Great masters are weird. They are talented and they work a lot, but they also have unusual rituals, routines and habits that fuel their genius.
German poet Friedrich Schiller kept rotting apples in his drawer. The awful smell compelled him to write. Intrigued by this fact I go and ask my friends about their strange (or sometimes not so strange) productivity habits. I want to know what my friends' Bad Apples are.
Karolis Strautniekas is an illustrator and he’s very hot right now. He's the great master of the modern day. Though he still has both of his ears. Also, he won't have to wait long years after his death to become famous: Audi, Forbes, and Dropbox — all of the big boys are lining up for his talented hand.
If you're not familiar with Karolis' work, let me put it this way: his art has a quality of a strange dream you're having while napping in a hammock on a warm June evening after reading some thick classical novel. Highly textured, metaphoric, vivid and foggy at the same time. You should see by yourself. Look him up and follow him. Tens of thousands already have.
Despite all the hype, he’s very down to earth. Every time we meet he casually mentions another huge brand that hired him. I remark not seeing him in the gym for a while and he says something like "Facebook contacted me the other day, so I've been a bit busy.” Saying it so casually it doesn’t even count as name-dropping.
"How was the snowboarding in the Alps, Karolis?", I ask about his first holiday in 16 months.
"It was cool, but I had to draw for the New York Times, so I was quite busy", he sighs. You get the point.
He’s busy a lot. So I was glad when Karolis agreed to meet for a coffee and spill some beans about his daily routines, working tools and overcoming blocks.
I come to visit him in the studio. Karolis is a part of a creative collective called Wowburo. To get to their place you have to pass two doors. One has "WOW" written on it. And the second has, you guessed it — "BURO", a nice branded interaction.
The place is dim. Faint fluorescent lights shine lazily on the old hardwood floor. Windows nested in thick walls face South without offering too much sunlight. I can't help but feel a bit like in the headmaster’s office. Karolis says it helps to concentrate.
He opens a window to let in some fresh air. The room fills with sounds of trolleys rumbling on the cobblestone. We’re in the old town of Vilnius after all.
There are four workstations in the studio. Four chairs, four identical tables and a lot of Apple products resting on them. The walls are speckled with printouts, cutouts, pictures and scribbles. Just above Karolis' table there's a list of international paper sizes (a0 to a5). "It seemed like a great idea to have it where I could see it at all times, but I only looked at it once or twice", he admits.
Stainless steel shelves lining by the walls house a lot of strange alchemical flasks, jars and tubes. Karolis says he started buying this glassware in flea markets and now he can't stop. One large glass bowl has a golden fish living in it.
There's only one piece of seaweed in the bowl, but to make up for the lack of exposure to nature, guys from the studio made the fish a cardboard TV set. Problem solved.
A huge plant is resting right next to Karolis’ workstation.There are a lot of plants in the studio actually. Just like in Karolis’ art. As he sits in his bauhaus style armchair by the table, lamp casting a yellow streak of light, I realize the whole scene looks like one of his pictures.
We sit down, I yank out my notes and we talk. First thing's first — the morning. Karolis wakes up at around 7 a.m. and is instantly sharp and ready to go. His first ritual is checking the phone, most of us are guilty of this vice. He admits it’s a bad habit, but who could blame him. With a horde of followers across all social media I would be all over my phone first thing after opening my eyes too. With a faint note of guilt Karolis says that he is working towards refining his morning rituals. Doing some journaling or reading first thing in the morning. I assure him that he will eventually get there.
His breakfast is like a clockwork, always exactly the same. A ball of mozarella, two tomatoes with some basil and a glass of water. Sometimes he uses an old noisy juicer to make a couple of glasses of juice. It also works as an extra alarm clock for his girlfriend. I ask him about coffee, he says he never drinks it.
“I just don’t need it, I’m sharp as a razor as it is”.
Hearing this I glance at his cup of cappuccino.
"On rare occasions only", he chuckles.
Karolis comes to studio at around nine. The warm up before serious hands-on work is checking Behance. "I follow all the right people and I like discovering their art before it spreads through all the blogs and websites", he says. Checking the yield of likes and comments is a pleasant part of it too. Karolis shares a small Behance secret — “Share your work in progress. People are truly interested in how the sausage is made. They comment a lot and become invested in the piece. They are also much more likely to be interested in the final work if they’ve followed it as it was born.”
Karolis uses a 21 inch iMac and an a4 Wacom Cintiq as his main work horse. "I feel it's time to upgrade, I will go for a larger Cintiq and a 15' macbook, a much more flexible combination". Expensive gear aside, Karolis' favorite tools are some old technical pencils. One of them was given to him by his grandpa and Karolis has been using it so much the blue paint rubbed off revealing the steel corpus underneath. "I feel more confident when these pencils are around”, he says “More in control of the situation".
Pencils at hand, Mac fired up, Behance attended, it’s now time to get to work. He starts a new piece by testing some compositions out, drawing quick simple sketches not bigger than a matchbox. He then picks the ones with the most potential and refines them, puts them in a larger scale and adds more detail. Some of these bigger sketches he then sends to the client.
“I never show more than two sketches. It would lead to mixing, matching and eventually to confusion. Two is enough in most cases”.
Crucial corrections from the client are very rare. It’s such a sweet spot to be in: clients who choose Karolis know what to expect and Karolis knows how to deliver. This is the situation I wish for every professional to be in. Myself included.
Once the concept is approved Karolis redraws the whole scene in more detail, adding color. “I know I could work smarter”, he says “now I’m redrawing the same thing over and over again, but it works for me. It’s my process”.
“How is your layer structure?”, I ask knowing that I am often quite messy.
“I’m not very neat”, he admits “unless I will have to share the file with others. Then I must work clean. Otherwise it would be like sharing your sweaty T-shirt with somebody”.
One thing that separates Karolis work process from any other freelance artist I know is that he has agents. Yes, he’s gangsta like that.
Not one agent, but several, working in two different agencies. One in London, another in Paris. When I think about somebody having agents I think about LeBron James or Stephen King. Or Joey from Friends. To have somebody choose the best deals and to handle day-to-day e-mail churning is indeed some next level shit.
It can’t be all smooth and peachy the whole time. “Let’s talk about stress,” I suggest. “Is there anything that annoys you at work, do you ever feel blocked?”.
He thinks for a minute.
“I don't like being asked about my textures. People do that a lot. Every other aspiring illustrator seems to want to copy my brushes.” he says “I try to be as polite as possible, but guys, get your own brushes, invent your own textures”. Word.
“Talking about daily creative challenges, I don’t have any special tricks. I remember once I had to go for a walk to clear my head”, Karolis says “but usually when things become difficult I just sit down, focus on the work the best I can and try to power through it”.
Hearing this I feel slightly embarrassed. I have to admit I get an urge to go for a walk in the middle of any working day. Mainly because I get bored and want to clear my head. However, sitting down and just working when you need to work, although nobody is watching or forcing you to, is a textbook example on how to deal with resistance and a sign of true mastery. Sit down, get your ducks in a row and work. Simple as that and I respect it immensely.
“When I get serious, I put my headphones on. It’s a sign that I’m busy and a barrier from outside world”. He mostly listens to Spotify. Some well known old music when he wants to stay in the comfort zone or some new stuff suggested by Spotify when he’s feeling more adventurous and in need of a spark.
The ultimate exhaust of any built up tension is football. Karolis plays at least once a week. All doubts and stresses burn in lactic acid.
Unnecessary thoughts vanish and are replaced by calm focus. I ask which position he plays in. "I don't really have a position. You can say that I'm the guy with all the extra energy who runs after the ball all the time", he says.
Running is another way for mental hygiene. "The pace or the distance don't matter as much as the fact that I've put on my ugly running Pumas and went out”, he says” I try to go out running at least few times a week and I usually run somewhere between six and twelve kilometers. I use Runkeeper to track my distance. It's always more interesting and satisfying to know your result. Even though I don't have a particular goal that I want to reach."
“I listen to the same three albums when I run. If you think that’s strange, my buddy from Wowburo listens to the same single album every time he goes running.” A couple of Karolis running albums are Devendra Benhard - Mala and Metronomy - Love Letters.
Strautniekas’ workday is ten hours plus, interrupted only by a lunch break at noon sharp. I can’t function if I’m hungry” he says “Even the slightest hunger is an opportunity for me to procrastinate”. He leaves the office somewhere between 8 and 9 p.m. He then goes out to a restaurant with his girlfriend for dinner. Bedtime is somewhere around midnight.
“I used to have bad onset insomnia”, Karolis says “just couldn’t fall asleep. Would toss, turn and re-think the events of the day”.
Having heard about all the energy he has for drawing, digesting 12 a.m. lunches, running and football, difficulty to fall asleep doesn’t surprise me.
“Then I learned this trick, it works like magic”, he says “I focus on relaxing my eyes as this is where the tension and most of the thoughts radiate from. Ten, fifteen minutes of this and I’m out”.
It seems that we reached the end of a long story about a long day. We’re also out of coffee. I put a full stop at the end of my hectic notes, shake Karolis’ artistic hand and make my way out of the dim chamber into the noisy street.