Zen Pencils: Illustrated advice on leading a creative life

Come February, Zen Pencils turns 6 years old. Gavin Aung Than talks about his journey so far, future plans and the release of his new book collection Creative Struggle.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Zen Pencils

It hasn’t been an easy year for Gavin Aung Than. After completing 5 years with Zen Pencils, during which he published over 200 comics, the Melbourne-based artist was starting to feel a bit burnt out. Gavin even started questioning whether he had taken the site as far as he could and whether he should discontinue.

The work from home lifestyle wasn’t helping either, making him feel like a ‘cranky cartooning recluse at home.’ The creative struggle eventually found an outlet through his very art as it became a central theme for a number of Zen Pencils comics that came out in 2017.

Come the new year, and on January 16th, a couple of weeks shy of Zen Pencils’ 6th year anniversary, Gavin is releasing his new book collection titled Creative Struggle. In his latest book collection, Gavin has taken creative advice from legends like Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Kurosawa and more and illustrated them in his own signature style of comics. The book is all about how these great minds have dealt with creative blocks or how they think about creativity.

Gavin Aung Than, the creator of Zen Pencils, talks to INKLINE about living the dream and his experiences of having led a creative life for the past 6 years.

Gavin Aung Than. © Zen Pencils

INKLINE: Cartoonist’s leap of faith lands him on the New York Times bestseller list’ – one amongst the many headlines on Zen Pencils out there.  A very easy statement to make, but looking back how difficult was it?

Gavin Aung Than: Before Zen Pencils, I was working as a graphic designer. It started as a very good job and I moved around in the company. But eventually, I became very unhappy. It was a newspaper and newspapers were going through a tough time, so a lot of my friends were losing their jobs or being made redundant and the whole energy of the office was negative. The work itself was not fulfilling at all, I was in auto-pilot most of the time.

© Zen Pencils

I’ve always been interested in cartooning and that’s always been something I tried to pursue on the side since I started working out of college.  And, I guess I was really unhappy with where I was and all the events just culminated in me finally saying to myself “I’ve had enough!” That it was time to take action instead of just fantasising about it all these years.

I: You support yourself with the revenue obtained from Zen Pencils. How does that work out? 

G: I am barely supporting myself (laughs). It’s mainly the revenue from the merchandise, which is mainly the posters. The books help out as well. That’s pretty much it. I’ve also started Patreon, so that helps a little bit as well. So yes, a few different revenue streams, I couldn’t just survive off the books, I couldn’t just survive off the posters, I couldn’t just survive off Patreon, but all together then it’s kind of keeping me afloat.

I: You have published over 220 comics on your website. If you had to pick one from the lot, what would it be and why?

G: I guess I would have to go back to the most popular comic on the website. The Bill Watterson one, it’s called A cartoonist’s advice. The quote is by the creator of Calvin & Hobbes,  which was my most favourite comic strip growing up.

A cartoonist’s advice is all about following your heart, about making that tough decision, knowing that other people won’t really agree with it but you keep going ahead and then you realise that it was the right decision all along. The actual story of the strip is like my autobiography – it’s about a guy who’s working in an unfulfilling advertising job and he leaves to work at home and take care of his daughter, and that sort of mirrors my life.

It’s got a special feeling, not only is it my own story but it also pays tribute to my favourite artist and it also really connected with a lot of people out there in the world, it was sort of the perfect storm of Zen Pencils.

© Zen Pencils

I: Zen Pencils is certainly one of the very original sources of inspiration and motivation out there. What and who were your sources of inspiration growing up?

G: Growing up as a teenager I was into the typical Marvel, DC superhero stuff and that kind of just made me want to draw and be a good an artist as the artists of those comic books. I was really into Looney Tunes and the director Chuck Jones, in particular, his comedy, his sense of timing and generally his style of drawing was something that really appealed to me.

I was also really into Carl Sagan, he’s a famous scientist and science communicator in the ’80s in America. He’s written a lot of good books and had a TV show called Cosmos. He was pretty inspiring.

Of course, I’ve done comic tributes to my heroes like Bruce Lee, who did his own thing, followed his own path, didn’t let the Hollywood system or racism stop him, he was one of the greats. Muhammad Ali, I’ve done a comic series on him, he was just so confident in himself, just a really cool guy, he was the opposite of me you know, he could kick ass and he was witty and funny and his life story is pretty inspiring.

I: The source material for your comics are clearly people who have inspired you and their stories. But, you also try to integrate and talk about the current social issues. Could you talk about that a bit?

G: Yes, lately I’ve been trying to get a bit more socially conscious in my comics. Every comic doesn’t have to be inspirational and about following your dreams, sometimes they are about the environment, sometimes they are about gay rights issues or racism. For example, the latest comic I’ve done is much darker, dealing with child abuse. So yes, it’s something I’m trying to comment on, how I feel about the world.

© Zen Pencils

The inspirational quotes will always be the core of Zen Pencils, but I can’t keep doing feel-good quote after feel-good quote, I’ve kind of done a lot of those already and I want to explore new themes, new issues and see where that can take me.

I: Discipline is something that is very important in art. How do you keep yourself on track?

G: Discipline is certainly one of the most important things, particularly when you work from home like I do. There are a lot of distractions like the laundry has to be done, dinner has to be cooked or the dogs have to be walked. I guess I’ve always been pretty good with that, even when I was working my old job.

I’m a creature of habit, I wake up and I get to work and follow it pretty much like a 9-5 workday. And just try not to be too lazy to grab the day, because the moment you get distracted you go down a rabbit hole and then you emerge a few hours later and the day is over and you got nothing done.

But, it is really quite easy to stay motivated. I am doing what I’ve always wanted to do, so it’s not that hard to get motivated when I know I need to be.

I: Tell us a bit about Creative Struggle – your new book collection launching this 16th.

G: Creative Struggle collects my recent series of comics on creativity, featuring advice from Van Gogh, da Vinci, Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, Stephen King, Tchaikovsky, Kurosawa, Nikola Tesla, Brené Brown and more. It also includes a new and exclusive comic containing my 8 tips on how to succeed in living a creative life, boiling down everything I’ve learned from the past five years of being a full-time cartoonist.

© Zen Pencils

I: What is in store for the future of Zen Pencils?

G: Hopefully, I will be writing a few more of my own comics. I’ve done a few on the website before and a lot of the readers seem to like them and they have encouraged me to keep writing my own stuff.

And yes, just to keep updating the website regularly because I’ve kind of dropped off. It’s become a bit more sporadic over the years, so trying to get back on a consistent update schedule and just to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully, a few new readers will find it and we’ll keep going!

I: What advice would you like to give to your fellow artists out there?

G: If you’re a comic artist or webcartoonist, keeping a regular schedule and posting online, trying to a build a small community around your work, trying to find a niche and just doing whatever interests you. No matter however crazy or weird your interests are there’s always a little community that you can find who are willing to support you.

Just go for it!

© Zen Pencils

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