No More Art/Craft Kits

Many artists may have started with art or craft kits, but the more I see them, the more I get grumpy about the expectations they raise and don’t complete. And I think the same kind of thinking that went into the real estate bubble (consumerism, greed, and the idea that if you don’t have the latest gadget, you are nobody) is hitting the art market.

Survival kit in a sardine can, courtesy

Survival kit in a sardine can, courtesy

For a long time I believed that kits and assembly-projects were art portals. People would understand art, get the fun and creativity, and strike out on their own. But I don’t see that happening. Instead, I see people demanding perfect, gift-ready products at the end of a two-hour class.

The very field that encourages thinking, creative problem solving, experimentation, delightful mistakes that lead to interesting discoveries is now fraught with kits that assemble in under an hour and guarantee “perfect” results.

No creativity here. No problem solving, either. No

A can of worms. (

A can of worms. (

experimentation. You might as well be assembling a bookcase from Ikea. The last time I did that, I didn’t claim to be a carpenter or a woodworker. I did learn how to use an Allen Wrench, though.

The problem with kits is that they don’t encourage artistic exploration, they encourage consumerism. You often have to purchase that special tool, which comes in three sizes, so you’ll need the container to put it in, and the book with other projects that require six more specialized tools.

There may have been a reason for kit creation. I could also be lining my hat with aluminum foil and designing conspiracy theories. Here’s the logical thread: artists who spent time and effort developing a useful technique would teach it. The class participants took the class and promptly began to teach the same thing with less experience. The original designer began to create shortcuts to blur the process but produce uniform results, which pleased art retreat promoters who could teach more classes in a day. It pleased the participants, too, who began to walk out with “can’t fail” projects.

Craft tool manufacturers loved it because instructors could demand more specialized tools.

The whole thing has gotten out of hand. In a recent class, I passed out samples of some of the explorations of the technique I was teaching and one woman immediately began to make sketches of the pieces I was passing around and write down notes I’d put on some of the pages.

There was no doubt that she was copying, word for word, my copyrighted material. What’s interesting is that by the time class was over, she had learned the technique but had not recognized it because she was busy copying information, not experimenting with a technique.

As a culture, we’ve over-scheduled our kids and ourselves to the point where free time has to be productive, result in a gift or something “creative.” We don’t feel joy or pride when we complete a kit, we feel relief at duplicating the picture on the cover in the time allotted.

We haven’t learned a thing, and certainly not made meaning or art. No wonder people don’t “get” art, they’ve never experienced the joy of creation.

There is a legitimate place for kits, and it’s the equivalent of the Ikea bookcase. If you want to assemble something in a short time with little hassle, a kit is just perfect.

But I’m submitting a new analogy for the SATs. Kits are to art like reality shows are to real life. You can participate in a passive way and be glad it’s not all your idea.

It took me a while to figure out why I am so enthusiasitc about raw art journals. I finally figured it out–it’s all technique. I can’t tell you if you are doing it right. You’ll know. You’ll sit down and time will fly and you will like the result or know how to change it to love it next time. It’s meaning making. And for me, that’s life being art.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and raw-art journaler. She gives workshops in writing and raw art for businesses and  people who can’t draw.   © Quinn McDonald, 2009. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “No More Art/Craft Kits

  1. Pingback: Where do you go for creative community online? Part II: Art for arts networking’s sake « Creative Liberty

  2. Pingback: Surf’s Up: Top Creativity Links for May 2, 2009 « Creative Liberty

  3. Hi Quinn,

    Your kit creation versus artistic exploration reminds me of a business workshop topic I attended. In the workshop, which was about teaching classes, the presenter spoke of the decision artists must make when teaching: do you teach a project that can be finished or do you teach a technique that opens the door to creativity.

    I think most artists initially learn by project. And somewhere along the way some people “take off” with their skills and expand their creativity and others stay stuck at the project level. They want someone to tell them what to do and how it will look in the end. I think they fear thinking on their own, opening up to their own creativity, and fear failure if it doesn’t work out perfectly.

    Now if I take a project based workshop, I go to learn a new skill that I might apply to a different media. I don’t feel I have to finish the project (which also frustrates some teachers who want you to leave with a finished project, so perhaps they are enabling the issue as well.) Otherwise I prefer technique based workshops that allow me to experiment and create. This did, however, come with time and with gaining self-confidence.

    I agree that our society seems to prefer the quick-fix, instant gratification situation. I don’t have any good answers yet on how to move away from this scenario.


    • The reasons for the change is a long and complicated one. Much of it finds root in our culture, which values results, not learning. I’m often asked to teach people to write in two or three hours–because no one has time to take classes. I’m astonished at the lack of understanding of what learning is. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Amy.

  4. I like kits as an introduction to a technique I might not try otherwise. I think they are useful for that. But I think they need to be open-ended enough to encourage you to take that technique further. I liked legos for my kids for instance, because they built the thing on the box, then almost immediately took it apart and built something else of their own creation. That’s a good “kit”!

    • I’ve never seen a technique kit. If you play with the technique and don’t complete the project–or even better–combine several kits and make something totally different, now you have something! And Legos are great imagination starters, but they aren’t really a kit. I’m defining “kit” as pieces of material (paper, ribbon, cloth, cardboard) that is to be assembled in a certain way to bring about an object shown on the front of the kit. At the end you won’t have any major leftovers. I’m loving “artistaexit0″‘s idea of not including instructions. And a friend of mine, Paul Lagasse, is amazingly inventive by combining kits with non-traditional supplies and making incredibly imaginative pieces.

      • Hi Quinn…My own work is about showing up on a river bank with a collecting bag, knife, and camera and making something from what the river gives me. I try not to make it technical, because people believe art has everything to do with craft and having great hand skills. It would be great if you could design a kit that gave people permission to be creative. That would be a wonderful gift because we need everybody’s creativity in these difficult times. Here is what my work looks like if you are interested:

        • I checked out your site and am astonished at the amount of vision you have to create this art. I love the styro-dog. He’s amazing–shoe-sole ears and all! I think people are afraid of creativity–it comes with too much responsibility to create. I’m glad you have it! –Q

  5. Quinn,
    This page has so many helpful and inspiring links. All the information will certainly keep me coming back. Your “take” on learning is so refreshing. I still have some of my grade school papers with a D or F or “Try Harder” splat in the middle of a penmanship page with a magic marker. Of course as a kid it had a profound effect on me. The fact is that I was doing a fine job, and I have the papers to prove it. Daydreaming was my main activity as a child. It’s vital to always have a dream and be a lifelong learner. Thanks for all the wonderful free tutoring you are giving us. It will bless you ten fold.
    Chris Bolmeier

  6. Hi Quinn… I appreciate how much thought you have put into your latest post. I couldn’t agree more. Kits would be more creative if they didn’t come with instructions. I think you are right about technology…younger people in particular seem to confuse information for knowledge and experience. Sincerely, artistatexit0

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