inviting enough to keep her away from the computer so she could focus on art journaling. She set up three areas in her house, tried them all out, and discovered the one that allowed her to be the most productive and offered the best view.

Cozy art journaling corner by Barbara Roth
Finding just the right place to create is essential for taking part in art challenges. (Photo by Barbara Roth)

Be kind to yourself: One thing I learned from taking part in art challenges was not to beat myself up if I couldn’t make anything that day. Life happens, and sometimes it’s just not possible. Remember, you’re not competing with anyone, including yourself. You’re engaging in a challenge to try to improve your skills and make art a part of your daily routine. Skipping a day here or there isn’t going to have a major impact on anything. So plan ahead for the next day, and keep going.

Along the same lines, learn how to silence your inner critic. You’re not going to love what you make every day. Some days you’ll adore it, and other days you’ll want to burn your work. The ups and downs are completely normal and happen to everyone, but don’t let the bad days leave you feeling so defeated that you don’t continue. Tomorrow will be better, I promise.

Share and share alike: Many people who take part in challenges like to share their work on social media. This is not a requirement, and yes, ultimately you create to satisfy yourself, but I recommend doing it for a few reasons: I believe sharing artwork is part of being an artist. What good does it do to create in a vacuum? I’ve shared work I knew wasn’t great, but it was my best effort at the time, and I put it out there. I never got a negative comment, but if I had, so what? Sticks and stones, as they say.

Sketch for art challenge
I regularly post the results of my art challenges on social media because I love the connection I feel to other artists.

I love looking at other people’s work, so much so that I can easily disappear down an Instagram rabbit hole if I’m not careful. I feel inspired and joyful, and it makes me happy knowing that there is a strong, supportive community of creative people out there who want to chronicle their work and their process, and be part of the dialog.

Take a look back: One of the most fun and rewarding aspects of art challenges is looking at your work over time. During a challenge, never compare your work to what you did the previous day; instead, assess how your work has evolved over time. That’s the exciting part, and that’s what will inspire you to keep going. I love seeing the progress I’ve made, and the times I’ve pushed myself outside my comfort zone have paid off.

I hope you’ll consider taking on an art challenge in 2017. Leave a comment below to share what you’re thinking of doing, and join us on Instagram at @artistsnetwork! In the meantime, these art resources will get you excited about taking part in a challenge:

Drawing 365 by Katherine Tyrrell
You’ll look forward to drawing every day with the tips, information, and techniques in Drawing 365 by Katherine Tyrrell.
November/December 2016 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine
Discover the benefits of daily art challenges in Robyn McClendon’s article “Collage a Day” in the November/December 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.
Card Play video with Seth Apter
In Seth Apter’s Card Play video learn how to create cards that you’ll use daily for mixed-media prompts and ideas.
Journal Fodder 365 by Eric M. Scott
Get a year’s worth of art journaling ideas and techniques in Journal Fodder 365 by Eric M. Scott.

Leave a Reply