Johanna Basford's sabbatical diary, week 1: kicking off 4 months without commissions

Johanna Basford has just begun a four-month sabbatical from paid work to concentrate on making herself a better artist, illustrator and all-round creative person.

The artist is best-known for hand-drawn black-and-white artworks that have appeared on wallpaper in Starbucks and Susan Boyle's album cover. An advocate for using personal work to push your boundaries to find things that can later be used in commissioned projects, Johanna has set herself a wide range of tasks for her four-months – and none of them involve watching Homes Under The Hammeror sleeping til lunchtime (as far as we know). She aims to attend courses and learn new mental and creative processes – possibly adding skills in calligraphy or letterpress – and she's got a new book out from Laurence King too (though this was finished before the sabbatical). Another book is due out in May, along with an exhibition of Johanna's work too.

Every week Johanna aims to publish a diary entry, which we'll be running on Digital Arts so you can follow the ups and downs – hopefully mainly ups – as she pushes her creativity and vision into new areas.

Week One

It's been a funny first week: funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.

After months of build-up, January finally arrived and I kicked off my four-month sabbatical. I cleared my desk, did the obligatory New Year pen cull, set the email responder to "The studio is now closed till 1st May 2013 (seriously!)...", wrote the mother of all to-do lists and did some star jumps.

I've taken Sagmeister's sabbatical advice and planned my 4 months. The idea of drifting aimlessly from one week to the next brings me out in a rash.

I like a plan.

I've got a broad plan of what I want to achieve each month. At the start of each month, I write four weekly plans. At the start of each week, I write seven daily plans. At the start of each morning, I update that day's plan. I'm not talking mega specific, but a list of to-do's or aims to be completed within each time slot.

As I said, I like a plan.

I got off to a good start. I began work on a super-sized illustration that I've been longing to create. Scaling up is one thing I really want to tackle during the sabbatical. Big drawings take lots of time.

And I was listening to Flourish by Martin Seligman. I bought this audiobook last year after listening to a feature on Radio 4 about his work about 'Positive Psychology', but struggled to get past disc one. It's pretty heavy going.

(I'm still listening, so I'll post my thoughts on it as soon as I'm done.)

And then, disaster struck!

Flu. Or possibly a bad cold (I can be a bit dramatic). But combined with a migraine, it wiped me out for several days.

This was my own fault. I hadn't been taking my vitamins, eating well, exercising or getting enough sleep. Prior to the sabbatical I'd been working crazy long days to finish all my client work. Then Christmas and the inevitable guilt-fuelled frenzy to see all the family and friends I'd neglected throughout the year.

Needless to say, I laughed death in the face and am now back in the studio. (Told you, dramatic)

The main lesson here is one of well-being:

  • Drink plenty water
  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Get some sunshine
  • Laugh
  • Take a multivitamin
  • Stretch

It's all too easy to just put your head down and power through till you burn out. But burn out you will, and nothing hampers a speedy recovery like a to-do list on the bedside table.

Freelancer well-being is definitely something I'm going to look into. Whether it's yoga at your desk or a Berocca between Skype calls, looking after yourself undoubtedly allows you to function more effectively; be more creative, engaged and just make better work.

So, it's the end of Week One and I've:

  • Cheated death
  • Vowed to be a bit less dramatic
  • Resolved to prioritise my wellbeing
  • Mapped out my Sabbatical plan
  • Set my targets for January
  • Did some filming for my Wonderbeasts project, launching in Feb
  • Started a supersized illustration (more on this next week)
  • Begun listening to Flourish
  • Posted (almost daily) snaps of my desk to mydesktoday
  • Learned where the # symbol is on my keyboard (thanks Twitter)
  • Begun my daily sabbatical diary

My first full week begins tomorrow, so after a somewhat shaky start, it's full steam ahead.

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