Saturday, 31 December 2011

Goodbye 2011

As the sun sets on another year, time to reflect on what's happened to me during 2011. It's been a challenging year, one where my financial problems have continued to drag me down and hold me back. A year when family relationships have continued to deteriorate and I'm being pushed into making some decisions that will make me very unpopular. But it's also a year where I've made lots of new friends, been charmed by some very positive people and finally been handed the chance to get off unemployment benefit and into self employment.

So here are just 5 important lessons I've learned over the past 12 months which I'll take with me into 2012 and beyond.

1) You might see something as your destination but it turns out to be a stepping stone. You'll meet someone or do something and you'll feel it's the most important thing that's ever happened to you. Then it turns out not to be as good as you thought it was going to be. But on the way you've made new friends, done something you never imagined you would do, or set yourself up to take on an even bigger challenge. So don't feel bad if the thing you originally thought you wanted didn't turn out to be so good. Look at the positive outcomes you got from it and be happy for those who got what they wanted too.

2) Take baby steps towards your goals. If there's something you really want to do but it seems too daunting and massive, just do one little thing towards it every day. Even if it's just a couple of minutes, if you're consistent in doing these things they'll soon add up. Before too long, living the dream could become a reality!

3) Respect yourself, don't wait for others to respect you. Sometimes it doesn't matter how much you do, you can't make people think better of you if they really don't want to. So don't worry what they think, just always ensure your own conscience is clear.

4) Positivity is contagious. Get to know people with a can-do attitude to life instead of those who just want you to know your place (even if relentless positivity can come across as naive!) A little gesture of encouragement is better than a thousand put-downs. Make the most of that energy boost like a surfer rides a wave.

5) It's better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. Life is far too short, will you honestly be able to look back on your time and say you had a go at everything you wanted to? That you used your talents to the fullest? That you lived to work instead of worked to live? Not all of us want to do the same things and we should never give in to peer pressure because we want to live our lives in different ways. Be yourself, not a sheep!

Whether you look back on 2011 as one of your favourite years or one you'll be glad to get rid of, I wish you all a very happy, successful and fulfilling New Year. Thank you for reading my blog and I hope you'll join me on my big creative adventure in 2012!

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

Following in my long tradition* of Christmas cartoons, here's a little offering to wish all my friends and followers a very happy Christmas.

However you mark the festive period, I hope it's a happy and fun time for you. Sadly that's not the case for many people so please take a moment to spare a thought for those who find it stressful, lonely or who are feeling the loss of a loved one.

My best wishes to everyone who takes time to look at my little ole' blog, thank you for your support and I'll see you back here very soon.

(*Est. 2010)

Friday, 23 December 2011

IOU 2 Illo's

It's December (you might have noticed). Being the case, I'm holding my breath every time I turn on this computer because, for the past 2 Decembers, my darling laptop has broken down. (Excuse me as I reach for the nearest wooden object and give it a quick superstitious knock.)

The first time this happened, the blog was in its infancy and I'd just embarked on an ambitious festive project, illustrating my own daily advent calendar. For 2 of those days I could only run on the battery and just had enough power to make a plain version of the graphics, with the intention of completing them later.

It hardly seemed appropriate to post Christmas graphics at any other time of year but, last winter, I was without my computer for over 3 months so I totally missed that window. So now, a mere 24 months late, I'm very proud to present the final 2 illustrations of my 2009 advent calendar!

This time, if you click either picture, you'll be taken back to the December 2009 archive. I've checked all the links out and updated a couple that no longer work, so click away and explore all the fun Christmas surprises I found for you.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Last Orders Please!

Well this is it. This weekend marks your LAST CHANCE to order from Café Press if you want to guarantee delivery in time for Christmas. You could always leave it up until about the 20th and pay extra for express delivery but I really would hate to see you forking out more money than is necessary. Not if it isn't coming into my pocket, at any rate! (Incidentally the standard post deadline from my Zazzle shop has passed so it's express delivery only now.)

So do please take a few minutes to browse my shops and treat a loved one (or yourself) to a unique item of giftware and clothing. You won't find them anywhere else but here and you'll end up with something that no one else in the world has got, for only a few pounds! Just like the lucky recipients of these sales which I made this week:

Octopus Women's Dark Tee Shirt in Caribbean Blue, £18.50 reduced from £22.00 - Click here to buy one

Octopus 10" Wall Clock, £11.00 - Click here to buy one

So all the shops are now fully stocked with the latest products and here's my pick of what's new in store.

iPad 2 cases join the growing list of gadget accessories

Kids' pyjamas are back in store after being temporarily unavailable.

The ultimate in cosiness for a long, cold winter.

Luxury suede pillows in a choice of colours

A wide range of purses, bags and gadget sleeves

New shirts in the womenswear and menswear departments

Quality reusable bottles for hot and cold drinks

30 piece jigsaw puzzles for a little light brain training

Note: Prices in UK£ are converted from US$ and subject to change based on daily exchange rates.

As usual, look to the left of this page where you'll see each of these designs has its own button. Just click on the one you like and you'll be taken to its shop where you'll find all the goodies in store.

Do have a good look at what's on offer and don't forget to share a link to this page with anyone else who would be interested in my range of unique clothes and giftware. Just don't forget to place your orders by THIS WEDNESDAY, 14th December, if you want to receive them before Christmas.

Next: watch out for a few little festive treats as we head towards the holidays. I hope to see you back here soon!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

One Week On - The Adventures Of Frosty The Snowperve

So there ends my first week officially trading. Not that my bank balance would know it. I've still got to master that tricky little job of getting people to part with their money.

It's strange not having to go to the Job Centre, the Chamber of Commerce or anywhere else they might want to shunt me. It feels like I've forgotten something and I'm going to be punished. But no, I really am getting the New Enterprise Allowance, it's gone into my bank at the first time of asking which is a rarity! It's creepy how institutionalised those couple of years of being unemployed has made me, without even realising it. It's a big leap in the mindset to get used to being totally responsible for my own fate from now on.

I'm progressing with updating the Café Press shops, I need a big push to get those finished in the next couple of days. That would still give me time to get a Christmas project started although I think I'll have to scale it back and do the full release next Christmas instead.

My priority for now is just to get people aware that I've got lots of great Christmas gifts for sale, so that means daily promotion on Twitter and Facebook plus trying to find places to promote this blog. I can't stress enough, I really need YOU to help me by sending my links to anyone who might want to buy from me. My Enterprise Allowance is just a little safety cushion and already it's been gobbled up by a sort-of unexpected £140 bill. (Sort-of in that they've had 6 months to chase me up for it but of course the obvious time to do it is 3 weeks before Christmas!)

So over on Café Press I've achieved my main aim of getting my 4 Christmas shops updated. This has been a massive job because nobody's going to look at them before November so they're not worth doing earlier in the year. Last Christmas, as you may recall if you've been following my story, I was totally without a computer so I couldn't have done it anyway. So that's 2 years' catching up I've had to do. It happens to have been the busiest year I've known on that site in terms of them adding new products, so I've had over 300 of them to install, then individually tweak the print sizes and retail prices.

I've also had a bit of a problem with one of my designs in particular. This guy...

Cheery and cuddly he may be but he was giving me a headache. You see, the Café Press graphics tool doesn't give you the option to scroll your image around the product. It's automatically centred. Which meant that on the women's shirts his twiggy hands ended up in a rather unfortunate position. Let's just say I ended up calling him Frosty The Snowperve. So I've had to tweak the old fella and now the women's tees have him with his hands firmly by his sides and out of trouble! (Click on the illustrations to see them in more detail.)

The category that's had the biggest overhaul this season has been the bags. You'll find a lovely range of 13 new bags, wallets and purses, including gadget sleeves for Kindles, iPads and Nooks. These bags are perfect for getting you in the mood for Christmas shopping, so much so that 4 of them...

...come with a little extra surprise...

This bonus image, printed on the reverse side, is ONLY available on these 4 products in the 4 Christmas shops and is bound to put a smile on everyone's face on a busy, cold December High Street.

The hundreds of little snowflakes in this design inspired the other 2 shops, which are variations on a theme depending on whether you'd prefer a British or American date format. Here they are on some more winter must-haves.

The best-dressed way to open presents, in special Christmas nightclothes.

When it's cold on the outside, keep warm on the inside with a range of Thermos products.

Also exclusive to the 4 Christmas shops are these special gift stockings. The one on the left is also available in green.

To shop for any of these products, which aren't available anywhere else, look to the left of this page and click on the design you like.

I'm currently in the process of getting the latest products into the other Café Press shops. Watch this space for more news and my pick of the goodies on offer. Better still, follow me on Twitter or send a Facebook friend request (mention that you found me via this blog) and you'll be the first to know.

Have a great week and happy shopping!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Happy Mega Monday!

It's the last Monday in November, the day that some bright spark with a marketing degree has dubbed "Mega Monday" (also known as "Cyber Monday"). The trend over the last few years is for this day to be the busiest of the year for internet retailers, marking the start of a 2 week online shopping spree. Being the first Monday after the November payday, everyone knows exactly how much they've got to spend on the festivities. In America, it's the first Monday after Thanksgiving, which is when the nation's psyche switches towards thinking about Christmas. Ordering now also gives plenty of time for goods to be delivered in time to be wrapped without a last minute panic.

Visa are predicting 4.8 million British people will buy online today, spending around £303 million on their credit and debit cards. It's also expected to be the first year when Christmas shopping on smartphones becomes mainstream, with an estimated 12.2% of purchases made on mobile devices.

So if you're one of those browsing the web for gifts, this is a good time to remind you to shop around and don't just go to the obvious sites. The world is full of small independent traders who depend on your purchases much more than the major companies do. You'll end up with very unique arts, crafts, clothing, food, furniture, etc which your loved ones will treasure a lot more than all the mass-produced stuff you'll find in the big retailers.

So, in the hope you'll want to spread a bit of Christmas cheer my way, here's my handy guide to everything you can currently buy from me. Just click the pictures to take you to the appropriate stores:

Café Press:
13 individual stores, each one containing around 200 clothes, gifts, homeware and more. All the products shown here are available in each of the stores.

There are 4 special shops for Christmas. Here you can stock up on unique Christmas cards and decorations...

...winter warmers...

...essentials to get you through the festivities...

...and mementoes of baby's first Christmas.

•Note: Prices shown in GB£ are converted from US$ are may therefore vary due to international exchange rates.

My Zazzle store currently stocks 3 product ranges.

Font Islands: Stunningly detailed and realistic 3D graphics available on mugs (which can be customised with the recipient's name), mouse mats and shopping bags.

Flags: Grungy flags on a variety of background colours can be bought on badges, magnets, keyrings and an assortment of T-shirts. Currently available for the UK; USA; France; Germany; Ireland; Italy; South Africa; Japan; Canada; Australia and New Zealand.

Animal T-shirts: Illustrations based on a salmon, peacock and stag.

A lot of the work in my DeviantArt portfolio is also available for purchase. This can be bought on wall art; greetings cards; coasters; magnets; mouse mats; mugs; postcards and puzzles. Look for the little bag symbol to see what's for sale, here are a few samples to whet your appetite.

Happy shopping!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Sink Or Swim!

After 2 long weeks of being told "wait until your next appointment and they'll sort it then," on Thursday I actually managed to sit down with an advisor at the Job Centre and made them sign me up for the New Enterprise Allowance scheme (NEA).

You can imagine the look of bewilderment on the man's face as he clutched entirely the wrong forms and had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Even though my clearance had been sitting on their computer for a fortnight. I had to feel sorry for him though. He'd just come back from being off long-term sick, so hey, who better to administrate a programme he's had absolutely no experience of?

Cue the typical arse/elbow recognition lesson. It took 3 members of staff before anyone knew which buttons needed pressing, but even he couldn't tell me those tiny little details like... well... when the heck I can expect to get any money. I guess it's going to be lucky dip at the cashpoint for the next couple of weeks!

Eventually, the forms were signed, I'd taught the advisor a bit about how to do his own job, the little signing-on booklet that's been my constant companion for the last 2½ years got left on the desk and I walked out of that Job Centre officially self-employed.

Oh boy.

Even though the NEA provides me with a benefits cushion for 6 months, I know that time will soon fly by and I've got to make sure I'm in a strong enough position to strike out and survive on my own.

That's the scary bit I mentioned in my last post. The trouble that could trip me over and see me end up finally bankrupt. I've got to master something I have absolutely no idea how to do and which frustrates me when people don't respond in the way I need them to.

I've got to get people to part with their money.

I'm not one of those charismatic sorts that has people hanging on my every word. I haven't got a cute sob story to trade off. I've never had people rushing to my aid when I've been in trouble or who'll go singing my praises to someone who could be a great help. I don't have thousands of Twitter followers or get long streams of comments on my Facebook. I've only got 12 people following this blog and another 3 on the Electric Scrapbook.

All that's going to have to change if I'm to get enough trade to make a living. I honestly don't know how I'm supposed to make people care. Am I coming across as a whinger by saying that?

Please don't confuse that with me having no confidence in my work. Far from it, I love what I do! I have my big ideas, hone them to perfection on this computer, upload them to my shops, post the links to all my readers, then... nothing. That little masterpiece I thought everyone would go crazy for just sits there gathering virtual dust.

A few little reminders of some of my favourite designs, none of which I've ever sold. These are all available from my Zazzle store.

Of course I have a few notable exceptions who have been excellent supporters. They know who they are and how much I appreciate them. I just wish I had many more of them!

So now I have the challenge of working out how to make people want to spend their hard earned cash with me. I really want the art to do the talking. I want everyone to see they're getting something very special and unique. It's not often you get the chance to own something that literally nobody else in the world has got, but if you shop with me you will do. Owning a one-off original would normally cost thousands but here you can get it for a couple of pounds. What's not to love?

I'm currently loading lots more new products onto Café Press. The Snowman and Christmas Tree shops are now complete, I'll finish the other Christmas shops over the weekend, with the remaining designs to follow during the week. I'm also planning to squeeze in a couple of new Christmas card designs if I can do them in time, which will mark the start of a major new (and VERY unique) art and greetings project over on Zazzle. Then I've got another big surprise to launch over at Café Press which will give you a whole new shopping experience.

I'm already lining up my new projects for 2012, some of which will be totally unlike anything you've seen from me so far. Getting the ideas is the easy bit. Getting the money to bring those ideas to life is a heck of a lot tougher.

Christmas is fast approaching and this is the perfect time to get involved. If you bought even one little gift from my Zazzle or Café Press stores instead of the big retailers you'll get something extra special and thoughtful for your loved one and you'll be doing me a massive service. Even if you can't afford to buy something yourself, please pass this link along to someone who you believe would be interested. I can only make my business work if YOU help me out. Yes, you. Not that other person. You. Yes. Thank you.

• To visit my Zazzle store for flags, Font Islands and animal T-shirts, click here.
• To visit my Café Press stores for hundreds of clothes, gifts, homeware and more, click on the design you like from the buttons on the left hand side of this page.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Tide Turning?

It's been 2 months since I last wrote to you but rest assured I've not been idle. The rare quiet time I get has been spent on a very important task. One that could launch me to a whole new level of success. Or see me down the nearest bankruptcy court. One or t'other.

If you remember (or can be bothered scrolling back to previous posts) there are health issues within my family that make it unwise for me to leave the house for long periods of time every day. That's assuming I could find a damn job anyway, which is a lot easier said than done.

I've spent most of my adult life working for myself and it was always my aim to get back to being self employed. It's true what they say, once you've worked for yourself it's really hard to enjoy working for someone else. Since I left college over 3 years ago I've always put my efforts into starting projects that could lead me back to self employment. The only stumbling block has always been money. To be precise, the total lack of it in my bank account.

Considering that for about 4 years we've been in a recession/credit crunch/whatever other fancy name economists want to put on it, you'd think the government would have wanted to do whatever it could to encourage people to start their own businesses so they can use their skills and initiative to graft their way back to solvency. It's always been my attitude that if someone didn't want to take me on then I'd make some sort of opportunities for myself. Yet up until recently the help offered to get the jobless to try self employment has been pretty poor. You had to be signing on for between 6 and 12 months only, attend a start-up course at the local Business Link centre and then you'd be entitled to about £50 a week for a certain amount of time. So that's fine if you could guarantee to make up the £15 a week you'd be losing (or more depending on your benefits). For an art and design business, where my cash flow would consist of larger but irregular payments, that was too much of a gamble and I didn't have a cash reserve to fall back on.

That and the fact the 2 guys running the course were idiots.

Now though things have changed and this year saw the reintroduction of the Enterprise Allowance, which actually helped me start my first business back in the late '80s. This time you have to attend regular mentoring sessions at your local partner agency (in my case the Black Country Chamber of Commerce - the disappointing Business Link service thankfully no longer exists although their website's still up and actually very useful). Over the space of 8 weeks you're guided through filling in a template for a business plan and, once that's approved, you can decide whether or not you really want to start your business. If so, you're passed back to the Job Centre who'll switch you from receiving Job Seeker's Allowance to New Enterprise Allowance. This is the same amount (£65 a week) as JSA for the first 13 weeks, then drops down to £33 for another 13 weeks. There's an optional cut-price loan of up to £1,000 if you need it and you can continue to get help from your business mentor. So at least I won't be any worse off for 13 weeks plus obviously I can keep whatever I earn. Whilst unemployed, if I'd cashed in any of my royalties from my online shops, for example, that would have been deducted from my benefits so in effect I'd have been working for nothing.

Creative people tend to have a phobia of business plans. Too many facts and targets for our expressive brains to handle. Thankfully this mentoring process made it pretty painless. I could easily complete the sections where I explain the vision for my business - oh boy do I have LOADS of ideas I want to try out! My mentor Sarah then broke down the market research questions into bite sized chunks and told me exactly what type of competing businesses to look at and what sort of information I should be finding out about them. Having a check list to tick off made it a lot more focused and manageable. Then for the REALLY scary bit, the financial planning, it was just a case of filling in a form listing my incomings and outgoings and she ran that through an Excel spreadsheet to form a 12 month financial projection. Phew, I'm glad she tackled that one for me!

The process of writing the business plan turned out to be a useful way to mull over my ideas and put my priorities in order. Projects which I thought would form an important part of my business got put on the back burner when I realised others would be easier to expand and reformat to use in various different ways. So I now have a business plan template I feel comfortable using and I can rewrite it whenever I want to examine the feasibility of a new project idea.

All I need now is for the Job Centre to get their backsides into gear and sort the paperwork for me. It'll have been 2 weeks between the end of mentoring and my next Job Centre appraisal. It should have been today but I got a phone call postponing it, literally 10 minutes before I was due to leave the house. At this time of year, when I was hoping to start the business off with a big Christmas giftware push, that's a lot of valuable time being wasted!

Of course, a business plan can't prepare you for everything. In my next post I'll explain the bit I'm REALLY not confident about, which is why I started this post by saying my gamble could land me in the bankruptcy court!

•If you live in England, Wales or Scotland and have been unemployed for over 6 months, you may be eligible to apply for the New Enterprise Allowance.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Letraset Colouring Challenge

After my post yesterday, this follow up is to post my entry to the latest Letraset colouring challenge. The template is yet another masterpiece from Carlton Hibbert at Patterns For Colouring.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Although the tulips would normally have me reaching for my brightest pinks and yellows, as it's September I thought I'd see what I could do with just an autumn palette.

The closing date is this Wednesday, September 21st, with sets of Letraset ProMarkers up as prizes. I've seen some of the other entries, they're all amazing so it's a good job the winner's chosen at random!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Keep Calm and Colour In

This post is my contribution to Speak Out With Your Geek Out week.

It's coming up to the first anniversary of my laptop power supply burning out. From October to January I was warped back in time to the 1990s when we didn't have home computers and had to make our own entertainment.

All winter I dabbled with paintbrushes and sewing needles, I tore my hair out over 16x16 Sudoku puzzles, I read magazine articles I'd shoved into a bulging "read me" folder. Yet the thing I ended up hankering for the most was a book that had been gathering dust in a cupboard for 15 years or so.

Don't be fooled by Little Miss Cutesie. She's on a break from curing cancer.

I would have been at art school when I bought this, being initiated into the joys of graphic design. Unlike fine art, a designer needs a logical, problem-solving side to their brain. The sort that gets a kick out of a 16x16 Sudoku, indeed.

Altair patterns are based on 10th century Islamic mathematics. They work on the principle that a simple repetition of very small basic shapes (triangles, squares, hexagons, etc) can add up to create incredibly complex patterns. The Altair templates (developed into their present form by biologist/geometrician Ensor Holiday) can be coloured in a countless number of ways, creating a vastly different pattern every time. This book contained 2 copies of 8 different patterns.

My 2 interpretations of Altair pattern No. 10.

Altair colouring pads can be bought from all good online book stores or your can download 3 free ones from the Tinkering Times blog. There's also an Altair Pattern Designer application on Facebook and you can check out other pattern fans' efforts on Flikr.

Having finished off my Altair book, I found 2 excellent value pattern pads in Wilkinson's. They're not available in all branches but I've also seen almost exactly the same book in Ryman's.

The designs are very different to Altair but they still offer a huge number of challenges regarding colour combinations and repeating shapes.

Some colour schemes choose themselves, such as this peacock-inspired pattern.

Or pick a couple of pencils out of the box at random and test out a combination you would never have thought of, like the pink, olive and grey used here.

A tip for best results: Place a sheet of scrap paper between each page of your book to stop your masterpieces smudging into each other!

My other favourite resource is Patterns For Colouring, a blog by designer Carlton Hibbert in which he shares his own geometric patterns for all to enjoy, along with contributions by guest illustrators. There are currently 201 images on there to suit all ages. Simply download the files, print them out and get those pens and pencils working! I'm printing them out at A3 and at some point would love to get them framed and on my walls.

A stylised garden design prompted this study in green.

A rainbow spectrum can be a good starting point for a colour scheme.

I interpreted this as an abstract sunburst.

A guest design by Steph Baxter, which I later framed for my niece's birthday.

As much as I enjoy creating my own artwork, I still find it just as creative to take someone else's outlines and put my personal spin on them. I can experiment with different colour combinations, layouts and repetitions. It's mentally and visually stimulating, keeps your mind sharp and improves your hand-eye co-ordination. By adding even a cheap frame you can transform your finished designs into unique works of art to brighten up any room. Or why not take them off the page and use them for greetings cards or needlework patterns? In fact the only rules are respect the work of the original artist and don't use it to make money for yourself.

So if you're looking for a low cost, rewarding hobby, dig out that neglected pencil box (or, for quality and value, I recommend a pack of 24 Crayolas), get a nice shiny new sharpener and unleash your inner brilliance. Whether it's for a calming 5 minutes alone or an afternoon with the family, colouring doesn't have to be just kids' stuff!