Erik from Hurt Your Brain (me)

Drawing of brain listening to headphones

This is part of an ongoing series that focuses on creators who live at the intersection of writing and art. The goal is to provide inspiration and practical tips for anyone looking to add more visuals to their work.

The creative work I do

I work in medical sales for my day job, which doesn’t always allow for the most creative expression in the world. In non-Covid times I spend hours and hours driving each week, which is how I became obsessed with podcasts and eventually how I fell in love with creativity again.

This podcast obsession combined with a new interest in writing (which I can trace directly back to this interview with Kevin Kelly) led to the creation of Hurt Your Brain, which started as a place to explore the best places to learn on the internet and to write about various topics that interested me. But my main creative output quickly became the newsletter, where I recommend thought-provoking non-fiction podcasts and links that make you think. 

I also began writing for other outlets and became connected with great publications like The Bello Collective.

Hurt Your Brain was born with the thesis in mind that we are all life-long learners, and it’s never too late to try something new. In that spirit, I started learning how to draw and experimented with adding my own visuals instead of relying on stock photos. 

The first drawing I added to my site was for my second blog post, an explainer on what Reddit was and how to use it for learning (by now it is probably pretty dated). 

Reddit’s Snoo, my first online drawing

The one thing I remember about this drawing is that it took way longer than it should have (I didn’t trace it) and I was super nervous to put it out into the world.

After that though I was hooked and fully committed to adding my own visuals to everything.

How long I’ve been visually creative

Pretty much exactly as long as I’ve been writing Hurt Your Brain (since 2015). I never felt artistic growing up and fell into the stereotypical trap of assuming that if something didn’t come naturally or easily then I shouldn’t explore it.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized this is all hogwash. People learn things completely new in adulthood all the time, and it’s really only a matter of interest + time to get good at something. 

I’ve done a combination of learning traditional drawing (mostly by following drawabox.com tutorials), sketching in a notebook, and following various YouTube tutorials on digital drawing. 

Drawing of boxes
Unsurprisingly, drawabox.com involves drawing lots of boxes to begin with

Thought process for incorporating original visuals into my work

I decided early on that I didn’t want the site or newsletter to be a graveyard of lame stock photos, but I also really wanted to include visuals of some kind. I figured drawings (even of dubious quality) would satisfy my creative itch more than stock photos. There was also the side effect that if I created my own visuals for everything it would force me to practice in public. This was also around the time a lot of sites were blowing up (like Wait But Why) that featured drawings prominently as part of the writing. This was a huge influence on me.

The tools I use

At one point my company started switching to iPad Pro’s instead of laptops. I decided to check out the Apple Pencil which turned out to be a real game changer. Early on I used free Adobe apps like Sketch and Draw, but now I almost exclusively use Procreate, which I absolutely love and am still learning to use all these years later. I get a little carried away experimenting with different brushes, but the round paint brush is my go-to choice.

I usually create an image in Procreate, save it to my camera roll, and then upload directly to the site on WordPress (both Hurt Your Brain and this site) as well as to Mailchimp for the newsletters. 

Before creating an image in Procreate, I try to sketch out a bunch of ideas in a small drawing notebook.

The image I am most proud of

This one.

Drawing of bookcase with podcast titles for books
My bookshelf of podcasts

I was writing an article for The Bello Collective, and I had this idea to compare podcasts to books. I sketched out some ideas of what a bookshelf full of podcasts might look like and decided to create a version digitally using various pencil brushes. 

It was one of the first times I created an image for something other than my own site, and I was proud of how it turned out. This also fully solidified in my mind the creative satisfaction that comes with pairing your own words with your own art. 

At a podcast conference, I was blown away when Tamar Avishair, creator of The Lonely Palette, told me she cried when she saw her show included with so many players like Radiolab and This American Life. My writing had certainly never made anyone cry, and this was a strong signal to me that art is worth pursuing even if it’s not something that would ever be in a museum.

Creators working at the intersection of writing and art that inspire and motivate me

Tim Urban’s Wait But Why is a blog I love, particularly when he was putting out content much more regularly (he’s currently working on a book). His writing and the topics he chooses really scratches a certain itch for me, but it was his admittedly amateur art that I really loved. Here’s this extremely popular blog that has stick figures and poorly drawn graphs as a feature, not a bug. You don’t need to be an Artist to communicate with art. 

Just like Kevin Kelly gave me permission to write, Tim Urban gave me permission to create visuals.

Now I am continuously impressed and inspired by any writer who also creates their own images, hence the reason for this entire site. There are so many creators within newsletters and on Twitter that are killing it with their creativity. I’m starting to compile my favorites in a public Twitter list.

Advice for anyone who wants to start adding visual creativity to their work

For anyone thinking of starting to draw or design their own images, I highly recommend it. The world really does have too many bland stock photos and I for one get downright pleased when I see any kind of original art within writing. It also stands out in a good way against the rest of the noise of the internet. And if you are worried at not being good, just look at anything I do for proof that the technical bar isn’t very high to get started. 

Also, avoid drawing people at first. I learned that quickly. People are really hard at the beginning (or anytime really). There is no shame in going the stick figure route if you need to.

Don’t be like me and spend way to long drawing a terrible looking person

And for god’s sake, don’t be afraid to trace pictures or to simply follow along with a YouTube tutorial. I followed this one to draw the Millennium Falcon for this post, and it came out WAY better than if I tried simply looking at a picture.

Drawing of Millennium Falcon
The feeling of driving through a snowstorm

Don’t make your life harder by feeling like everything has to originate from your brain. Great artists steal, even more so at the beginning.


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