The Dark Side Of Inktober: A fun challenge, or problematic burnout trap?
Inktober recently came under controversy for the alleged plagiarism of another artist, as well as the issue of "Inktober" itself trademarked by its creator, Jake Parker. While I'll cover those topics briefly, those aren't the issues I have with the annual art challenge. As far as I understand it, according to the Inktober website, the trademark applies only to products titled "Inktober + year", or those using Parker's original logo. Artists are allowed to use the name as a subtitle, or reference the challenge in other ways, and this does not seem an outrageous request. I am uneasy on the issue of plagiarism, as this has not yet been proved or disproved, and is not for me (or the internet) to decide.
Alphonso Dunn, author of Pen & Ink Drawing, created a video comparing his book with the Amazon previews of Inktober All Year Long, which appears to accuse Parker of copying his work. Pen & Ink Drawing is a wonderful book on learning to draw with ink, and it is understandable that Dunn is upset at the thought that his work might be stolen. However, it is more professional to contact the publisher and/or lawyers directly to resolve the situation, and then take the matter public later if necessary. As expected, the internet artist community responded swiftly and aggressively, without collecting appropriate evidence or waiting for either publishers or lawyers to look into the case and make a decision. I find it disturbing that someone can be so quickly "cancelled", regardless of the situation. I don't say this to attempt to silence or 'white knight' anyone but to point out how things should be handled in a fair and just system. Perhaps I'm completely wrong, and it's more democratic this way, as there's no guarantee of a fair trial, but it makes me uneasy all the same.
So, if Inktober 2020 is cancelled, why the need for this post? Because although this drama might create a dent in its popularity, I believe Inktober is still happening, either through fans and media outlets that don't know or care about the controversy, or just rebranded under a different name, such as Artober, or any one of hundreds of October drawing challenges. Alternative challenges pop up every year in a bid for artists to increase their reach as they provide prompts to a small following, establishing mini art communities. There are benefits to these challenges, as well as things to avoid, so read on if you are wondering whether or not to take part this year.
Drawing challenges can be a great way to learn a new medium, build a daily drawing habit, push your creativity in thinking up new concepts, or stop overthinking art projects and just finish something! For this reason, Inktober and other art challenges are a wonderful choice for amateurs, students and hobbyists. A professional artist exploring a new medium does not wait for the excuse to start drawing in ink; they just do it. An artist creates because they love the act of creation, and to not do it feels like something important is cut off. If you need to push yourself to make art, either you are working too hard and need a break, or art isn't for you – and that's ok! It would be better to use that limited willpower for something that can actually help you or other people, or find a hobby you do like. If the idea of completing a thirty-one day art challenge genuinely excites you, you don't need to wait until October. Start now, for yourself, and share your results if you'd like to.
I used to think the challenge would be a great way to meet like-minded artists and take on a challenge as a community, but it didn't feel that way in reality. Unless you collaborate with another artist (or even a team), you are working solo on a project that feels distant to others, leaving you only with the accountability of whether or not you have completed the task that day. There are enough tight deadlines in the professional working environment, and I prefer to give myself more time for personal work, to enjoy it rather than seeing it as a chore.
The community aspect of the challenge also undermines the notion of making fast drawings just for fun, for ten minutes a day. It's too easy to compare your work to others. The highly competitive nature of art challenges quickly leads to burnout and frustration. It's difficult to focus on a finished piece of work every day, switching ideas each time, wondering if your idea is clever enough, or if your skill is good enough compared to your peers. Every time you log on to social media to post that day's work, you are bombarded with other art accounts posting theirs, and it's harder than usual not to count your comments and likes. I used to berate myself for never making it past day 14 of the challenge each year, when I realised it wasn't just me. The system is set up for failure, much in the way a diet is. I don't think Inktober ever intended to end up this way, and I think social media algorithms are more at fault than the challenge itself. However, Inktober and other challenges rarely address these issues, and even release the daily prompts a month in advance, encouraging artists to turn the marathon challenge into a 62-day burnout session, the first month sketching out concepts and roughs, and the second month inking or finalising artwork, appearing to their own followers like they are supernaturally fast, and adding to the comparison issue further down the line, and prompting non-artists to assume all artwork is created quickly and easily. It's not healthy for artists to value productivity and quantity over work-life balance like this.
Taken too seriously, Inktober is a distraction from creating artwork that really serves you and your audience. If you are an artist that primarily works in ink, selling prints directly to your customers, that's one thing – but if you are a painter selling original artwork through galleries, or a graphic designer focused on creative packaging, does it really make sense to do this challenge? On one hand, yes – fifteen to thirty minutes a day creating freely in a different medium will definitely spark your ideas, and might provide a new avenue to explore, in line with the original aims of the challenge. On the other hand, if you are spending over an hour each day doing this in addition to a job (or most of your working day as an artist), you might be better off spending that time researching and creating work with more relevance to your ultimate goals. Not only are you creating work solely for social media, you are also putting aside your own thoughts, values and creativity, to join in a trend that is so full of the Inktober 2020 hashtag that your work is quickly buried and unseen in a pile of similar work, particularly if you use the Inktober prompts.
A lot of artists use Instagram and Twitter to get exposure, but social media can have detrimental effects on concentration levels, self esteem, and loneliness – things that often affect creative people at the best of times. Eric Posner, a prolific US law professor, advocates for law professionals to stop wasting time on social media, arguing that it will not establish recognition:
“It’s a classic mistake…you think you’re going to get name recognition, and you’ll get known, because you’re sending out these really clever and incisive tweets that are going to get the attention of the world. But you’ve forgotten that a thousand other people are doing exactly the same thing.”
Like law professionals, creatives need to put aside time for deep work, not constantly chasing every trend out there.
Instead of doing what everyone else is doing, why not do the opposite? For a simple example, if other artists are illustrating in black and white, be the artist that creates something very colourful that stands out. Or get together with a group of artists or other students, and divide the drawings between you, for example a group of six people making five artworks each, with the last one a mashup of every member's art, with the intent to publish a mini book or zine. This way, you all have more time to complete the challenge, and you can focus on the whole project as a group. That's definitely something I'd like to explore in the future!
I'm not against art challenges themselves, just the unhealthy nature and stereotype of sleep-deprived artist that seems to go hand-in-hand with them, and want to break the cycle. If I do the challenge this year, I intend to separate it from social media and fully finished works of art completely, and I invite you to do the same. Use it as a warm-up for other work, set a timer, and if you want to share it, post it to Instagram stories that have less pressure attached to them than posts in your main feed. You could also collect the work in one blogpost at the end, documenting your experiences of the challenge.