How to work through art blocks

You’ve probably had something like art or writer’s block before. You sit at an empty page trying to think of something to draw, but nothing comes. Or you start a drawing that doesn’t feel right.  It feels like you’ve lost the spark of inspiration. You feel like nothing is working and you don’t know what’s wrong. What must come easily to everyone else, is dreadfully hard for you. We struggle with is the fear of creating. The block exists in anticipation of work, but what I’ve learned is that the block can’t hold up to actual work.

I recently changed my mindset when it comes to writing posts. It used to be excruciating. I’d sit in front of a piece of paper trying to come up with topics. Then I would suffer through the process of writing and revising posts. I’d start writing a post Monday, then by Thursday I would hate it, scrap the whole thing and write something different. My girlfriend would wonder why I bother writing the post on Monday. Which I’d respond with, “It’s part of the process.” Something changed when I gave myself the task of writing two posts in one week. I realized I just had to write until something good came out. Write without thinking too hard, if I don’t like a sentence or train of thought, I take it out later. The process that used to be painful has become more fun and enjoyable.

When we are blocked we attempt to breaking by doing something different and this works. Changing medium, or a new subject definitely helps. The most useful defence against an art block is a strong habit. Drawing for specific set of time, not matter what, no matter how bad or good. Making lots of art without prejudging it.  Art blocks aren’t blown up by dynamite they’re broken down by erosion. A steady stream of drawings will start to create ideas.

If you’re feeling like you’re stuck, you’re not alone. It happens all the time. The trick is relaxing into the process. Getting out of the way and letting ideas flow. There’s a quote from the book Art and Fear that’s not directly related but I think fits.

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly – without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.”

Art and Fear – David Bayles & Ted Orland

The two fears of audiences

Artists and creators know that for their success they should build an audience. In order to make the art we want to we need to find the people who want it. I notice two fears that artists creators seem to have about building an audience.

The first fear of building an audience is the fear of no one showing up. Early on you have no audience.  No audience is born fully formed with teeth and full head of hair. This fear makes it easy for us to tinker and hide our work waiting for the audience to materialize. Audiences always start small. The way to start is to share with your network. Your friends and peers. If you make something good enough, something worth talking about, it will spread. It will grow beyond your network and you’ll begin to find your audience.

The second fear is the audience being out of your control. Artists become afraid of being part of something big. We become afraid of what angry fans will do or being targeted by them. This fear prevents us from creating the work that connects, because it is the fear of making something that matters to people. Unruly fans aren’t a new thing, it’s just catching up to us that now everything is “Beatlemania”. What’s changed is the access that people and fans now have to the creators. Social media has given us the access to disturb people.

I don’t have a really good answer for this, I think as a culture we are still figuring it out. One good answer is from Seth Godin. Seth writes a blog everyday including Sunday. His blog doesn’t have comments, his twitter just posts his blog posts. He made the conscious choice to mostly opt out of social media. It’s definitely easier for him as he’s been at this a long time. It also makes some sense of creating a little distance between oneself and one’s audience. There is choice in what level of access you give the audience. The reason I bring up an extreme like Seth Godin, is because it shows that there is a spectrum. You don’t have to share your life with an audience to be popular. It’s all a choice of what you want to offer. It’s also recognising that work changes when it passes from creator to viewer. Their reception is the final part of storytelling. How involved with that part is up to you. I was listening to a podcast with Brian Koppelman (co-creator of Billions) and Alton Brown (Good Eats, Iron Chef). They talked about how back in the day the only metric they cared about was if they got to make more of their shows. It might be a little distant, but in the end it focuses on what’s important and everyone wants, more of the thing you are creating.

That’s the goal we want to create things for people who have been waiting for this specific thing to be made. That’s the reason to try to bootstrap and create indie. Is that you want to find a specific audience who wants the story you have to tell. If you get it right, then what you make will get passed around, and you’ll get to do more. You’ll have doubts along the way. If you want to make something don’t let fear distract you. Making something surprisingly special for a group of people is a wonderful thing. The world would be less if you didn’t try.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.

My ideal production set up

How we make animation hasn’t changed much in the nearly 100 years of animation production. The rough structure has been refined and while the tools are now different, for decades, animation production looked more or less the same. We had the same department system and assembly line mentality. That approach was important when maintaining quality was of the highest order. The only way to produce full colour cartoons was with a lot of very talented artists.

Things are different now. Industrialism is slowing down, and quality comes cheap. We often bemoan the state of animation. When you watch modern television animation the production value is astounding. The technology will continue to make animation more, and more efficient. I think this means that we can create new systems to make animation.

My ideal system would not look like the big department system. It would be made up of units. Each unit would work from storyboard to final. A small team of multidisciplinary artists working to make the best episode possible. The team would be small between 5-9 people. The team would include:

  • Director – Is in charge of the storyboard and animatic, as well as leading the team
  • Storyboard Artist – Helps the director write and storyboard the episode
  • Layout Artist – Draws the various background and props
  • BG painter – Paints the backgrounds
  • And Animators – Animate the characters and effects

I like the idea of a small team working to a clear, defined goal. One things that’s missing from television production is context and collaboration. I try to structure my team so there is context and communication between artists. It’s not even necessary that each position be held by one person. My current production is a team of 5. It’s a Harmony show and is structured like this.

  • Director/Storyboard (My Position)
  • Layout/Animator
  • Background Painter
  • Rigger/Animator
  • Animator

It’s a small team but we’re able to produce a lot of work. With a small team communication is fluid. You don’t have to talk to through someone to get to someone else. If you need a quick answer you get it fast. It’s collaborative you get to work with people, and help reach a common goal. Animation production doesn’t have to look like one thing. It can be reimagined and refined. Technology will continue to shape and change the way we make animation. The whole structure of animation studios in the past was based on cel animation. Things that were impossible or time consuming then, are easy now. So now that tools are changing, why not try to adapt the system?

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.

Where are the animation unions in Canada?

An interesting conversation on twitter came up this week. Animation artists from across Canada started talking about the state of animation work in this country. Pay discrepancies, credit, and overtime. The conversation kept coming back to the fact that Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, or Montreal don’t have an animation or vfx union.

I have to admit that I’ve been a bit skeptical that union would change much. I believed the line that if Canadian animators were to unionize that the work from LA studios would get up and move somewhere else. That by not having a union we remain competitive. There is little evidence that creating an animation union will have long term negative effects on work availability in Canada. It doesn’t take into account that there are many existing trade unions in the film and television business.

I think we’ve grown skeptical and distrusting of unions. Rates of unionization are falling in Canada. A trend that seems to be catching up with us. I’ve been skeptical that the added bureaucracy of a trade union would make animation better. I was worried that rules could negatively affect innovation and creativity. I’m worried about good intentions having unintended consequences. The power of unions is collective bargaining. By negotiating as a group the workers have more equal position to the employer. Unions advocate for making fair working conditions. Setting fair wage minimums, paid overtime, and ensure labour rights.

The real power of unions could come from the sense of community. The investment in skills development, and hopefully more career longevity. I’ve started to like the idea that an animation union might improve productions in Canada. If we lose some productions that studios and artists will need to become more resourceful. My vain hope is that a little outside pressure could spur homegrown productions that compete because they have to compete.

There’s a conversation starting. The Art Babbit Appreciation Society is a pro union group working in Vancouver. And conversations are starting in Toronto. It’s exciting because a conversation and community can lead to interesting things. Organizing unions will take time. It’s not certain that this is the solution to the issues we face. It’s one potential option for making animation better.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.

Why I’m staying

Why I'm Staying Toronto

I love living in Toronto. Honestly, and unabashedly. I’d be happier if my rent was lower, and had more windows in my apartment. I still  love Toronto. I like the cold, I like the summers. I like the energy and pace that Toronto has. I like the attitude that Toronto has where it feels like it has to prove itself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about choosing a city you live and work in. I was reading this article by Derek Sivers. It talks about the sad truth that the best decision for your music career is to move to the big city. You move to the city not for the big job but for this.

“It has a serious energy, because the stakes are high. It’s not casual. It’s not a place for a comfortable work/life balance. It’s fueled by ambition. People go go go.” Derek Sivers

I don’t have big ambitions about moving to LA. I can’t help wanting that “serious energy”, to be surrounded by people doing their best work. Pushing the limits and making really cool cartoons. There are other cities like Paris, Tokyo, but I don’t know enough to know if they compare to LA. Let’s face it, Hollywood is practically the center of the universe for film and television.

I love Toronto, and I feel like we have to prove ourselves, so I’m going to try and defend it. I think a lot of the world is more like Toronto than LA. Toronto has it better than a lot of places. We have a strong and mature industry but so far to go. Here are the reasons I’m excited and optimistic about Toronto.


My peers and colleagues are amazing. There is so many great artists, designers, animators and producers. Talent is not the problem, we know we have it. I want to be able to give these people the productions they deserve.


While a place like LA might have a serious energy, they also have serious competition. The stakes are high, and everyone is trying to do something big. Here, a great production could attract amazing talent. We have the advantage of scarcity.

Animation Production

I love that the Canadian industry does full productions. We can make animation from storyboard to final animation all in same building. I think this a big advantage of Toronto, something we ought to pay more attention to. One of our advantages is that we are still animators. We are connected and embedded in the process. This is where we can grow.

I want to experiment with organizing production. Focusing on collaboration and small teams. Where storyboard, layout, and animation work closely together to produce cartoons. I don’t think this kind of structure can be built in many places but we could do it here.

Those are the reasons I’m optimistic. I think optimism is really the key, you need to put in the work to make your local community better.  The one thing that worries me about the Canadian industry, is the pessimism and hopelessness that gets into animators. We don’t have that serious energy fueled by ambition. The ambitious people leave. If you stay, don’t lose your ambition. It’s one of the reasons that I started this newsletter. I saw that this conversation was happening out there in the world. The same conversation that I have with my friends. I realized that this conversation has probably been happening the same way since the industry began. I figured if enough of us can connect we might have the start of a community.

So reach out. If you have a reason you’re staying, where ever that is. Or if you have a reason you want to get out send that too, share it in the comments.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.