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Octavia Bromell: Exploring Personal Projects

About this workshop

UK-based illustrator and artist Octavia Bromell creates a vivid, joyful world that embraces life’s small, everyday pleasures. In this workshop, she shares how embracing personal creative projects has had a transformative effect on her work and mental health.

This workshop was recorded remotely on May 20, 2020.


Octavia Bromell, Artist & Illustrator

Octavia Bromell, better known as Tink, is an illustrator, mental health advocate, and former Adobe Creative Resident based in rural England. She uses her experience with anxiety and depression to find the joy in everyday life. With her distinctive maximalist style, Tink has worked for the likes of Moleskine, Adobe, and The Royal Shakespeare Company, and gives talks all over the world on the positive impact creativity can have on all our lives. Her work appreciates life’s oddities through the lens of illustration.

Full Transcript

Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for being here today, however virtually. My name is Octavia Bromell, but everyone calls me Tink and I’m an illustrator based in the UK. Today I’m gonna be talking to you all about personal projects and the many wondrous benefits that they can have to both your personal life and your career, and, yeah. Just talking about how great they are, basically. So, let’s get personal.

To start with, I’m just going to run through a few of the things that I’m going to be talking about today. To start with, I’m going to talk a little bit about how to find time for the stuff that you’re passionate about. I think that this is a recurring issue for just general life, but especially with creativity. I think that so many of us are freelancers and we work for ourselves and we set our own schedules and it can be really hard to prioritize the actual creative process when we have to wear so many other hats as freelance creators. I’m going to talk a little bit about the career and the life benefits to having fun with your work. Spoiler, there are quite a few of them and I’m not going to bore you with too long a list, but I’m going to talk about some of them. I’m also going to talk about why you should prioritize your happiness.

This is another thing that I think people struggle with. I have definitely struggled with this. I still do struggle with it. I think sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you might be being selfish or self involved but the reality is that when you are happier, and you are doing things that you love, you will find that you have more energy to give back to other people anyway. Also of course, we’re going to be talking about how to work out what that actually looks like to you. This isn’t really going to be… This talk isn’t going to be about me telling you how I work, it’s going to be telling you the things that I do in my practice and how you can apply them to your life. This isn’t really about what works for me, it’s really about what works for you and when we do a little exercise together later on, we’re going to write down a little list of things that you’re really passionate about.

I’m also going to talk about bad ideas and why there isn’t really any such thing as a bad idea and they aren’t really that bad at all. The reason that I’m here today is because I have basically built my career on personal projects. This is something I feel very fortunate about and I’m going to talk in a little bit about some of the projects in particular that have really surprised me and why I think that is. So, while I’m going to talk a little bit later on about things that might not have gone so right in my life. My work is really bright and fun and I really do have a lot of fun doing it as well.

So, I’m going to start by talking a little bit about my experiences. I have had anxiety and depression since I was very, very young. I don’t actually have a single memory from my childhood that isn’t impacted by it. I’m only telling you this so you know that when I say life can be tough, you know I’m serious and I really do get it. I spent the better part of two decades working myself to the bone, trying to live up to other people’s expectations or of what I felt the world wanted me to be. This all came to a head about four years ago when I had a nervous breakdown. I left London where I had lived and studied for five years and I moved back to my childhood home in Dorset to a really tiny village. Things were pretty bad for a long time. My mum had to take six months off work to look after me which I will always be so grateful for but I really did feel very lost for a really long time. While having a total breakdown isn’t a very fun experience, wouldn’t recommend it, in the years that have followed, I have really performed a hard reboot on my life. I gradually came to understand that my life wasn’t over because of this one terrible thing that had happened to me. Something happened along the way, along the very bumpy road of recovery that I’m definitely still on, that I would never have predicted going into this experience in a million years, I actually started feeling like myself and I actually started feeling happy.

I think a lot of this has come from the realization that your individual happiness matters. This is a mantra that as I said at the start, I know can be really hard to take on, and it’s something that has taken me years to really appreciate and understand and absorb into my daily routine, but it’s now a mantra that carries over into everything I do, especially in my work. As I kind of showed you earlier, my work is generally themed around positivity and self exploration and expression, but I’m also not afraid to talk about the darker sides of life that we all go through.

So, what are personal projects? This is a very brief, not complete list and feel free to add to it, but to me, they mean something that brings you joy, something that won’t always feel like work, sometimes it does, but not always. Something that gets you really fired up, something that means a lot to you and they may or may not also be weird, wacky and wonderful. Ideally, we’re talking about things that keep you up at night in a good way and wake you up early in the morning full of excitement.

Now, we’re going to do a really quick exercise so that you can start thinking about some projects that will mean a lot to you. Not just personally but to your career as well. We’re really talking about things that are on your creative bucket list here. Things that you really want to achieve with your career. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated and I would really encourage you to think big here, what are the things that you would really love to achieve personally in your career?

Here are some of the things that are on my list personally. I would love to publish an illustrated notebook. This is something I’ve been working up to for a long time, illustrating a children’s book, I think is on a lot of illustrator’s bucket lists. I’d really like to make a jigsaw puzzle, especially in lock down, I’ve been finding doing jigsaw puzzles really relaxing. So, I think it’d be a lot of fun to design something like that. Pause the work shop here and take some time to write down ideas on potential personal projects that get you really excited. Press play whenever you’re ready and we can continue with the lesson.

So, I’m going to talk a little bit about some really famous personal projects. Art history in general is a really good example of this, because so many of the art works that we know and love were created as a passion project, if you will. Things like the Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait With Bonito is one of my personal favorites, by Frida Kahlo. The Goldfish by Matisse. I absolutely love Matisse’s work and I’m going to talk a little but more about him later on. But these are just some really quick examples. There are countless, countless others. I could happily spend the next hour talking about masterpieces of art history and how personal each piece is, and was to the artist when they created it, but I’m not going to, not this time anyway.

The fact that you will undoubtedly recognize at least one of those and also have many other examples spring to your mind as good examples, should tell you that these works of art, these arguably personal projects have had a profound impact on the art industry as a whole. For today however, I would like to scale this down a bit. I’m not here to teach you how to become a world renowned artist, in fact, if anyone knows how to do that, then maybe shoot me an email because of my journey into illustration, starting out as therapy, having this intensely personal background has meant that much of my work tackles the themes of mental health and the human condition as a whole. There are overarching personal themes in my work including mental health, but as I said earlier, I use bright colors and I really do have a lot of joy with my work.

So, now I’m going to talk a little bit about some of my personal projects and how they have gone onto have real world applications, because while it’s all very well and good saying make work just for yourself and I actually think that’s something that you should do, the reality is that we all have very limited time, especially at the moment. So, when they can go onto have real world applications, I think it’s a really good thing. So, I would be remiss in this presentation if I didn’t kick off by saying that I was one of the Adobe Creative Residents last year. This is a really incredible opportunity that Adobe runs where they basically foster emerging creatives. It’s a years paid work on your passion project and I’m going to talk a little bit about the project I did in my last year with Adobe which ended actually at the end of April. So, very recently.

But before I move on, I just wanted to touch really quickly on the fact that the creative residency have actually just launched something called the Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund and this is a one million pound fund, no, one million US dollar, sorry, I’m obviously from the UK, that they are giving away in grants and commissions from Adobe to creatives of all fields across all the spectrum. So, definitely look that up if you are a creative with a great idea and in need of some funds because it’s a really fantastic opportunity. So, the project that I worked on for my year as an Adobe Creative Resident was called the Joyful Everyday. This is essentially the concept that you can find happiness in the really tiny things that make up our day to day life, things that you might overlook at first glance, but when combined, they can really build up a picture of happiness in our lives and this is obviously stemming from my experience with mental health. After having a nervous breakdown, I basically had to rebuild my life from scratch which was a very difficult, arduous process, but coming out of it, I definitely have an appreciation for really tiny little things like an extra good cup of tea or five minutes extra in bed or an unexpected call or a letter from a friend. Yeah.

So, I basically spent the year creating work on the theme of the Joyful Everyday and you can find out more about my project on my Behance or on my website as well. So, this illustration, handy little prop moment, this is an illustration that I actually drew this year for International Women’s Day, just for myself, I think I actually drew it for Instagram and I did it the day before I realized I didn’t have anything to post and a lot of my work is on the theme of feminism and self empowerment. So, yeah, it’s just an illustration that I did for myself. This has actually ended up on the cover of Flow Magazine, which is a huge deal to me. This is my favorite magazine and it’s also the first design ever to be on all international issues of the magazine simultaneously which has been a huge deal to me and this has been a really powerful moment for me because it really is something that I created just for myself and it’s gone onto have a really big impact on my career. This was actually one of the first illustrations I ever did after kind of officially calling myself an illustrator. And again, was very much drawn for myself on the theme of thinking about the fact that I’m quite often zoned out during the day and then have all my best ideas at night.

Last year, I was actually asked to revisit this design to create a Moleskin notebook. I actually designed the official Moleskin notebook for Adobe Max last year. As a self confessed stationery aficionado or nerd, I was obviously over the moon to get to work on this project. Moleskine have been my favorite notebook producers for many, many years, like so many other people. So, yeah, this was a really fantastic project to get to work on. On maybe the most personal note of all, in the UK, we have a wonderful charity called the Samaritans. It’s basically a mental health helpline and in a really dark time of my life, they actually saved my life when I was 19. In what feels like an incredibly full circle moment, recently, I’ve actually been working with a charity on some products for their website to raise funds. This notebook is one of the designs that I made and that we… It’s launched on their website. You can actually buy this if you want. But I worked on an entire product line with two designs. Yeah. These are some of the products that I’ve been working on with their mugs and water bottles and tote bags.

Again, there’s a whole range, but this was a really fantastic opportunity for me and while I actually started out, I donated some designs, they have since gone onto commission me to create work for them and for their shop. So, again, a really, really great opportunity and something that could not be more personal. I wouldn’t be able to get through this presentation without talking a little bit about the work I’ve been creating on the theme of being in lockdown and the current global health and economic crisis that we’re all facing. These are odd, incredibly worrying times and as someone who obviously regularly draws from my life and my experiences, it has definitely been making an impact on my work, but this work that I have definitely been creating just for myself has led to press in the likes of the BBC, commissions, sales in my store and has also gained a huge amount of traction online.

But more importantly, it has enabled me to, yes, express how I’m feeling which is a huge part of what I do, but also connect to a lot of people all over the world who are also struggling right now. Yeah. Creating this feeling of togetherness is probably the biggest perk of my job in my opinion, which is why it’s such a genuine privilege to be talking to you lovely people about it today. So, thanks for being here. As creatives, I think the line between work and play is so blurred that it can be really difficult to tell where work ends and your passion or the original driving force that led you into a creative career begins. I definitely feel like this all the time and it can be really hard to not feel pressure both internal and external, to make each piece worth while or perfect, whatever that actually means.

But personal projects while they definitely have their uses, don’t have to have a big purpose. In fact, I think that you could make a strong argument that if they do, it’s actually more like work. In my experience, it’s actually the work I’ve created with no application in mind that have gone on to do the best. Matisse, as I said earlier, is one of my favorite artists of all time and I drew this study of one of his paintings using the live oils in Adobe Fresco. This piece isn’t really in my usual style. The subject matter isn’t necessarily relevant to my audience and it doesn’t really have a lot of real world use. But I really enjoyed painting it and trying something different.

While this is probably just going to sit on the digital shelf for the time being, I actually gained a lot from doing it. I learnt a lot from this process. I learnt that oils don’t suit my style which is actually something really valuable to know. I think so much of a creative career is figuring out what you don’t like as well as what you do. So, because these are exceptional circumstances, it’s important to say don’t push yourself. You need all the resources you have at your disposal to get through this. We all do. Instead of setting challenging goals that may feel overwhelming, and add to an overall feeling of inadequacy, which we definitely don’t want, instead, I would love you to think about spending any excess energy you have working on something that you’re actually passionate about.

First of all, we have to figure out what that is to you. To start with, let’s write a list of some of the things that matter to you. These can be the most basic things in your life. For example, your family, nature and creative hobbies. Scribble these down on a piece of paper and pause here until you’re ready to move onto the next step. Now, we’re going to refine this list a little bit. Looking at these three categories, what are some daily tasks that mean a lot to you? For example, for me, it’s talking on the phone with family and friends, looking after my plants and making things with my hands. Pause here until you’re ready to move on.

Next up, we’re going to make it relevant to your work. By this I mean whatever creative practice is your chosen career or hobby. So, again, following the line of these examples, for me, it could be hand drawn cards that I send to family and friends, painting my plants, I love to do that or maybe even doing a sketch of my favorite craft tools, all the things I love to make. Pause the video here and once you’ve got a full list, with some quite specific ideas, press play and we can move onto the next step.

So, for now, you can just pick one thing from your list of things that you’re passionate about or that bring you joy in your life. They don’t need to be creative. It could be anything. We’re going to use that as the theme for a quick little drawing. I have chosen for my example, the joy I get for looking after my plants. Again, just in case that wasn’t obvious by my set up here. So, I am going to hop over onto my iPad Pro and I’m going to be drawing in Adobe Fresco with the Apple Pencil, but again, a plain old pencil and paper or analog art materials would be more than adequate for this as well.

So, I’m going to do this exercise starting in a blank document in Adobe Fresco. I’m just picking one of my favorite brushes, the happy HB pencil. So, to start with, I am just going to list the final three things from the last exercise we did together. The last three things in the list, I’m just going to write them in the top of my page so that I kind of know roughly where my head’s at. So, I’ve got writing hand drawn cards to send friends, doing paintings of my plants or maybe sketching some of my favorite craft tools. For the purposes of today, I’m just going to pick one of these things and I’m just going to do a little sketch, a little tiny drawing of it, inspired by the prompt above. So, I am going to pick painting my plants, as I’ve said a lot of times is one of my favorite things to do, I cover plants a lot in my work anyway, it’s just something that’s really enjoyable for me, so that’s what I’m going to do today.

So, I’m just basically picking colors from a pre-made color palette that I have saved to my Creative Cloud library and I’m just using the same HB pencil brush and again, this exercise really will work just as well if you’re using scrap paper and just one color of pen or pencil. You can really get a lot out of it and I think honestly, a lot of it is the process of focusing on the things that you enjoy. Yeah. Is kind of an excuse to think about the things that you love. So, I think that’s why I like it so much. So, despite being in the UK, and having classically rainy weather here for most of the time, I have a lot of tropical plants in my studio which you have probably noticed in the video by now.

So, to start with, I’m just drawing a little basket for this plant to sit in and I think I’m going to draw my monstera plant which is a Swiss cheese plant. It’s very fashionable. I 100% have bought into the hype, and yeah. So, I think that’s the one I’m going to draw today. So, for me, this exercise isn’t really an exercise, it’s more a chance to sit down and draw something and it really has an element of gratitude which is kind of one of the fundamentals of self care, at least in my life, it is anyway. Like I was saying earlier, just the act of sitting down and appreciating the lovely things that you do have around you can be really soothing and as a bonus, you get to draw things that you already like. So, I think that’s pretty good as far as I’m concerned.

So, now that I’ve added on some details, I am just going to resize this a little bit which obviously is the beauty of being able to draw digitally and finally, to finish off this little sketch, I’m just going to add a shadow underneath and I’m just going to add some tiny little sparkles around it. This is something that I include in my work a lot. I think it’s quite fun, especially on a really cute little sketch like this. So, yeah. So, just to list the steps to refresh your memory and so you’ve kind of got these up in front of you as you do this exercise, to start with, we’re going to list the ideas from the previous brain storming exercise in the top corner of the page, then you’re going to pick the one that’s the most interesting to you, don’t have to over think it, just the one that jumps out, and then, yeah, just sketch a little quick drawing based on that idea. You can add some sparkles at the end if you fancy. Sparkles are not mandatory. Yeah. So, you can pause it on this slide and then press play when you’re ready to carry on.

I have made this illustration with no applications in mind but that doesn’t mean that it won’t go onto be useful. As I said earlier, I could pull elements from this illustration and use them in a pattern or I could put this in my shop as a print or stickers or could do something completely unexpected. As an example. As an example this self care menu is something that I drew for myself which ended up going into some mental health care packages in my shop with a bunch of other things and I turned it into a coloring sheet. This print of garden tools is very similar to the illustration that I’ve just done. I ended up just pulling elements from it and turning it into a print. These are some wrapping paper sheets that again, I have just pulled elements from individual illustrations and turned them into something.

The point is that if you enjoy the actual act of making something, you’re golden, you’re pretty good. But then you’re also practicing your craft, you’re improving as an artist and I really firmly believe that with every single piece that you do, you improve. That’s definitely the case for me. As part of my joyful every day project with Adobe, I actually did a 100 day drawing challenge, every day for 100 days I picked something small that brought me joy and I drew it and I shared that with people. And yes, this was a great experience in terms of gratitude and focusing on things in my life that are really positive and bring me a lot of joy but oh my gosh, I grew so much as an artist, honestly. If anyone is looking to improve, I cannot recommend a 30 day or a 100 day challenge enough. I would’ve said going into it that I was fairly secure in my style as an artist but even within the first month, I saw such a drastic improvement in just again, figuring out what I actually enjoy drawing, as well as what I don’t, as I said earlier.

So, yeah, that’s a really great way of figuring out what you want to do with your creative skills if you’re feeling at a bit of a loose end. And of course, the applications and the benefits don’t just stop once you’ve made it. Things created without purpose, as I’ve said, can go onto have great real world applications as I have hopefully exampled. Not only has working on personal things improved my general wellbeing and my sanity for small things, it’s also become a great way for me to keep the dreaded artist’s block or creative burnout at bay. I really think that this is because if you figure out what you’re interested in, and what really matters to you, you can start reflecting this in your work which makes your work better and it makes you happier. It also I think gives you a greater amount of confidence in your work which, again, I think can be really, really powerful. What’s not to like, really?

As creatives, we have this incredible opportunity to express ourselves, and yes, in client work, we are filling out a brief or maybe illustrating someone else’s creative vision, but every creative choice you make down to the colors you choose, and the tools you use to make a mark, with each stroke, you are expressing a piece of yourself. I think that’s something that we should really lean into and I, again, I’m a firm believer in grabbing every opportunity for self expression, however small. In my experience, people relate to other people and while I know it can be really, really difficult to be vulnerable with people, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that everyone should build their career on mental health experience, because we all have different life experiences, but what I’m trying to say is I think showing your true self is really important. It helps you not to burn out. It really does, because I think that when you’re kind of putting on a front and trying to live up to other people’s expectations, or trying to create work that you think will do well online, for example, is a really common trap to fall into and I think this is where a lot of our creative strain comes from, creating what we think people want to see, whereas, in my experience, when I focus on the things that I want to draw and the things that I want to see from other people maybe, my work is better and it almost always gets a better response from people as well.

So, if that’s something that you’re stressed about, definitely bear that in mind. So, yeah, it’s this idea of making work that you’re actually passionate about being the key to avoiding creative burnout. God knows we all need all the help that we can get on this front. There is so much pressure on everyone at the moment just personally, let alone career wise. I think that it’s more important now than ever that we’re kind to ourselves and try and nurture that creative spark instead of forcing it, because I don’t think that that generally works, honestly. I think you just need to try and give yourself time and space and use your energy in the places that you need to first and foremost.

They say that if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. I don’t think that that’s completely accurate, but the principle definitely rings true. Don’t underestimate the power of following your passion. That really starts with figuring out the little things that really matter to you. If you have struggled to write a list of things that you’re passionate about or things that bring you joy, then feel free to revisit this tomorrow or next week or in a month’s time because I think the sooner that you can actually figure out the parts of your life that are really valuable to you, the sooner you can really start building a life for yourself that you truly love because to get soppy for a moment, life is really short and I think that we’re all worth… We owe it to ourselves to try and figure out what the best version of our life looks like.

So, let’s talk about bad ideas. We all have them. You definitely have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Again, just to talk a little bit about the digital age that we all live in, it can be really hard when, especially on Instagram or Pinterest, you’re seeing all of this polished, finished work that other people have probably spent years building up to and it’s very easy to look at things like that and reflect on your own work and feel bad about the things that you’re doing but what you don’t see behind the scenes is again, the years worth of work, the rough sketches before they actually ended up landing on that finished composition, maybe they’ve drawn it three times with a different color palette. You just don’t know the effort that goes into things.

So, again, I think it’s all about being kind to yourself and trying to only judge yourself by… Like try and use the measure of things that you enjoy as a standard for your success because I think if you’re happy, everything else is kind of secondary. Yeah. So, don’t always strive for perfection. I actually have two sketch books. I have one which is very polished and finished work and each piece is basically like a stand alone illustration and then I have an ugly sketch book which is doodles and using rubbish pencils and compositions that I would never show anyone in a million years but that really doesn’t matter and I think that having a space to really share that will yourself and kind of vent all of those creative ideas because not every idea you have is going to be a good idea and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think actually the more bad ideas you have the more good ideas you will have as well.

Again, so much of it is actually just about knowing how to tell the difference which again, is something that I think only comes with time. I know that that’s probably hard to hear but it gets easier. So, I would love to end this talk or wind down this talk on stressing the importance of giving yourself a break. This may not be the best time for you to focus on this. It may not feel like the best time to sit and think about the things that make you happy or the things that you enjoy making, but if it’s not, that time will come around again and when it does, I would love you to prioritize the work that you actually want to do, because as I said, it’s better for your career and your mental health overall. Your happiness really does matter, but this isn’t for one moment trying to down play quite how hard it is to actually take this on.

I was actually talking to someone a couple of weeks ago about how so much of my work comes from a place of insecurity but it’s incredibly positive and the reality is that a lot of the work that I create has a bit of a fake it til you make it attitude, I’ll write things like I’m a work in progress or you’re doing great and honestly, most of the time when I make work like that, it’s because I don’t really truly believe it myself but I feel like every time I write it, or every time I say it to myself, it becomes a really tiny percentage more true.

So, yeah, I would love you to just… Honestly, if you could leave this talk with one message, I’d love it to be that your happiness really does matter. So, I know that basically the whole world is under extraordinary pressures on all fronts at the moment. The most important thing is of course that you’re looking after yourself and your loved ones. Because here’s the thing, whatever you’re actually able to do at the moment is darn amazing. We are all works in progress and I think that recognizing that you can’t be switched on 100% of the time, especially at a time like this, is really important, and do you know we’ve all got extra pressures and we’re going to be able to spend less time doing our work or development work which I’m aware is all I’ve talked about today.

So, really don’t feel like you need to push yourself, because as I said earlier, the time will come around again when you do feel like you have the spare energy to work on yourself. I pitched this talk in what feels like now a very, very different time. It was originally going to be in person, in New York, but here I sit in the English countryside talking to you, but the guiding principles I think mean as much now and in some circumstances, mean more. You matter enough to prioritize your own happiness and I know we all have bigger responsibilities or limited resources right now but just taking five minutes a day can really make all the difference. This doesn’t have to be doing anything creative, but again, I’m assuming that you have signed up for 99U because you’re a creative person and I genuinely think if you sit down for five minutes every day with your ugly sketch book and draw things that no one else will ever see. I really think that that will make a big difference to your happiness and also to your artistic development as well.

So, if this talk does inspire you to create some wonderful personal work, I would really love it if you could use the hashtag #Tink99U, as I said earlier so I can see what you get up to. Again, I would’ve loved to sit in a classroom and watch you all create wonderful things, but I can’t wait to see the things that do bring you joy and hear what you’re excited about. So, please do share them if you feel comfortable with them. Something that has really been bringing me joy in these dark times recently is I actually started a positive newsletter called The Nice Times. It’s a lighthearted, creative look at some of the wonderful things that are happening in the world and the wonderful things that wonderful people are doing at the moment in this time of crisis for so many people. So, yeah, if you fancy a weekly dose of positivity to your inbox, then feel free to sign up.

I really hope that you have enjoyed this work shop. Of course, we are recording this ahead of time but if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. I would love to hear from you. Yeah. You can find all my contact information on my website.

So, from the English countryside, I’ve been Tink and you have been quiet but wonderful. Massive thank you to 99U for having me of course and I really look forward to us all being together in the same room and talking about wonderful creative things again some day soon. Thank you so much.

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