I Used Art to Unstick My Novel Project

A combined writing/drawing challenge may be just what you need.

Illustration by the author: a meeting room in my fantasy novel

I’ve been working on a fantasy novel for a couple of years now, and I tend to work on it in sprints between other, shorter projects.

In December 2022, I cleared my schedule to work on my novel for a month. I was on my second draft and I hadn’t looked at it for a few months, which made the prospect of starting up again intimidating.

After pondering over my next course of action, I arrived at my favorite solution to creative blocks: an art challenge.

I decided that, for the month of December, I would do at least one of three activities every day: draw, write my novel, or prepare to write my novel (e.g. plotting, world-building, etc.). In effect, I mashed together InktoberPreptober, and NaNoWriMo, with a bit of flexibility to choose between them day-to-day.

I also made intermittent updates on YouTube along the way.

Looking back, it was one of the most successful of my self-imposed creative challenges. I made huge leaps in clarity about my novel and kicked off some writing momentum that lasted for months afterward.

Writing and art go well together

I mostly drew on days when I was stuck in my novel. The main difficulty I had was in engaging my visual imagination for descriptions.

It’s easier for me to develop visuals through drawing, and then describe in words from there, rather than try to go straight from imagination to words.

Switching back and forth between writing and drawing was helpful in other ways, like in managing my energy and a sense of continuity. I frequently need to rest the verbal part of my brain, and it was nice to be able to do that while still steeping my imagination in my fictional world.

Illustration by the author: a library in my fantasy novel

The practice developed my art skills.

Even though I chose to write rather than draw on most days, I still got more art practice than in an ordinary month.

Generally, the biggest obstacle to sitting down and drawing is deciding on a subject. In this case, the subjects were dictated by the needs of my writing, so I could get into the art straightaway without having to make too many decisions.

That’s a lesson I’ve taken away from this experience: for art challenges, it’s worth taking the time to pre-decide what subjects to draw. It makes executing the project much easier on busy days.

As I write this, it occurs to me that one could use other types of writing projects to a similar advantage, for example, illustrating a month’s worth of blog posts could be a good theme for an art challenge. (If you are some type of writer, how would you adapt this approach to your needs?)

The result of all this practice was to clarify my illustration process and style (for this particular type of fantasy illustration), which I will go into a bit more in the next section.

Illustration by the author: a picnic spot in my fantasy novel

Illustration process

For the artists reading this, the process I used may be of interest, so I will share a few notes here.

  • These illustrations were done in Procreate on an iPad, but the process is similar if you use Photoshop or Clip Studio.
  • I used a few reference photos including pictures I’d taken on vacation and images I looked up of cliff dwellings from around the world.
  • I started each drawing from a template file with all the layers I need already set up. I got the idea to make the template from this video by LavenderTowne. The important layers are named (from the bottom) Sketch, Flat, Color (which is set to ‘clipping mask’), Shading (which is a multiply layer set to ‘clipping mask’), and Ink.
  • First I sketched roughly on the Sketch layer, and when I was happy with it, I jumped up to the Ink layer and made cleaner line art. Then I used the select tool on the Ink layer and filled the selection on the Flat layer. (If you’re wondering what ‘flat’ means here, this tutorial might help.) Then I colored and shaded with the brush tool on the respective layers.

After the basic steps, I usually ended up adding some extra layers (set as overlay layers) for fun, atmospheric light effects. I’d brush on a variety of colors, erase swirls out of them, and smudge them around to act like sunlight.

Having done a few of these art challenges, I’ve learned that the longer the challenge, the more flexible it has to be. I chose to make this a month-long, so I left room in the parameters to adapt to the needs of my project.

I knew this format suited me because it let me build momentum.

Best of all, I reached the end with some energy left in the bank, ready to keep up the writing habit for several more months. (I only stopped when I ran into a new obstacle in my novel, which I’m going to try to tackle now with, you guessed it! Another art challenge.)

This was my second art challenge (first one here), and the one that convinced me that I’d keep doing this style of project whenever I could.

If you’d like to read more about this project, you can read/watch all the updates I made along the way!

Originally appeared in Share Your Creativity

My piece in Unwritten: Why I Am Hopeful About Addressing Climate Change

By Deepti Kannapan

Jun 22, 2023

As people who care about the Earth, it’s understandable to be impatient for action on climate change. For most of our lives, we’ve been hearing ever-stronger warnings about the danger. And yet somehow, we encounter people who oppose taking action to protect society and ecosystems. Progress, when it happens, seems too slow to meet the urgency of the situation.

I’m an engineer who uses math every day. And math is what helps me feel hopeful about addressing climate change — even when the outlook seems bleak.

I remember the first time I was able to model reality with laws of physics. It was a very simple “reality,” made of a block and gravity, but I still felt as if I was being let in on a secret, and could see a little clearer. Now, I see math everywhere. I see it in the rocking of a leaf on its stalk, in the rolling wheels of a passing car. And in the way a door sticks and suddenly breaks free when you push a little harder.

Sometimes our action on climate change feels stuck. But it’s a mistake to look at how slow progress has been in the past and assume it always will be. Read the rest in Unwritten.

Illustration Series: Recovering Magically

I just finished a seven-day drawing challenge! I am gearing up for a longer challenge along the lines of my InkPrep-whatever, but in the meanwhile, I did a shorter one to warm up.

Here are the Tumblr posts I made along the way, as I drew 8 illustrations in 7 days: Day 1, Day2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 6.5, Day 7, and the wrapup post.

[Oh yeah, I have a Tumblr for my art now. So far, the only social media(ish) platform I don’t hate.]

I always enjoy my self-imposed art challenges, and this was no exception! Here are some of my thoughts about the experience:

The art skill I was focusing on was posing characters and rendering magical effects (as well as rendering in general: you know, shading, highlights, and all that).

  • I could definitely feel myself getting better and more practiced at anatomy and perspective, so I started trying more challenging poses by the end. The perspective on the soaring girl (bottom right) nearly defeated me.
  • For the magical effects, I learned that less is more. Especially in terms of colors, weight, and blending. On the first few days, I slathered color onto overlay layers and then overworked them with the smudge tool. Then I ended up erasing a lot of it when it didn’t look right. On the later days, I chose my colors and brushes carefully and blended just enough to retain interesting patterns in the brush strokes.

I chose a theme of recovery and replenishing oneself, probably because that’s what I needed. All my characters were fantasy girls/women, inspired by YouTuber LavenderTowne’s penchant for personifying concepts (and foods, planets, devices, cryptids, etc.) as cute girls.

And lastly, the illustrations form a bit of a story when put together, as in the gallery above! I drew them out of order, because I was deciding the parameters of the challenge on the fly. As is my wont with projects like this. I drew the first illustration, then chose the theme, then decided on the number of days of the challenge, and only came up with the title on the last day.

It’s fun letting a project evolve on its own!

Portrait of Garlic Greens

An odd project sprouts

Line art by the author. The flat ends of leaves are where I snipped off a taste.

One afternoon, I reached into my spice cupboard to find that one clove in the bulb of garlic I’d forgotten had grown a bright green sprout.

I planted it to grow as microgreens. According to a friend who knows these things, the correct way to plant it is actually to separate all the cloves and put them in a dish of water. Even with my inexpert planting in soil, each clove shot up a shoot, just like the first. I nibbled off the flavorful tips.

For several days, I had been prowling the house, ambushing each houseplant for a portrait. As well as the occasional outdoor plant or vegetable. It was an art challenge I’d set myself.

I call them ‘portraits’ because I was determined that the plants be represented in detail, as a subject. They would not be simplified into an artful tangle of foliage, as one does in landscape painting. I would draw every leaf and branch.

The garlic plant featured late in the challenge because it had more leaves than some others. I waited for a day when I had time to do them all justice.

At first, capturing all the detail seemed insurmountable. The leaves passed behind each other, casting sharp shadows from the afternoon glare from the window.

From doing these drawings a few days in a row, I knew that sense of impossible complexity would pass. I just had to pick a leaf and go from there, and remind myself that this had worked last time.

Even shapes that look too difficult to draw can be tackled, one nibble at a time.

Here’s my worksheet resource for having a deeply creative work session!

Originally appeared in Weeds & Wildflowers