Thursday 28 June 2012

Beetle Week Day 3: Being a Freelancing Dad

Welcome to Day 3 of Beetle Week!

Earlier this year I was commissioned by entomologist and insect photographer Morgan Jackson of Biodiversity in Focus to contribute to a soon-to-be-published, honest-to-gosh, dead-tree book about jewel beetles in Ontario, Canada. The result? My first series of scientific illustrations, instead of the off-kilter, surreal science paintings I'm known for. 

Today: Being a Freelancing Dad
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Let's kick this off with another beetle illustration, since much of this post will be about being a working parent. Here's Spectralia gracilpes:

Spectralia, painted in ArtRage Studio Pro. © Glendon Mellow

Since last December when my wife Michelle returned to teaching, my primary job has been to be a full-time dad. At the same time, in no particular order, I do freelance science illustration, not-yet-monetized science-art consultation, sell the occasional print, do social media work for a major retailer, write a blog for Scientific American and work at a cafe.

 This isn't meant to be a whine from a sleepless parent.  Our son Calvin, 18 months old today, is actually doing pretty good right now, usually sleeping through the night or waking up once around 4 am. He's teething, has almost all of his chompers, but his eyeteeth are taking forever. I suspect he has some sort of huge sabretooth-tiger teeth coming in judging from the pain.

When Morgan Jackson commissioned me about this series of jewel beetles, I had hoped to be faster than I was. I'm fortunate that he and his team were patient and had a long timeline. When I used to work full-time as an art store manager, I'd get up at 5 and work at art or blogging for a couple of hours. That proved impossible over some winter months when Calvin really didn't sleep much (he'd be up from say, 1 am to 5 am nightly). Setting an alarm clock was a waste of time.

And over the past several months of being a freelancing-artist dad, I've learned some things I'd like to share. 

  • Keep in contact with other dads and moms in the same freelancing boat to retain your sanity. Mainly, I did this through Twitter. And I'd like to send a shout out to Chris Zenga, Eric Orchard, Kalliopi Monoyios, Russell Dickerson, Marc Scheff and Nathaniel Gold who were all there for me with advice and support at odd hours. Go buy all their prints, comics, books and hire them for work. They know how to keep it together.
  • Be thankful for your supportive spouse. Michelle really believes in my work, even when times are tough. Be thankful for big contracts.

  • Working digitally is sooooo much easier than working traditionally.  Digitally, you don't have to wash oil off your hands every time you need to take something out of their hands or pick them up.

  • Once your child enters the toddler stage, consider turning your desk around so it's not facing the wall, but facing the room. Then you can see what they're up to when you're stealing a couple of minutes to work.
  • Never leave your files open and graphic tablet out once they know how to climb a chair.

    Calvin,about 14 months, working on his art table next to my  workstation.

  • Put an art table next to your workstation. This has worked out well. It's all about mimicry and ain't nuthin' wrong with your kid learning to use a crayon or marker at a young age.

  • Get used to doing things in little bits. No more sitting down for an hour with headphones on listening to rap or metal full of swearing. It's 2 minutes while they're engaged with a snack or enraptured by kicking a ball around the room. Expect to join them to kick that ball.

  • The kid is more fun, more infectious with their sense of fun, than any work you might enjoy. That's my experience anyway. So I felt a lot of guilt when I'd play with my son, watching another self-imposed deadline dissolve like sugar in water.

    Get outside as much as you can. It's good to stretch your legs when you work freelance. 

  • Do something that makes money, immediate money. Don't be too proud. You owe it to your family, especially your spouse, not add to the aggregate stress more than you have to. While I've been a full-time dad, I've also gotten a part-time job at a cafe, because money became too tight and this was a way to get a small but regular injection of money into the household.

  • Don't forget to stop and recognize what you're achieving. This is where one friend (thank you Eric!) really hammered it home for me. Between working at the cafe, making freelance art, selling prints, writing for Scientific American, and doing some paid social media work for a retailer, I estimate I've been bringing in about half my old full-time job's salary per month. While being a full-time dad. Maybe it's not always enough to keep us comfortable, but I still need to be proud of that.
  • If you get an evening or a whole day to yourself, get some fucking work done. Don't play video games. Don't browse Netflix. Just get started, then make coffee and keep working.

    The rough little sketch I used for the Spectralia painting near the top. Looks like a squashed banana peel. 

  • Before we had Calvin and when I still was working at a full-time job, I'd get up around 5 am and blog or make art. That way, my day would start off doing what I love to do and then I'd go off to work in good cheer. I'm still striving to get back to that schedule as a dad, and friends tell me it gets easier as the kids get older. 
  • Every day when I get up, all groggy and I'm tempted to surf around online with my phone, I ask myself: "do I want to be a content-creator or content-consumer?" It's cheesy, but that phrase rings in my head louder than an alarm clock. 

Already in the time that has passed since I finished tweaking and uploading publishable files for Morgan Jackson, the stress of getting the job done while raising a sleepless vampire child is fading, and I'm left with a happy, healthy active kid who has a dad proud of artwork he'll be able to one day share with his son.

Who knows?  Maybe one day we'll find one of these beetles when we're out camping!

Those are my little pearls of wisdom. Any other freelancer parents have any more?

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Beetle Week continues tomorrow!

Day 1: The Challenge of Scientific Illustration
Day 2: Painting Bugs with ArtRage Studio Pro
Day 3: Being a Freelancing Dad
Day 4: Animated Painting of TrachysDay 5: The Exhibit

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Print ShopFind me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!


Unknown said...

Amen, brother. Thanks for the shout out in this massive truth bomb!

Daniel said...

I think this is one of the most fascinating posts of yours I've read. I am just so freaking impressed with how much you are able to accomplishment. For me it also highlights all my own moments when I know I should be producing instead of consuming and all of a sudden twitter has stolen 2 hours of my life.

Glendon Mellow said...

Glad you liked it, Marc!

Thanks Daniel! Yeah, I fall in the Twitter trap too. I'm more of a sucker for social media browsing when I'm really tired, video games when I'm stressed.

Sarah Snell-Pym said...

My little one sits and draws or even pretends to right :/

I cheat and have Mondays when I try and get all my work done. Mary has nursery so it is just me in the house until Jeany comes home from school. Then I do some kids craft type thing with her as a mummy and Jean thing without the baby.

But this means I have to earn enough to pay for the nursery - hence only one day.

Mary likes snuggles still when she is drinking her bottle so I tend to go through my emails and twitter whilst we snuggle. When I was breast feeding I would write my poems and stories in a paper note book propped on her.

Having the two kids works better than one did for me. Jean entertains Mary and Mary entertains Jean and I can sit and work especially if it is my childrens illustrations and things as they both like being shown what I have just done.

I've been set back a bit recently as my aneamia has come back so instead of working when the baby has her after lunch nap, I myself am having to nap which is annoying.

Not sure there is really any advice in that ramble of words!

Thanks for the post


Anonymous said...

Just stumbled on this blog post, and yeah, I think you've got it spot on. I work from home quite a bit, sometimes with my two kids around, and am somewhat prone to the traps you mention — not getting some fucking work done when I get the chance! OK boss, I'll try harder now...

BTW, you're the first an only person I've come across who can say "I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites". :-)

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for a glimpse into life with two kids, Saffy! Even just one day with the baby at a nursery can really help.

Timsk, it's easy to justify relaxing. I continue to struggle with moving forward. It's never easy!

The spam thing is a pain in the ass, but Blogger's pretty good at weeding out the wrong ones. I think there's about 5 or 6 spam comments on the blog a day on various posts.

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Posts over 14 days old have their comments held in moderation - I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites. I'll release it lickety-split though.

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