Rituals — How They Can Help You.


It was part of Wile E. Coyote’s ritual to always have a plan. His didn’t work (that was the joke), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. Image from Warner Bros.

Rituals are cool. They help you get things done without having to stress too much about them. As animation artists, our jobs often feel too overwhelming, and if you’ve got the added responsibilities of running a team, the more you have to do, the more you have to think. Thinking requires extra energy and having rituals helps ease that burden.

Take for example the issue of exercise – exercise is so incredibly important yet it’s stunning how so many people don’t make it a ritualistic part of their lives. The modern life of working on the computer for long periods of time has been scientifically proven to damage the body leading to poorer vision, chronic pain, weight gain and increased risk of repetitive strain injury and heart disease.  Physical exercise alleviates a lot of these problems, including refreshing the mind, regaining energy and building confidence.


Still from  Goofy Goofy Gymnastics, part of Walt Disney Studios’ brilliant “How to” series from the 1940’s.

Besides mental and physical maintenance, rituals, selectively designed and personalized, can help you as an artist and your growth as a human being in general. I couldn’t live without my particular rituals for too long. They help assure me that I’ve done something just for me. If something can ease the burdens of living or benefit in some way or the other, I like to think of it as a no-brainer to make it a part of my repertoire. Think of it as maintenance – like brushing your teeth.

The legendary Bill Tytla had the curious habit of animating his characters in multiple colors – separating body masses from limbs, as well as items like clothing and held objects. Animation is a very long and complicated process and this was a great way for him to stay organized. Production drawing of Grumpy from Walt Disney’s 1937 landmark film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I, for one, prefer to start the day with my mind cleansed and refreshed, so that it has a chance of performing well for the rest of it. Each morning, depending on the job/assignments I have at the time, I’ll partake in my ritual of meditation or exercise or both. It’s like shaking off the rust before you move. The things that follow, seem natural, like a good breakfast and getting things in order, such as reviewing your goals and activities for the day ahead. I know that no matter what happens from that point on, I’ve already taken care of me, and only then, do I have a chance to take care of others.


Unless you’re Superman, the best course of action is to take care of yourself first, so you can do a better job with everything else. Image courtesy of DC Comics.

As for doing art, when I turn on my lamps I know I’ll paint. And when I’m done, I’ll ritualistically wash and dry my brushes afterwards and leave myself a clean station to begin the next time around. When I animate, I automatically check to see how long I plan to take, whose shot precedes or follows mine, what references I need, and then sit down to listen to the track for the first hour or two, before I go about shooting video or doing thumbnail drawings. I don’t have to think about these things, I just do them automatically.

My old colleague Aaron Hartline always put in the preliminary work before animating his shots. This assured him that he’s explored as many options as possible, as well as having a solid reference point to work from. Video from his work on Blue Sky Studio’s hit series, Ice Age. (To see more of the artist’s work, go here.)

Like all routines, you have to try and experiment many things. It’s all very personal – what works for others may not work for you. That’s part of the fun in finding yourself.

“Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking … Learn your own possibilities.” – George Bellows

Painting of the artist’s father, by George Bellows.

Here’s a list of routines you might want to consider incorporating into your daily life as an artist:

  1. Review the days’ work ahead, write it down before beginning any work.
  2. Set a timer for that break at 90-120 minutes. You’ll never remember to stretch, rest or walk away if you don’t.
  3. Have a regular time of the day for that extended coffee break and walk outdoors – get away from that stale, office air.
  4. Get into a habit of leaving the work day no later than a particular time  – again, set a timer or alarm if you have to. If you work from home, get some separation from your job – close the door and don’t return.
  5. Set up regular activities, spent solo, or with friends or family, that will serve as something to look forward to after work – it’ll make you more focused and efficient.
  6. Try your best to leave any internet browsing/chatting to certain times of the day — but know that it will NOT serve as a break from the computer.
  7. Have references, materials and tools conveniently placed so you don’t have to drag stuff out in order to perform. (i.e. Always keep your work station clean and conducive to peak performance.)
  8. Get into the mindset of showing your work to your peers regularly — don’t just wait for dailies.
  9. Have the same organized routine for starting work. If you’re animating, it should be automatic to set time for listening to the track, to collect/record video, and to do thumbnails.
  10. Have the same routine for finishing up your work, including file naming, folder clean up and basically a  standardized way of delivering things — this way you always ship and ship without issues.
  11. Have a regular time of day/week to work on your skills as an artist — professionals in all fields do this. Don’t stop learning or sharpening your tools just because you have a “job.”
  12. Tailor your routines to you and your body only. Only then do they have any chance of working.

These things may seem like a lot to do or even think about doing but that’s precisely the point; if you don’t make it a part of your “auto” routine, you’ll HAVE TO think about it. Once you’ve automated the procedure, you just do it, and you’ll be glad that you did. Routines will actually save you time and energy. And remember, it’s good habits and routines that separate professionals from amateurs.


A page from James Jean’s marvelous collection of sketchbooks. Jean, a prominent comics illustrator and fine artist, has a habit of drawing everything he sees, everywhere he goes. His works are filled with life, beauty and authenticity. (To see more of the artist’s work, go here.)

In the words of Twyla Tharp, Dance choreographer extraordinaire and author of The Creative Habit:

“I don’t think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity.”

What’s your ritual? Do you have one? And is it one that gets you going or keeps you going? If not, why haven’t you changed? Rituals and habits are powerful things — first we make them, then they make us. Make and design yours. One of the greatest sensations you get from having rituals is knowing that you’ve taken care of things. Not many things in art or life give you that feeling of security.