On Failure

A few weeks back, my friend Fredrik sent me this great email about failure and how to overcome the inner critic. The email was so awesome, and so inspirational, I asked if I could post it on the blog. So, with his permission (and a few edits to a few remarks about conversations we’ve had), here is his email. Read, be inspired, and go create something!


Hi.Your last blog post got me thinking a bit. I posted my suggestion to go for broke on a comic project, but didn’t really elaborate on why. That was because the reasons are difficult to summarize in an online comment, and I knew that if I started to go into details I would ramble on for far too long and construct a mammoth message of dubious intelligibility. I actually find this stuff fascinating, so I’ve decided to go ahead and construct the message anyway, only in the form of an e-mail. In the hopes that you will also find it interesting or even helpful, I’m even going to send it and subject you to it as well. These ideas are drawn from a ton of random articles and things I’ve read over the years, and I’m going to include some of them for context. You’ll probably be too busy to actually go through all this junk, but if you ever feel demotivated and are actively seeking out distractions, maybe this will at least be a little more on topic than random facebook spam. I don’t know if any of these points will actually be new to you, but a reminder could still be helpful.So, what I’ve been hearing from you is that this project is something you want to do and the main obstacle (life distractions aside) is a creative block. Further, that this creative block likely stems to a significant extent from a fear of failure. How, then, to overcome this fear of failure? One possible angle is to change the way we look at failure.

All this is essentially an exercise in perspective. To that end, before focusing on failure, let’s try to establish what is needed for success. Most of this is drawn from a blog called Study Hacks […] The primary focus of the blog is identifying paths to success for students and knowledge workers, so maybe not an obvious fit for your situation. However, what it’s really all about is learning to optimize your brain and environment for learning and training skills by maximizing impact and minimizing time and effort. That is something common to all areas of human achievement, so I think the concepts discussed here are both relevant and applicable, even if the specific examples are not always so.

Well then, how to achieve success in a creative enterprise? Everything I’ve read on the topic points to the magic ingredient being a highly developed, specialized skill. So far, so obvious, right? To do something awesome, you need to know what you’re doing, and once you know how to do it you can keep doing it over and over again. But why do so many people go to such lengths to achieve great skill and so few accomplish it? This is where things get tricky.

A key component could be the application of what is here referred to as Deliberate Practice. In essence, it’s not enough to simply work hard at learning, you have to do the right kind of work. Moreover, if you’re doing this type of work you’ll end up needing to spend less time doing it to get results. Apparently this type of work is difficult by definition – if it doesn’t actually feel awkward and difficult, you won’t get the same benefits. What it boils down to is that to achieve the skills necessary for great success it’s not enough simply to practice what you already know – you need to be constantly pushing yourself by focusing on the things that are difficult. And if you’re focusing mostly on things that are difficult, it should not be surprising to find that you’re going to fail. A lot.

What all this means to me is that you are simply going to fail. Period. You’re going to fail, I’m going to fail, everyone is going to fail. Whatever project you, or I, or anyone attempts, it is always going to fail, in that it won’t be as good as it possibly could. But that is exactly what you want. Any activity that includes the possibility of failure can be turned into an opportunity for deliberate practice. So whatever your next project happens to be, and whatever point in your career you happen to be at, don’t see it as an opportunity to succeed and show the world how awesome you are. See it as a golden opportunity to fail repeatedly and as a necessary condition for making all your future projects that much more amazing because of it.

Now, obviously these methods aren’t some kind of silver bullet. It’s still entirely possible to fail without learning from it, and to learn without failing in some way (depending on your metrics for success). But I have found, for myself at least, that looking at challenges in this light takes away some of the sting of uncertainty. Maybe things won’t turn out the way you hope, but that won’t mean your time was wasted. More than anything, reading about the mechanisms involved in achievement in this way helps to bring them down to earth and seem that much more attainable – it’s not an epic struggle, more of a daily grind. Hopefully it will help you too.

I’ve also put together some thematically related TED talks, because I will take any excuse to go around watching those. These are less directly on topic, but have a similar underlying message.

Sting deals with writer’s block. Apparently no one is safe!
Everybody should be more wrong all the time!
Everybody is lazy and makes excuses!
Embrace your failures!

So, in short – if the only thing stopping you from pursuing this project is writer’s block, it seems like it would be a good idea to do it anyway and just try to power through it. A poor execution would be more beneficial than no execution, as long as you get some good practice out of it. And a product can always be improved later.

Anyway, I’m sure you’ve been through this sort of thing before. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but I am quite curious what your take is on all of this.

My take on this was that this was an incredible resource, and I’ve already thanked Fredrik a bunch of times for sending it. Here’s to powering through and failing! … okay that sounded better in my head.



Tearing Parts of Me and You – Process Write-up

My watercolor arsenal.
My watercolor arsenal.

I’ve had a few private emails asking me about my painting process, so I thought I would do a write-up on my newest piece, which was mostly an ink wash, but I take the same approach when I do watercolors. So here we go!

My supplies have been gathered from years of trying different things. My brushes especially are a hodgepodge of brushes I bought in school (yes, if you get good brushes and take care of them you can use them for a loooong time), came from recommendations of friends, or were just really good deals online that I couldn’t say no to and ended up being a really good brush. My paper is a paper I bought here in Japan. This project was my first time using it, and I really liked it. It’s also the first time I’ve gotten watercolor paper on a block before, so it makes me feel very fancy! The ink is Maxon Comic Ink Black waterproof ink. When doing ink washes, it’s important that you make sure your ink is waterproof. But don’t always trust that if it says waterproof, that it actually is waterproof. You need to test it out on your own!

My main brushes are a Winsor & Newton Series 7 #5 (I have two, actually— one for inks only and one for watercolor only… I’ve had too many black inks leak into yellow paint >.>), an Escoda Prado #10, and a niiiiiice DickBlick brand Kolinsky Round #8 brush that is slowly becoming my favorite. With washes like this, my sumi-e brush gets used a lot too. I also keep frisket, a spritzer, and a huge wash brush handy at all times. There’s also a hairdryer, but with the effect I wanted for this painting, I used it sparingly. For a more wet look, sadly you can’t use the hairdryer that much– which means a lot of sitting and waiting for the painting to dry.

Because I don’t have a light-box here in Japan, after I finalized my sketch, I taped it, and my piece of watercolor paper to a window and used the olde sun as my light-box, careful to not press hard with my pencil.


Continue reading “Tearing Parts of Me and You – Process Write-up”

Writing Resources Round-up #1

I’ve been a bit on a reading bender recently, reading everything I can slap my eyes on that has anything to do about writing or the art of storytelling. So I thought I would share five resources that have really helped me. If the item is a book, I’ll include a link to Amazon on where you can get the book. If it’s a website, then, I pretty much mean read all of the website, or at least have a good hard look at it. I’m not a big fan of going to a site, reading one entry, then going on my merry way. I linger. And read.

Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald
If you haven’t read this book, and you care about story writing, stop reading this blog and get this book NOW. I found Brian’s works accidentally, when I was reading some resources on PaperWings. After listening to his episode on the podcast, I was hooked and shocked that I had never run across his name before. Not only could the man break down a story to the most basic principles, but he was such a great orator himself, I just wanted to listen to tell him more anecdotes! Searching for more interviews of him, then led me to the 20/20 Awards podcast, of which I am now an avid listener. Invisible Ink is a quick read, and disputes a lot of “popular” forms of thought on storytelling. It breaks it down to the very essence of storytelling. This is the guy Pixar goes to when they want someone to come help with storytelling. They go to him for a reason. Golden Theme is also excellent, albeit kind of short (and at the time of this writing, is free as a kindle book). Brian also has a blog. All are excellent resources for storytelling theory.

Bill Idleson’s Writing Class by Bill Idleson
I read this because of Brian McDonald’s multiple mentions both in his books and interviews. The book takes you straight into the environment of one of Idleson’s classes. Do the homework along with the students, and watch your writing vastly improve.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Okay, yes it has art in the title, but it’s not just fine art. It’s any kind of art that requires you to get over your hangups and beat procrastination into submission. This book puts into words the fears and doubts you always knew where there, but were too afraid to voice– and then gives you techniques on how to overcome them and keep them gone. Yes, it does evoke the believe of muses… but I can tell you, the longer you write, the stronger your sense grows of the muse– be it spiritual, or just being on a roll.

I haven’t had a chance to read the new screenwriting book by FILMCRITHULK, so I can’t recommend it just yet, but the original blog is chuck full of great articles. My favorites: completely debunking the three act structure, why All That Jazz is amazing, and the age of the convoluted blockbuster. FILMCRITHULK speaks my language.

PaperWings Podcast (and blog)
As mentioned above, I am a big fan of PaperWings. Yes, they do address more from a comic point of view, and focus a lot about getting projects up and running, but they also talk about story telling (pssssst the Brian McDonald interview). If anything, PaperWings is a constant source of inspiration and a cheerleader. They totally get that working on your own project is hard, and it sucks if you have to put in on the sideburner, but they inspire you to tell your story, cheering you to finish line!


Outlines are not a torture device created by the devil

I have one word for you, and it’s a word dreaded to every student of English ever: outline. In high school, I hated this word. It meant long hours in front of my computer, trying to remember if “A” came before “I” or was it “1”? All I knew was that “a” came last. But what happened if you needed a sub entry under your sub-sub entry? Did you just make up a symbol? Who in God’s name invented this torture device known as an outline?! What was worse, I had very strict (but amazing in hindsight) English teachers that would mark down your outline if it wasn’t in the correct form, and you know, readable (some of my outlines even had to be turned in hand written in pen! THE TORTURE!)

This whole idea of an outline infuriated me while I was in high school. If it was supposed to be part of a planning exercise, why did it have to be so tedious? Sorry, my mind doesn’t work around a I, A, 1, a , – structure (yeah I still remember it, because it’s been hammered into my BRAIN). I ended up writing an outline of my outline, essentially– writing down my ideas, and then collecting them and putting them into a format that only teachers really cared about. It wasn’t until I started writing longer narratives that I realized how freaking handy those horrid outlines were when it came to plotting events. You can set up turns, have notes to yourself about what will be happening behind the scenes during events, and so on. When making an outline for reports and the like, and if you break it down all the way to the sub-sub levels, you pretty much write your entire paper before writing your paper. The thought of writing your novel before writing your novel might seem a bit daunting when you are planning a 3000 page epic, so I’m not asking that. You just need to break down what will happen in your plot into basic events (or story beats), and the cause/effect of those events. Yes, a cause/effect. What do I mean? Every event in your story could be caused by another event in your story. Likewise, every event should create an effect on how the story is progressing. Cause and effect. This is what drives a good narrative. I cannot stress enough that what makes an outline effective is not having the perfect form. You can use dashes, stars, stickers, whatever your little heart desires (take that English teachers!)! You just need to make sure that each even has a cause and effect!

What am I talking about? Well, there’s a really good writing studio video out there by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) that I found via FILMCRITHULK. Whatever you may think about Parker and Stone’s products, they have a great philosophy when it comes to their story structure. It all comes down to breaking down what happens in the plot. They come up with the basis and a starting point and break the story down into narrative beats. Each narrative beat must be able to be read with “therefore” or “but,” not “and then.” The “therefore” and “but” gives consequences to each action, each consequence stacks on top of the other, building the stakes of the story while driving the plot forward. A cause and effect. This also makes the audience care, because there are real stakes. Whilst the “and then and then and then” method of story telling gets overblown and loses focus. Think of when you are telling a story to friends, or better yet, think of a six-year old telling a story. Every sentence starts with “and then, and then” and always ends up being the most bizarre, unfocused thing; where you’re not really sure what the point is, or why they have decided to tell you this. Most of the movies that Hollywood makes these days rely on “and then” and that’s why they can meander and be kind of not good. The good ones use “therefore” and “but.” Try to apply it to some stories you like, you’ll see what I mean.

Take Me Back to Wondaland


I spent my weekend reading a lot of books on theory of illustration and so on (and watching vlogs on YouTube, but shhhhh don’t tell!).

These books are pretty basic things, the Force book being something recommended (or condemned) time and time again while I was at SCAD. I’m already a 1/4 through it, and while the figure drawing is really interesting to look at, it really hasn’t done as promised and broken down the techniques Mattesi uses. But this might just be me not absorbing. I’m used to Loomis’ tutorial style, where he breaks down everything that he does in really simple terms.

Reading both Mattesi and Loomis at the same time has been an interesting comparison. They both are taking me back to basics, which is nice. While I enjoyed my classes at SCAD, some of my classes kind of glossed over what these books go into in depth– especially Loomis’ stuff. If you haven’t gone through a Andrew Loomis book, you really should–but don’t start with Creative Illustration (he even states this in the first lesson in the book). You need to start with Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth, which will really open your eyes to the figure, even if you have spent years drawing the figure. Having already finished Figure Drawing…, and now reading Force is… well, interesting. Loomis has chats with the reader throughout the book, but something in the opening chat of Creative Illustration really grabbed me and I think it’s important to remind myself of this from time to time.  Loomis writes:

“Beyond the technical rendering comes the dramatic interpretation. In the final analysis the illustrator is holding a mirror to life, and expressing his feelings about it. He may paint a pot of flowers beautifully, but it can by no stretch of the imagination be called an illustration. Illustration must encompass emotion, the life we live, the things we do, and how we feel… If we are to illustrate, we must create ideas. Illustration delves into psychology for basic appeals, to create idea that must reach into the personality of the reader, compelling definite responses.”

And maybe this is what I have been missing from my illustrations. I need to focus on this more, as well as injecting energy. So it’s back to basics for me for a little while. I’m doing the exercises in both books as they come up. Right now, I have to draw at least a dozen real life “rectangles” I see, to practice capturing natural design. Loomis says I can’t move further in the book until I do. Sheesh, he’s so strict!