You probably thought this was all going to be inspirational material, didn’t you? Well, surprise! It’s not—this series is on things I’ve learned as I’ve navigated the rapids of freelancing, growing creatively, and building a career, and this is one of them. It would be great if it were all creativity and rainbows, but more often than we’d like it’s an emotional roller coaster.
We aren’t open enough about missteps or disappointments.
Failure isn’t fun. We don’t like to talk about it, and when we do, it’s wrapped in vague expressions of what this looks and feels like. We worship the concept of failure and frustration as a route to creative growth without wanting to deal with the real-life experience of these things. It’s something for talking heads and keynotes, for those who have “made it” to stand on a stage and deliver this message of embracing failure to an audience of those who haven’t “made it” and are still in the throes of the process; but I feel we often forget that it’s real, intensely personal, and everyone goes through it on a regular basis—even those who are standing on the stage.
The first half of this year has been rife with mishaps. I’ve had an opportunity arise that appeared to meet all my personal criteria for a dream gig come up, and it took over a month to hammer out details only to have the client unexpectedly go in a different direction. I’ve had times I wondered if my email were broken; I’ve had a slow month give way to an awful month, an overwhelming percentage of projects dropped and bids declined. I’ve dealt with some personal things. I’ve had episodes of depression; I’ve called or texted friends and driven them crazy looking for reasons. There have been good things too, but I’ve let anxiety get the best of me more than I’d like to admit.
But it’s OK.
Shit happens. It’s not the end of the world. I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this can relate—we all go through periods of anxiety; times of failure, unlucky streaks, whatever you might want to call them. It’s not just you—it’s a shared experience, something we all feel but usually keep under wraps in favor of the perennially confident face visible on social media. But the bent nails, the broken tools are normal; everyone has a toolbox full of things they’ve tried but fell apart on them. I’m being honest with you about mine, and you can feel free to be open with others about yours too.
A friend told me once that it’s not a true failure unless you give up. When shit happens, sometimes you just have to shrug it off, learn from it, maybe laugh a little over it, and keep building. Sometimes it requires a little extra ingenuity, which brings me to my process!
Turning small into large
This entire project has been making a lot out of a little. I’m always resourceful—I use every corner of every paper; as I write this, I have credit card offers, phone bills, and used envelopes on my desk covered in my scribbles—and this served me well in turning a box and a half of tools into compositions that could be as large as 40”+ square. I start small, sketching tiny drawings to decide on a composition. Since I’m working with a limited amount of material, I can’t create more than 1 glyph at a time (unless they’re small characters, where I have managed 2 at once!). Because of this, I have to create each letter separately and composite it in Photoshop—not at all ideal if you’re used to working with the negative space around words and characters!
This necessitates a scale reference. Because the larger characters range from 18”-22”, I have to tape multiple pieces of copy paper together to create the references, tracing my small sketches blown up on my 15” laptop screen in parts. As shown you can see some of my references, drawn across multiple pieces of paper (on one corner, you can see that it is a shipping receipt–turned–sketch paper). I think I put on a pretty professional face, but yeah, I pretty much just hack it!
Then, I sort through the tools I have, finding which parts could fit curves or compliment the letterforms. Sometimes I find something that works and use it in the same context in multiple characters. Often I try to switch it up so it’s not redundant. It’s a puzzle, but one in which I make the rules and the design as I piece it together.
Each character is photographed individually and composited. This is more time-intensive even than building the glyphs, since I’m working with daylight and there are tiny variations of color with each photo spanning the days and time windows that I may take building the forms. But in the end, parts become a whole, the components become a composition, and voila! It emerges a masterpiece.
And then, Photoshop crashes, and I lose hours of work just as I’m trying to save out images… but hey, shit happens!