It’s Good to be "Bad"

Thursday March 18, 2010 by Tiffany Meyers,

Posted in: Stimulating Creativity

Illustrator Penelope Dullaghan on how to cure a creative rut by playing with nature and "ugly" art, and stepping outside your comfort zone.

Award-winning illustrator Penelope Dullaghan, whose clients include Target, Oprah Magazine and United Airlines, has a serious case of creative wanderlust. It's hard to say if it's instinct or habit, but the illustrator (whose close friends call her Penny) constantly explores new ways of making art.

Her art-making assignments-which she gives to herself and to her students-are designed to beat creative ruts before they even set in. "It's like breaking up ice on the surface of a lake," Dullaghan says.

Posting many of her assignments on her blog (Dullaghan also founded IllustrationFriday, a participatory site for artists of all stripes), and inviting others to participate, she doesn't worry if these experiments yield "good" or "bad" work. "Sometimes, creative experiments are ugly failures and that's just what they are," she says. "But failures are good learning experiences."

Case in point: She once scribbled in frustration on a piece of "ugly" art and tossed it aside. Later, she saw an attractive quality in the very scribbles she'd used to cancel the piece out. Today, those scribbles are a signature part of her work.

Dullaghan, who has taught at Chicago's Columbia College and the New Hampshire artists' retreat, Squam, offers the following methods to discover new ways of seeing and (thanks to her Zen attitude) of being.

Earth Art


Dullaghan's Earth Art class at Squam started with a short meditation during which students selected a resonant word. Next, they went outside with instructions to interpret that word in the surrounding woods. "I find that just getting outside spurs creativity," says Dullaghan, who based this exercise on the work of Andy Goldsworthy: Nature would eventually destroy the work. (Click here to read the instructions and see the students' work.)

One of Dullaghan's favorites was "Kirsten's Space." Kirsten had interpreted the word "space" by creating a giant silhouette of a bird, wings open, in a vast field of grass. The work was a reaction to the artist's desire to draw more space, both in the physical and emotional sense, into her life.


By working with tangible objects-from leaves to sticks to stones-students got beyond the idea that visual art lives only in the painting and drawing realm. They also appreciated the "time off," says Dullaghan. "Time to think about what they wanted to express. Time to plan their ideas on paper. Time to execute concepts. And time to share their results with fellow students."

Prior to teaching the exercise in class, Dullaghan did the assignment herself. It drove home the fact that there are always many more ways to execute an idea than one might initially think. "The same is true for commercial work, as well as life itself," she says. "There are always multiple answers."

Cut Paper


Coat a piece of 8.5x11-inch printer paper with thin black ink. Then, randomly cut it up into various shapes. Arrange those shapes into a new piece of art. No rules but for one: You can't add anything but the black paper shapes.


From a formal perspective, the tight limitations of this self-assignment distracted Dullaghan from fretting over the finished product. Instead, it kept a laser beam focus on shape and principles of composition. The assignment also broke up Dullaghan's habits by creating a piece of art that had nothing to do with her usual style.

Document your Day


Take multiple snapshots of an average day in your life-from the moment you wake up to the time you crawl into bed. Try first or third-person perspectives and unexpected angles. "I'm no photographer," she says. "And I don't even try to be." And yes, that is the point.

"I think it's important to try different kinds of art," Dullaghan says. "To try photography if you're an illustrator; drawing or writing if you're a photographer."

Click here to see Penelope's Day-in-the-Life assignment.


Dullaghan executed the self-assignment with straightforward snaps she describes as "kind of ugly." She used a cheap digital camera to record her daily routine. But when she invited her blog readers to try the assignment, a range of approaches came flooding in.

Some artists took an artful approach, achieving an otherworldly aesthetic. Some took simple snaps with their cellphones. Others took it a step further and made a vignette for each day of the week, like Melanie Ford Wilson's piece.

Make "Bad" Art


Paint some bad paintings. Draw some bad drawings. "The uglier or more naive the better," says Dullaghan, who cut paper into 6x6-inch squares, creating a new piece in a short amount of time. "Nothing too thought-out," she says. "Just doing."

Dullaghan started this self-assignment at a time when she was on the verge of burning out. "This gave me a chance to explore mediums and remind myself that this whole art thing doesn't need to be taken so seriously all the time," she says. "Bad art is the same as good art. Detach from the outcome."


Dullaghan didn't expect the process would loosen her up to the extent that it did. But it gave her a much-needed sense of freedom and perspective. "Commercial work always involves specific problem solving and creating something beautiful for clients," she says. "Not caring about the finished piece was liberating."

A gallery later showed some of these "bad" mini-paintings. Not only did people receive them well, says Dullaghan. The gallery actually sold a few.

Scare Yourself


When Dullaghan was asked to be guest artist on the website, she didn't want to do the expected, which is to say, an illustration or two. She wanted a challenge. And she certainly found one.

Dullaghan decided to learn animation, which isn't the kind of thing you pick up casually. In fact, during the first stage of the project she panicked a bit, since none of the many approaches she took panned out. Finally, she landed on the oldest approach to the art form: frame-by-frame, cel animation.


As a yoga practitioner, Dullaghan created the animation based on a passage by Donna Farhi, an internationally renowned yoga teacher. In the text, Farhi underscores the principles of staying detached from the surrounding drama of the world.

"Today it is rainy, but somehow the sky does not become wet," Farhi writes. "Tomorrow it is sunny, but the sky doesn't ignite into flames. The next day there is an exciting show of thunder and lightning, yet no one rushes around trying to repair the sky."

Click on this image and think of that passage while watching Dullaghan's "Moving Through" animation.

Art Prompts

For Dullaghan's Mixed Media Journaling class at Squam, she wrote a series of prompts on note cards. Students selected one each day for their journal entry:

  • Find your reflection in a mirror, body of water or a window. Draw a self-portrait.
  • Draw how big you feel in relation to everything around you.
  • Change is the only constant. Let that inspire you. Are you stuck on some specific idea, event or thought in your life? Write or draw the ways you can redirect that situation. Be honest.
  • Make a square color swatch for every color you see right now.
  • Collect things today. That can include blades of grass, receipts, names of people you bump into or whatever. Glue them into your journal.
  • Write a love letter to the scene around you. Be really mushy about it.
  • Lie on the ground and imagine a six-foot circle around you. Imagine that circle beneath you, above you and at your side. Draw what's inside.
  • Meet someone new today. Ask them to tell you a story or joke. Record it.

NOTE: If you want to learn more about Penelope Dullaghan, read Tiffany Meyers' profile of her in the Communications Arts January/February 2010 issue.