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!