Recently I received a message on Patreon about how to stay creative with depression. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked, so I thought it might be helpful to write this article. Hopefully, it might stimulate some discussion where we can all learn from each other on how to deal with both depression and the empty page.
(But first, a disclaimer. How I do it is currently working for me and my present state, however, depression varies and is a different experience for everyone who has it. I definitely don’t want to say this is the way it should be done, but only to state my thinking as something that has helped me and can be improved upon or even ignored based on your own situation. There might be something helpful in here and there might not be anything helpful at all, and I do not present myself as an Authority.)
Creative people have limitations. There are the obvious ones, like time, money, resources, skill, and they all affect our creative output. It becomes helpful to think of depression as another limitation. It’s not a limitation in the sense that it should stop you from being creative, but a limitation that makes us need to be more reasonable in what we can do. We have to learn to become more effective with what we have.
The first part is accepting depression as part of our work limitation. If we try to fight depression, it will win, it has control over our clarity of thought and can hinder creativity. It can make us second guess our best ideas and rid us of enthusiasm. It can make the first stroke of a pencil on a blank sheet of paper a Herculean task. There are just some days it is stronger than our will but that’s going to be a limitation we must deal with. We have to work within the limits imposed by depression, not to try to work against it.
But on the bright side, this doesn’t happen every single day. For me at least, depression comes in waves, and I know that there will days when the ideas come more easily and the work develops more naturally. Then there will be days when it feels I am made of dense rock and can barely think or create anything. This is just the way it is, and I can’t schedule it. It’s like the weather, it’s not entirely predictable when I’ll have my ups and downs.
In order to maximise productivity, I try to do creative work that fits in with my ups and downs. I separate the work into two categories: creative work I can do when I am feeling better, and more technical work I can complete during my lower phases. During my lowest phases, I may not be able to do anything at all, but this is all working within the limitations of depression, not trying to work around it or in spite of it.
When depression ebbs and I feel I can get work done, I use this period to generate ideas and put the pencil to the paper. I have two methods for generating ideas, I use Google Keep to keep written ideas and a small sketchbook for layouts and more fully developed strip ideas. I will also start the pencilling for strips and work on the dialogue. Basically I use this time to make major decisions with what I do while I have clarity of thought.
Recently I’ve been able to take some time for studying the process, reading books on anatomy and drawing skills. However, I’ve found doing this takes a lot more energy than being creative because I have to be really enthusiastic and be able to concentrate more.
Some things to do during an up period:
- Create. This is the time to jot down all the ideas in your head down, This is the time to make creative decisions. Anything you need a clear head to do this is the time.
- Learn. If there is some technique that you wanted to learn, there are lots of resources on the web, or visit a bookstore’s art section. I recently bought a few of Andrew Loomis’ books and I’ve found them incredibly full of useful information.
- Be inspired. Look at other people’s work. What I’ve found is that people are generally happy to share how they’ve done their work so you can see the process and get some hints for yourself. Go to an art store and take a look around. Your favorite pen or your favorite drawing instrument is just waiting to be discovered.
- Communicate. As a community of creative people, we are everyone’s teacher and everyone’s student.
When depression gets heavier and the ability to create or make decisions seems more distant, it’s this time when I do work which doesn’t require a lot of energy to do. I will ink strips, do word balloons, colour finished strips, do clean up on the computer and other tasks that are less intense and are more about embellishing what has been done than creating anything new. I will also do the more routine and mundane tasks such as organisation and work space area cleanup during these periods too.
There are other things I have trouble with in this period. One problem is writing and replying to E-mail. It seems to be especially hard to think of what to say and to have something meaningful to write down. My mind gets particularly fuzzy and I can’t seem to find what I want to say. Unfortunately I have a habit of procrastinating correspondence, because it’s difficult to do during down periods and it’s not something I want to spend precious up period time with.
A second problem is looking at other people’s work. When I’m in an up period, it’s easy to appreciate the work of others and try to find something to learn from it. I can see things I want to try and feel energized and inspired. However, when I look at other people’s work during low periods, I can only see what I cannot do, and feelings of hopelessness and despair start to form. The art I see only reminds me what I am incapable of and robs me of any inspiration I had. For a long time I stopped looking at the work of others because it only made me feel worse. When one stops looking, one stops learning, and one’s own art can stagnate.
REALLY DOWN PERIODS
I am really useless during these times and I haven’t figured out how to be productive. But they do occur, and I’ve found it’s best to just ride these out and let them take their course.
OTHER THINGS THAT HELP
Setting deadlines keeps me on track. It may not work for everyone, but it does give me a little push in knowing that the deadline is more important than the quality. Finishing things gives me more confidence than leaving things unfinished, even if the quality is not up to what I’d like. “I’ll do better for the next one, but in the meantime I have to finish this.” is something I quite often say to myself.
Maintaining routines helps. Having a routine will help you get through the down spells because it will be easier to switch to automatic pilot.
Try to refrain from doing the down period work during up periods. If I’m in the middle of a creative spell I need to leave some work to do for down periods. If I finish what I’m doing and after I have a down spell, I can’t use that time more effectively.
- Try to have work set aside for the down periods. One thing that makes the time during the down periods melt away is to have something to do, although when you’re in a down period it’s not always easy to identify what needs to be done. Having some repetitive task like organization makes you feel like you are actually accomplishing something and being productive, which helps a lot.
In the end, I guess the bottom line is to know your limitations and find how you can best work within them. It’s not fatalistic to admit to yourself there are limits to what you can do, as there are always going to be some kind of limitation on what we do in a creative field. But understanding them and knowing what we are able to do during them will, I believe, boost our productivity as we match the tasks to our condition.
I may add more to this or make corrections in the future, but this should be a start. If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comments or send me an E-mail. Let’s be more creative and efficient and understand how we can work smarter within the limitations of our depression.