The Importance of Creating Work You're Content With

First and foremost, I’d like to state that the full story of the path I’m about to describe is probably not the best way to go about finishing a project, or anything for that matter. It’s incredibly time consuming, and in hindsight (and from a business perspective) incredibly cost deficient. Though up front, I will state that in terms of mental pay off, it was much more rewarding, and I learned a lot about myself as an artist in the process.  In this write up, I’ll share some of the stuff I learned, not just as an illustrator, but as a creative in general. I feel like some of these things could be relatable to artists of any medium, be it film, painting, photography, culinary, or anything you can think of. On that note, let’s jump right in!

Over the past few months, I have been creating artwork for a gallery exhibition with some fellow artsy-fartsy friends. I’m not really going to get into the gist of that right now, as I’m saving that for another write up in the future, but it serves as the back-bone and reason for why I spent well over 70 hours on a piece of art. The show is pop-culture based (I know, a scarcity these days right?) and so I went about picking out one of my all time favorite animated movies, which I discovered this year. During a binge of Studio Ghibli movies, I stumbled across Princess Mononoke, a not-incredibly unique tale, but was fleshed out and developed like very few animated movies go out of their way to do. There’s themes of honor and heroics, enviromental and ecological concerns, and even delves into issues of gender equality. The movie is endlessly rich and diverse, which is why I chose it as my headlining piece for the show.



I began sketching it out on an 18x24 piece of Illustration board, which is my usual mode of work for any project, whether it ends as a painting or a digital piece of artwork. I always try to have a tangible version of a piece at some point in the process. Drawing has always been therapeutic to me, so no matter if it’s more time efficient or not, it’s a step that is always implemented. At this point, I decided that the best option was to head to Adobe Illustrator to finish the piece. I’ve had rather unenjoyable problems with making paintings and trying to get the digital prints to look pristine and beautiful, so when I’m planning to make a piece that will be sold as digital prints, I usually do it digitally. This was probably one of my first mistakes. 


After a few nights of outlining when I had time, I finished “inking” the piece. At this point I still was not concerned in terms of how it would turn out. It looked good to me. A flat, simple outline that would work excellently for the basis of the colors. After taking a week or so break to deal with some online-store releases, I ended up coming back to it to begin the base-coloring and shading.


After a laying down the bases, which were rather dull and uninteresting fills that lie in the warm spectrum of colors, I began adding in colored strokes to create depth in the piece. As I progressed, I realized that the piece still felt non-organic, so I began to look into using different textures on the tree bark and fur of her garments to create more depth and interest. This is also when the idea for the lense-flare came in, which is still an idea that I want to do at a later date. The lense-flare also helped me sort out where the light was definitely coming from, so I began to push the values a bit more. This piece was quickly becoming something experimental, as I had never used so much texture in a piece before.

After a few weeks of coloring and texturing, I decided it was “complete”. I rejoiced at finally being done with this piece that had taken up two months of my life, and decided that I could now move onto other pieces for the show (during this time I had completed 3 other pieces for the show on the side while I worked on this.) Though as a week went by, and I continued to look at this piece and think “Something is off..”, I decided something had to be adjusted. 

After I finished another piece, I decided to revisit this stubborn thorn, and decided that the digital version just wasn’t as alive as I wanted it to be. After a couple nights of debate, I decided it had to be scrapped. This is a crucial moment in any creative’s life. Is what you are presenting an excellent representation of all your skills? Did you do the absolute best to create something that will outshine anything else, and will make people come searching for you to do work for them? I’ve noticed over the past year or so, and picking up jobs here and there, that even projects that seem insignificant are always a business card for you and your skills. If it’s good work, it will bring you more and more work. If you half-ass a project or logo, it will show, and the client will disappear, as well as any hope of any of their peers who may want to work with you.

I had a conversation with a friend a week or so ago, about whether or not I ever felt the need to just stop working on things? They were dealing with an overload of work they didn’t want to complete, and it began to way down on them. That question deeply resonated with my current situation. In a creative career, it is absolutely ESSENTIAL, that you either find a way to make a job into something that you will enjoy (this includes mentally, as well as sometimes financially), or you will no longer even care about it (sometimes financial satisfaction isn’t even enough to enjoy it.) If this is not possible, make time throughout the year, or in your spare moments, to create something that will make you happy. There’s nothing wrong with making art, films, music, or anything else for money. It’s a skill you have, and it should be used to push your way through life. But why do you really need that money in the first place? To survive and have time to create things you love. In the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to lose sight of this.

If you lost me a bit in how this pertains to my painting situation, I’ll reiterate; I made this piece in digital so I could make prints of it. Prints are generally a source of spread-out income. It pays off the work, and once you beat that base price of creating the piece, all the extra is money for the bank. Over those few days and weeks of contemplating, my other work was starting to suffer because of this issue I couldn’t solve.  In the end, I decided to cut the printing out of the equation and just make a piece that would set my mind to rest. This became my basis for the rest of the Gallery pieces, and my body of work became more advanced due to the lack of limitations.


So, I pulled the large sketch out and added in a bit more detail. I started laying down watercolor washes, layering them up to add more depth and life to the piece. I felt the wolves and scenery come more alive, and in the process, I started to feel more at ease, and enjoy the work I was putting into it. My digital artwork skills lack and pale in comparison to what I know in terms of physical mediums, and I feel like this piece shows that substantially. Another bit of knowledge I learned from this endeavor, is that I need to further my knowledge of digital artwork. After the completion of this show, I intend to take a few more online work shops to learn a more in-depth knowledge of the digital medium, as well as finding new ways to implement my physical art skills to the digital world. 

After two weeks of painting and outlining, I finished the piece. Below is a time-lapse video of the physical painting:

Here’s a few close up shots of the piece:

And Lastly, a comparison:

Feel free to give an opinion on which one you like more. The painting one is my personal pick. (As a side note, I’d base your opinion more off the video and the above close ups. For some reason I couldn’t snap a perfectly lit version of the painting. I’ll try to post a better one at a later time if possible.)

In conclusion, this piece taught me the importance of being happy with what you make, and pushing yourself to your limits to achieve that. I’m hoping in the long run, all this work will pay off (i.e., hopefully being able to sell this original at the show, or getting a more interesting job opportunity because of it.) In the mean time, always take what you learn from your struggles, and make everything following even better.

This piece will be featured in the Modern Mythology show at the Liv Again Gallery in Cambridge, MD on March 14th. Visit my website or their page for more info:

-Stephen Willey