Posts tagged ‘li6’


Learning to draw, again

One of the things I had in the back of my mind when I started LI6 was that possibly I could take up drawing again — that maybe I could manage to make something that would qualify as ‘original art’ to put on these products I was hoping to sell.

I always describe myself as a designer, not an illustrator or an artist. I haven’t tried to sketch anything at all for twenty years or so. But once upon a time, I knew … well, something about it, anyway.

My drawing skills were, as with almost everything I learned, entirely self-taught. My parents didn’t have many books around the house, just one small shelf in the living room, which pretty much dictated what I became expert on. (I obtained a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Texas birds and bugs, for example, because my dad had a pair of field guides.) That shelf included three thin books about drawing that I think belonged to my mother — even though I only once, in sixteen years, saw her draw anything at all. One book was on perspective drawing, one on human figure drawing, and one on drawing animals (both realistic and cartoon). I practiced and practiced every page of those books as a kid, especially the animals.

I kept drawing a little bit on my own in high school and college, as a hobby. I was neither brilliant nor terrible. I liked pencils and colored pencils, because I was both an intransigent perfectionist and persistently imperfect, and I liked the ability to lightly try something out and erase it if I needed to. So I stayed away from charcoal and pastel, and had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of paint.

I eventually stopped trying to draw, mostly because I wasn’t awesome at it, and my younger self didn’t see much use at doing anything that wasn’t spectacular. Looking back, though, I see it through a different lens … more like ‘hey, I didn’t completely suck!’

With all this in mind, about a week and a half ago, I started ordering ‘how to draw animals’ books from the library and practicing. Nothing fancy, just a mechanical pencil (and eraser) on scrap paper. I really didn’t know what to expect, and I was more than a little afraid that I was going to suck at it after all. Well, some of my attempts were certainly serious fail, and the majority were ‘meh’. But a few of them were pretty decent. And I thought I could see myself getting better.

Then a few days ago, while looking for something completely different, I ran across a photo on Flickr (I’d link it, but I can’t find it again now) of someone’s dachshund sticking her nose into the camera. It was so incredibly cute I laughed out loud, and immediately tried drawing it on my current sketch scrap (which was otherwise filled with cat attempts). It took me a while to get it right, but the drawing ended up being pretty darned cute, too.

I kept thinking that a big-nosed foreshortened dog head would make a sweet ‘hello’ greeting card. I needed to redraw, though, because the original photo only showed half the head; it was truncated halfway through the nose. So I searched for other photo references — which by the way is how I found out that there’s a word for animal-nose-in-camera-lens photos: “orking” — and started drawing a new one. I kept to the dachshund head because I decided much of the cuteness came from the slim round skull and the low, hanging ears.

I stayed up all night with it — first working to get a sketch that I liked, then figuring out how to get a usable digital photo into the computer (I haven’t owned a scanner in a decade), and finally, redrawing and coloring in Illustrator. A whole series of new skills needed there …

Around five in the morning, I had an illustration that I actually, truly liked. I mean, it’s not fine art by any stretch, but it pretty well matches the picture in my head, so I called it a win. And then the next day (after a brief nap) I made that greeting card.

I still don’t know a damned thing about painting, and in fact the whole idea intimidates me. But: I can imagine maybe teaching myself to ‘paint’ in software. I’ve seen digital art that imitates traditional media very closely, and I wouldn’t have to give up the safety net of the ‘undo’ command. Or spend hundreds of dollars on equipment. (I do still have a large set of Prismacolor pencils that I’ve carried around, unused, for two decades now. If all goes well, maybe I’ll break them out at some point. Maybe.)

But anyway, baby steps. First I’m focusing on my basic drawing skills. I like inhabiting the space that’s sort of halfway between realism and cartooning — animals that, like the nosy dog, are somewhat simplified but not anthropomorphized. I’d like to do fully realistic drawings as well, but that’s going to take a lot more practice first.

After I showed my finished dog to Claire (my 12-year-old stepdaughter), she apparently got inspired; she spent most of a day last weekend using some of my library books to practice drawing herself. Jak mentioned being surprised by this, particularly because her mother is a good artist who — unlike me — displays those skills regularly. We decided that the difference is likely that Claire suddenly saw art not just as an inherent talent that exists fully-blown (or doesn’t), but as a skill that one can learn and practice and acquire. She is also painfully perfectionistic, and has no patience with herself for failed attempts — she scribbles through her mistakes, tears them off, wads them up. I’ve been trying to model more gentle behavior by showing her all my practice papers, where one good drawing might be encircled by a bunch of mediocre ones and a couple of laughable failures. With luck, she’ll learn to be kinder to herself over the next decade or two than I was, at a similar age.


Picking a path

So, having established a goal of $2000 per month, all Jak and I needed was a plan for getting from here to there.

We agreed on the first thing: that we need to focus on products rather than services. Running a freelance service business — as each of us have done before — is just another kind of treadmill. And even more to the point, I personally suck at the sort of relentless self-promotion that’s necessary to keep a steady flow of incoming work.

Jak leapt immediately from ‘products’ to ‘books’ … and that’s where we diverged. He wants to write — and possibly edit and/or publish — electronic and print-on-demand books. He thinks if he manages one title per year, he’ll have enough combined backlist income to make the quota in six years. And he could very well be right.

But I can’t follow that path with him, at least not right now. If I could, I would have gone back to work on our collaboration last month when the chaos of this past winter finally settled. But I’m too raw, it seems, from prior failures. A project of that length — a solid year or more in pursuit of a single goal — entails a great deal of risk, and having gambled big and lost a couple of times in recent years, I don’t seem to have the emotional resilience required.

As a chronic depressive, one of my primary coping strategies is: when one big thing is too much to handle, try a bunch of small things instead.

So, no books for me, not for a while. I do have two smaller writing projects, both nonfiction, which I am prodding along from time to time. But the key word there is ‘smaller’, and I don’t consider them very likely to contribute to the LI6 goal.

Instead, I’m going to try applying my design skills and (I hope) latent artistic talent to other print-on-demand products. (You know — t-shirts, cards — the kind of stuff sold by CafePress and Zazzle.) I have scores of ideas, and once I have familiarized myself with the various processes, I should be able to turn out something new every day or two.

Profit margins via these companies are low; I could never imagine making a living from this in our current circumstances. But they do have two all-important features: one, minimal overhead, so that I can throw a huge variety of things out there and see what sticks; and two, entirely remote production and fulfillment, because shipping from Mexico just isn’t going to work. (I checked.)

I’m hoping both that the variety of options will keep my fox brain satisfied, and that by spreading my emotional eggs amongst a few hundred baskets I can avoid getting dragged under by any single failure.

So Jak’s going to try his tack, and I’ll try mine, and we’ll hope for the best. If neither does the trick, well … hopefully six years is enough lead time that we can regroup and try something else altogether.

If you’re interested in seeing what I come up with, you can follow my new little shop blog. And if you have an opinion (good or bad) on anything, I’d love to hear it — it will help me decide what to do next!


Introducing the LI6 project

Early 2011 has turned out to be a period of re-evaluation for me and Jak, for various areas of our lives. We’ve had some surprisingly out-of-the-box conversations, and made some pretty significant course-corrections.

During one of these recent conversations he asked me where I would want to live, if I could pick anywhere. I of course had absolutely no answer for that at all, since it hadn’t been a practical consideration for ten years, nor would it be for another six: shared custody of the kids took that off the table. Twelve years ago the answer was Seattle, but I realized I was no longer sure that was the case. I still love Seattle for the same reasons I always did, but three things are getting to me. Turns out, they’re kind of getting to Jak too.

One is the short days in winter — always a depressing lack of light, but now even worse since my sight is poor enough I no longer dare drive after dark. When dark comes at 4:30p, as it does in December and January, it puts quite a crimp in one’s mobility. (It was somewhat better in a walkable neighborhood with good transit, but that was something we gave up to buy this house.)

Two is the weather — at least for the seven-plus months out of the year when it’s always cold and overcast, and often drizzly as well. (Mind you, ‘cold’ to me is anything below 60F; I have a circulation problem (Raynaud’s phenomenon) which means that cold causes actual significant pain in my ears, fingers, and toes.)

Three is the cost of living. It didn’t bother me so much a few years ago when I thought we had a shot at bootstrapping ourselves into some decent savings, but the housing crash and the recession have flattened my hopes on that score. I’ve also recently had to accept that my startup isn’t going to actually make it off the ground, which leaves me looking at the prospect of full-time corporate employment again and indefinitely. In theory this is not so bad, but in practice I’ve found that corporations tend to be bad for both my health and my sanity, so this is quite a disappointment.

Jak doesn’t care for the corporate life either; his persistent dream is to write novels for a living. Not an easy prospect, when ‘living’ means $72K a year. In theory we could get by on two $35K half-time jobs, but Internet-related careers tend to come in 40-, 50-, and 60-hour versions, nothing less. So at least one of us is always on the treadmill full-time.

Anyway, back to the question of what to do with our theoretical post-child freedom. For several years we’ve talked about moving to Portland once the kids were both gone, mostly because Jak wanted to be closer to some of his family, and that was the nearest place that also met my requirements for city and culture. But it’s been looking less and less likely that any of his immediate family will be in Oregon by 2017. And Portland has the same three drawbacks as Seattle: almost identical in daylight and weather, and only slightly cheaper (the latter likely offset by fewer employment options).

So if we scrapped the Portland plan, what would we do?

As so often happens with us, Jak mentions something he’s been vaguely contemplating, and I go off and research the ever-living fuck out of it, and come back with concrete details. And, sometimes, a Plan.

So: more towards the equator (for longer days in winter), both warmer and sunnier (but not oppressively hot), with a lower cost of living. Jak’s lived in and loved the climates of both Hawaii and San Diego, but neither one improves our cost-of-living situation. In fact, there really isn’t anyplace in the United States that has both a low cost of living and a good climate … never mind things like a socially liberal culture, good restaurants, or anything else that’s important to us.

So, not the States. I’ll cut to the chase here. I briefly researched Europe, long enough to confirm that low cost-of-living and better-than-Seattle climate do not coincide. And then I canvassed Latin America. I pulled library books and read expat forums online, and after a few days of immersion, I reported back. “Okay, I have an answer to your question now. Where would I live in six years, if I could choose anywhere? Well, let me tell you about this place in Mexico …”

I’ll talk (or possibly gush) more about the specific place later. The upshot is that Jak bought into the idea, provisionally but with considerable enthusiasm. We will of course visit the area and check it out first-hand; we’re planning a reconnaissance trip in 2012.

The critical part of the plan is the economics. Everything I’ve read suggests that the two of us could currently live quite well there — ‘well’ meaning not extravagantly, but in a lovely 2- or 3-bedroom house — for around $1500 US per month. That’s inclusive of all ‘normal’ expenses: rent, utilities, groceries, restaurants, entertainment, transportation, basic healthcare, even maid and gardener service. So I figure even with six years of inflation, $2000 per month would give us enough to handle emergencies and a couple of major trips per year. (That’s $2000 gross, not net; taxes become nearly negligible in this situation.)

Now, the catch is: that’s $2000 per month of location-independent income. We wouldn’t be able to get paying jobs in Mexico. But even so … $24K a year sounds a lot more doable than $72K. I can conceive of working an online business up to $1K or $2K per month gross.

So. Six years of lead time. $2000 per month regular, location-independent income between the two of us to make it work.

That’s what I’ve been calling ‘the LI6 Project’, for Location-Independent in Six. It sounds all superspy, I know, but hey.

More soon.