We had the good fortune of connecting with Alexandria Neonakis and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Alexandria, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
When I started I bought heavily into hustle culture. I thought that to be a successful artist meant you had to be working 24/7. When I was younger, learning how to paint and draw, I spent a lot of time online reading forums that cultivated that idea. If you weren’t drawing every day you were wasting hours. If you weren’t constantly practicing you were going to lose opportunities to people who were. I’ve since done a 180 on that. First of all, it’s unhealthy on basically every level. Mentally it’s the fastest track to burn out. I overworked myself to burn out in 2018. It’s maybe one of the scariest things that can happen to a creative professional because no matter how hard you try or feel you need to get back up and do work, your body just can’t. You overworked it, and there’s nothing you can do but rest. Your brain is a physical part of your body like any other. it can be overtaxed. It has limits. and pushing past that doesn’t make you mentally stronger or more cut out for it, it makes you just as silly as someone who overworks at the gym and pulls something, putting them out for weeks.
It’s also physically unhealthy! I wasn’t sleeping enough. My professional work is digital so I’d be hunched over a cintiq (drawing tablet) drawing for hours. I messed my wrist, arm and neck up. I ruptured 2 discs in my lumbar spine that I now need to get annual epidurals to deal with pain. Overworking took a toll on me that is taking me years (and a lot of money!) to recover from.
I now set extremely strict rules for myself about how much I’m working and when.
I schedule most Mondays and Fridays off if possible to only work on personal work. Those are growth days. I practice improving my craft, I learn new things, take courses online, paint just for the joy of it. Saturdays and Sundays are for rest and time spent with friends and family. Tuesday – Thursday are client work days or “flow” days. I will not schedule zoom calls before 10am or after 1pm as I find they interrupt flow and cut into my productive time.
Most clients are incredibly accommodating and supportive when they hear this. So long as you give them a heads up when you start the project, they think it’s great and some have even mentioned wanting to do similar things with their schedule.
Taking control of my own time and my own schedule has been the most important key in achieving a sustainable work-life balance.
I’m still working at it. It can be a bumpy road. Sometimes life happens, you get sick, family emergencies come up, creatively some days I’m just not feeling it. then I have to cut into my Monday/Friday time or even sometimes my weekends, but I always make sure to cut myself off, not work over 8 hours a day and take that time off again later down the road.
The end result from all of this is I feel happier and healthier than I have in a long time. I feel more productive overall. The quality of both my personal and my professional work has gone up. I no longer feel like I’m constantly in a panic just rushing from deadline to deadline. Not working as much has genuinely been the best thing I’ve done for my career in a very long time.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
For the past 15 years I’ve worked in the video games industry as a UI designer and a concept artist. Most recently I spent 8 years at Naughty Dog in Santa Monica where I designed characters and their costumes for The Last of Us Part 2. Alongside that I’m also a freelance children’s book illustrator and I do freelance work for animation, film and publishing.
My personal work is split between digital and traditional. I love gouache, watercolor and pastel. I spend a lot of my time outdoors in a nature painting. One of my current favorite spots to paint is the Summit to Summit Trail in Topanga State Park.
It’s been a strange path, honestly. I am from Nova Scotia Canada, I’ve drawn and painted my whole life. I’ve also played games my whole life. I knew at an early age I wanted to work on video games so I set out to do that. I put all of my focus and energy into that, and now 15 years later, after a ton of burn out and feeling more than a little jaded about the whole thing, I find myself trying to find what it is I loved about art in the first place. Separating myself and my self worth from the work I do professionally has been a huge challenge, but it’s one that I feel I’m finally accomplishing. A big part of that was moving back towards traditional painting. Digital is how I make my money and with that comes a lot of the baggage of turning your creative hobby into your job. Traditional is a step removed. It’s something I do just for me, just for the love of it and any money I make off of it is a bonus.
Throwing myself into that as much as I can has helped me fall in love with painting again. Something I was worried I had lost along the way. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal expression without compromise, something you simply can’t have when you’re doing art for money for someone else.
At this point in my career I’m not really sure what I want. I’m content right now just relaxing a little and trying to figure it out without having the intense goals and focus that I had for almost all of my younger career years. I’m fine not having a 5 year plan. All I know is I’m content to be here. just painting moody landscapes, traveling and seeing where it all takes me.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Okay so almost all of mine are nature things but I have some favorite restaurants and stuff because who doesn’t.
I think a trip to LACMA and the Tar Pits are a must because they’re just fun. I’d go to Republique for brunch if I was over there. The Croque Madame is rich and filling, it’s my favorite but you gotta save space for pastries.
Norah is another favorite. It’s on Melrose, they have an outrageously good cornbread and they used to do this really good rib eye, I’m not sure if they’re still doing it, but really the whole menu is a win.
Farmshop in Brentwood was maybe my most missed spot during covid (other than Jose Andres’ Bazaar… RIP I will miss you so bad forever, please come back I want to eat croquettes from a shoe) brunch, dinner and lunch are all great at Farmshop and you’re pretty close to Temescal canyon which is a spot I like to hike and paint (bring water, the switchback is wide open and gets hot). If you’re over in the Brentwood area and are feeling sushi, hit Sugarfish. I dunno it’s just a favorite of everyone. Who doesn’t love Sugarfish. we all love Sugarfish. That’s why we’ll wait 2 hours for it.
If you wanna go to the beach I’d say get on the PCH and drive up past Malibu. Stop at The Reel Inn for lunch, it’s great. keep going till you’re at Zuma or Point Dume or one of those with the nice rocks. but really any of the spots from around Topanga Canyon exit north is gonna be great. I’m acting like the beaches south of that are not fantastic, they are. There’s just more to paint when you go north hahah.
I spend a ton of time in Topanga Canyon cause I live just north of it in Woodland Hills. There are so many good parks in there. Summit to Summit trail is the one I spend a lot of my time on. there’s red rock in there as well, Topanga state park, they’re all winners. Driving past the Topanga exit on the PCH heading to Dume and Zuma, you’ll get to Pepperdine and Las Virgenes. That’s where maybe the best park in all of LA is, Malibu Creek. It’s a fantastic hike. If you want a short hike, you can go to the rock pool and swim, if you’re down for something longer you can keep going to the MASH filming site. It’s pretty the whole way and is just a perfect spot to go hang out in nature for a day and really get a sense of how pretty LA really is.
if you wanna see something really cool and you have a car, I’d drive north to Vasquez Rocks. It’s something straight out of a sci-fi movie (probably why it’s been used in so many of them) it’s stunning desert landscape, perfect for plein air or photos or just hanging out in nature looking at cool rocks.
Last thing I’d do is go to the Griffith Observatory. I don’t care how touristy it is, it’s great. Cool space stuff. a spectacular view of LA, you’re surrounded by pretty hiking trails and a park, and at one of the entrances to the trails, down at the base there’s this tiny little cafe that sells cookies and drinks and stuff. they sell these lavender vanilla cookies that I would drive from woodland hills to get basically any day of the week.
oh yeah last one, Din Tai Fung is in a few cities not just LA but if it’s not in your city, go there and get the Xiao Long Bao they are perfect.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
The incredible women of game development. This has been an intense year. As games in general have a bit of a reckoning when it comes to overworking, abuse and work-life balance, the women in their respective studios have across the board been among the first to step up and put their necks out to support each other, to tell their stories and to work hard to make the industry better. I respect all of you so much.
Youtube: Alexandria Neonakis