The new year is a time to set goals for the future, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the past. Research suggests that brief periods of self-reflection, even during our daily commutes, can boost our productivity, make us happier, and help prevent burn-out. For creative people, this kind of reflection and introspection can invaluable to achieving our goals in the long term. 

We asked ten artists of various genres to reflect on the last year and tell us about the personal and professional revelations they’ll carry with them into 2020. From tackling difficult projects to negotiating fair fees, they overcame challenges, exercised their creative muscles, and developed the business skills they need to thrive. Here are the biggest lessons they learned. 

Embroidery by Ana Jarén
Embroidery by Ana Jarén

“I should avoid any kind of comparison to others.”

Ana Jarén: I’ve learned to stick to my style and trust in my intuition. I sometimes feel a bit insecure about what I do, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that I should avoid any kind of comparison to others. 

I recently took part in a very well-known illustration fair in Madrid, Ilustrísima at the Museo ABC. When I saw the other participants, as I was setting up my corner, I felt really small, and I doubted my work. I had a bit of “impostor syndrome” and felt that I didn’t belong. 

Luckily, seeing the visitors’ positive reactions and all the sales I made started building up my confidence. And this was not all–by the end of the fair, I was picked up by the organization as the best exhibitor.

Long Way Home by Davide Bonazzi
Long Way Home by Davide Bonazzi

“I learned to use every job as an opportunity to become…better.”

Davide Bonazzi: I learned to do my best work in every circumstance. I polished up all of my artworks as if it were my last chance to draw something–even if that meant putting in more time and effort than I had originally planned. 

I learned to use every job as an opportunity to become a better illustrator. This attitude helps a lot when it comes to dealing with tough assignments that might otherwise put a strain on our passion for this job. In difficult situations, I always remember that I don’t just have to please the client, but it’s about something even larger. I must accept the challenge and create something alive and vibrant–or at the very least, visually interesting.

“I learned to negotiate.” 

Liz Rowland: This past year, I’ve been focusing on my finances and making sure I’m being paid fairly for the hours put in. It’s not always easy. I started small, asking if there was room to push the budget to XXX, and nine times out of ten, the client said “yes.” I found myself enjoying those projects more than I would have otherwise, simply because I felt more respected. 

I also had a client who offered a really poor amount, so I asked them about it. They were a new business and didn’t know what the going rates were. Eventually, they met me in the middle, and they also raised the fees for all the other illustrators involved. That was a good feeling!

Image by Nicole Rifkin
Image by Nicole Rifkin

“I learned that I need to plan before I start drawing”

Nicole Rifkin: Planning is something I’m not hugely fond of, but incorporating the sketch process more prominently while creating personal work has been exceedingly helpful, and so has planning my day.

I have to be honest here: I learned this lesson by dropping the ball on a project because of poor planning on my part. I’m very good at staying up for a couple days in a row to finish a job, but I’m very bad at waking up from a nap during a project. I now work from 6:30 or 7:00 AM until about 12 AM, and I structure my day. I do personal digital projects before noon, editorial until 5:00 PM (or longer depending on deadline and schedule), and I do a painting at night. Ultimately, messing up has tightened my studio practice, and I’m experimenting more. 

Pangolin by Lorraine Loots
Pangolin by Lorraine Loots

“I’ve learned to tune into my intuition this year.”

Lorraine Loots: I read somewhere that, “If it isn’t a ‘hell yes,’ it’s a ‘hell no.’” I struggle a lot with indecision and saying “no,” and I’ve really had to learn to tune into my intuition this year. It’s been a big challenge for me. I’m a big people-pleaser, and beyond that, I think we all have so many layers of conditioning that make it hard to just listen to your gut–but it’s crucial.

Work by Rebecca Ziemer (Becky Zee)
Work by Rebecca Ziemer (Becky Zee)

“I took a much-needed break…and when I got back to work, I felt such a great surge of creativity.”

Becky Zee: My biggest lesson this year was to take a break every now and then. I felt overwhelmed and terrified that if I stopped posting, making, and selling for even just a little bit, I’d lose momentum and everything I had built over the last decade would come crashing down around my ears! It’s so hard to stop when you see everyone else working like crazy all around you. Well, I had to stop, because I was so tired, frazzled, and overwhelmed. 

And you know what happened? The sky didn’t fall. My world did not collapse. My work was not forgotten. The momentum I built up with my business caused everything to keep moving ahead while I took a much-needed break. I got some sleep. I took care of some household chores. I visited my family. And then, when I got back to work, I felt such a great surge of creativity and energy! It more than made up for the time I thought I was losing. So now I am working on balancing my work with my rest. The combination adds up to much better things for both me and my art.

Freeze by Jo Rioux
Freeze by Jo Rioux

“I learned that thinking is overrated.”

Jo Rioux: It might sound strange, but as a bookish, introverted artist, I’m prone to overthinking. I used to try and plan out elaborate illustrations like you would a living room floor plan, but they usually ended up stiff and unappealing. 

I’ve realized that of all the things required to make good art, thinking is right at the bottom of my list. It’s a bit like dancing— if you have to think about it, you probably won’t be doing it very gracefully. I get much more interesting illustrations if I start out with my focal point then let the rest grow organically around it, following the strokes of the pencil.

Embroidery sculpture by Devi Vallabhaneni (Photo: Todd Hellman).
Embroidery sculpture by Devi Vallabhaneni (Photo: Todd Hellman).

“I began making pieces for the sheer joy of them.”

Devi Vallabhaneni: The biggest lesson I learned this past year was to make time to create for the sake of creating. Too often, my time was spent working a specific outcome: a client project, an art competition, or an exhibit.

Before, I was very protective of my time–partly because my work is highly labor-intensive. To create a piece takes over 250,000 sequins and beads, several prototypes, and hundreds of hours. Therefore, I couldn’t experiment with complete pieces. The investment of time and materials was too high.

But in January 2019, I had some time on my hands, so I began making pieces for the sheer joy of them. I spent less time on the end result and more time on experimentation. It took the stress out of belaboring each design, and all I had to do was create. Ultimately, this process enabled me to be more innovative in my designs. 

Raspberry by Irene Pérez
Raspberry by Irene Pérez

“You just have to be brave.”

Irene Pérez: This year, I made a pivotal change in my life. I left a secure job to pursue my freelance career, and I’m happy that I’m now able to follow my dreams and spend my life working on my real passion. There is never a perfect time to do anything. You just have to be brave. Continue going forward (with common sense, of course), and don’t look back. We have to remember that we just have one life. 

Composición Sobre Mapa N166 by Jesús Perea
Composición Sobre Mapa N166 by Jesús Perea

“Everything is useful, everything counts.” 

Jesús Perea: This isn’t necessarily a new lesson, but it’s something I’m always thinking about, like a mantra: “Todo sirve, todo cuenta.” I’m not sure exactly how to translate it into English, but it would be something like, “Everything is useful, everything counts.” 

We tend to think of every line we erase, every piece of paper we tear, and every artwork we discard as “less valid” or important than the finished product–but the final artwork needs those initial attempts in order to exist. I’ve learned that if there are too many perfect results that come too quickly–or if I feel like I’m dodging “mistakes” — then maybe it’s time to stop and reflect.


Ready to make 2020 your most creative year yet? Skillshare has thousands of classes to help you on your journey.

Thumbnail/cover image by Skillshare student Anna D. for Emiliano Ponzi’s Skillshare Original, The Art of Illustration: Find, Develop and Express Your Creative Voice.

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