I sucked at math when I was a kid. Still do. What I realized long after the second time I failed algebra was that my teachers simply weren’t teaching to my brain’s way of learning. Years later, I was working on a photorealistic painting of a falcon during a studio class at the University of Utah when something clicked for me. I was working in oils applying layer after layer after layer of color with my face inches from the canvas when I noticed something. I could see every layer stacked on top of one another. Dozens upon dozens of layers. I could see specks and strokes of paint suspended in dried medium much like insects suspended in amber. I realized in that moment that my issues with numbers was not a lack of intelligence, it was a lack of understanding how to break down a problem into its component parts. This may seem like a mental stretch, but no one told me how to layer oil paints to achieve certain realistic effects. It was intuitive for me in a way that working an equation was not—I was only ever capable of seeing that there was supposed to be a definitive answer, not that there was almost always more than one way to arrive at that answer. I could break down the process of painting to minutiae and create a solution to paint anything I wanted with a tricky medium. If only I had understood this when I was fighting numbers. Had I learned that it was possible to break math problems down into their component parts, I may not avoid numbers today like a virus. I also may not have taken my art seriously either…

Why is this story relevant? We’ve all been there, staring down the barrel of an imminent deadline wondering how in the hell we are going to finish a client project or looking almost remorsefully at the amazing passion project that’s been smothering under the dust of a million excuses.

I talk a lot about process and I have a good reason why: Your process can make or break your project.

“Process” and “planning” are often used interchangeably. For this discussion, and for any discussion about process on this blog, your process is how you execute your plan.

Your ability to break down a drawing or painting into digestible pieces will, in no small way, dictate how successful that piece will be. Devising your own process means that you already have a solid understanding of everything from mediums to technique to supports to utilizing technology to deliverables to your own limitations as an artist and everything in between. Every bit of knowledge you have about your craft will help you tailor a workflow for each piece you create which, in turn, will help you devise ways to carve hours off your total output. Put another way, developing your own tried and true processes will help you cut corners during production without compromising the final product.

Time is money. You’re losing money each and every time you put a pencil to paper if you haven’t dialed in your process.

Planning how you will complete a project is, in my opinion, the most important phase of every project, whether or not you’re working for a paying client or slogging away at your personal work. But it’s interesting to note that while your plan depends on your process, your process does not depend on your plan.

Your plan should consider:

  • Estimated time to complete the job?

  • Does your estimated effort match the budget?

  • Does your proposed solution/concept satisfy the project requirements?

  • Revisions?

  • What’s the deadline?

  • What are the deliverables?

Your process should consider:

  • What medium/tools are best suited for your solution/concept?

  • How well do you know your chosen medium/tools?

  • Do the steps you will need to take match your plan estimates?

  • Potential challenges?

  • What can you do to mix it up?

**Will any of these considerations prevent you from delivering your absolute best effort?

How effectively you organize all of the component parts of a project, complete tasks, and solve challenges will determine whether or not you’ll blow your budget and/or meet your deadlines. I realize that this sounds a lot more mechanical than it actually is because in many ways your process is every bit as intuitive as the act of drawing itself. You still need to remain flexible because you will need to adapt your processes to each project. Flexibility comes with time, experimentation, and perseverance.

Once you establish a baseline of steps that work for you, the mechanism in your brain that tells you “I need to do this, then this, then this… in order to achieve this” will begin to function like a perpetual engine—this is your process.

What a shame it would be if you replaced the grind of the desk job you gave up to become an artist with a stale process.

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