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A lockdown ‘Draw-Along’. A personal experience of creativity on health and wellbeing and my top tips

My first virtual live session took place on Wednesday 18th March, the week before schools closed and a full lockdown was looming. Many families were hastily beginning to self-isolate and as I was now working from home, the idea of a filming a virtual ‘Draw-Along’ on Facebook and YouTube had emerged earlier in the week. My aim was to make the daily sessions fun, but purposeful for children to connect and feel part of a ‘Jessi Illustrates’ community, whilst giving parents a small slice of respite. As I began to make plans, I remember thinking ‘This is going to be a really fun couple of weeks.’

15 weeks later, with many, many varied drawings filling my house, I had built an active creative community and felt a huge sense of achievement. I had hoped that the ‘Draw-Alongs’ would improve creativity and support wellbeing for children and families. I knew this had been achieved through regular appreciative messages, interaction through live sessions and seeing the amazing work the children posted. But I didn’t realise how much it would support my own personal mental health during these unprecedented times

Whilst children developed new skills and built confidence, I was learning film and editing skills and how to navigate Facebook live and YouTube Studio. Whilst parents were relieved at half an hour of respite, the ‘Draw-Alongs’ gave me the drive to get up, dressed and prepared for each session. Although I was also working from home and home schooling, my daily sessions gave me a sense of purpose, as in ‘normal’ life I am a ‘can-do’ sort of person, with my diary full to the brim. Running the ‘Draw-Alongs’ was helping to fill my day and I felt I was playing my very small part in response to this extremely large pandemic. By the 5th week I reduced videos to three a week to make balancing work and home-schooling a little more manageable. It was also now clear I would be running the sessions for quite some time. So, I pre-recorded videos on Monday and Wednesday which would be loaded onto my Facebook page and YouTube channel and a Facebook live draw along on a Friday.

During the virtual videos, I would teach basic skills, guiding the viewer through different stages of drawing, with a welcoming approach. I was honing my inner Tony Hart and trying to encourage a virtual art club environment. From sharks, ice creams, pirates, to flowers, mermaids and dinosaurs, we covered most things and requests would come in thick and fast.

I also introduced splat painting, letter art, creating stickman drawings with mud and painting with acrylic to coffee. I tried to use materials most children would have at home to make the sessions as inclusive as possible.

Some of my fondest memories of the ‘Draw-Alongs’ included special events. The VE day live session was spectacular, with not only WW2 themed artworks from, medals to poppies but I also dressed in 1940’s clothes, fashioned Union Jack flags to my walls and displayed my best china. My followers, responded positively to these unique and tailored experiences, showcasing their artwork in the comments for all to see. I also launched my first children’s book ‘Super Panda’ virtually, with over 700 people tuning in. I read the book, drew the main characters and ran a Q and A, with my husband on camera and the kids passing equipment. This was extremely exciting and nerve racking! The captive audience, at home in lockdown, did mean more people tuned in compared to normal circumstances.

Over the weeks, I learnt techniques such as how to hold a pen without covering the paper, the best time of day to film pre-recorded videos due to light levels, how to create voice overs and much more. I was lucky enough to have been gifted a camera stand from my Dad a few weeks before lockdown and it was a saviour! A really easy way to adjust camera levels during live videos and hold the camera steady. I also invested in a small light specially recommended by YouTubers.

Like many lockdown tails, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. At times, my emotions were like a rollercoaster, I still had low days. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t feel like drawing today’, worrying about the virus, feeling guilty that I wasn’t spending enough time home-schooling my kids, and what if, as a freelancer, I didn’t have enough work? I was starting to miss my friends and family too.

But the Draw-along children were relying on me, so I picked myself up and got on with it. The creative process lifted my mood and calmed my thoughts. The power of art is great.

I have now finished the weekly lockdown ‘Draw-Alongs’, but I will continue to create pre recorded videos in the future, starting with Summer Friday videos and special online events throughout the year, building on my lockdown experience. I really felt part of a creative community. I loved seeing the children’s work progress and giving them a shout out when they joined in. I’m no Joe Wickes, but I increased my followers on Facebook by 150% during lockdown, with multiple posts of my colouring in sheets reaching over 7000 people. Jessi Illustrates grew during the last few months and I feel really appreciative for the support from families who championed my small business during a tough time for the creative industries. I will continue to work on growing Jessi Illustrates in the future, using the creative process to support health and wellbeing whilst maintaining my mantra that ‘anyone can draw’.

So, what did I learn from my lockdown virtual Draw-Along experience and what wisdom could I share? Here are my top pointers:

  1. Equipment is key. But you don’t need much or expensive high-tech gadgets. Most phones have good filming features, with extra options such as time lapses and slow motion. A camera/phone holder or stand and is also worth investing in for steady shots. A light can help depending on natural light where you are filming.

  2. Plan for different audiences, as ability levels can vary. I would often start with easy drawings building up to harder and more difficult designs.

  3. Test your art materials on camera before you film. I found pencil was difficult to see, so most of my videos are in black pen. I trialed a range of different types before I found the most magnificent and divine black brush pen.

  4. Practice your technique on camera. Depending on the type of creative work you produce, it’s worth learning to work in a way that is clear on video. For example, during my live drawings, I had to stretch my arm over the top of the paper to avoid my hand blocking the artwork. This was then incredibly tricky to draw well and in proportion in an awkward and unnatural position. As a result, I began to sketch the design lightly in pencil in advance, so I was almost tracing over the top in black pen. This worked wonders, as it meant not only was the work to an illustrator’s standard, but it also meant when there were live questions etc, I could regain my focus quickly.

  5. Be prepared for things to go wrong during live sessions. They will at some point. Embrace it, move on, learn from it. My drawing board collapsed 3 times during one live stream!

  6. During live sessions, having constant streaming of WIFI is really important, but it’s not always possible. Although most sessions were fine, one morning the WIFI was dropping out every few minutes and viewers gave up. Therefore, pre-recorded videos can be more reliable, you can add more content, voice overs, before and after shots, time-lapse etc.

  7. Link with other creatives and research different people who inspire you. What do they do well that you could emulate in your style? I love Illustrator Lydia Monks and follow her on all social media channels.

  8. Have fun, be brave and experiment with what works for you, but also ask your audience what they would like too. I found children like to contribute.

  9. Market your sessions clearly and be consistent. I would produce a Facebook flyer the week before, explaining what I would be drawing on the following week. I also created event pages for special sessions and used ‘stories’ to remind people.

  10. Being creative can be more important for your mental health in difficult situations than you expect. Sometimes just the process of making, not the outcome, can be cathartic for both the participants and the artist.

If you would like to find out more about my artwork go to my website and to checkout my YouTube channel



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