Pro artists share their top tips for avoiding distractions and remaining in ‘the zone’.
Jessica Tung Lee advises music to focus your mind, catering to your specific mood
With so much going on in your head, sometimes it’s hard to keep 100 per cent concentration while working on an artistic project. Maybe you come across some cool how to draw or Illustrator tutorials, inspiration strikes for future commisions, or perhaps you get engrossed in something else while attempting to finish that client project.
We spoke to top illustrators to see how they keep their project fresh and remain in the zone while working on it – and some of their tips you’d assume were more distracting that focus-fueling! This might seem strange, but background noise can really help you focus, especially when it’s something familiar.
01. Listen to music
Music is a common trick to focus the mind, and many artists swear by it, but it’s hard to tell what kind of melody will help you personally.
“Music keeps me in the zone, but also plays a part in my inspiration and the mood of a painting. If I’m working on a darker piece of art, the music darkens a little too,” explains illustrator, Amanda Makepeace.
“When I’m painting, music is essential for my focus. I pop in my earbuds, tap play on my phone and I’m pulled into the zone. No distractions! I find movie scores and mostly instrumental music the best for my creativity.”
Tawny Fritz also finds music helps, “I have a couple of methods to stay focused. One is to put on some classic rock music and tune the rest of the world out.”
Jessica Tung Lee fits the music to her mood: “If my mind and body are unsettled for some reason, then I will put on music. If I feel I need to be motivated, I listen to rap or rock (like Imagine Dragons, Fort Minor, will.i.am, etc).
“Sometimes I love pop music like Katy Perry and Beyonce too. If I need to cool down, I listen to soft rock or indie musics (bands and artists like This Will Destroy You, Daughter, Ed Sheeran, God Is An Astronaut, Desert Zhang, Alexi Murdoch, Bon Iver, etc).”
One important trick is to make a playlist – this will stop any distractions, like a track cropping up that you find irritating or having to press the skip button or search for something new.
Heather Ryerson needs a completely different vibe when it comes to playing background sounds: “I’ve got a playlist of my heaviest, awesomest metal. I have a specific mix that I’ve always used during crunch time, so it helps give me a boost when I start flagging on a piece. It’s like ‘RAWR, WE’RE GONNA KICK THIS PAINTING’S ASS, YEAH!’ m/ m/ I can headbang and paint at the same time
02. Netflix can aid, not distract
Iris Compiet always doodles in front of the box, “It depends on my mood and what I’m working on. I usually have Netflix on or a DVD like Storyteller… truth be told Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are my favorites to work with. I tend to put on films that inspire me.
“Neverending Story, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth… films I’ve seen countless times. From a very young age I drew/painted whilst ‘watching’ tv, I don’t actually watch, I listen!”
Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are my favorites to work with
Jessica Douglas agrees: “I put on shows that I know by heart, so I don’t get the urge to look up constantly to follow what’s going on. I’d not recommend putting on a new show you’re interested in while you’re working, it will pull from your attention to your work.”
She adds that having a movie on can actually be beneficial for a project: “When I’m working on something that is based on an audiobook or a movie? I put that on while I work on that project.”
Jessica recommends musicals, “I put on Sweeney Todd a lot. And superhero movies, like Guardians of the Galaxy, or Pacific Rim.”
Kristina Carroll says, “I used to think watching shows while I worked kept me at the easel but when did some serious self-analysis realised that most of the time they make me work slower and prevent me staying focused.
“I will only occasionally put on a show when I know I have a lot of time and might just be working on details of a piece. The occasional visual distraction sometimes helps from noodling on one spot too long.”
Kristina believes comfort helps her to keep concentrating: “I have discovered standing keeps me energised and focused better. When sitting I alternate between a ball and chair to keep my back as happy as possible but only do it when I’m really tired. I try to keep my computer and cellphone distant when working if I can as well.”
03. Podcasts can help (and radio)
“Podcasts, audiobooks and Phillip Glass. Phillip Glass is my go to work music,” reveals Christina Wald.
“It depends where I am. Rarely one for silence, I’m usually listening to a podcast like 99% Invisible, Adventures in Design or Make It Then Tell Everybody which tends to help with inspiration when I’m out and about. Then I find a coffee shop and sketch, make notes, whatever feels right,” explains Jamie Roberts.
Iris Compiet enjoys a good Podcast, “I listen to One Fantastic Week (best in town), Creative Trek, Creative Pep Talk, Escape from Illustration Island, Your Dreams My Nightmares and so on. I also listen to Real Ghost Stories podcast, suggested by my friend Patricia. And I am always looking for more ghost stories to listen to!”
Melisa Des Rosiers says that when she’s drawing, particularly inking, podcasts and audio books are the way to go. She’s tried various other methods, like timers – but these tend to distract her as she is constantly thinking about the timer ticking away.
“The story keeps me focused on working because I don’t want to get distracted from what I’m listening to, at the earlier stages in my workflow it’s very easy for me to listen to stories and draw.
“Lately I’ve been catching up on Welcome to Night Vale since I’m super late to the game. Others I listen to are: This American Life, Coast to Coast AM, Serial, Anything Ghost.”
The story keeps me focused on working because I don’t want to get distracted from what I’m listening to
Jessica Tung Lee contrastingly adds, “Podcasts surprisingly do more distraction for me often of time because I can’t help but want to pay attention to the content.”
Louisa Gallie agrees, “Personally I can’t do podcasts,” she admits, “and definitely can’t listen to new shows as I zone out and don’t hear a word. But I do like putting on old favourites sometimes, like Labyrinth, Star Wars or Jurassic Park, that I’ve seen a hundred times and can just listen to.”
04. Background noise helps concentration
“I use distraction to keep me focused!” reveals illustrator and author Jo Blakely, “I work best at a coffee shop. I like the ambient noise, the sense of not being alone or isolated, and a ready supply of good coffee. I find I can’t listen to music or anything else when I work – even at the coffee shop, I put on headphones just to help block out their music.”
I use distraction to keep me focused!
Concept artist, Louisa Gallie likes a background sound, “A Soft Mumur is my favourite for creating non-distracting background noise. I usually listen to music but it’s very mood-dependant and I get bored/fussy easily (though I recently jumped on the Spotify train and I love being able to find random playlists for concentration, focus, or getting pumped up & energetic). But sometimes I just need quiet and a fake crackling fire in the background!
Jessica Tung Lee also recommends sounds rather than melody, citing Simply Rain as a great resource.
However, Rhonda Libbey says, “Classical radio is good because I dont have to pick the play list and theres minimal talking. I’m pretty sure ambient sounds wouldn’t work for me though, nothing to keep me in the chair I think.”
05. Enjoy the silence (sometimes)
Jessica Tung Lee says that sometimes she likes to work in silence. “Sometimes when I have this great energy flow, I actually want the surrounding as silent as possible. I will put on my earbuds WITHOUT any music playing.
“I simply want to create an illusion of being blocked from the rest of the world – it helps me so dramatically and nobody really understands why! As long as I have my earbuds on, I feel I am in this secure art bubble and I can do things my way. This usually works especially well after a good referencing or researching exercise.
“However, weirdly enough, I don’t want the surrounding to be actually silent either. This method works best when there are people actually talking in the background. I guess that the real trick is the contrast created between the awareness of the earbuds and the background noises.”
Jamie Roberts reveals his at home routine: “I alternate between music (often the band or artist I’m working with) and films I’ve seen before, so I don’t get tempted to stop and watch. Anything by Tarantino or John Carpenter is a perfect background movie for those long shifts just getting the mechanical stuff done!”
Though the best feeling, he admits, “is when the movie or playlist ends, and you don’t even realise you’re working in silence because you’re just 100 per cent about the work at that point.”
06. Keep like-minded company
Another trick, according to illustrator Tawny Fritz, is to have some low-maintenance company in the form of online pals: “I call upon some other freelance artist friends to get in a Google Hangouts and chat while we work. A lot of people can’t stay focused that way, but it keeps me from wandering off!”
“Sometimes I just don’t like being alone,” admits Jessica Douglas, “so I sit in a skype call with my friend who likes to play games that I am too jumpy and jittery to play.
Getting out of the house and interacting with live people really helps my focus
“He screen shares and basically keeps up a running dialogue of what the plot is and what’s going on while I work. I generally don’t look up because scary things are scary, but I like hearing my friend babble without requiring me to give intelligent responses.”
Jessica adds, “Sometimes what I’m working on also has a section that I can do a quick lesson on, so I’ll have a student over practicing the technique I’m using to keep me motivated.”
“I’ve been planning outings with other fellow local artists – meet/draw over coffee or, like tomorrow, meet/draw at the Farmers Market,” reveals Patricia Smith. “Plus, I host a Drink and Draw once a month. Getting me out of the house and interacting with live people has really helped my focus.”
07. Keep upping your game with an audience
Jessica Douglas uses livestreaming to stay in the zone, “I put on my favorite music on autoplay so that doesn’t distract me (for people who play youtube videos, just make a playlist so you aren’t constantly stopping to pick your next music).
“I don’t respond a whole lot, but if my viewers are chit chatty then I’ll turn on the mic so I can answer while I paint. The interested viewrs keep me on task (since they lose interest and leave if I am not painting), and seeing my own work up on the screen while I’m working on it, gives me a different perspective to consider lighting and composition etc.”
08. Plan your distractions
“It helps me to actually plan time for distractions,” says Winona Nelson. “I use a break timer called WorkRave, and when my break alarm goes off I go one or two things that would be distractions – chores, errands, snacks/meals, replying to texts, whatever – I assign a task that will take 10 minutes usually, or take an hour for meals.
“Then when the task is done I go back to work knowing I will have another break in 45 minutes. The short time frame allows me to focus, be it on my task during my break, or on my work during my work stretch.
I contact a friend with similar focus challenges, and we do a 15 minute blitz and then report progress to each other
“On days I really don’t want to work, I contact a friend with similar focus challenges, and we do a 15 minute blitz and then report progress to each other. Usually one or two of those is enough to get back to my normal routine of work then break.
“I can be extremely focused and get a full day’s work done in 4-6 hours this way, then switch mediums and do traditional work if I’ve been doing digital, or vice verse. So I get a good amount of personal work time in as well!”
Angela Sasser uses the same technique, “I usually use those 10 minute breaks to do some yoga, use the mini cycle I bought, get the mail, or go clean up around the apartment a bit.”
09. And if all else fails, there’s an app for that
“The stayfocusd add-on for Chrome has been a life saver. You can tell it to block specific websites during certain times of days OR tell it to block you after you’ve spent a certain amount of time on specific sites. It keeps me from getting caught in the social media trap!” offers Angela Sasser.
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