Mai Stewart (@maidoodles) calls herself an undercover doodler. A fourth-year med student living in Philadelphia, Stewart spends most of her time preparing for her career as a doctor. But when she’s not studying or on clinical rotations, she’s doodling.
The illustrations she posts on Instagram range from poignant to punny and whimsical to informative. Though we never see her face or even her last name on her profile, Stewart’s doodles offer a window into her double life.
I talked to her about finding time to be creative as a med student and finding an audience on Instagram as a social media latecomer.
Sixtysix: How did you first start illustrating?
Stewart: When I got the Calvin and Hobbes series as a kid I knew that I wanted to be a cartoonist. But my family is all in science and engineering so I didn’t think that was a real thing people did. I always doodled in the margins of whatever I was doing in school.
I used to hoard all my drawings in sketchbooks and not show them to anyone. Then I started drawing them on my iPad and keeping them as files. I ended up deleting a lot because I wasn’t doing anything with them.
In college, a friend suggested that I start putting my illustrations on Instagram, and at the time I didn’t even know what Instagram was. But I started posting, and now I really enjoy being able to share.
Tell me about your daily doodle project.
I was coming out of a bad breakup, and at the time it seemed like the worst thing in the world. I decided I would post a doodle everyday so it would remind me that the breakup would eventually feel inconsequential. I thought I would only do it for 20 days but I kept it up for 564.
I was in the academic years of medical school when I started the daily doodle project, so I wasn’t on rotations all day. As rotations picked up I realized I couldn’t keep up with the project in a meaningful way. I was putting out drawings that I wasn’t happy with so I decided to end it.
Now I tell myself I’ll draw during study breaks, but I still have the issue where I’m working on art projects when I should be studying. It’s an evolving time management issue for me, but I know I wouldn’t be happy if I stopped.
I agonize over posting because I feel like I’m going to be quoted forever on the internet.
Walk me through the process of creating one of your illustrations.
I usually sketch ideas on Post-it notes when I think of them, and then when I get the chance I draw it on my iPad. I use the Procreate and Art Studio apps.
I started off drawing with my finger but I got the Apple Pencil as a birthday gift, and I’ve used it for the past year. Now when I try to use my finger I can’t do it at all, but at the time it was all I knew.
The daily doodles had to be really quick, probably 20 to 30 minutes, because I had to fit it into my schedule. Now if I’m drawing a comic it usually takes four or five hours in total. I tell myself I’ll only work on it for 15 minutes at a time but I always end up finishing it in one sitting because once I see the finished product in my mind it has to exist, I can’t just leave it half done.
Does an awareness of your audience on Instagram influence your work?
I’m always surprised by what’s popular. Sometimes I post something that I’m not super happy with and that will be the most liked thing. I wish it didn’t affect my work, but it does.
The drawings that have to do with medical school are always more popular than my other stuff, so I’m swayed to do those even though it’s not my favorite subject matter. I don’t like to mix school and art, but school is also my life so it’s hard to ignore.
The art community is so big that you need to find a niche. My drawings about medical school appeal to certain people, whereas if I drew something generic it would appeal to nobody.
What is something you don’t like about Instagram?
The resolution is terrible. I spend a lot of time on the tiny details in my comics, and when you look at it on a phone you can’t see them. So I always post a full resolution version on my website too so there is a full resolution version.
Do you have any practices for getting out of the academic mindset and into the creative zone?
It’s usually the opposite transition that is harder. I always have ideas for drawing, whereas to study I have to really push aside whatever whimsical daydreams I’m having. I try to write ideas down quickly so that I can move on and come back to them later.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you if they only know you from Instagram?
People might be surprised to know how much I stress out about my captions. I’m very self-conscious about my ability to write, which is why it took me so long to start posting comics.
I agonize over posting because I feel like I’m going to be quoted forever on the internet. I usually end up writing something very vague because I’m worried about accidentally oversharing.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start sharing their art on Instagram?
I know it’s cliché, but just rip off the Band-Aid. I think making yourself anonymous at first makes it easier because it takes the pressure off. You don’t have to tell your friends and family. You can just do it for yourself. And then you can decide to be more open later on.
Who are your favorite people to follow on Instagram?