Research and Development 

I have a lot of people asking me if I have any writing/drawing tips, or what they can do to improve.  I have a long way to go, but I can tell you what I’ve done to get better.  And if you’ve seen the early years of this blog…you know I’ve gotten waaaay better.  Lol.

I’ve condensed what’s helped me–with writing, drawing, and story–into five basic tips.  I know that if you use them in your work & life, you’ll be surprised at how fast you get better!  They’ve really worked for me.


  1.  Gather References

The first tip is to gather references–bits of media that you can refer to in order to improve your projects.  There are a lot of ways you can gather references:


A page of my favorite book, “Going Postal” by Terry Pratchett.

  • Take notes in the margins and highlight the parts of books you think are done well.
  • Create Pinterest boards for picture files & project reference. {It doesn’t have to be Pinterest–it can just be in a file on your computer–but Pinterest is a great place to do it.}
  • Brainstorm and write down new ideas based on a project idea you have–then google image search {or Pinterest search} each idea.
  • Research everything you can about your project through nonfiction books, documentaries, and other media studies.
  • Study & watch both stories and movies that are relevant to your project.

Gathering references helps me stretch my brain and discover ways to do things I might not have thought of before.  Every time I’ve taken a lot of effort to gather references, the project turns out much better, and I improve exponentially.


  1.  Practice Every Day

Every morning at 5:00 am, my mother would sit with me at the piano and have me go through each song five times.  Thanks to her, I grew from a kid who only knew “Heart and Soul” {you all know it} to someone who can sit down at the piano and sightread mostly anything.  {Thanks mom :)}

But it took years of practice.  Drawing and writing are the same way–a person needs to practice every day to improve.  All of the ideas below are the equivalent of practicing scales on the piano.

  • Take a sentence from a random book and write a scene with your own characters based on it.
  • Pick a random picture on the internet and create a short story {either in boards or prose} based on it.
  • Have a blog/tumblr and update it regularly with your story or art work.
  • Find a picture {or prose} style you want to recreate with a new setting or character.
  • Write down the plot outline of your favorite book or movie and figure out the narrative markers {like inciting incident, climax, etc.}, motifs, and structure of the strongest scenes.
  • Fill out a page of sketchbook every day drawing pictures from your picture file. {1 hour a day works wonders.}

Practice drawing from life and favorite artists

  • Speedpaint
  • Write in a journal every night–and pick a theme to write the day’s entry under.
  • Fanart and fanfiction {Really a great way to practice!}

You can probably think of even more ways to practice on your own.  I wish I’d known how to practice this stuff when I was a younger…I’d be so much further ahead.


  1.  Be Aware

We’ve all been the artist or writer who thinks their stuff is the cat’s pajamas, only to later realize it’s pretty terrible.  The best way to avoid that is to always be looking for flaws and ways to improve.  Here are a few ideas on how to stay grounded:

  • Always have the mindset that your work needs improving.
  • Take a couple days off of working on the project, then return to it with fresh eyes–it’s easier to see the flaws with some distance.
  • Ask someone you respect {art/story-wise} for ways to improve your work.
  • Make a list of flaws you know you have in other areas of your life, and evaluate how these flaws are crossing over and affecting your story and artwork.  {You’d be surprised, but they do.}  Make a list of things you need to do to eliminate them.
  • Avoid criticizing others’ work–that’s valuable time you could spend scrutinizing and improving your own work.

This step is usually what causes creative depression–the awareness that you’re falling short. It can be incredibly discouraging. But it’s also a necessary step in becoming better.  When I’m proactive and find new ways to fix a problem, not only am I able to move forward out of the creative slump, but I’ve learned and improved in the craft. And it sure is a whole lot easier to face and fix your flaws when you’re looking for them, versus having them slapped in your face.


  1.  Be Proactive

This step is what will get you out of the creative slump.  Mostly this step is just

  • Work

But here are few extra things that’ve helped me:

  • Get up early and get straight to work–don’t surf on the phone/computer, because that sets your pace for the rest of the day
  • Make and follow a schedule every day
  • Mostly use the internet as a tool instead of an entertainment
  • Instead of complaining, figure out creative ways to fix problems
  • Go the extra mile

I have a story for those last two tips.  I was trying to pitch an animated short to several clients.  They read the script pitch but weren’t interested–and moved on.  I was disappointed because I really felt like it was a good, strong story.

There were a lot of reasons for me to complain at that point, but I chose instead to be proactive.  I analyzed the situation.  I realized that if the clients could see what I saw in my head, they’d be all for it.  So on my own time, I storyboarded an animatic and re-pitched the piece with music and sound.

Not only did it get full approval–but they made me the director!  Needless to say, it was an amazing opportunity.  Being proactive about that situation returned more than I ever could have expected.


  1.  Put First Things First

Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Sebastien Gallego, both my digital painting teacher and kind friend.  On the last day of our painting class, he gave us a farewell gift of photoshop brushes & a CD of his picture file, along with the counsel:

“Above all, be a good person.  Don’t be like Norman Rockwell, who spent all his time in his studio painting pictures of happy families, and never spent any time with his own.”

One thing I’ve noticed in my life is that if my priorities aren’t straight, my soul–and in consequence, my work–suffers.  Figure out what is really important to you, and strive to live it with integrity.  This is the most important step of all.


And now…Answers to art/writing Questions I am often asked!

Q:  I can draw and paint by hand, but I really want to move to digital.  What do I need to do?
A:  This is an excellent question–especially if you’re wanting to become a professional artist.  Most artists now work digitally, and so do I!  I love it.

To move to digital, you’ll need two things–a drawing tablet, and Photoshop.  Drawing tablets can range anywhere from $50 to $2000.  If you’re just beginning, you’ll want to start with a Wacom Bamboo or Splash tablet–both of which are less than $100, and do a great job.  You will definitely need to get Photoshop–it is expensive, but it’s pretty much what everyone uses.  If you’re a student, you can get it for $120 a year, which isn’t bad.  {Well, comparatively.  I know what it’s like to pinch pennies.}  If you’re drawing all the time and want to move forward, it’s definitely something you’ll need.

On the ipad Pro, Procreate is a drawing program that’s pretty popular right now, and photoshop-compatible.  The software is $10.  While I still recommend learning Photoshop, Procreate is a great and affordable way to get into the digital world.

From there on out, it’s just learning the program through trial and error.  There are classes you can take that can help you get familiar with the software, or a lot of Youtube videos to help you out.  I’m self-taught in Photoshop and most of my knowledge has come from messing around in it, and asking friends how they did stuff.

Q:  How did you get your novel published?  What’s the best path for me?
A: I’m not a great person to ask about the publishing world, because I don’t know a lot about it.  “Entwined” was published because I went to a writing conference with a friend, and met both my soon-to-be editor and agent there, who read my work and liked it.  They liked it, though, because I’d spent years working on it.  So the take away from that is to work hard at the things you can control {like writing and revising your story} and then letting the other stuff come organically.  When it comes to getting a book out there, the publishing part is the just the tip of the iceberg.

One thing to definitely keep in mind is that both the art and the writing world are “crock-pot” careers–it takes a lot of time concentrating on the craft before you can see much success.  It took me years after graduating with my degree in animation to get a job at Disney–I totally wasn’t good enough.  But hey, if a crummy artist like me can get good enough, there’s hope for everyone!

If you’re wondering what your path should be, you should ask yourself what your goals are.  Are you wanting to share stories with your family and friends?  Make money?  Speak at schools and libraries?  All these will affect how you get your story out there, whether it’s indie, traditional, or hybrid.


Q:  How did you get to Disney Interactive?  How can *I* become a Disney artist?
A:  Practice Practice Practice!

{That’s what I tell my nieces and nephews.  They hate it.  Hahaha.}

That’s really what it takes, though.  If you follow the steps above, it will put you on the right path.  Another part of the path is finding the school that’s right for you.  Do a lot of research and study, and ask a lot of professional artists about their path.  I was fortunate enough to go to BYU, which had an excellent animation program.  If you’re hoping to go into animation, a school like BYU is a great option.  If you live in Utah, SLCC and UVU also offer classes in animation.

{Side note–if you want to go to BYU but don’t think your grades are good enough, you can write a letter of appeal to the admissions office and have a much better chance of getting in!  My grades were awful but thankfully BYU  took a chance on me.  I totally didn’t deserve it–but I’m very, very grateful.}

Unless they have a really good rep, I’d avoid expensive art schools.  A lot of them are way too expensive and don’t offer anything much better than what you’d get at other schools–plus you don’t want to start your life with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

After I graduated, I worked at several different studios and with a lot of different artists, and worked hard at doing a good job and improving.  Eventually that’s what led me to Disney Interactive.  I still have a lot to learn, but it has been a great adventure and I have no regrets.  I know that if you work at improving yourself and the craft, you’ll be well on your way.

Q:  My parents are really unsupportive of my dream to become a writer/artist!  What do I do?
A:  First of all:  don’t dis on your parents.  They probably have a good reason for all that.  Both art and writing are hard to get steady, good-paying work in–especially if a person is mediocre at it.  In my case, I was both a crummy artist and hadn’t proved to my parents that I was serious–so obviously they were afraid I was going to return from college and end up living in their basement!  {Every parent’s nightmare.}

If you want your parents to support your dream, you need to quit making it a dream and prove that you’re serious about it.  For example:

  • Take on extra hours babysitting or mowing lawns to earn up enough money for Photoshop or take an online art class.
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time drawing, learning software, etc.  Skip your lunch.  Don’t hang out with friends.  Stay off of the internet.  Spend at least 1 hour a day practicing–and more time on projects.
  • Help your parents with their art projects {like when they have to make flyers or posters or something–you offer to make it for them.  Parents love that.}  Volunteer your art services in the community.
  • When you get good enough, offer to do commissions online through tumblr or deviantart.  When your parents see that you’re starting to make money off of your work, it may change their minds.
  • Have a realistic plan for your schooling.  Spending 100k on art school is a terrible idea, of course your parents will dissuade you from doing that.  If they didn’t, they’d be crummy parents!  Find an affordable school and make a plan of how you’ll be able to pay for it.

This is just ideas for if you’re an artist, but they same kind of thing also applies to writing.  Prove you’re serious and dedicated.  At the very least, they’ll recognize that you’re a hard worker, and that will get you a lot further than just being a good artist.