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Experience-Based How-To's for Creativity

Q & A with illustrator and author Mike Lowery

Wilma Koutstaal
Source: Wilma Koutstaal

The lines between author and reader are maybe not as sharply drawn as they used to be. Book 1 of Mike Lowery’s Doodle Adventures is a great example. “You draw the story!” the book’s cover tells us. And so we do…

But what’s the story behind the story?

Just as Lowery asks his young readers to pledge to “finish this book to get our heroes home safe at the end,” I asked him to pledge to freely improvise answering questions about his own creative journeys.

Wilma Koutstaal, adapted from Mike Lowery
Doodle Adventures pledge--re-purposed for this Q & A blog post.
Source: Wilma Koutstaal, adapted from Mike Lowery

Each of the 8 questions I posed to him draw upon the science-based way of thinking about innovative thought and action that we develop in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change.

(1) How do you move between big-picture thinking and the necessary details during your creative process? Do you sometimes get stuck at too high a level, or mired in the specifics? Do you have examples from your first Doodle Adventure?

This is absolutely one of the hardest parts of the writing/revising/drawing process for me at points. The trouble usually comes from trying to manage several projects at once. If I have one task like “Just draw a ton of robots in space,” I can work and work until my hand is cramped and my back is killing me and be totally happy. I could just sit and draw for weeks, but when I have to alternate between projects, the difficulty becomes re-figuring out the specifics of each job every time I sit down.

I manage this in several ways, but the biggest is that I’m an avid note taker and list maker. Staying organized seems to me to be the key to staying productive, whether it’s by keeping notes about projects or a tidy desk space to help me find my supplies quickly.

(2) Do you sometimes find that you are “trying too hard” or “too directly” or for too long? When does some indirection help you move forward in your creative problem space? How do you mix up some of your routines with new variations and divergences?

Over the years I’ve learned that I need to set up breaks from my regular routine to stay inspired and excited about my projects. The primary way I do this is to take several extended trips during the year. I can’t exactly call them “vacations” because I tend to work constantly when I travel, but it tends to be the kind of work I love to do.

These trips help me focus on my current projects but also allow me some time away from my house or studio to brainstorm new ideas for projects to pitch. Several times I’ve taken trips that directly resulted in a new project.

(3) Are you patient through both the bursts and lulls in your own thinking and that of others? How do you do this?

Luckily, as a writer and an illustrator I’m rarely required to do the same task for very long before it’s time to do the next step. So if there was ever a spell of “writer’s block” or whatever, I’d simply move onto a step that didn’t require as much writing or creative thinking. Illustrators get to come up with lots of awesome characters and concepts, but we also get down time where we just have to render out busy images or sit and color. I try to use my brain when it’s awake and keep track of what it comes up with by making notes or aggressively working in my sketchbook. That way, when I’m mentally tired, I can just sit and draw.

(4) Are your tools collaborating well with you? Should you give your tools more of a voice, or a different voice, in your creative search?

My tools are integral to my process and have a strong voice in my work. Years ago I had a breakthrough moment. For years I would do a rough sketch of my ideas and then go over that sketch with ink and a brush or pen. I was never quite happy with this process because I kept feeling like something was missing in that final inked version. One day I scanned in the quick pencil sketch and decided to color that in the computer. It kept the spontaneity of that initial drawing while allowing for a more methodical approach to coloring. My work has reflected this process ever since.

(5) How do you know, or identify, the key guiding constraints in your creative endeavors? At what point might you change these up? Do some (or all) projects have one or more “core” characteristics that are simply not up for negotiation, or can’t be changed without the project morphing into something else?

My projects generally have one key characteristic: playfulness. Sometimes this means a children's book about cranes or a chapter book about fighting slugs, but sometimes it’s for a more serious article for adults. I try to find the lighter aspects of any subject matter to explore.

(6) What are your “open goals”? Are you on the lookout for happy serendipitous finds that could edge or guide your creative endeavors forward?

I actually keep lists of different types of goals. I keep lists about projects like I mentioned before, but I also keep lists of things that I like to draw, places I’d like to see, foods I haven’t tried. The list that tends to dictate the way the other lists are executed is my list about how I want to spend my time. I’ve got three big things on that list: 1. I want to spend time with my family. 2. I want to make money drawing things that I like to draw, and 3. I want to travel a bunch. Those are big goals that I then break down into lots of little goals until they’re manageable. Breaking big goals down into little steps has always been my favorite way to approach things.

(7) Consider this observation about the role of the environment in one type of making:

“In flower arranging it is customary to leave around discarded by-products, such as twigs and ferns, on the off-chance that they will prove useful in striking on a felicitous design. Pieces that seem most likely to be helpful are kept closer. Spatial lay-out partitions by-products into categories of possible use.” –– Do you selectively “seed” your environment with “scraps and remnants,” idea fragments, phrases, or images that may later happen to be just right for your creative purpose? As you think through a creative problem, how do you let your external environment (physical, symbolic) do some of the ongoing “representational work” for you?

If I get this right, I’d say that the scraps around a flower arrangement would be the sketches in my sketchbook. Art is constant trial and error. I am not a magician that sits down and “voila!” I create from thin air. Everything I draw is made up of thousands of little strokes that I’ve made that are now reconstructed to resemble something a client would want for their project. The books that I write and illustrate are all pieced together “idea bits” that I’ve had over the years.

I can’t stress enough how important keeping a sketchbook is for me. It’s a place where I work out ideas and take risks that I couldn’t do when I’m on a deadline.

(8) Many good ideas emerge for us during routine activities such as showering, tidying, or walking. Some important features of “shower times” are that they tend to be uninterrupted, with an approximately expected duration. There is a clear sense of progress or completion as the task at hand is well understood and not highly demanding. Such times also are typically pleasant and mildly relaxing; they involve multiple senses with accompanying sounds, movements, touch, and so on. –– How do you use your shower times? Can you generate or discover “mini-shower times” in your creative process: moments that permit background idea re-configurings to fully emerge and form?

This is one of the main reasons I’ve always liked working very late at night. There’s this thing that happens in the shower where your brain is allowed to just wander because you don’t have a phone to check or someone asking you for this month’s financial reports (or whatever it is you stress about). I like working at night because email stops, kids sleep, and there’s not really anywhere else I could be.

Have I already mentioned keeping a sketchbook? These uninterrupted moments also tend to come up unexpectedly and having a sketchbook on you allows you to just sit and draw. Try leaving your phone in your car when you’re at the DMV or waiting at the dentist. It’s weird how tough that has become in our phone-focused culture, but that time you spend waiting is a great time to just sit and doodle. Or write. Or make a list. Or whatever it is that makes your brain move around a little.


Mike Lowery is an illustrator whose work appears in everything from greeting cards to children’s books. DOODLE ADVENTURES™ –– the first series he has written and illustrated –– launched in May 2016 from Workman Publishing, and will include 3 books –– which invite readers to draw and write with the story. Additionally, he co-runs Paper Ghost Studio in Atlanta, Georgia.

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