31 Days in Black and White
How I completed the #inktober drawing challenge and what I learnt from it
In October, thousands of people around the world meet every day on social medias to share their best skills in ink drawing: it’s the #Inktober challenge. It was created by illustrator and cartoonist Jake Parker as he himself wanted to improve his own ink drawing skills. You should definitely check his convincing and inspirational article listing 3 ways this drawing challenge can boost your creativity. I read it after I had finished writing this article and found out that going through the challenge for the 1st time myself made me discover many of the points he was already making.
The rules of Inktober couldn’t be simpler: each day, post one drawing created in ink. For the most playful challengers or those looking for inspiration, the official Inktober account suggest an optional list of daily prompts: “Swift”, “Divided”, “Underwater”, “Sword”... Last year, I had seen the challenge from afar — I had managed to post two drawings — #fail. This year, I settled to do it whole.
There are many stories about people committing themselves to do something every day for, say, a month or a whole year. They always sound like they have been inspired and proud of what they achieved : I have been especially struck by art student Michelle Poler’s TedX Talk, in which she talks about how she confronted 100 days of hear fears in 100 days. It helps one to reframe in a very tangible way the famous question “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” framed by Mark Zuckerberg. Well, Inktober was not one of my biggest fears per se, but just settling to embrace a set of constraint and push myself to a public outcome every day was already a challenge. I love variety, value freedom, and eventhough I know how to focus and be persistent for external constraints, it can be harder to bring the same focus for my own projects.
So in this story, I’ll share what helped me make it to the end, and what I learnt from it.
1. Share the commitment
I almost never want to talk about a project before I’ve actually completed it. I’m afraid it will jinx it, or just will drain me from my personal motivation for doing it. Sometimes, I feel that keeping the secret is the right thing to do. But often, talking about my projects, ideas, wishes at an early stage actually allows me to make them more real, not less.
When it’s about a challenge, it’s even trickier — because I’m putting myself at risk of publicly failing. The outcome is almost never such a big deal, as it won’t change anybody’s life, but it doesn’t feel great either. Now for Inktober, I was sure I wanted to do it this year, and my excitement became visible several days before October started. So I couldn’t really hide it from my loved ones and relatives, and I realized it has a great upside: they knew I truly cared about this project and so they were very understanding of me taking time every day for this specific project, even if it meant less time together for a month. Them becoming excited about it helped me going.
2. Have a daily ritual
I am now working as a freelance, so most of the time I get to choose how I organize my day. Almost immediately, I decided that the Inktober challenge would take place in the late afternoon / evening. Usually, I spend the first hours of the day on my commissioned projects or other long term creative projects that require creative focus. In the afternoon I dedicate shorter slots of time to tasks that need to be done but require less creativity — paper work and emailing, social media management, training courses and so on. (Yes, I have read Miracle Morning and do recommend it, and even if I am not applying it at the moment, it helped me re-focus at a certain period of my life)
And so, I decided that the evening would be dedicated to absolute free-style drawing pleasure. I would come back to my desk after a break in late afternoon, put the graphic tablet and computer away to get ink and brushes in their place. This had a quiet cosiness to it — drawing in the evening, when all the daily tasks had been done. It also helped me set a time limit on the challenge, as I would need to finish the drawing and share it before midnight.
3. Manage expectations depending on daily life
Obviously, this daily regularity is an idealized depiction of how I actually got through the month. It was a bit messier in real life. I never started twice at the same hour, and several times I had to deal with unexpected change of plans. Unplanned meetings with friends for the whole evening, urgent deadline that involve working on an other project whole day, and even unexpected trips that involved traveling by train and plane with few luggage and be away from my cosy desk for a few days.
Each time, I reacted in adjusting my expectations. Sure, I wished I could spend countless hours refining the details on this scene. But I was always clear that the priority was to get the drawing out before midnight, no matter the circumstances. So instead of postponing and makign excuses, I decided to draw faster, or draw simpler scenes. And when travelling, I reduced my size of equipment and paper so it could be carried more easily.
Aaand… I had given myself one joker! I had made two different drawings on a day when I felt I had the both will and time to do so, and the extra-one served me on an off-day when it had been impossible to find the time. #Shhh
So what were the things I took from this challenge?
1. Experimentation within constraints
For creative people, it is often a challenge to find the right amount of constraints VS freedom. Some constraints boost creative thinking, but too many suffocate it. Inktober set a good balance for me: the rule about the frequency of the outcomes sets a clear and manageable time frame. I chose not to follow the prompts, as I wanted to be free to choose a theme every day; but I added a rule regarding the format and colors. I picked a landscape format paper that got me out of my comfort zone of regular A4 / A3 formats. As for colors, I decided to deal only with black and white, so as to go deeper in experimenting with monochromatic possibilities.
It felt absolutely joyful to play inside those boundaries. Sure, as the days passed by, I found myself sometimes short of inspiration or ideas for a drawing. This shortage usually lasted for 10 minutes, after which I found myself thinking “Well, I’ve never done this before and it could be a disaster, so why not try now?” Such drawings included for instance, a maze with actual use of perspective inside.
2. Building confidence through consistency
Committing to tackle specific constraints every day is the heart of what makes the challenge. Come back to your drawing table every day, dip your brush in Indian ink and create a piece that you can share.
The reason I felt comfortable experimenting new things was because I had a promise to myself: you will try again tomorrow. And the challenge made me realize that confidence, to me, was born from the ability to trust myself. As I was holding myself accountable on that promise, I realized I was more optimistic, had more confidence in my ability to improve, and more freedom in the way I approached each drawing.
Even if one drawing was less good than I had hoped for, I knew I would have an actual opportunity to show up again the following day and try something else. Instead of betting on “the perfect artwork at the end of the month” I would bet on “exploration and improvement every day”. Hint: much more joy in the latter!
3. Sharing the love and work helped me getting the habit
Sharing personal work is stressful — are people going to like it? Is it better or worse than yesterday’s piece? Have I gotten completely crazy with this one?
But sharing work every day considerably helps in diminishing the stakes. Building this habit was remarkably easy, as I found myself enjoying this ritual I had set. As I look back, I think this sense of ease comes from the immediate reward that came after my efforts. Indeed, at the very moment I had finished the drawing, I was posting it on social medias and seeing people reacting to it.
As a research study from the UCLA Brain Mapping Center highlighted, social medias activate our reward-system, persuading us to check them frequently. Receiving likes on an Instagram picture activates the same parts of the brains as eating chocolate or winning money (see a summary of the study on the Huffington Post).
And as it happens, getting a valued reward after an action is key to building a strong habit — as the author of the bestselling Power of Habit Charles Duhigg framed it. The reward is what will teach the brain that there is a positive outcome directly linked with the behavior we want to take an habit of.
So what’s next?
To sum up, at the end of Inktober, I have 31 unique artworks I absolutely love. I have explored topics and graphic options that will definitely nourish my future creative projects. I have built a momentum with people following me through daily meetings, and felt grateful for the feedbacks I got. I also feel more confident to build a discipline that will support my personal endeavors. And I can’t wait to set myself on the path of a new challenge — one with higher stakes because I would also be the writer of the rules…!
I’d love to hear about your own creative challenges in the comments: what are your favorite ones? What helped you achieve them? Are some of you currently in the midst of writing a novel for the #NaNoWriMo?
Wishing you all great creative endeavors :)