'Slug Bug' / Drawing by Melissa Toothman / 'Today's challenge was a fun one. The prompt was 'ornament.' I used the prompt multiple times over with this one. We have a bird wearing ornamental bling, driving a cute ornament of a car with an antenna ornament. I decided to mix it up and add color to this one. Inktober burnout is real, folks!'

Editor’s note: This is in the first in a series of three columns by local artist and writer Melissa Toothman, who delves into the origins of the October ‘Inktober’ Challenge and how it can help artists bust through perfectionism and ‘artists’ block.’

What is this Inktober business anyway?

Sit down in front of a blank piece of paper or open a brand new sketchbook and tell me how you would feel to take a thick Sharpie and just force it down the page, forever changing that otherwise clean page because your mark of destruction simply cannot be undone.

This is the anxiety that every artist has felt at some point in their creative journey. I’m no stranger to it.

The fear of ruining a sketchbook or perfectly unmarked and uncrinckled piece of paper has long been a point of anxiety for many artists, especially beginners who don’t know where to start. It comes from many ideas deeply rooted into our brains.

For some, it’s fear of failure. We all want to create that master work of art and can feel discouraged if our time and hard work devoted to it doesn’t give us the results we seek. For others, it’s a lack of confidence. We realize we aren’t yet as skilled as other, more experienced artists and don’t believe we ever will be.

We lack enough confidence to believe that any mark we put to paper will create something beautiful and worth looking at. We are stuck in this idea that if we can’t create something perfectly, why do it at all?

Bird with moon / Drawing by Melissa Toothman / ‘I decided to add my own challenge within the prompts of Inktober by including a bird in every drawing. The prompt for this day was “husky”. I knew others would draw the dog, and that’s an easy thing to think of. My bonus restriction forced me to think of something else. I thought of how cute birds look when they’re all puffed up. It needed a little something extra when I was finished. The moon was a spontaneous addition.’

Any number of different issues stop us from creating art, but that is where a month-long challenge originating online comes to the rescue. Inktober is a widely popular art challenge that offers something to challenge everyone, regardless of their skill level. It gives the challenger a single word for each day of the month of October, and they are tasked with creating art from their own interpretation of that word.

The origins of Inktober

Inktober originated with artist Jake Parker in 2009. Parker is a comic book artist, concept artist, children’s book illustrator and animator. I admire him for his creativity and the simple details he adds to his art that make his work look so complex.

He can draw mechanics and machines in ways I can only dream of doing.

He designed the challenge to help him get better at inking but popularized it by inviting other artists to do the challenge with him.

Parker didn’t even originally take credit for coming up with it. He wasn’t seeking fame or glory for designing the challenge, but a band of internet artists became curious where Inktober originated and were able to link it back to him, so he rolled with it.

Now, every year, he creates a new list of prompts for each day of October and releases it to the world. He still participates in the challenge as well. You can look him up on social media and see what he comes up with.

This business of Inktober has become known worldwide among art communities online and is arguably the most popular online art challenge, growing in participation every year. From Inktober, various other monthly art challenges have spawned, and many people have created their own Inktober prompt lists to stray from the official prompts Jake Parker comes up with.

After all, his rules aren’t rigid for the challenge, and using alternative prompts and art supplies is acceptable. His biggest rule is to have fun. If you don’t like the prompts given by the creator, you can try hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative prompt lists. You can even combine the prompt lists if you’d like an added challenge.

If you don’t like Inktober, you can participate in other challenges like Dinovember (drawing a dinosaur every day throughout November), Huevember (making a drawing using one prominent color predetermined by color prompts through November), Mermay (drawing mermaids in May from a designated prompt list) and so on.

You can even dive deep into art challenges by doing Inktober, followed immediately by a consecutive month of challenges in November if drawing every day for just one month isn’t challenging enough.

So if I do Inktober, my art will get noticed?

There’s no law that says you have to share your work online with others to do this challenge. Don’t set out to do Inktober just because it’s popular and you want followers online and it could gain you followers.

You may set yourself up for disappointment.

For some artists, participating is a great way to get exposure for your work because other artists and fans of art in general have come to recognize and look forward to the month of October as the perfect time to discover artists – and see how those artists approach the daily prompts.

However, you don’t even have to post your work at all if you choose not to. If you decide to post, it can offer accountability to complete the challenge by notifying friends and family you’ve started it, so posting has other benefits than exposure.

However, don’t be discouraged if people don’t “like” or find your work online.

You may gain follower or like here and there, but the popularity of the challenge has desaturated the opportunity to get discovered, as work can get lost in the constant shuffle of new art being posted every second worldwide.

There are so many artists participating and so many people looking, that your post can be lost seconds after it is up. I get the most likes on my art within minutes of posting it, and then the new likes fizzle away by the end of the day.

Whether or not you get noticed can come down to how the social media algorithms for your social circles work. It could be the time of day you chose to post or the hashtags – or lack thereof – you use. It isn’t an indicator that your work isn’t good or that people love or hate your post.

If no one has passed along the memo to you yet, you should also be cautioned when posting online that the Internet can be a cruel place, so don’t place too much value on others’ criticisms of your work. In fact, you can get a lot of value from that criticism. It can help you see details you missed and identify your artistic weaknesses, which helps you target your practicing to close as many weaknesses as possible. That’s what helps you improve.

But remember: Not all criticism is equal. Popularly called trolls, there are people who take jabs at others for their own amusement, and you should never take them seriously. Genuine art criticism comes from the heart and a place of helpfulness from one artist who cares enough to help another artist.

If someone takes that time on you, they see your potential. Don’t be offended.

If you’re not open to criticism you can always write “no criticism please” in your posts, and most respectable artists will comply with that request. Likewise, you can specifically tell others you are open to criticism and artists might see that as an invitation to help. The choice is yours.

Bust through your excuses!

Some people fear the challenge, thinking they just don’t have time to create a new artwork every day. Some artists combine the prompts and come up with one original drawing that utilizes all the prompts as themes, objects, characters and concepts.

Last year, Jake Parker created only one completed artwork for Inktober. Instead of a full drawing each day, he drew a new character to add to a single drawing, giving him only one work of art to show for the entire challenge month. Other artists have had success trying this method as well.

Some artists come out of Inktober with only four drawings. They combine one week’s worth of prompts into one drawing. Others do individual drawings only for the prompts that inspire them the most and might combine the other prompts, replace them with their own, or pull from alternative lists.

Not having time to complete the challenge is the most common excuse for not participating in Inktober I see, and it’s the exact excuse that is going to keep holding you back. I used to believe I didn’t have time either – and, I confess that I still believe I don’t.

I’m probably always going to be in this perpetual loop of convincing myself that life is too busy to make time for this challenge. If you truly want to improve your art, or get into the rhythm of drawing every day, you’ll make time for it. Always make time for activities that add value to your life.

If drawing or learning art is something you’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t allow yourself to get started, you’re always going to be stressed out about that, or wondering “what if” until you just do it.

Guess what? You’re the only person stopping yourself. There is no wrong age to get started doing something you love, especially art. Completing the challenge doesn’t have to mean devoting hours on end each day to finishing a drawing.

‘Mothman’ / Drawing by Melissa Toothman / ‘I love West Virginia lore, so it didn’t take much thought when the prompt “legend” rolled around. That one was easy: Mothman! I fashioned my design loosely after the statue in Point Pleasant, but I added bird-like wings to fulfill my added challenge of including birds.’

There is no wrong way to do Inktober, and it’s not too late to start

There are several ways to complete the challenge. Just because one artist online is spending five hours making an award-worthy rendition of each daily prompt, does not defeat what the challenge can do for you. The objective isn’t to make a masterpiece.

Remember this motto: complete, but not perfect. Inktober can just as easily be completed with concepts and sketches. You can expand your ideas later. You can come back to it and make the ideas you love better and ignore or revisit the ideas you hated. Not everything you’re going to create in this challenge is going to be amazing. That isn’t the point of the challenge.

Skill comes later, and it will come more naturally than you realize with all the practice you put in, so get your practice in.

Don’t compare yourself to others unless you go in with the understanding you are working toward the goal of bettering your art. Some have more time than others to complete the challenge, and there are a range of skills among the artists who participate. Don’t let someone else’s beautiful artwork discourage you from gaining benefit from this challenge because you aren’t as skilled.

There’s an old adage that to become an expert at something, you have to devote 10,000 hours to it. Anyone with skills beyond your own, in anything, has likely put in more time and practice than you have. If you dedicate yourself to the task now, you can eventually get to that point yourself. Learn from the work of others more skilled than you. Instead of feeling defeated, jot down what you admire about the work and set personal goals to implement that skill into your own work.

Don’t expect overnight improvement. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is admired for its imperfections, not the other way around. Would you even know what it is without that iconic lean? If your work is perfect in every way, what’s the point? What’s the fun?

You might have less time to devote to the challenge than others. If you only have five minutes in the morning to make a drawing, then spend that five minutes and make a rough rendition of your idea. You can look at the prompt at night before bed and come up with ideas for it.

The hardest part of the challenge is just getting started, i.e. making that first stroke on the paper.

If you’re afraid of “ruining” your new sketchbook do me a favor. Open it. Take a pencil, pen, marker, whatever, and scribble. Don’t try to make anything, just mark all over it. Make it ugly on purpose. There, now you’ve ruined it. In theory, everything else you put in the pages after that is masterful by comparison.

By the way, you don’t have to use ink. If you want to work digitally, do digital art. If you want to try watercolor, go for it. If you want to make a painting everyday, no one is stopping you. Do what inspires you. Try something new.

Parker, however, encourages ink for its permanence. That’s designed to get you out of only creating art if you can make it perfect. A mistake in ink has to be worked around. It teaches you to solve a problem, so there is value in using ink, but it’s not a mandate.

You can start with today’s prompt and circle your way back through the beginning of the prompts in November. You can just start with prompt one and do them in order until you’re finished. It is never too late, not even if you found this to read after October is over.

Now get started.