We’ve all been there. You get handed an assignment in school that makes you groan internally. Or a client asks for something that you’re not looking forward to working on. It takes a little exploration, but boring assignments can be turned into interesting ones.

Note that I said interesting, not fun. Interesting and fun are two different things here, though they can overlap.

Fun is when you don’t want to stop, when every moment is enjoyable and you’re on that emotional high. Fun is also something that can be difficult to make for yourself. We can seek it out through thrills or pleasure, but it’s hard to cultivate without some outside influence. I don’t go into work expecting fun, so while it’s great when it happens, I know those moments aren’t going to be constant.

When something is interesting, it activates your curiosity. It keeps you focused, regardless of whatever emotions you feel. I tend to think of interest and curiosity as the opposite of boredom, rather than fun being the opposite.

There can be an expectation from non-artists and some fresh-faced students that every second making art isn’t “real” work. That we’re all having a blast doodling away. And don’t get me wrong, I love my work. But art and design definitely come with their own moments of tedium, and sometimes an assignment just isn’t something you want to do.

Maybe it’s because it’s my own face, but self portraits have always felt like a bit of a chore. Like, come on, I see this same face every day in the mirror, I don’t want to spend more time looking at it when there’s other stuff to draw. The change in age and the way I portray myself might be interesting to look back on over the years. But sitting down and actually making a self portrait is a total snooze fest for me. Every minute turns into “is it done enough yet?”

I haven’t made one since school for this reason. But I did want something to represent myself on my website. I also knew that getting through the process of making a self portrait needed to keep me interested. Here are some tips I learned from the process, I hope they can help you deal with an assignment or a piece that you are not looking forward to:

1. Find your interest to find your focus

The big idea here is that it helps to start by narrowing in on something that can keep you interested. All the advice that follows is little tips and tweaks that helped me personally keep my focus once I’ve found that thing that motivates me. There are two big ways to go about this, either:

Take a new approach to how you make the piece

Or add something in the content of the piece that excites you.

Try out a new technique or medium, or change up your subject matter. Or do both, I’m not going to stop you.
Pretty much every previous self portrait I’ve done has been a practice to sharpen my skills. Well, if this was going to be for my personal work, it wasn’t going to be an academic study. There had to be something else in either the way I drew it or what I included in the image. I knew I wanted the final image to be representative of how I work, so that ruled out option one. Option two meant I took the focus of the project off my face. Instead, the focus was on making an interesting design full of cool stuff.
So I got to gather up all sorts of photo reference of natural history related objects. Things that I thought were a good representation of my own interests and had cool colors, textures, or shapes. The side effect of this kind of shifting of focus is that it immediately made the final product more interesting, too. I put in more care and attention to the finished piece than I would have if I’d gone for realism or a simple self portrait.

2. Don’t drag your heels

I’m guilty of this one every once in a while. But the longer I think about a piece or a series, the harder it is to get started. The final piece gets more and more important in my head. I worry I’ll mess it up, and I start getting some perfectionist ideas about how to make it the best piece I’ve ever made. Or at least better than anything else I’ve done. And putting that kind of pressure on myself guarantees unhappiness and hesitation.

I took action on the self portrait as soon as I knew I was going to make one. Instead of dreading the process or hyping it up in my head, I started sketching. I worked through ideas until I had a couple that looked both professional and still interesting enough to pursue. And some of these were really stupid doodles, things I definitely wasn’t going to use for the final. Like pictures of me with a chicken on my head. Or face down in a cake. The goofy ones didn’t take more than a minute or two to draw, but they kept me interested and kept my thinking loose in that brainstorming phase.

Once I had some thumbnails and sketches, I could put the project aside and deal with it when I had more time. But it feels great to get the process started, and it makes coming back to pick it up again that much easier. It breaks through the blank page syndrome, and it took a weight off my shoulders.

3. You’ll never feel like doing it, so just get started

This was actually one of the most motivating pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. It came from a Mel Robbins TED Talk called How to Stop Screwing Yourself Over.

The idea is to take your feelings out of the matter. If you can start working, you’ll get it done whether you felt like working on it or not. Don’t use feeling as a motivation. Personally, once I get started, it can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes to really get in the groove and get over that initial sense of ugh, why am I doing this? Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration might come now and then when we’re sitting around doing nothing, but we don’t want to rely on luck. If we start putting out ideas and working through our problems, inspiration will follow.

The piece is going to get worked on regardless of how I feel about it, and that’s actually very freeing to me. I’m not waiting for anything in my mind or my outlook to change by pure chance. I’m just sitting down and doing the work.

4. Try meditation

If you’re bored and can’t get the motivation to work going, if you can’t get in the flow, then maybe give meditation a shot? It’s like a reset button for your brain. If you find your mind wandering and your work is suffering, or if you keep leaving your work to clean your kitchen (guilty), or you can’t get started, maybe give yourself a ten minute meditation break. 

Never done it before? Try looking up a guided meditation. I’m also going to recommend Headspace– this isn’t a sponsored post, I just really like the product. I find it difficult to meditate on my own without some kind of guidance, and the Headspace app helped me find the focus and set aside the time for it.

So what’s in my self portrait?

Stuff I thought was neat, mostly. This was the key to keeping me interested. I drew in objects that made me smile or that I enjoyed looking at. Then I got to grab reference images of things I like and it gave the piece an emotional resonance I hadn’t expected.

Thylacine (in skull form), California poppies, pitcher plants, alocasias, olive leaves, Euphorbia trigona, nimbostratus clouds and some meteors because who doesn’t love a good shooting star?⁠

My one regret? I couldn’t fit in my favorite bird, the kakapo. Maybe it will be in my next self portrait.


Got questions about motivation? Any tips that work for you personally? I’d love to hear them! Comment away, contact me, or hit up my Instagram.