MerMay encourages creativity

Recurring May illustration challenge helps artists broaden artistic expression instead of experiencing burnout.


Graphic created by Faith Hill

Creative expansion: MerMay is a monthly art challenge during the month of May. These challenges have their pros and cons, but always offer inspiration to budding artists. “Sometimes it’s the song I hear, sometimes it’s something I see, but usually it’s what’s around me,” Jody Cain said.

Imagine the art community, then combine it with mermaids for the month of May — that’s a rough description of a well-known monthly art challenge known as MerMay. In short, this is a annual celebration of creativity in the form of drawing mermaids all through the month of May.

While there are other challenges, MerMay stands out from most with its notoriety, seeing as it has grown to have its own website with prizes for participation by following a daily prompt list. Many artists participate; some draw rigorously the entire month while others choose to do it more casually.

Anyone can participate, no matter your skill level or number of followers online. Although, one notable person who has participated in MerMay is Art Ala Carte, an art YouTuber known for her easy-to-follow tutorials. She started her channel in 2011 and has posted weekly since. In the past, she’s had an interactive take on MerMay and other challenges by including viewer polls in videos, allowing them to vote on ways a character looks or the direction the story goes, which allows anyone to get involved, artist or not.

Alviva Arts (@alvivaarts on TikTok) is a Seattle-based artist taking their own spin on MerMay by creating a hypothetical mermaid society, as if they were a real species in our world (including but not limited to diet, patterns and coloration, social groups and territory). These videos go into specific detail on the way they would interact alongside cutout drawings of mermaids that go along with it.

Tae, @twulfs on Instagram/Tiktok/Twitter, is an example of someone who knows how to manage their time in order to draw every day while still being a full-time art student at Grand Valley State University. They’re also an example of changing the “rules” of the challenge, instead using their own prompts to make a mermaid each day based on various sea creatures.

“I think it’s really impressive if you can come up with a cool concept to make every single day,” junior Kaylie Jansen said.

MerMay isn’t the only art challenge like this, there’s at least one similar for each month of the year. Take Inktober, where fall-themed prompts are drawn either in ink or drawn to look like ink (with digital art). Although this specific challenge has seen some controversy the past few years, it’s held up among the community and is still participated in each year. The origins for these are difficult to pin down.

The fun in these challenges is that the artwork does not have to be challenging. You don’t have to use the prompts, you don’t have to draw every day, you don’t even have to use the recommended medium (if applicable) — that’s the joy of the art community, that the rules applied to these challenges aren’t required to be followed.

“I probably won’t have the commitment for it, but I respect people who do,” senior Kaitlin Johnson said.

Although creativity and changes to the rules are welcome, the idea of these challenges to draw every day sometimes causes issues. This is especially true among people who struggle with regulating their time, to the point that they experience burnout by the end or forget about necessary life functions (eating or drinking) due to losing track of time.

This is especially true with young/new artists, who are less experienced with knowing their limits. It it important for participants to remember that the purpose is to have fun.

Patricia Pedroso, an artist and blogger, made a guide to avoiding these issues with art challenges with her post How to tackle & prepare for an Art Challenge.

“It’s time you consider if you really want and realistically are able to do the entire challenge. Look at your calendar, previous appointments, workload, your current routine, etc. Does it really fit in? If not, it doesn’t mean you have to fully give it up. It’s completely fine to adapt it,” Pedroso writes.

Overall, these challenges are good for new artists because they help foster consistency and practice. Participants, especially those seeking a career related to art, can build time management skills and practice meeting deadlines over a short period of time.

“I think they’re really good because it’s practice and it’s repetitive. That improves skill, not only with technique but with medium,” art and photography teacher Jody Cain said.

Art challenges are exactly what they say they are, ways to push your limits as an artist and join the rest of the community. Remember: There’s no “artist requirement” that to be a “real artist” you must participate in a challenge. They meant to be fun, and if they stops being fun, then something needs to change.