Wednesday, September 11, 2013

8 Lessons I Learned About Being an Illustrator From Dancing Ballet

Me at age 16. My obsession: ballet.

Although my life was ballet at the time (literally- I had class and rehearsals 5-6 days a week), just a couple years later, I decided to turn my focus on art...for quite a few reasons, which I won't go into here.

But being in ballet taught be a lot more than just how to dance.

It taught be how to be a stronger and more determined person.
It taught me to work hard.
It taught be to be passionate about the art I make.
It taught me how to turn dreams into reality.

Here are 8 life-long lessons I took from ballet, and which now help me is pursuing my dreams as an illustrator.

1. Smile and keep your head up, even if you can't breath, and your toes are bleeding. 

There were times in ballet class when I was so out of breath, I just wanted to pass out on the floor.  I would take off my pointe shoes to find bloody toes.

But if you want the big parts in ballet, it's all about deceiving the audience. We were always told to smile to the audience, no matter how tired we were, and make it look fun and light and easy so the audience could enjoy the performance.

This piece of advice is good for us artists especially as we need to be marketing ourselves through social media. In your online presence, be positive. No one is going to want to follow someone who is always complaining or acting unprofessional online. And since social media is so public, art directors will see your negativity too, and won't want to hire you.

2. Warm up and stretch every day.  

Every day  in ballet class we started at the barre with plies (sort of like graceful squats), then moved into foot exercises and then into bigger leg exercises. If you weren't there for warm-ups, then you had to sit out and watch class. You were weren't allowed to participate. For dancers, warm ups at the barre help train the body to move the feet, legs and arms in the correct forms and to hold the body properly and balance before dancing in the "centre" of the room.

This is something we artists need to remember. We need to remember to warm up. We need to be sketching every day. This not only helps us train our muscles for better drawing, but it also helps us come up with ideas we can use in future illustrations.

Another important part of warm up is learning from others. Spend a little time each day reading an art book or blog or absorbing a good picture book or looking at somebody's online portfolio. Studying old masters will teach you so much about how to structure your own art. You will soon start to discover what you like and what it is that makes good art and what makes bad art.

3. Rehearsal are where the mistakes happen.

The point of rehearsal is to learn the dance steps and perfect them. No one will be able to do the dance combination perfectly the first time. Which is why we have rehearsal. If you're going to fall, do it at rehearsal. Learn from your mistakes and make it better every time.

Sometimes artist forget that we need rehearsal. Start with thumbnails. Make all your mistakes there. Keep sketching until you get it right. Do black and white and color studies. It's good and okay to make mistakes during this "art rehearsal." Then when you paint your final painting, it will be a beautiful performance. No one has to see all the mistakes you made to get there. But don't be afraid of making those mistakes- a lot of them. You'll never have a good performance without all the practice!

4. Good critiques and bad critiques. 

I had lots of different teachers in my ballet classes. In fact, sometimes I had a different  teacher every day of the week. I had one teacher that was really really nice and sweet. In fact, sometimes too nice. Sometimes I wished that she would give me some constructive criticism. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong in order to improve.

On the other hand I had some teachers that were always negative. It was good for me to know what I was doing wrong, but also hard if I never knew that I was doing anything right. One teacher in particular was always so negative with me all the time, that I started to give up. I felt like everything I could do nothing right in her eyes. My attitude started to be, "why try at all if I do everything wrong?"

It is important to give a good balance of good constructive criticism and positive reinforcement when critiquing another artist's art. Sometimes industry professionals and teachers give beginners all negative feedback without being constructive. Sadly, this leads a lot of these beginners to quit. On the other hand, some people are afraid to give any sort of constructive criticism at all, and don't help the artist at all to improve. If we are to grow as artists, we need to both give and take a healthy balance of both positive reinforcement and constructive criticism and to take it all with a grain of salt.

5. When you break your knee, don't give up. Fight your way back to the top.

It was November. I was 15 years old getting ready to be in The Nutcracker the following month. I finally had some roles I was excited about! I would be in the Chinese dance, part of the Snow corps de ballet, and- my favorite- The Mouse King!

One day in class I was practicing on the side. All of a sudden, my knee made a sickening crack and I fell to the floor in pain. I later found that I had torn cartilage in my knee and would need to have surgery.

I was terribly disappointed that I would not get to dance in the Nutcracker. It was hard for me to watch other dancers do the parts I had worked so hard for. I lost all of my muscle in my right quad since I was unable to bend my knee for quite a while. I had to do lots of physical therapy. It was a really hard time in my life.

I had to work my way back up to the level I was on before. I decided to take the lower classes as I was not able to bend my knee all the way and needed to be careful. I worked the rest of the year in the lower classes, and at the end of the year, my teacher told me I had to stay in the lower class.

 So I stayed in the lower class for a whole other year. It was hard and very humbling for me. But I learned some things on the way. I learned to work harder and be more determined. I learned to be more humble. In the end I think I came out a better dancer because I wanted it more.

I often feel this way in today's art market. The market has changed, and broken and changed. I have been working on trying to get into the trade market for 8 years. But things break, and I have to be humble and change plans and work harder. I think when things finally work out, things will be all the better. And I hope I can help and inspire others on the way.

 So my advice to you: When things break in this unpredictable market, don't give up. Change your plans and work harder. Sometimes doing it the longer and harder way, will make your art richer and deeper, and the end result will be even better than if you had gotten there the easy and fast way.

6. You've got to add your own flare, or you will always be casted as part of the "corps de ballet." 

It takes many dancers to make up a ballet. The corps de ballet is the large group that dances together in the back ground. Corps de ballet literally means the body of the ballet. The corps de ballet is an important part of the ballet. It is important to dance exactly like everyone else in the big group. Everyone is to dance together as one body. The corps de ballet is good background scenery.

But the person we want to watch is the prima ballerina. She got there by not only having good skills, but also by adding her own flare and emotions to her work.

In art, sure, you can spend all your time copying another person's style, but you are not going to be noticed. People will see that your work is not original. Your will start getting noticed when you start add your own style and emotions to your work. People will know when your work is not genuine, when you are only doing what art directors tell you to do or trying to copy someone else. Take time for personal projects and do the kind of art that comes from your heart, and you will start to get noticed.

7. Keep dancing, even when your teacher refuses to acknowledge you existence. 

After my knee injury, as I mentioned before, I had to work myself slowly back to the level I was at before my injury. I had one teacher in particular that decided to absolutely ignore me. That means refused to acknowledge my existence. He never spoke my name, he never even looked at me. He did not even think it was worth his time to give me constructive criticism to and tell me what I was doing wrong or right. He simply ignored me.

There was too things I could do at that point. I could have completely given up in despair, or I could work hard...dang hard and make him notice me.

So I went home and cried in frustration, and then I started working. I started working as hard as I could. I started practicing the combinations or balancing on the side of the room when it wasn't my turn. I started lifting weights and gaining my strength. I saved up all my money and went to ballet camp. It wasn't my time to shine yet, but kept practicing and not giving up. When I came back the next year, the teacher started noticing me. In fact, he started putting me in solo roles.

This is the same with art directors and getting work in illustration. If everyone is ignoring your work, then you start working as hard as you can. Do personal projects. Take classes. Read books. Draw every day. Blog. Just work as hard as you can, until you start getting noticed. And one day, you will start getting the lead roles in the art world.

8. If you fall, stand right back up and keep going. 

I was 18 years old. I was the soloist for Dance of the Hours in the ballet Coppelia. I had worked hard in rehearsal and perfected the dance. This was the night when all my friends from high school came to see me. I was leading the corps de ballet in a series of turns across the floor. As I was leading the third group of dancers, I somehow went for a double pirouette, and ended up flat on my bum...right in the middle of the performance, right in the middle of the stage.

Did I stay there flat on my bum? No. I got right up and finished the dance even though I was shaken up. After the performance, a particularly rude person came back stage and actually laughed at me. Yes, this  is a true story. I had two choices. I could stay flat on my bum and listen to the laughing, or I could get up and ignore the ridicule and keep dancing and learn from what happened. I chose the latter.

Many times in art we fall. People might laugh at us or tell us that we aren't going to amount to anything. Maybe these people are people who are close to us. Maybe these people tell us we can never make a living with art. You can listen to the laughing and give up, or you can move on, and prove them wrong. You can stay flat on your back, or you get back up and work harder than you ever have before.


Kimberly Soderberg said...

Shawna, thank you for writing this. It is EXACTLY what I needed to read this week.

Shawna Tenney said...

Kimberly, I am so very glad to hear that this was inspiring to you! Thanks, and you're welcome. :)

Bethany said...

I loved reading this... not only because I understand the things you refer to from your life, but because the lessons are important for everyone. I think back to the lessons that dance taught me and can apply them to many aspects of my life. I love your insight and courage! And I want to hang this ballerina in my girl's room!

Tracy Campbell said...

Shawna, you were a graceful ballerina!
What an inspiring story and your art is beautiful. :-)

Denzel A Jackson said...

I really like how you compare one medium to another, I often do that with visual art and music. I am constantly surprised at how many analogies can be found. Thank you for sharing your story!