I’ve connected with Therese Cilia after Patricia Parkinson recommended me to check her work. Therese is a truly inspiring artist and has some brilliant habits and routines worth stealing. I enjoyed learning about her work process, the most important habits and influences in her life and career.
Therese Cilia is a painter and illustrator whose whimsical and detailed work finds a home in children’s books, fine art prints, stationery, and commissions. She obtained her BFA in 2007 at OCAD University, in Toronto.
Therese is inspired by stories of the human spirit, the natural world, and an obsession with artist’s materials and paper products. She currently lives in Belleville, Ontario, and has just published her third picture book Keeper of the Light by Janet Barkhouse.
She recently received an Arts Recognition Award from the Quinte Arts Council for her contribution to the arts.
What Are the Most Influential Habits in Your Life?
Waking up early is a must for me. My brain functions at its best in the morning, and I like the peace and calm that comes with it. I drink a big glass of water, and take a French press of coffee to my desk. I turn on CBC radio or listen to a podcast while I make my task list for the day.
Hearing what’s happening in the world helps me to come alive, and feel connected and engaged. By the afternoon, my dog gives me no choice but to get outside and walk (or run, to keep up with her pace). Sometimes I’m reluctant to leave the studio, but by the time I’m outside I’m so grateful for her.
Exercise and fresh air are imperative to my creativity. It’s energy-boosting and that time away from the studio is often where I get my “aha” moments and ideas come tumbling out of nowhere.
Eating properly has become more crucial as my art practice has deepened. It keeps me calm and focused. I am always thinking about food—taking stock of ingredients and reading recipes books like fiction. Being in the kitchen is also my comfort zone; a place to just work with my hands and process the day, so I make time for it whether it’s in the afternoon or evening.
How Do You Set Goals and Manage Time?
Lists upon lists. I have two cork boards above my monitor filled with lists, among visual inspiration and works in progress. I like to have them right in front of me so they are always on my mind.
I have 3 fat yellow highlighters that I use to cross off the items on my lists and it is wonderfully satisfying and motivating! At the start of the year, I create a bucket list of goals. I break those down into actionable to-do’s and slot them into 12 months. Every month I do an overview to see how I’m doing and every morning I make a task list and highlight as I get things done.
Things come up and plans change, and I try not to beat myself up if I don’t accomplish all the things. As someone who gets overwhelmed by the big picture, this method allows me to focus in on the details.
I prefer to schedule large chunks of time, especially for larger projects, rather than multi-tasking. It creates a good momentum to finish one thing, cross it off the list and move on to the next, rather than having 10 unfinished things on the go, which is how I used to work.
How Are You Modeling Your Life?
I am always seeking out other artists and entrepreneurs’ advice and methods. You can feel pretty alone when it’s just you in the studio and I often doubt that I’m doing anything right, so I look to others who are doing similar things.
I listen to a lot of podcasts while I work and I’ve learned so much this way, not only about how other creatives work but about social issues and the humanities. I also get emails delivered to my inbox from people like Marie Forleo, who just from her free subscription has already taught me so much.
I read this book by Hal Elrod recently called Miracle Morning which was really transformational for me—he says that the fastest way to achieve anything is to model successful people who have already achieved it. And with an infinite amount of books available on every topic, there are no limits to the amount of knowledge to be gained by reading.
Can You Describe Your Work Process and Thinking Behind It?
Before I start working on an idea, I spend a lot of time with it just incubating in my brain. I’m visualizing, thinking up potential problems. I do this in an indirect way while doing other things, like walking the dog or preparing dinner. Also the moment before unconsciousness and the moment just after waking. I really trust those moments because they are pure, undistracted thought.
Then I go online and research imagery. If I’m working on a book, I'm also fact-checking to make sure I’ve got the visuals right. I save a folder on my computer and fill it with images and then walk away and let it all incubate some more.
Later I’ll come back to it and sketch. Drawing is extremely important for me. Making sure I’ve exhausted all the possibilities, but also making sure I understand the essence of my subject before I go to paint. When I’m painting I really just want to be focusing on color and gesture, so that the end piece looks really fresh and easy.
While painting, I’m always making sure I’m going back to that initial image I had in my head, before all the research and drawing. While I’m drawing or painting, lots of things may change along the way (I let myself be open, allowing the painting to take me where it takes me) but that initial “feel”—usually a color palette or a historical reference—is always what I refer to.
I guess there is a see-saw happening, where on the one end I allow for lots of change, but on the other, I’m making sure I’m going back to my initial visualization. I’ve learned not to work on things too long or I lose that “essence,” that initial pull, so I prefer to schedule large chunks of time for larger projects, rather than spreading it out amongst others.
What Do You Eat for Breakfast?
Awhile ago I read that one of my favorite illustrators ate oatmeal for breakfast which appealed to me because it sounded satisfying and healthy rather than the empty calories of the toast I was eating, so now that’s what I do.
I like it because it keeps my belly full for a long time but doesn’t make me feel like I need to go back to bed afterward. I boil 1/3 cup of rolled oats, and then top it with chopped apple, banana, berries when I have them, walnuts or sliced almonds, lots of cinnamon and a touch of maple syrup.
How Do You Train Your Body and Mind?
Meditation and yoga have been with me for a very long time. Sometimes I go off track, but I aways come back to it because I don’t function very well without it. I just do it at home in my studio and I don’t have any particular method.
When I meditate, I pay particular attention to the breath and that helps to melt the thoughts away and just sit. I have a particular incense that helps me do that. Sometimes 5 minutes are all I can manage, but it’s enough.
I read all kinds of books. When I’m reading some good writing, my whole body and mind are on fire—imagination and all the possibilities and places my mind takes me. I process words as pictures and I’m so grateful for that because it enriches every little simple thing. I think reading is a great way to keep the mind flexed and open.
How Do You Meet and Connect with People?
Three years ago I left Toronto and initially found it difficult moving out of an artist hub, but I think this is changing. In the last few years, a lot of artists have moved from the city due to more affordable means of living and peace of mind.
I’ve learned just to take more initiative. I’m a bit of a shy person and an introvert, so it’s something I’m working on. I’ve been doing more handmade markets and that has been a wonderful way to connect with other local artists.
Connecting with customers face to face has been eye-opening too. They’ve taught me a lot about what my work is about. Social media is great too, but I often feel frustrated that I can’t connect enough. Recently at a craft fair a customer teared up when she saw my prints and that is a kind of connection social media will never have.
What Are Your Sleeping Rituals?
This is such a big one for me. I need sleep—it feels like more than most people do! I feel jealous and inadequate when other artists Instagram their studios with a tag line that says, “It’s 3 am and I couldn’t sleep so I just wrote/illustrated this book!” Lots of eye-rolling happens.
I’m very aware of how my brain just doesn’t fire when I’m tired and it’s frustrating when I have so much work I want to do and it’s just not happening. So I need to be in bed no later than 10 pm, ideally 9:30 pm. I love to wake up early when the world is still sleeping and it’s dark out—it feels so magical.
When I was a kid, I would often wake up at 5 am or 6 am and stare out the window or draw random things or read. I still get that same cozy, magical feeling when I sit at my desk early in the morning.
What Are Your Investing Habits?
Every Friday without fail I log into Quickbooks Online and enter my expenses and income and look at my profit/loss statement for the month.
This habit has been a game-changer for me, especially for someone who feels a bit of anxiety with money. Having an automated savings account that tops-up bi-weekly helps me too.
Understanding my money-flow helps me feel in control and confident but also helps me in making decisions like when can I launch a new product, or make an investment in studio technology, or a marketing budget.
Learning is always a good investment— I buy audiobooks to listen to while I work, books by other artists, and I’ve purchased courses on Atly.
I recently purchased a digital magazine called Handmade Seller which is jam-packed with how-tos. There is SO MUCH MYSTERY around being a working artist, and I believe in debunking it as much as I can.
What Books, People, Experiences Shaped Your Thinking?
I’ve only recently started to realize how much my mother has shaped who I am, especially creatively. I was a momma’s girl and tied to her apron strings for most of my young life.
I watched her improvise in the kitchen, and make bread, and pies, and granola, and cheese. I watched her sew and knit, and do calligraphy and she also wrote poetry and children’s stories. She taught me how to be stubborn about never giving up, how to stand up for myself, how to be self-disciplined and the importance of that, she instilled in me the drive to never waste a talent, and the goodness and value in being creative.
In my twenties, I met a woman who brought yoga and meditation to my life and she always makes me wonder why I was so lucky to meet her. So many children’s books have turned me into the artist I am, and those books are still on my shelf. Fairy tales and Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Growing up beside a forest has instilled in me a love and fascination with nature that always seeps into my art. In my early teens, Dickens opened up a pandora’s box for me about imagining place, character and story.