Ellen Porteus: Illustrator and animator
With a host of impressive clients such as Facebook, Apple, Adidas, and The New York Times, knowing how much to take on can be a puzzling balancing act for freelance illustrator and animator Ellen Porteus.
“The last five years of freelance have been a learning curve. I now try to cap my workload to four jobs at one time. Even if they are small, thinking creatively still takes up a lot of your brain capacity.”
Working from her beautiful home in Abbotsford has meant daily habits have become easier to stick to compared to when she was working in a studio environment.
“I wasn't eating properly, I wasn't exercising, I wasn't sleeping, I would just work constantly. I realised I needed to reset the way I was prioritising things, so I moved into a home studio to focus on myself and develop some self-care habits.”
While self-care activities such as writing a to-do list before bed each night, exercising daily, avoiding eating lunch at your desk, and making time for relationships is the ideal many working from home aspire to, as Ellen reminds us, every day is a work in progress.
“Things go wrong all the time and I struggle with projects or taking on too much. I'm trying to have variety in my day and work so I don't burn out or feel stagnant.”
A day in the life of Ellen Porteus
I’m not really a morning person – I’ll wake up around eight o’clock and head to a nine o'clock exercise class nearby.
By the time I get back home it’s mid-morning and I'm ready to go. I’ll usually start with answering any important emails and then look at my to do list.
I usually have at least one deadline a day – a client project is often broken into smaller chunks so it's far less daunting. Some days will be labour-heavy days where I’ll be drawing or animating. Other days are more idea-focused, so I'll be coming up with concepts for a brief, either thinking up ideas in my head or sitting down with a pen and paper.
If I'm thinking about a project – be it in the shower, while taking a walk, or talking it out with other people – I don't see that as procrastination. Procrastination for me is online shopping!
I’ll often have a home-cooked lunch or I'll go to Victoria Street and get a Bánh mì.
My partner is also self-employed, so sometimes he's at home and we'll both work downstairs together and then have lunch together.
One of the benefits of working from home is being able to fit in the self-care stuff – it's easier to exercise because you don’t need to commute with a backpack of gym clothes.
The work tends to flow on from the morning. I don't divide my day into X amount of time for sketching or X amount of time for admin, I just allow myself do whatever needs to be done over the course of the day.
I try to keep the days just for work, but if I'm really in a rut, I'll go and see a friend, or head to NGV or something that still feels inspiring and creative, but gets me away from my desk.
I try to finish working by six o’clock. What has helped give me that stop time is setting aside time for dinner. It’s no longer just a half an hour break before getting back to work – it's going to the shops to get ingredients, cooking, and sitting down at the dinner table and talking.
There's nothing too structured happening after dinner – I leave it free to just do whatever I feel like – if that’s getting some work done so I can sleep a bit better at night, then I'll do that. If it's just totally relaxing and having some drinks at the pub or watching Netflix, then I'll do that.
Before bed I’ll write my to-do list so I know what I need to do as soon as I sit down the next day.
I need lots of sleep – I just bought one of those memory foam pillows, which I can't believe I didn't do years ago because it's so good.
Next, I think I need an alarm clock so I can put my phone in another room at night because I dislike getting up in the morning and scrolling through Instagram before I'm fully awake.
Behind the scenes
On carving out time for personal work…
Self-development can only really happen when you do your own work that's totally self-initiated – side projects and personal work is so important to the development of your practice and your artistic development.
I might block out a month where I don't take on any commercial work and I just work on personal work. I find that's the easiest way to do it rather than to integrate it into my working week. I’m lucky enough that I've had enough work coming through consistently that I have the confidence to take that time off and know it’s all going to be fine.
On saying no…
If you find it difficult to say no to work opportunities, I find it helps to think about what you can use that time to do instead. I’ll often think, ‘Okay, this job is pretty well paid, but it's for a company that I don't really like. I'm going to say no to that but I'm going to use that time instead to work on a personal piece or work towards a goal that I have.’
I know it's hard because when you're starting out you need the money or experience – the luxury to say no often comes from such a privileged position. Certainly, when I started out, I wasn't saying no to anything really. Unless it really didn't align with my morals. Time is a luxury.
On moving through a creative rut…
Every part of what I'm doing is a work in progress. As much as I can summarise my work and day in a neat little package, there are so many struggles with being an artist or a freelancer and I've burnt out a few times.
When I was at the studio, I didn't realise at the time but looking back I had so little energy because I had been working nonstop for a year. I didn't want to go into work, I didn't want to do the work, I was just being really negative about everything.
When you burnout, it's almost like you decrease your battery capacity – you might have started with a full battery, but you can't quite recharge to 100% and you have to switch to battery-saver mode just to keep it going as it will only last a couple of hours.
Moving into the home studio helped, as did looking at the kind of work that I was taking on. I've been working more in real life spaces doing murals and installations. Creating that variety and getting that balance right can really help recharge you.
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