Dilettante 044: Some Good Habits for the New Year

Toucan reading a comic
Steve Lieber

The holidays are long past. You probably gave gifts to a dozen people. Now it’s time to give something to yourself. January is a great time to start a habit that’ll yield rewards for you in the future. Here are a few suggestions, broken into rough categories:

Seed a few new ideas or possibilities into your current project.

Start a running gag or a motif in the backgrounds: ads for a made-up film or a business, an odd fashion trend that’s unique to the story you’re telling, references to a possible story element. Keep it subtle, but plant those seeds now and you’ll enrich the world you’re creating.

Start a folder of old school paper reference and inspiration.

The Internet is full of wonderful images and ideas, but it’s also got the rest of the Internet attached. It’s too easy to segue from useful research to falling down an endless well of cat videos. (Trust me, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.) That’s why it’s great to be able to move away from your computer and work from paper. If your big project for 2017 is full of horses and riders, gather some clippings from horse magazines and thrift store books and try sketching from those instead of the first 30 hits on Google Image Search,

Take up an activity outside of your work.

I know, I know. No one who makes comics has time for a hobby. Make time for something. It’s too easy to get stuck in the zone where all you do is sleep, eat, make comics and talk to other people who make comics. Are you a workaholic? Remind yourself that time spent kayaking, or volunteering at a shelter, or dancing, or playing an instrument isn’t a distraction that’s taking you away from your work. It’s recharging your batteries, and giving you a broader range of experiences to draw upon.

Lay the groundwork to organize a meet-up.

It’s hard to sustain creative and professional momentum over the length of a career. It’s even harder to do it without a strong support network. Take some time to be part of or strengthen your creative community. Is there a regular coffee meet-up or a drink and draw in your area? Put it on your calendar, and make a point of attending. If there isn’t, why not start something? It doesn’t have to be ambitious. Pick an afternoon or an evening and send out emails saying where and when you’d like to meet. Talk about what you’ve been reading, show off what you’ve been working on, exchange tips. Have some conversations away from social media or the pressures of a convention table. Some of the best friendships I have started with casual shoptalk … some of the best business relationships too. And community with closer ties based on regular face-to-face contact is far more resilient.

Chose a new element to incorporate into your work.

A low-stress way to introduce some variety into your work for the year. Pick an intriguing tool or technique you haven’t used before and make a point of finding ways to incorporate it into your projects. Have you been doing strictly black and white line art? Set the goal of incorporating a grey wash or digital tone into your linework. Been doing all your color with gradient fills? Maybe try a texture layer or cel-shading. All your stories told in strict linear time? Look for ways to introduce flashbacks as a storytelling tool.

Pick a lesson book and commit to a small daily exercise from it.

Most creative people I know own a lot of how-to books that they rarely open after purchasing. Why not commit to following through and learning from one of them? In art school, I used to take George Bridgman’s Constructive Anatomy with me to lunch and copy the drawings into a notebook while I ate. Later I did the same with Jack Hamm’s lessons on drawing drapery from his book on drawing the human figure. It was a small thing, just a few minutes a day, but it helped burn the information into my brain, and now, decades later, I can still call on that knowledge.

Sit up straight.

Do I need to explain why? Make a note for yourself, and put it on your drawing board or monitor. Keep your back straight while you work, because you’re going to need it for a long time. If you work around someone else, ask them to call you out when you let your posture slip.

Set a routine exercise.

It doesn’t have to be a lot, but incorporate some movement into your workday. Set a timer to stand up and stretch every half hour. Take a 15-minute walk after lunch. If you juggle multiple projects try to work on them at different set-ups, maybe do one seated at your drawing board, another standing at an easel or standing desk.

Social Media

If you haven’t reserved your name on the various social media, go do that. If your name isn’t available, pick a variation that is, and if possible, pick the same one across the various sites. You don’t have to participate in all of them. It isn’t even possible to do that, but set up your profiles to point back to your portfolio or primary professional page. Put a reminder in your calendar to post something once a week. If you can’t post finished work, at least show off an interesting fragment. It doesn’t have to be chore. Just share something.


If you’re a freelancer in the US, your estimated taxes are due January 15, April 15, June 15, and September 15. Put these dates on your calendar, and put in reminders two weeks, one week, and a few days before they’re due. There’s no reason to be taken by surprise by this.

If you don’t have one, set up a filing system now. For paper receipts, get a file box and a batch of file folders and set up a few categories: Rent or Cost of Home Office. Utilities. Work Supplies. Business Meals and Entertainment. Travel. Marketing. Misc. And the all-important “To Be Filed” so you have a place to put things when you’re straightening your office. And set up a digital bookkeeping system, too. It doesn’t have to be complex. You can use a free system like IQBoxy or even Google Sheets. One sheet to keep track of what you’ve spent, another to keep track of who owes you money and whether they have paid you yet.

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!

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