How do you become a prolific artist? 8 secrets no one says outloud

Last month I attempted my first plein air painting in Montrose Park in Washington, DC. I was very nervous and had a lot of doubt: “I’m supposed to be an artist! I have a degree in art! I work as an art director and I’m a good painter. Why is this scary?!”

Whenever we’re doing something new, it’s still a test of wills. The same lessons come back to us every time. No one tells you it’ll be easy, yet they don’t exactly proclaim to you how hard being an artist can be. Here’s the final painting which is no masterpiece and at the same time I learned a ton and felt proud about it:

First time trying plein air! Learned a ton while doing it!

A photo posted by – Brian E. Young (@sketcheeguy) on

1. It’s okay to procrastinate

Prolific artists procrastinate. Procrastinating is a form of thinking. You’re doing one thing like watching tv or playing video games, and you’re distracted thinking you could be painting or drawing. It is okay to procrastinate. You’re still thinking about your art. Use whatever you’re doing to find inspiration. Write down any thoughts you might have.

I thought about plein air painting for years. Even had planned to last fall at a plein air painting event. It started to become a big deal in my head. I thought I needed the right supplies, the absolutely right event, the right motivation, and the right place. It turns out all I needed to do was go outside.

Try this: Write down your goals and ideas. While you’re procrastinating, while you’re in the super market, while you’re at work just stop for a split second and jot down the note such as “I want to paint trees.” “I want to sketch people.” You can use a cellphone app or tweet it or text it to all of your friends. Next time you’re finding yourself free and tempted to reach for your television remote, you’ll be more likely to know that you really would rather sketch and paint.

Read this: Awesome Secrets to Super Inspired Procrastination

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.” Bill Watterson

2. It’s okay to be be messy

Prolific artists make messy sketches and thumbnails. I use stick figures in my thumbnails to quickly get ideas down. Stick figures are a cute and fun way to draw out an idea and not care if it’s a masterpiece. Even though I’m a trained artist with a degree in art and a job in art, I still use stick figures. These poses can be further developed into bigger and better drawings later. Once I see an idea as a concrete thumbnail, it really helps me to get excited about it.

When I worked on my first plein air painting, I quickly was disheartened by the composition I chose. I didn’t really think about it much. I didn’t do any planning. I just looked in a direction and started making marks with paint. That’s okay! I learned something from that! Next time, it would have been smart to take 60-seconds to scribble down a few different compositions. There is no mistake if we can’t learn from it.

Try this: Take 60 seconds to create 3 thumbnails before making anything “real”. You’ve heard this and yet you still don’t do it. I preach this for years and I still didn’t do it. Practice it, make it routine. It’s just a fun way to break the ice. Don’t look at it as a must, an obligation, or as pressure. This is the fun part where you get to be a child and not care about the result. Make them and ignore them. Make them and learn from them.

Read this: Acrylic Painting Tutorial: How to use thumbnails for inspiration

“We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.” Walt Stanchfield

3. It’s okay to fail

Prolific artists are persistent when facing failure. It’s only a failure if you give up without learning anything. Don’t give into your fear and doubt. Be persistent and decide on the next step. Be nicer to yourself.

After a night of painting, I often will feel discouraged. The painting didn’t look exactly how I imagined it could. The next morning, in the light of day I will look at it and say wow that actually looks pretty cool. It’s different yet something about it works. I’m ready to take last nights failure and make the adjustments needed to get the painting finished.

There is a lot I didn’t like about my first plein air painting. The composition is centered and uninteresting, the colors are brighter than I wanted, and I wish it had more depth. How do I know this? I know it because I tried. I tried and now have something physical to look at. Through those experiences, I’ll have a better idea when I try this again. And I will try it again.

Try this: Fail at something you’re afraid of. If you’re afraid to paint, then paint. I used to be afraid of asking for help at the grocery store. I know it’s silly, there are people there to help you and they’re friendly. Still I was afraid of it. Then I just learned to ask anyway. Whenever you’re afraid and you have all of the reasons that failure is possible, just do it anyway.

Listen to this: Face The Fear of Failure in 6 Steps: The Uncanny Creativity Podcast, Episode 31

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” Octavia E. Butler

4. It’s okay to take breaks

Prolific artists take breaks and then just pick up where they left off. We retain information better when we have space away from it. Ever have trouble remembering something? The best thing to do is to stop focusing on that thought and return to it. What happens is that we focus on the idea that we can’t remember so much that we can’t actually process the memory. We often find things when we aren’t looking for them.

When we’re focused on the thought “I forgot”, “I feel guilty for forgetting”, or some variation, it just makes it that much harder to remember and reinforces our “I have a bad memory” persona. Let go of that! You walk away from that guy at the gym who’s name you forgot, then remember it that night while doing dishes. Yes, this has happened to me.

When I was painting outside in the beautiful park in Washington, DC, it turned out to be insanely helpful to just say to myself “Wow, this is a beautiful day and I’m lucky to be here.” See all that was around me and know that I’m inspired by it all. The memory of that is a good one. Practicing a bit of gratitude can help fix any situation or problem. There’s always a lot to be thankful for, don’t miss it!

Try this: Focus on one task for a block of time. Then take a break. One study shows the best in their field only practice for 90-minute blocks (PDF link). If you are going to return to the task after the break, try to take at least 20 minutes focused on anything else. Do your best to focus on your new task. If your mind wanders back to work, be nice to yourself and bring your attention back to what you’re doing now. If you’re taking your lunch break, you might just focus on the taste, sound, and look of your meal. If your break is another type of work, try to give it your full attention.

Listen to this: Picking Up Where You Left Off: The Uncanny Creativity Podcast, Episode 30

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” Maya Angelou

5. It’s okay to have hope

Prolific artists are positive. Optimism boosts creativity. One of the easiest ways to find a silver lining is to understand what we are grateful for. Yeah somethings in life suck and you’re okay for feeling that way. At the same time, those bad things don’t have to outweigh the good things. A realistic approach is ultimately healthy and positive. Reaching an understanding on how to balance the good and bad thoughts you might have will put you into a better place to make decisions and not cave under pressure.

Now I have a better understanding of how my thoughts and feelings play out when I’m painting in a more public situation. I’m used to painting at home, by myself. The only critic I deal with there is me. Now I understand that the critic even when there are others in the park asking about my work is still just me. Only I give their words any meaning. Most onlookers in a park are probably wishing they were bold enough to be there. By painting, I’m already brave enough to do something that many people never tried. By even reading this article, you’re contemplating ideas that many people would be too afraid to even consider.

Try this: Learn something new. Look at a situation or experience you found challenging and use this as a chance to learn something new. Next time you’re in a similar situation, what will you do differently? The past can’t be changed and the future can.

Read this: You’re not an innovator and you never will be: 7 Reasons

“Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.” – Albert Einstein

6. It’s okay to have bad ideas

Prolific artists create first and judge second. Put an idea down, try it out, see what happens. It’s okay to be average. Your first idea is rarely your best. This is why we sketch (see number 2) so that we can work out the best idea. Even if your best idea was your first one, creating a few bad concepts can solidify your choice and help you feel stronger about your final drawing.

Try this: Brainstorm without judgement. Write down all of your thoughts as a quick list before starting on an intimidating or time-consuming task. The thoughts might be completely related or really stupid. Make a point to include the ones that usually feel very uncomfortable. Facing that discomfort and writing it down is part of the fun. It’s now just words on paper without any meaning.

Read this: 5 Steps to Having More Creative Ideas

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” Linus Pauling (Nobel Peace Prize winner)

7. It’s okay to improvise

Prolific artists make it up as they go along. We give up the idea of how we once thought it “should” be and move on to how to make things work. Every brush stroke is a fresh start.

I painted my trees, even as I realized the composition didn’t work. I could have left or just started over. Those would have been great ways to improvise too. I just chose to continue and that made all the difference.

Try this: Finish what you start. No matter how you are feeling about a project, rather than give up find a way to complete it. It might be as simple as signing your name and calling it done. Your usual next step doesn’t have to be the next step you take. Do something that isn’t obvious.

Read this: Can Improv Teach Us About Graphic Design?

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

8. It’s okay to ask for help

Prolific artists are part of a team. You have a support system, friends, family, coworkers, and a professional network who you can rely on. They may not even be part of your art, they just may help you be a whole person. The people in our lives help us by inspiring us, by helping us with conversations, by showing us love and affection. Having confidence in more parts of life helps us realize our abilities. Be prepared to not get the help you want and still be happy that there is someone who will listen to the question. Ask for exactly what you want and need.

By now you’re probably tired of hearing about how I created that painting. I didn’t do it alone, I am lucky enough to have someone in my life who enjoys painting as much as I do. We went to the park together and created very different work. It’s really nice to just spend time with the people you care about. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about painting at all. That day was about a new experience. Create experiences, not just things and not just images.

Try this: Reach out to someone you love. Provide help, a listening ear, or a fun night out and give them everything they might need. You’ll see how much others love your help and create friendships that will be there when you’re in need too. The idea of reciprocity isn’t to just trade, it’s to give. Create a generous experience together with those you care about. When you’re genuinely interested in others, there is a beautiful impact on those around you.

Read this: 6 DOs and DON’Ts for Killer Creative Teams: Confession of a bad team player

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”  Martin Luther King Jr.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Practical Tips: Artists and Designers Networking Guide Part 2

Artists and Designers Networking Guide: Part 2 in this series focuses on practical advice that you can do right now to meet other artists. Jump to the other posts about networking:

We looked into how to get started with networking in the first part of this guide and what that really means. I can summarize that post in saying that real and practical networking means to forget about the word “networking” and start concentrating on having real quality relationships. If you have relationships with friends, family, and former coworkers where you’ve already established that you’re freely giving and receiving without pressure. You’re more focused on helping rather than receiving. One of the many parts of your friendship may just be professional or work related, though it isn’t the focus of your connection with any of them.

In the first part, I also introduced social networking’s role in maintaining and creating real life connections. There is an art in conversation to avoid being too pushy or too focused on yourself. You never know what your online interactions will lead to. Here’s a random example of how interacting with Baltimore Magazine’s Facebook page led to my little gem of a comment being printed:

 

Baltimore Magazine consulted the expert on office party etiquette.

A photo posted by – Brian E. Young (@sketcheeguy) on

 

I’m being very practical here because I think this such a vastly misunderstood topic. For part two, I wanted to focus on some real actionable tips that you can do today and everyday. You won’t be able to do all of these every day, though if you create these as frequent habits, you won’t think about the word “networking” much at all. You’ll just live life surrounded by people you care about and who you would help and perhaps could help you.Help people when you have nothing to gain.

How to talk to anyone

The key to talking to anyone is to focus on the other person when possible. I recently listened to the audiobook How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes and that the author’s main advice. How many conversations have you found where you didn’t feel that you were truly listened to? This is a gift we can give others that will help them see that we are their friend. I believe that the trick to focusing on others is becoming truly interested. Find what’s interesting about what they’re saying and lead the conversation there. Give them your undivided attention.

If they ask questions about you, feed their curiosity to do so. This shows that you’re listening and want to give them the information that they desire.

Dress the part.

Dress up, wear something that you feel confident in and feel special. Wear something special that people might even ask about so you won’t always be the one approaching them.

Ask for advice.

Others appreciate being seen as an expert, so ask them questions about what they’d recommend you do. This still keeps the focus on the artist and their event rather than making it about you. When asking for advice, try to focus on you’re asking them what you can do for yourself rather than asking for favors. Rather than ask for their help, ask how you can help yourself.

Focus on what you can do for them.

If an opportunity to help others and be a good friend arises, offer. Don’t be pushy. An offer that is turned down easily is seen as sincere! So even “rejection” is an opportunity to show that you’re helpful. You might ask if they have a website. If not and it’s something they want, you can offer to help them build one. Or let them know about a great service that is low maintence.

Be careful about monopolizing time.

Offer to let others out of a conversation if it feels you’ve been talking for a while. This is also a chance to offer to continue the conversation another time. If a phone number sounds more personal than the conversation would allow, ask if they have a website or Twitter or Facebook.

Listen.

Avoid being so overly prepared that you are just trying to talk about your talking points. Allow the other person to share the direction conversation. Be interested

Send a thank you.

Feel free to contact the artist via social media or even exchange contact information if the conversation is intense enough.

How to Visit Art Galleries

If you’re near a city or even a fairly well populated area, you’ll have many local art galleries who are open to provide a service to the art community. Galleries have free events, art receptions, and concerts. This is a perfect setting for artists and designers to practice your skills, meet other creatives and talk about your art. The people who attend are already interested in the same things as you. Not only that, you’ll be able to see work to inspire you! I visit the local art galleries whenever I’m in a new town or city. If all else fails, t’s free entertainment.

Here’s an art gallery I visited in Chicago when I was there for a wedding that also sold vinyl, prints and posts from concerts. I had a great conversation about the staff and learned a little bit about the city and the area while I was there. Nothing forced, just natural conversation asking whatever I was curious about.

 

Show up at art openings and events. Dont expect too much, just brief conversations. Think of this as practice and play Otherwise just enjoy the art! Ask the artist questions about their art, focus entirely on them. Inevitably they may ask a little bit about you, use the chance to have two or three sentences about your artwork. Then gently focus back on them. Stay positive and focus on what you like or love. It may be their sense of color or even their bravery for simply being there

Talk with the gallery owner and staff. They tend to be very passionate about visual work, have a rich background, and a lot of inspiration and advice to give. You might be interested to know about the history of the space, how they decided to be in this career path, or to know what other events they have planned.

Share and talk on social media. Promote the events and shows you think are interesting, just like you do with your favorite restaurant or with other parts of your day. When you visit, take photos for instagram, tweet about the show, and connect.

Respond to call for artists. Make art and submit to any open calls that interest you. This one isn’t just for artists. Graphic designers take note that many designers create work for shows. If you illustrate or design something interesting, submit it to a show.

How to Volunteer

Look for volunteer work related to art, design or even other unrelated interests. This is a way to meet new people, introduce yourself as an artist. I play piano and often when I was in college would play piano at gallery openings. See my post on why you’d want to be a design volunteer for a more thorough explanation on how to gain work experience, portfolio pieces, education, confidence and friends through volunteer work.

How to Interact with Art Organizations

Find the local art and design organizations in your area. You can volunteer with your local chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, without becoming a member. Many formal and informal organizations post to Craigslist and MeetUp.com with various art related activities as well. A simple google search for local events will give you a ton of ideas about what you can do.

How to Take Classes

They offer classes at galleries, art supply stores at a variety of local businesses. Anywhere you can go and see the same people more frequently will encourage more connection building. Once people are familiar with your face, you’re more likely to easily strike a conversation with them. Even if it’s to say “Hey, we’ve been in this class for a few weeks and haven’t talked! You seem really good at this!”

How to Freelance

Using freelance and paid side projects can be a great way to network and make money while doing it. Look for companies and organizations with a need and see what you can offer them. This is another place where the local Craigslist comes in handy as well as the major freelance sites.

Next: Following Up: Artists and Designers Networking Guide Part 3

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Acrylic Painting Tutorial: How to use thumbnails for inspiration

Creating a scene can be intimidating when painting. Making thumbnails can help you develop an idea without investing too much time. Sometimes just a simply gesture of a shape or a few messy lines can give you clarity on an image. Instead of trying to picture it in your head, take a few moments to use your sketchbook or scrap paper to make some shapes. In this tutorial, you’ll see how I took a tiny thumbnail in my sketchbook. I used the idea for a drawing which made the final painting very quick to execute. Any questions?

Here is the finished painting, titled “Job Search” (11×14 inches): 

Step 1: Thumbnail

I had this image in my head of a guy wearing a paper hat. Just seemed like a funny thought that could become something. I sketched a few super tiny versions of it. These are only about an inch or two. At this size, you can really just make a few lines and start seeing where they take you. It’s often like seeing shapes in the clouds. I really exageratted the poses, something I’ve been playing around with.

Step 2: Drawing

Using the app Grid Drawing Assistant on my Android tablet, I placed a grid over the original sketch and transferred it to 11×17 paper. So cool these days that you think of app and someone else has already done it. I just wanted to capture the outline and feel of the thumbnail. Only after the composition is roughly sketched in will I worry about correcting the anatomy. The rhythm of the thumbnail is more important to me first.

Step 3: Detailed drawing

I worked on the drawing until it was a full size sketch using a mirror, reference photos, and even real objects in my apartment. You’ll be surprised at how much time you’ll actually save by working out the details in the drawing. When painting, there is color, shape, form, hue, tint and line. Here we get to concentrate on the composition, anatomy and any details 

Step 4: Light

The drawing phase is also a good time to work out some of the basics of the lighting. For this one, I didn’t go too far into those details. If I had found anything complicated or interesting while playing with the image, it would be a good opportunity to work out the forms further.

Step 5: Gesso

Now starting to paint. I often use acrylic paint on bristol board. Gesso the paper, then added burnt umber to the second coat of gesso. If you’ve never used paper, it’s a really fun material for acrylic. Gesso both sides of the paper to make for a more sturdy surface. Adding burnt umber gives a neutral background. This avoids the feeling or work of having to fill the white space.

Step 6: Transfer the drawing

Using the grid again, I transferred the basic outlines to the paper using pencil. This is the same method that I used for transfering the thumbnails. There are a lot of ways to transfer an image, this always felt the simplest to me. Pencil was used here, though a small brush with watered down acrylic would have also worked. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just a close approximation. You have your original drawing and will continue to match that in paint. Some of the accidental imperfections worked in my favor, making room on the book for a mug that wasn’t in the earlier thumbnail or drawing.

Step 7: Shadows and Highlights

Add the shadows and highlights. I often use various reference images to make sure I have each element to the right proportion and details. I still see some corrections I need to make.

Step 8: Development

The pencil drawing still has a faint grid from transferring from thumbnail, so that’s a big help. I have tablet my for reference photos of anatomy and textures. The book An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists is a very affordable compilation of reference images. I also use a mirror to capture the human form.

Step 9: Underpainting

As I developed the underpainting, I have enough detail to get the idea of most tonal areas. I continue to develop details. Making this version as detailed as possible will help when I add color. Photographing the various steps is also helpful in case you want to see if a decision needs to be reversed.

Step 10: Color

First washes of color. I always keep working on the face throughout the entire painting. Even if some parts of a painting are a little under detailed, that’s okay as long as I have a really sharp and well done face and figure. This part always feels like being a kid with a coloring book

Step 11: Color and detail

At this point, adding more colors. The local colors are mixed with their complimentary colors to create contrasting shadows that are more vibrant and dimensional. 

Side by side with the drawing at the end of the night.

Step 12: Finishing touches

Sharpening the final pieces, working through the backgrounds and making each detail close to the final drawing.

Final drawing

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Inner & Outer Peace: 3 Ways Art Can Help

Saturday, helicopter speakers above my apartment blasted unintelligible words. Streams of protesters took to the streets right outside of my window chanting, drumming together, pleading for hope.

Driving through the streets later that day, I saw many more streams of protesting groups all throughout the city. There has been turmoil and uncertainty here in Baltimore for the past week which was heavily splashed on national news. It’s not a new problem for the city which has a clash of different cultures, income levels, and neighborhood geography.

In Baltimore’s decidedly upper-class neighborhood of Guilford, there is a beautiful garden of tens of thousands of tulips. While we could think this was an oasis among the trees and mansions of the city, my thoughts drifted as I experimented with my second plein air painting.

Sherwood Gardens is as much an illustration of the national discussion about the city’s inequality as the stretches of vacant homes and food deserts just a mile or two away. How do we appreciate value and beauty during inner and outer turmoil?

1. Art Helps with Stress and Anxiety

Visual art’s relationship to anxiety have been studied: increasing positive emotions and reducing stress. This is according to a six month study testing how creative arts intervention can assist cancer caregivers by Barry University School of Nursing. The creative activities were designed to be easily completed while at their loved ones bedside so that the caregiver would be available to assist the family when needed.

Even a family member dealing with care during distressing illness can make time for themselves. The lesson here is that self care can put us in the position to help others. There is evidence that art therapy can ease symptoms in cancer patience themselves as well.

2. Love Helps with Creativity

Our thoughts about love can help us think of new ideas. The hypothesis that romance causes us to think differently was studied at the University of Amesterdam who found love does truly alter our thoughts. The results suggest that romantic thoughts inspire long-term thinking, wishful attachment, and fantasties beyond the present.

How is this linked to our creative passions? The experiments found that love and desire have an influence over how we think of all aspects of our lives. The halo effect that helps us see the positive or even idealized qualities of loved ones also was then shown to apply to unrelated contexts suchas inanimate objects. Thinking about love makes us generally more imaginative.

3. Painting Helps Depression and Fatigue

Weekly art therapy sessions creating paintings in a study at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology resulted in reduced levels of depression during chemotherapy. After only four appointments of art therapy, there was a measurable change in both depression and fatigue. In patients with Parkinsins disease, another study also found positive affects on depression levels. The could be one reason that the most productive artists tend to practice positivity.

 

I’ve often turned to painting as a way to become more introspective about my inner world. I find creating art can be sometimes challenging, yet mostly rewarding and I feel happy about the end results which makes for a better day. Even if the result isn’t always amazing, there still is a certain joy in knowing I tried. I don’t think that my painting of Sherwood Gardens in my favorite. Getting out of my comfort zone and attempting plein air painting created for me a chance to try some new techniques and see the city of Baltimore in a new way during a week of protesting and riots. We know that our creative habits can impact our levels of creativity. Painting channeled my energy and thoughts into something visual. This painting has already began to inspire some new ideas for future paintings.

Has your art helped you in times of stress and anxiety? Do you think you’re more creative when you’re in love? Try out some of these ideas and let us know how they worked for you in the comments.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Why you’d want to be a design volunteer

Every year, new designers prepare themselves to enter the workforce. Some of you are new college graduates. Others are making either a big or shift in their career path. Perhaps you’re experienced in publishing design and now you’ve trained to tackle a position in the web. You’re smart, you have the skills. While that may be true, there is a difference between simply having knowledge a skill and having demonstrated your ability to use that skill to accomplish a task.

With some smart decison making, volunteering can be the first step in becoming a well-paid freelancer or full-time employed designer. Becoming a volunteer is not just for new designers either. An experienced designer can get to do things they can’t do in their regular job. Why would you want to volunteer?

Work Experience

Many jobs and even internships are looking for people with some experience, a real world portfolio, and professional references. New job seekers tend to ask the question: How can we get a job in a new field without already having some connections?

If you don’t have connections, then you need to find and make them. If you don’t have the necessary experience, then you need to start experiencing. Volunteer work or unpaid internships is one of the methods for new job seekers to start translating their newly acquired skills into real world accomplishments for an organization.

It won’t catch my eye as an art director if you say in your cover letter, “I know InDesign” since anyone can install and use a computer program. It will be far more impressive if your cover letter has the intriguing story of how you “designed a brochure for the local branch of the American Red Cross that was distributed to 12 events.” I talked in an episode of my podcast about how having a story to tell makes your creative work interesting; having a story also helps make you an interesting person, a grounded friend, and an impressive employee. 

Portfolio

As an art director, I can assure you that we’re not overly convinced by student work. Sure, showing that you can create a beautiful design effectively with your tools is a telling step which we do like to see. It’s true that having the creativity to produce an imaginary student project is useful as a working designer often will have to invent details that aren’t provided. At the same time, most of us work to implement the visions of our clients and coworkers. We are constrained by the real world needs of a project. 

Volunteering will place you in the position of having to deal with outside interests, organizational limitations, and a real world audience which will often be discerning. If you after all of that, you’re able to come up with a stunning portfolio piece, then hiring managers will be impressed. Having the skill to create is a great piece of the puzzle, while still the focus of a hiring manager or a client is to see if you can use those skills to create what they need. Your resume, portfolio, and cover letters will ideally reinforce the story that you would help serve the business needs of your employers.

Education

Being a print designer, I found volunteering to be a great way to solidify my web design abilities and gain confidence. Many charitable organizations would love for you to give them an awesome new website. If you’re looking for less of a commitment, you could offer training to do web updates or assist in maintainence.  

For one organization, I simply created some basic graphics for their websites. For another, using their existing templates and CMS to enter content was a way to learn from those who had worked on those sites before me. These are the kinds of demonstrations of accomplishments that employers are looking for. These are also the types of case studies that we often pay professors to provide when we can also get them for free and get more value out of them

Facing your fear

Going into a new field is scary. In an episode of The Uncanny Creativity Podcast titled Face the Fear of Failure in 6 Steps, I talked about how success requires moving forward with something that might not be perfect. One way to face your fear of failure and gain confidence is to simply practice. When you practice using your skills in a a volunteer environment, they will be tested. You will be challenged and from those challenges, you’ll learn something and those are lessons that you’ll apply to your work and life.

Every time you volunteer for a new organization, you’re signing up for a new experience. Rather than paying for the movie version, you’re getting a new situation first hand. The places you get to see and work for might feel scary, silly, weird, funny, or crazy. There could be interesting people who you’d never want to see again. There could be interesting people who you’d want to become best friends with.

Professional Friendships

Networking has a bad reputation. That’s due to the many networkers who seem to selfishly want to take advantage of others. If you’re just out to use people, it’s unlikely they’ll want to help you. Instead, successful networkers form professional friendships. They’re quality friends like any other, they just have the common interest of some overlapping career goals. Treat others as friends who you admire and like. Volunteering provides a way to practice being charitable and positive when meeting new contacts. Depending on the organization, your new friend may have some solid advice for your career. 

If that sounds more appealing to you than what you’ve known about networking, then banish the word from your mind and look for friendship or acquaintence-ship. Find kindered spirits who you genuinely like and admire. Help them not because you need them, but because there is something you want to share with them. If that’s something that appeals to you, be sure to check out my post How to Get Started: Artist and Designer Networking Guide Part 1 for more details.

Collaboration

Even if you don’t meet friends or even a professional contact, volunteering still provides a real world situation where you can practice collaborating with others.  I’ve talked a lot about the importance of collaboration in both my blog (6 Dos and Don’t for Killer Creative Teams: Confessions of a Bad Team Player) and on the podcast (How to Collaborate More Effectively). This is a skill you’ll be practicing you’re entire life, so having more chances to work with others will give you valuable insights in all of your relationships.

A word of caution

If you’re going in looking for professional friendships that’s certainly possible. However, don’t mistake a volunteer opportunity or even an unpaid intership as a replacement for your job search. A coworker talked to me about how one of Baltimore’s major museums had employed her friend full-time for over a year. Her friend believed this would somehow translate into a paid position which was quite foolhardy and a recipe for resentment.

Being charitable is not your full-time position in life, especially not professionally. Set a clear and short-term limit for the amount that you are willing to do for free. A one semester internship is reasonable considering your vast lifetime, though years of full-time free service probably would not make sense for most people who have will bills and expenses.

Find reasons to be involved that are charitable and fun. If it ever stops being that, reconsider whether this works for you. If not, walk away without burning bridges. You may even take the opportunity to ask for a letter of recommendation. Be clear about what you are getting out of the situation. Ultimately, know your worth and know that your work is worth a lot of money. A You’re worth being paid tens of thousands of dollars a year.  

Finding volunteer opportunities 

The process of getting volunteer work isn’t that unlike applying for a job or finding freelance work. You contact an organization, tell them what services that you would hope to provide for them, and discuss any details. Your committment could be as small as an hour or as large as a full project requiring more regular committment. As you might in a job search or a friendship, focus on what you can do for your contact and their organization rather than what you’re getting out of it.

I’ve participated in some interesting opportunities through Volunteer Match. They have many big and small opportunities. For example, when I search the site I’ll see the prestigious Kennedy Center in DC, local government, and charitable organizations. Not only are these great names to add to your resume, they’re just interesting places to visit and contribute to. Volunteer Match also has virtual opportunities where you can help from your home computer.

You might also think about looking through listings on Craigslist. You could also freelance for work, and sure do that too. But as a volunteer you can help out some pretty worthy causes and often get a nice letter of recommendation or thank you letter. These are great for references without the hassle of dealing with the business side of freelance.

If you’re involved or want to be involved with your church, student organizations, or any organizations in your community contact them with ideas. You might suggest a flyer of upcoming event, re-designing their website, or see some other need that you can help with.

Have you had any successful volunteer experiences that you’re proud of?

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.