Shop Talk

The Importance of Self-Imposed Deadlines

One of the most daunting tasks of a creative life is trying to look into the future, see what it is you want, and set out on that path.

What is it you see? A gallery exhibit with a body of work all your own? A client list you’d love to brag about? A sought after inventory full of prints and t-shirts?

When you’re starting out, the distance from here to there is epic.

Back in a different life, my goal was to write scripts in Hollywood. I moved to Los Angeles and got a job at a production office. I read scripts and did the everyday business of an entry-level writer, the duties of an unpaid internship.

In that world what you’ll often hear is that you need to write a script every three months. Each year you should have at least, at least, four new scripts ready to hand out to any willing reader. It’s the body of work you need – if someone doesn’t like that horror script, you have more ready to go, a few comedies. Dramas. You just need more. Always more.

From that experience I picked up a method to build a body of work, create non-stop and avoid absolute burn out. For me, it was a steady calendar of deadlines.

For films, there are always festivals to submit your work to. I’d turn to their submission deadlines to get the heat I needed to finish on time. When it comes to illustration, design, and photographic work, similar deadlines exist.

"A thousand ghosts" by JoniWaffle


People are always looking for that perfectly unique gift, and there are so many options for you to upload your work to new iPhone 6 casesduvet covers, tote bags, throw pillows, t-shirts, wall art, greeting cards, and more.

Before each holiday, set out to have at least one new item ready to get that Redbubble store stocked. Put an ad on your Facebook artist page (you have one, right?) letting your audience know you have the perfect Christmas, Hanukkah, Mother’s Day, or Easter gift or greeting card.

You can even consider creating decorations, like the great Halloween pillow, “Ghosts party” by shizayats here.

"Ghosts party" by shizayats

Or you can make it a more personal deadline – your Dad’s birthday coming up? Create an original work just for him. Go ahead and put it in your store and help out those other daughters and sons looking for something special for Dad.

The holidays can act as another form of deadline too. Around the holidays life gets hectic. Even with a bit more free time the days tend to fill up with temporary obligations. An influx of family and scheduled dinners. Trips to the airport and long weekend getaways.

Since you’re not going to get much done during the holiday time, use the holiday itself as a deadline.

With Thanksgiving coming up there’ll be grandparents, uncles, aunts — all of the various members of the blood line running around, so make it a plan to say, “by time it’s Thanksgiving I will have this project done.”

Bonus: When visiting family asks that dreaded question, “How’s your art going?” you get to show off that finished painting rather than iPhone photos of a blank canvas.

"Changes" by Chris Wahl


First, a simple warning. Competitions and contests do not determine, or decide, if your work has value. If you don’t win – who cares? The suggestion is only meant as a way to give you deadlines to work towards. That “end in sight” some of us need.

If illustration is your game, the Communications Arts Illustration Competition is one of the biggest in the field. Their next deadline for submissions is January 23, 2015.

There are countless other contests, both big and small, local and international. Find some that appeal to you and mark down those submission dates, whether you really intend to submit or not.

Gallery Submissions

If competitions aren’t your thing, use a gallery’s submission rules as a form of deadline. One of my favorite local galleries, Gauntlet Gallery in San Francisco, asks that artists submit at least three examples of their work. Not a true deadline, but a goal to work towards that aids in building up a sizable portfolio.

"The Best Deadline is Guilt" by Io Devany


Starting a project with another artist can be tricky, but if you know they’re waiting for you to get your part of it done, you’ll be more inclined to finish.

This can backfire of course. You forget to do your part, they don’t check in, vice versa and before you know it, the project is dead. But don’t focus on that part of it. There are a lot of successful art duos out there, so why not give it a shot and see if it works for you?


Is a friend’s band putting out a record? Offer to make the cover. Offer to design that birthday card, that flyer. Use someone else’s deadline as your own.

"deadline" by saouide

This isn’t to say that all an artist needs is a giant body of work – that alone doesn’t mean much, but with each project you get a little better, learn a little more. Each project tossed up online is another chance to reach another person, gain a fan. Build an audience. Deadlines have a way of aiding in that. Keeping you motivated.

Not everyone needs a deadline, but most of us have those nights where we’re watching TV rather than making something. It’s those moments when a deadline can be a real benefit, the simple push we need to get up and take action – pull out the paints, the pens; to sit at the computer and do what we do best, create.