Cleaning Up Your Act (and Creativity)

A few weeks ago, when the studio was still a paper dump, the big decision was not to clean it, or even how to clean,  but what to keep and what to scrap.

Cleaning out the bookcase was a choice-struggle, but it worked. And then the hard work began. Here’s what I did:


“Inspiration,” collage © Quinn McDonald, 2014. Monsoon Papers on mixed media paper.

For three days, I worked on projects that spoke to me. Carefully chosen, they were the result of a lot of thinking about expressing my creativity in ways that resonate with who I am and who I would like to become.

The next two days were spent in listing the materials needed to make the artwork. Another list for teaching materials. Everything else was considered and put in boxes to give away.

One of my big realizations was that I often buy an art supply thinking it will make my art better: “If I have this glaze, I will be a better painter,” or “If I have this tool, it will make me more creative.” Neither is true. But that “hope in a tube” belief is the foundation of a lot of art and craft supply companies.

Out went the rubber stamps I never used, the watercolors I hoped to get good at, and single-use tools. Out went a lot of brand-name toys I rarely use and bought to make myself feel better. A lot of my purchases fell into the emotional-eating equivalent of chocolate.

I kept everything I use to create collage–papers, inks, paints, watercolor pencils, watercolor markers, different glues, and rulers, cutters, and corner rounders.

My studio is now much airier, brighter, and less cluttered. The equipment I use is at hand, and a school is going to be a lot happier with the art supplies that fill up my trunk.

Creativity needs some good tools, but emotional supply buying is much like emotional eating. It feels good, but it’s not supportive of growth and health.

–Quinn McDonald is a collage artist, writer and creativity coach who lives her belief in creativity.


22 thoughts on “Cleaning Up Your Act (and Creativity)

  1. I have that horrible feeling that if I get rid of something, I’ll want to use it the following month. I made a list of all the creative things I want to do or try and cannot possibly do it all while I’m working. My decision is to have a massive clear out exactly one year after I resign from my job . . . trouble is I’m such a butterfly when it comes to creativity. I’m not looking for a solution either!

    • I had that same fear when I cleared out the garage, largely because it has happened before. For me, I finally realized that if I had to buy back 10 percent of what I got rid off, I’d STILL be better off. But as the texters say: YMMV (Your mileage may vary.)

  2. Here’s a thought….sometimes you don’t know if a tool or new item is just what you need until you try it. So, for those of us that haven’t been able to kick the emotional spending habit there is an “excuse”. But really…most of us know we are not going to find the time, or change up what we are doing. But that carrot is just dangling there! This is an age old argument and one that will not be quickly resolved. I have boxes of stuff that have come in handy when I have a bunch of kids for the summer. They have a blast and sometimes some incredible art comes from my cast offs.

    • I teach, so I know whereof you speak. I also finally caved and bought a complete set of makeup, so I can have a travel kit without packing and unpacking every time I travel. Those were both conscious decisions. But I (too) often take a class, and binge-stock up on supplies because that will make me an immediate genius. Alas, when it comes to the practicing part, I am not so quick. That’s what I mean. I indulge my collage urge with many different glues and papers, and saved every one I wanted to. But I got rid of a lot of “this will make me smarter and more creative” stuff.

  3. This post has such truth in it. My last move, I gave away all my soldering supplies and metal-working stuff – all emotionally bought, thinking I’d make gorgeous pendants. I never could get the hang of it. I finally got a hold of my emotional spending on supplies, and am on a “use, replace” spending program now.

    • I’m sure you are better off for it creatively, too. The only one who benefits from emotional art supply buying is the companies that make the stuff we don’t need.

  4. Clearing out that which one doesn’t use is a difficult task. I too, have many of those ‘toys’ (aka tools) that I bought thinking it would be a great addition to my toolkit. As I pack for yet another move I am looking at some of these things harshly and they are going in the goodwill box instead of a packing box. It is a process and I am making progress, although it is slow progress. This selective packing will likely stop in the next day or two as next week is the move and I have one last week of work to get through. The selective process will then take place during the unpack….and so it goes…

    • My process took months, so don’t rush. It was amazing to me, that when I quit grasping, my art developed and the stuff I bought in emotional neediness wasn’t important anymore.

  5. Hmmm. I have one two studios. My studio in the desert is a bright turquoise 3 bin roll around I picked up at IKEA, plus a space to hold papers and a narrow bookcase. My Midwest studio is a full room, with table space that I use all the time, BUT also with a closet packed full of equipment and I never even open the door. All that stuff I’ve been keeping for “just in case” and I don’t need to save them. Your post helped me realize that the supplies I work with while in the desert for half the year are the same supplies I’ll also use in the Midwest. I do believe I can also fill a car trunk with donations. Thanks for this insight.

    • A school or rehab facility will love you and you will love the space. And, I think, it might help you stand more firmly in the art you want to create and the artist you want to be.

  6. Recognising emotional ‘eating’ is such an important health step – and to do the same with supplies is the first step to creating better art.

    That reminds me – I must get rid of some more clutter. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. You are a brave soul! I need to do that, yet I cannot seem to. I will try though.My biggest problem is that I have been painting for over 40 years. I have many, many paintings piled everywhere. Not all of them very good yet I cannot seem to just throw away. They are, after all, my history. What to do? Let me sleep on it……

    • You can photograph them and work with the images–put them in various orders–date, subject matter, color. Sorting items always helps me understand them. And you can keep a certain number of them. Those that represent important stages. I kept all my journals, didn’t throw them out. Just a lot of tools and materials I wasn’t using.

    • HAHAHA! No, it’s not speaking for itself. I rarely know before the collage is done what it wants to be. That’s the creative work, discovering it–and myself–as I make it.

  8. Yes I am beginning to think twice before purchasing now. Although I wish I was your neighbor or school….lucky them! Funny how we go full circle. You love collage ,you kept all collage stuff. We don’t have to branch off all the time do we ,just stick to what we know and like,makes life simple. Keep it simple. The KISS principle.
    Ok….off to sort my cupboards out….you always an inspiration!
    This is from someone who just bought a big cupboard as a paint restoration job on way home from school run before 9am in morning. It’s huge and I live in a tiny flat! Will I ever learn!!!

    • Well,you could paint the cupboard and donate it, or re-purpose it. But I’ve always loved collage and done collage and keep buying items to be a better bookbinder when I can’t cut straight and hate stitching bindings. It’s really crazy, but we so often do what we think we “should.”

  9. Your post really resonated with me. I am the type who buys stuff and then find I don’t use. Thank you for posting this.

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