Does a creative routine matter when the world is turned upside down?

We chat to three creatives on the unexpected changes which have popped up in their creative routines of late.

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Dropbox Paper is a collaborative workspace that eliminates distractions that get in the way of creativity.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be working with Dropbox Paper to visualise the effect COVID-19 is having on the creative community, and the way individuals are finding comfort. In a few weeks we'll be sharing the results of 20 creatives collaborating over Dropbox Paper, culminating in a zine all about indoor living and working. Keep your eyes peeled! To begin we chat to three creatives on the changes they've applied to their routine – expected or otherwise. 

Putting in place a routine, creative or otherwise, is largely considered a positive, productive task. Placing structural points throughout our day helps us to make sure we complete objectives regularly, and creates space for a much-needed coffee break or two. Enforcing a routine is a process we wheel out time and time again when change hits, but when that change is as dramatic as a global pandemic, it’s fair to say that any hint of a creative routine we had before has been thrown out the window.

There is a lot of advice flying around out there right now, much of it focused on how important it is to maintain a creative routine during lockdown. However, while some people may find these suggestions useful, it’s also crucial not to put too much pressure on yourself to be creative in any one fixed way. While going through something so unprecedented, of course we’re going to find it difficult to generate new sparky ideas or complete any task without the mind wandering off somewhere else for a while. Illustrator and animator Kate Isobel Scott sums it up perfectly, describing her current creative situation as “kind of like having a big white sheet of blank paper, and not knowing what to put on it”.

Setting aside the hackneyed advice of creatively approaching problems with a tidy desk, plenty of sticky notes, and lofty goals, we decided to chat to three creatives about how they’re actually dealing with this change. What followed was a series of conversations on the strange (but helpful!) habits they’ve picked up, the unlikely changes in their practices they’ve revealed, and the small steps they’ve taken to keep going creatively. Overall, each of their honest contributions prove there’s no right or wrong way to feel during this time and, as it always has been, there’s no right or wrong way to create either.

“This is a pivot for me, and it’s exciting for me to be able to both build, and be surprised by, what I see.”

Alexander Coggin

For photographer Alexander Coggin, currently on lockdown in Walthamstow, London, the biggest noticeable change has been the general day-to-day pace of his life. In ordinary times, Alex could be found dashing about on shoot days, and is just a natural out-of-the-house type, “usually bopping round the city”, as he puts it, creating his reactive work. But, as well as the act of staying “very local” changing his literal surroundings, how Alex works has changed too.

Aside from the outside situation, this is largely due to the fact that Alex very recently got a studio space. (“Is this literally the worst time ever for a freelance photographer to decide to start paying for a studio?” he asks. “Who knows, watch this space.”) Near enough to his home for Alex still to visit, having a designated creative space has begun “to change the way I think about image making in that I’m able to have a creative space (that I *don’t* have to clean up) wherein I can let projects linger, or evolve at a slower pace,” he explains. This new creative routine, “coupled with the halt of commissions, has helped me slow down and think about the images that I make,” he says. After all, “the whole world is on pause at the moment, and I think it’s important to slow down and let things unfold naturally.”

Alex is also open to keeping this change in process going even after life returns to normal again. “As a photographer, I feel much more like a ‘seeker’ instead a ‘builder’,” he says. Usually, whether it’s a personal project or a commission for The New York Times, Alex prefers “to wander and react to the world around me, over building still lifes where I have complete control,” he says. “This is a pivot for me, and it’s exciting for me to be able to both build, and be surprised by, what I see.”

Overall this process is also allowing Alex to follow his own advice to any creative who finds themselves struggling currently: “I’d say that digesting these crazy times through creativity is an essential way to process everything, and should be a top priority,” he tells us. In fact, setting yourself smaller, daily steps, may be the best foot forward while everything is up in the air: “Find a friend or group of friends that you can share work with and do it everyday,” he suggests. “Make one thing a day and have your friends hold you to that. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to feel new. Just keep the creativity flowing and you’ll be alright.”

At the other side of the spectrum is Saehan Parc, a Korean illustrator now living in Strasbourg, France. Considering the fact that Saehan works from home anyway, her routine has barely changed at all, walking the same “ten steps to my workplace as usual,” she tells us. That said, it’s not like she’s been able to continue as normal, and small changes to how Saehan approaches her creative practice have developed in unexpected ways.

The first is that Saehan has found herself getting dressed as if she was going to work, despite the fact that beforehand she was usually just in sportswear or pyjamas, “as I only had to go from one room to the other!” Now she finds herself dressing up in her favourite items to work, as if to evoke the feeling of being outside again. “Maybe I will keep up this habit even after quarantine,” she says. Another new factor to her in-house routine is exercise – but “not for too long, because I am really not the sporty kind,” she tells us. Yet for 30 minutes most afternoons between drawing, Saehan can be found working out to “some home training videos on YouTube with three muscled guys half-naked or with some rhythmic pop music in the background.”

“As soon as I am doing something, I realise what I actually rather want to be doing instead, if that makes sense”

Kate Isobel Scott

While inside the illustrator has found the time to get round to those home jobs too – “I’ve built the new tilt desk that I always wanted!” – and dream of new creative prospects like Alex, wanting to get her hands on a canvas. “But there’s no art supply [shop] open in the city, so maybe something for after quarantine,” she adds.

In accepting her wants and impulses, however different they may seem to how she was acting creatively just a few weeks ago, Saehan has been able to find a little peace with the current situation. “I’d like to be able to fix it,” she explains, “but the only thing that I can do is to pass time drawing for myself. I am just telling myself that it’s normal to feel lost and everybody’s in the same difficult situation, so we will find the exit together.” Personally dreaming about the next time she’s able to head back to her local coffee shop to storyboard again, “with all the white noise of the crowd and the small pleasure of taking a walk in the city without purpose.”

Similar to Saehan in finding that although it “may sound a little sad…the routine of lockdown isn’t that much different to my normal life,” is Kate Isobel Scott, an illustrator and animator currently isolating in The Hague. A few months back Kate broke her ankle and so is experienced in entertaining herself, and keeping her craft going despite restrictions – “I have basically been in involuntary lockdown since the end of November,” she tells us. “I feel like I’ve become pretty good at it.”

Kate’s approach has been to indulge in the unstructured time we’re currently in and not forcing herself to be productive either. “I would have thought being in lockdown for a couple of months with no distractions would make me highly productive,” says Kate, with the same hopes many of us had at the beginning of this ordeal. “However, with it being enforced, I have found it hard to get the ball rolling. This has surprised me, as I had high expectations of making some masterpieces,” she laughs.

What Kate is doing, however, is letting herself experiment, especially with more traditional techniques, “which I know is good for me but sometimes can be a little frustrating.” Sitting with a trusty audiobook – currently Kate’s favourite subject to learn about is “anything to do with 20th-century Chinese history, you think that might sound a bit heavy but it’s fascinating” – the illustrator has gone back to working with more basic crafts, “that I love doing but never do because I feel like they are too time-consuming, such as embroidery and wood carving,” she says. “What better time to do it than now!”

Working in this slower-paced way, much like Alex, Kate’s been able to gently ease the nagging concerns that are consuming most of us during lockdown too. “At the start I got anxiety, just like everybody else as I wanted to achieve all these things,” she says. “I got my knickers in a twist as I just didn’t know where to start,” leading her to come to the conclusion that it’s best to “start somewhere and let it develop into something else,” she says. “It could be anything. My personal favourite is arranging the tin food we bought and displaying it to look like a mini supermarket in our kitchen. Not to mention organising and reorganising the fridge. As soon as I am doing something,” Kate concludes, “I realise what I actually rather want to be doing instead, if that makes sense.”

Kate’s point – even finishing with an open-ended question on whether it makes sense – pulls together exactly how up and down we’re tending to feel about creating work currently. The best thing to do is to follow that cycle, however it feels that day, rather than enforce a strict routine which may push you in the opposite direction. It may sound cheesy but there’s not that much else to listen to but yourself currently – so if you need us, we’ll be tidying the fridge.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.

lb@itsnicethat.com

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