Reflection: Productivity journaling and kishoutenketsu

One of the things that helped me a lot was working on my productivity. There's a big difference between thinking I've been productive and actually being productive. The productivity booster that surprised me the most was keeping a productivity journal. Research has shown that reflecting on experience improves results. Harvard Business School article on the subject and study here. It also helps in another way: it shows progress, boosting motivation. It also shows that big, far away goals are achieved through small steps. It also helps with remembering what you've learned. More on how that works in another post.

summary: Reflection aids learning through experience.

Ways to journal and what I do

A journal doesn't have to be a big project. It can take several forms, some only take a couple minutes a day. For me it's just a daily recap of what I did, what lessons I've learned, ideas, plans, solutions, notes to myself, "a-ha" moments, what worked, what didn't work and things like that. I also do a weekly recap looking at how I spent my week and compare them to what I set out to achieve at the beginning of the week. Did I do what I planned to do? How has this or that epiphany (A-ha moment) manifested itself in my work or life? What didn't pan out? Do I know more now to revise my workflow? What do I need to work on next? What is my current weakest area? What small or large victories did I have? This is good for tracking progress, which can otherwise go unnoticed, which in turn is demotivating. What obstacles did I overcome? What obstacles do I need to deal with and are they high priority or low priority and more for the long term?

My plan is to do quarterly and yearly ones as well and use it for goal setting and planning routes to achieve those goals.

Because of its nature I just keep my productivity journal  in a Google Docs document online for myself. For others the opposite may be true and sharing it with friends, study mates or complete strangers can help them stay on target. Some will prefer a physical journal, others may want to use a dedicated app.

summary: Try out different ways to journal and stick with what works for you personally.

The power of reflection: kishoutenketsu

or: How Super Mario's level design teaches you how to play Super Mario by letting you explore instead of telling you what to do.

Those who read manga and play Nintendo games may recognize the Asian narrative structure and development form known as kishoutenketsu.  It's based on 4 stages: introduction, development, twist and conclusion. It's how problem solving is seen.

Introduction: you're presented to the current state of things. You may get to hear a bit about what lead up to this moment, you're introduced to the character(s) and some of the basic mechanics (how does this world work), in a relatively safe area.

"If I press left, the little guy on my screen goes left, and if I press right he goes right. If I press up or down, nothing seems to happen, so he can't fly. Hmm, I have 2 more buttons. Ah, jump and run and I can combine them! Yay!"

Development: It's never that easy for long somehow. There's obstacles to overcome and you have to figure out how to do it. Daily life and studies are like that too. A good course will be set up to introduce basics and how to solve them first. They are easier to understand and once grasped will give a solid foundation. By reflecting on what it is you've learned you gain a deeper understanding of it. That way you can use the solution next time you're presented with the same problem.

"Oh, if I grab that mushroom I grow bigger, but if I get hit by that angry looking, walking mushroom I become smaller or die if I'm already small. But I can jump and run. I can jump over the angry looking mushroom but it's still there threatening me then. What if I jump on top of it? It's flattened and dies and I get points for it? Okay, good to know! Oh look, there's another one. Relax, I got this!"

Twist: You're presented with new obstacles that are like obstacles you previously overcame, but there's something different about them. You can't just do the same thing. You need to reflect on the problem, recognize what's similar and what's different.

"That turtle seems to be like the angry mushroom. If I get hit by it, I shrink or die again. But what if I jump on top of it again? Hmm, it doesn't die, but it hides in its shell. Oh, and then it gets out of its shell after it shakes like that and comes after me!"

Conclusion: The result, the solution, the ending. Knowing what's the same and what's different will help. You can apply the same solution to the part of the problem that is still the same. You can then focus on solving the part that is new and continue to grow like that.

"I can't flatten the turtle by jumping on top of it, but when I do, it hides in its' shell. What can I do then? Jump on top of it again? Okay, looks like it's still not flattened, but I kick it away and then I get points! What if I walk up to it? Same thing! Great, now I know how to deal with those!"

In well designed games you get cycles within cycles. You can have kishoutenketsu on a "mechanic" level, a "stage" level, a "level" level and a "game" level.
  • Example game mechanic level: You can jump - jump over gaps with a safety net - jump over a gap without one - jump over gaps at the right time to not get hit by the flame. 
  • Example on a stage level: you start left and can move right, dealing with obstacles along the way. You reach the end you move to the next stage. You do it again in the last stage, but now you have to deal with a big turtle. You defeat it / get past it in a different way than normal, but can move on as usual after that. 
  • Example on a game level: You progress through stages and go from level to level. You reach the final level  and face the final boss. You use all the lessons you've learned and defeat the boss. This time you reached the actual end and the princess isn't in another castle: she's right there! Princess saved, now she can save the kingdom, in which Mario plays no part. End of game.*

*There's a lot that can be discussed about this, but that's not what this post is about.

summary: kishoutenketsu is introduction - development - twist - conclusion. Noticed how this post is set up? ;)


When you are presented with new hurdles that have similarities to previously solved obstacles you can at times find a solution by using analysis and reflection as taught by kishoutenketsu. Why try and reinvent the wheel if the solution is a wheel with tires (and the problem was that you didn't know about tires yet).

Combined with time tracking, reviewing and reflecting give a lot of insight in what I do. A sobering reality versus expectations then. If you use journals in a specific way, I'd love to hear about it!


Forum feedback

Over the years I've made several different forums my 'home'. I was a regular in the 2D forums on CG Society for years and loved how in-depth and direct the answers were. No dancing around the issue with loads of compliments and tons of padding. Here are your issues and here's a few solutions you could take. I tried several and left them again when things shifted. Lately, I've been trying to focus a bit on Deviant Art and see where that goes. It's been around a long time and despite having made a profile 7 years ago or so I've hardly used it.

I'm not really the chit chat kind of person and choose to answer with help, feedback, critiques and such where I can instead. I notice that the questions that are asked tend to be about the same things over and over and some of the answer I gave can be applied verbatim to 'new' questions. I do understand that for a beginner it may not always be easy to recognize that you have the same problem as [random other person] and people don't like or know how to use the search function. This post is more for myself then to keep answers at hand for standard questions, but hopefully they'll benefit others too and we can get some more mileage out of them. I'm going to try and update this post regularly, perhaps on a bi-weekly or monthly schedule. At some point I'd like to link to articles and tutorials that explain a solution or facet in greater detail.

Career (planning)

How to be a Professional Deviant artist? by dinoloverXX, Oct 27, 2015

Issue: The OP is wondering how to go from a hobby artist to having a career, based on the kind of art the OP enjoys making.

Advice given: Others mentioned exposure, connecting with people and comparing with other industry professionals.

My recommendation was to choose what kind of work the OP would like to do, then look at what businesses buy that kind of work, what other professionals do that kind of work and what their level is for comparison. If the work is of a similar standard, find out who make the art buying decisions at the businesses mentioned before and try and get your work seen by them. Many art directors for instance will look at online portfolios, but also have special portfolio review times at live events for example. I referred to the dearartdirector tumblr, the Muddy colors blog and Jon Schindehette's The Art Order.

as a digital artist, how do you get jobs?, by keymomo, Oct 14, 2015

Issue: The OP wonders about being technically good, but unknown and how to get jobs then if people don't come knocking on your door.

Advice given: Keizaru makes some good points about the relationship between the quality of the art itself and marketing, explaining how regularly technically lesser skilled artists with better marketing skills can get jobs over someone technically more skilled with lesser marketing skills. Others mentioned the importance of a good portfolio and how an agent could help.

I only added a recommendation to Noah Bradley's the art of freelancing being a good resource.

Game art

Issue: ziadtqs is a programmer and would like to learn to make game art, but is lost in the sheer amount of resources and where to begin or what to search for even.

Advice given: Some of the advice given by others focused more on getting results quickly, rather than to get a good foundation.

Vineris recommended to start with drawing, at which the OP mentioned the whole left vs right brain idea.  I explained how 'technically' you don't need the creative side of your brain for game art production, but you do need it for the design part. Basically, the two are different, have different processes and different areas of focus, while overlapping enough that people often mistakenly consider them to be the same thing. I also address the left vs right brain myth: the myth being that people are only one or the other, while people use both to function normally. People just have preferences or are used to using one side more than the other.

At that point I circle back to learning the foundation of art production, which is the technical side of drawing and painting.  I mention some software, free like Gimp versus paid software like Photoshop and how 3D helps with learning, some search terms that give good results and some starter practices. I also still referred to the 10,000 hour rule as a rule, rather than a myth or putting it in quotes.  More on the 10,000 hour rule myth here.

Planning an image

Environment painting in photoshop? by Bigbeeff, Oct 6, 2015

Issue: The OP's struggle was with how to balance painting an environment, planning it and getting lost in painting details.

Advice given generally focused on the necessity of planning an image, working big to small and about suggesting detail rather than painting every single one. I referenced an example of the process used by the amazing Robh Ruppel.

Payment and protection 

Issue: When people pay with credit card (through PayPal for instance) the ability to issue a charge-back without the other party being able to intervene is costing artists a lot of time and money. PayPal has a seller protection program that until recently didn't cover digital goods. Their new digital goods protection would fix this particular issue.

Advice by others was mostly focused on work-arounds. Some are against PayPal's Terms of Service and others are mostly focused on trying to get digital goods to fall under physical goods. With the new digital goods protection however this may no longer be needed.

Another issue was that the OP didn't invoice or use contracts. My replies focused on that and included a few contract templates, as well as some of the ups and downs of going that route and how it's better to have a contract drafted by a lawyer.


Effective studying - thoughts

One of the things I intend to do more is post studies. These are usually about observation and translating those through art tools. I usually see artists post the result, often with the reference. I tend to just glance past them and at most notice something nice in the original. I think it might be helpful if they shared the process, the goals, an explanation, good habits, bad habits, lessons learned, failures, etc. so that's what I'll do. Basically, what I learned, which in turn may help others.

But first, some thoughts on studying in general, because I see quite a few people who know they need to do studies, but don't know how to. It's also a topic I care a lot about. Time is precious and once spent we can't get it back. I also want to keep improving for the rest of my life. The more effective the time spent, the greater the gain. Some techniques and thoughts I got from personal observation, but most from teachers, which I then adapted to what works for me. Everybody is different after all and what works for me may not work as well, or at all, for you.

Learning from posts and articles

The post is a bit longer, so I'm adding an overview. I tend to write notes after reading interesting articles that way, either to remind myself later or the most important parts, to assist in remembering and what to learn more about. I put them in various Google Docs, with a link to the article or post.

In this post I'm trying to stay a bit generic. If you really want to hone in , then you'll need to draw a distinction between studying the theoretical and knowledge side and the practical skill side, as well as the language / expression side, and probably others I'm forgetting about or am not aware of. Each would be its' own topic for articles, if not books worth of info. So I'm just scratching surfaces here, but they could be springboards to deeper study. I find study cyclical, where as I grow I gain a deeper understanding and learn what I thought I understood pretty well turns out I only knew the tip of the iceberg.  Looks like they were right when they said "you'll understand when you're older" ...


- how learning from others outside the traditional school system doesn't mean you're self-taught
- making a distinction between opinion and fact
- the "10,000 hour rule"myth debunked
- effectiveness of practice and study
- rules vs guidelines
- ever moving standards and democratization of publishing
- ideas and execution and that they multiply each others' value
- about comfort, discomfort of exploring and procrastination
- how others perceive your level and how that impacts your study needs
- the need to reevaluate constantly because your proficiency levels keep changing
- generalist vs expert and impact on what to study
- the importance of the foundations

Teachers, instructors and claiming to be self-taught

I consider anyone a teacher in some way if they have information and share it, including those labeled as such, but also writers of tutorials, producers of video tutorials, writers of instructional books, etc. I don't consider anyone self taught if they learned from tutorials and / or feedback. Whoever made the tutorials and or gave the feedback were their teachers then. Only those who learned everything through pure experimentation , observation and original thought can claim themselves self-taught, which nowadays is pretty much nobody. Learning from teachers is the smarter approach anyway as it will make your learning faster and more effective by eliminating what has already been tried and proven ineffective. A more experienced person can often point out what works, what doesn't and why. Labeling yourself as self-taught when you learned from others is useless vanity or a weak attempt at gaining attention for the wrong reasons and shows a lack of understanding of how information is transferred.

Opinion vs fact

We often express opinions and they are not to be confused with facts. Personally, I feel only those that are scientifically proven ought to be considered fact. And only as long as science still supports it. I subscribe to whatever science has proven can be considered truth until disproved, but whatever science can't proof does not necessarily have to be impossible. I think the value of an opinion is directly related to how much of an expert we consider that person. I'm not an expert or master of anything, but a life-long student and I write from that perspective.

The 10,000 hour rule myth

Many have probably heard the 10,000 hour 'rule', particularly thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. The "rule" states that it takes 10,000 hours to get great at something. However, the original study by Anders Ericsson, that Gladwell quotes, didn't really state that. In the study the practice habits of violinists were observed, particularly those who made first violinist and those who didn't. Jumping to conclusions, you'd think the ones who became first violinist simply trained more, but the opposite was found to be true. Thanks to a different approach to studying, the first violinists actually spent a bit less time training. Instead of just randomly training, they'd focus their training efforts to target weak areas, improving more effectively with less effort. Shortly after Outliers came out and the "10,000 hour rule" spread like wildfire. The "rule" is appealing and easy to remember. Soon after many critics, including Ericsson himself, started debunking it. But it's still being used as though it were fact. I guess it's just too appealing. We want to believe we know what it takes to become great at something and that all it takes is effort and time.

The only rule: there are no rules

Paradox aside, new studies have shown how much practice contribute to success and it's vastly different per field. The necessity to practice and train primarily holds true for fields that don't change much. When a field is changed significantly, by a 'game-changer' for instance, not all of the previous skills still hold up and many 'rules' just go out the window. That's one of the many reasons why people say that there aren't any rules in art, just guidelines. Fortunately for visual artists, the foundations of art has been around for thousands of years. Some had to change a bit due to software taking over manual parts, new views and other advances, but the underlying reasoning of what made something a foundation rule in the first place still rings true. As long as we remember that:
  1. following the foundations and guidelines prevents work from being bad, but doesn't necessarily make it good
  2. following the foundations and guidelines to the letter makes the work at best, mediocre

Good just isn't good enough

Why is that? Personally, I think part of that is caused by the democratization of art, production, publishing, learning, etc. It is leading to both an increase of the standards as well as a diluting of what the standards are. We push each other forwards, but also in more diverse directions. Nowadays being good isn't remarkable anymore. Now, being good is mediocre and only exceptional is remarkable: worth remarking on. Your work is technically great? So what? We open up our social media feeds and we see hundreds if not thousands of work either just as good or better. That piece you spent 2 months on? Most people look at it for a few seconds, click a 'like' or similar. Maybe a comment is left. Then we move on. There's so much content being created now. If your work is to stand out, it'll need something extra: a hook, something remarkable.

Those violinists mentioned earlier and other successful classical musicians? They rack up those 10,000 hours by the time they're in their early 20's, or earlier even. By the time they get to be a professional they've racked up more like 25,000 hours and they still need to continue to practice and learn. Same for athletes, same for artists of all kinds. Visual artists, musicians, dancers, etc. I don't mean to say that anyone who creates anything is automatically an artist, I'm just saying a person can be an artist regardless of the medium they express in.

Why bother then?

Since being technically skilled doesn't set you apart, why study and practice at all then ? Because having great ideas alone isn't enough either. Almost everybody has great ideas. They're pointless without execution and just execution alone isn't enough either. You need good ideas and be execute them well. They are multipliers of each other, which Derek Sivers explains really well over here. It's 'common knowledge' in game development for instance: great art won't fix a bad game, and although a great game with bad art is still an enjoyable and great game, it just won't sell. Great art grabs people's attention. And people need to know your game exist first before they're willing to try it, let alone buy it. And the same applies for art itself that is to be used for anything aside from 'personal reasons'.

I remember when I first started getting serious about digital art. It was very hard to get a portfolio review and I wondered why professional artists didn't offer it as a paid service. Obviously there was a lot of demand for it. I never did anything with that idea, but if I had, worked hard, made the right connections and so on, I might have earned quite a bit. You probably had many of those too, ideas you never acted on and then someone else did and now they had a great success and you're just thinking: "I thought of that way earlier". Sure. But you didn't do anything with it and neither did I.

Now, with online courses, but particularly thanks to Patreon, Gumroad and other services making it easier to sell, many artists offer it as a paid service now. Even Craig Mullins is going to do paid portfolio reviews with personal critiques and lesson material (near the end of the interview). I don't know about you, but whatever he's going to charge, I'm going to save up for it!

Comfort and procrastination

So, I'm going to keep studying and practicing and continue to incrementally increase a bit daily. Not just art, but everything important. Going back to effective studying: training things you are already good at is just spinning your wheels and you don't learn. Some say it's a form of laziness and can be considered procrastination. Because if you do that, you're just staying in your safe area, your comfort zone. Going outside of it is uncomfortable. There's risks. You may spend time and not enjoy it. You may learn something out of context and it becomes a bad habit or crutch. You may fail. All true. You probably will. I know I do. But the thing is, everything you want is outside the comfort zone. You can't explore within your safe area. You already know it all. Everything you want now is out there. By going outside your comfort zone you push your boundaries and bit by bit you expand your comfort zone, only to seek out now skills and knowledge, for which you will have to venture forth again. More on procrastination later.

Side note: 4X and procedural games

This is probably why I like 4X games and games with procedural level generation, because pushing your boundaries, exploring and its' risk-reward system is like that. For those who never tried them: I recommend the Civilization series, the first 2 Master of Orion games, Master of Magic, X-Com (UFO and Terror from the Deep, the first 2. Haven't tried the Firaxis one yet), Azure Dreams, FTL and the Age of Wonders series. Careful though, they're highly addictive and you may find yourself thinking "one more turn" a lot.

You are your worst piece

If you read interviews or AMAs with art directors, you'll find they often estimate an artists abilities by looking at their worst piece. Your level is what you demonstrate there. This is a good rule of thumb because they know that with the right guidance you can make something that is at least at that level. If it's better than what they need, you passed their bar. To effectively improve then, if you're not at that level yet where you pass the bar, is to tackle your worst areas, instead of just practicing what you're already good at.

This needs a bit of nuance however, as the opposite is often said as well. Instead of being equally good at everything, it's better to be a specialist and excel at something so much, you will be seen as an expert. I think it's often taken out of context. This generalist vs. specialist only applies after you've mastered the basics. It's like earning a black belt in martial arts. You didn't became a master, you merely mastered the basics. The next journey starts there. At least, experts I respect all seem to say the same thing: learn the basics, try out many different things and throughout time you start to find your own way, your own preferred methods and techniques, your own style or voice and your own areas of expertise.

If you want to be a generalist, you should improve your overall level by targeting your weak areas. If you want to be a specialist, eliminate the areas you don't need, then target the weaknesses within your area of expertise to pin point the areas you need to work on now. Constant reevaluation is needed too, because the thing you need to work the most on will change as your skill set does.

Should you focus on the foundations and addressing your weaknesses then?

That depends on your level and your goals. If you have obvious lacking foundation skills and you need them for your goal (not all goals require you to be technically good after all), then yes, spend more time on getting good at the foundations. If you have different levels of proficiency, spend more time on your weakest areas.

There's a lot more when it comes to studying and there are many techniques that scientists have found to contribute to effective studying, as well as a series of myths they debunked. For instance, good habits include spaced repetition, mixing up subjects / techniques / topics, resting, exercise, and so on. Debunked myths include cramming (only works for the short term), highlighting (should only be used to mark important areas. It doesn't commit whatever you highlighted to memory better) or rereading (has limited effect as a form of spaced repetition only). And there's differences in the kind of studying and practicing too.


I wish there was a clear cut answer to the questions people ask, but as usual they aren't clear cut and tend to depend a lot on the personal situation. Study and practice is part of becoming better. How much it will contribute to your success and how much of it you'll need will depend on your goals, your field, your study methods and more. Maybe that's why having a mentor and teachers is so helpful, as they have the skills and knowledge to judge our level better than we ourselves can. Anyone's who ever taught me something: thank you!

If you have any thoughts, comments or a blog post or article on this subject, I'd love to read them. Please post or link to them in the comments.


Getting in the habit of blogging

Having spent a lot of time focusing on the business side lately, I'm feeling I let the personal side of it slide. I started doing studies again and sketching in Photoshop. I never stopped sketching on paper, but maybe I ought to do something with it.

But where to begin with blogging? I'm not really the type that writes about daily live things, I don't shoot selfies and never write about what I had for lunch / dinner. Since this blog is about art, games and my art (mainly for games) business, I'll stick to that.

Topics for blogging:
  1. How to run a freelance art / design business, do's and don'ts
  2. Common mistakes and how to avoid or remedy them
  3. Types of clients: good and bad, how to spot and avoid the bad ones, how to attract the good ones
  4. Types of artists and how to work with them, drafting helpful briefs, spotting issues and solving them
  5. International contracts (but would require a lawyer for consulting and lots of referring to trade organisations), copyright (same)
  6. Marketing, social media, portfolios, forum / group participation
  7. Productivity, scheduling, project management, tools, mindset    
  8. Health issues common to artists, avoiding, remedies
  9. Reviews of courses I've taken
  10. Productivity journal? I have one I use privately, but could use them. Perhaps it'll help someone else too
  11. Study: how to go about it, remembering, going outside the comfort zone, work and thought process when doing art studies
  12. Sales, getting comfortable with the commercial side of art if you want to make a living out of it, do's and don'ts
  13. Games I like, why they are my favourites and what I'd change if I were to make a version 2 or sequel or my own game
  14. On learning, effective study techniques, good practice, how the brain retains and retrieves information
New topics will probably come up when I get more used to this and made a habit out of blogging. At any rate, it's good to come out of the shell. Being an introvert, it's comfortable inside the shell. But running a business requires coming out of it. We can't earn a living in a void at least. A new topic presents itself already!

Maybe I ought to split up the type of posts: keep some only on this blog, post others as Deviant Art Journals for instance. Another thing I struggle with is the idea of writing several posts in advance and publish them all in one go after having revised them a couple of times, or publish them one by one, revisiting older ones rather than revising them.

If you have any ideas or topics you'd like to read about, please let me know in the comments!


Happy holidays!

This year I sent out a couple of physical holiday cards with custom art. This is the Christmas themed one, based on the KnowNote characters in a chibi form. Originally intended for the developer of KnowNote (see previous post), I liked the card so much I made it my default one! It's folded in the middle, meaning the rectangular portraits are on the back.

Afer receiving several tips in the Dutch illustrators Facebook group and trying out a couple different ones I had them printed at de Kaarten Drukkerij as suggested by Marijke Klompmaker and went with a mat coated, A5 sized (half a letter, European size), double pressed cardboard which ended up looking and feeling very nice!

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2015!


Know Note

After a long period of projects under NDA and such, at long last an update.

I've had the opportunity to design a set of characters and make song and instrument illustrations for the music game Know Note. The game currently has 40 well known songs you can play in various difficulties. You can check out the game, currently in beta, at http://www.knownote.com

We did character designs mostly focusing on outfits and base colours, as well as illustrations of them playing instruments and dancing. We went with an ethnically diverse group which, if it were up to us, would've been much bigger.  

The other three had less established colours and I tried out various schemes. 

In total, 40 song images were needed as well for songs like Kryptonite, Life is a Highway, Yellow, Oops I did it Again, Little Lion Man, Ironic etc.


Superhero parodies

A set of superhero parodies in a Hero Academy type style with redesigns and evolutions. The actual characters these are based on are of course owned by their respective owners.