This time of year always sparks a desire to freshen things up a little; often accompanied by a need to declutter and tidy my home and art studio. This year I’ve been accompanied by the #sparkjoy approach to decluttering of Marie Kondo who has been all over Netflix with a new series.
How is this relevant for art? When I tidy my studio, I’m creating space to work clearly, and find what I need NOW to make the art I aspire to. If this is important to me then it’s also important to create work space which feels energised and inspiring.
Creative spaces can be messy – and at times should be! But I know many artists who have this seasonal refresh so I wondered if the Marie Kondo approach would help me tidy…
Everyone has a different tolerance level, especially in a creative space. You may be happy in your creative, inspirational pig-sty, but sometimes it’s annoying to stand on a tube of paint and squirt it across the floor, or spend ages looking for the staple gun and have to go and buy another one.
I’m not naturally tidy or at all minimalist, but I am conscious about what comes into my home; careful about adding clothes, going through papers as they come in. I feel calmer when at least parts of my home are ordered. Clearing the decks domestically gives me a calm path so I can go and focus on making art without that hangover feeling.
The studio however can easily disintegrate into a muddle. There has been so much discussion about whether the Kon Mari method aka “the life changing magic of tidying up” works, so I thought I would draw some comparisons as I tidied my creative space.
KonMari step 1: start with the vision
Tidying isn’t about tidying. It’s about having the life you want; not wasting time looking through clutter for what you need or getting grumpy as you trip over more shoes.
There is a mistaken idea that Marie Kondo’s approach is about minimising or limiting. In fact it’s about your vision of the person you are becoming.
My version: I agree!
The options in art are endless and extensive. That’s partly why we collect so much stuff – for inspiration, for future projects; just in case.
Being an artist isn’t about doing it ALL, it’s about making choices. Is that hard? Of course it can be. But this is good practice! If you can make decisions about the objects you are keeping then decisions which help progress your art work will follow on more easily.
I recommend creating a mood board for your art. You can find how to do this here. I also spend time setting some intentions for my upcoming work. The main question I ask is “What am I interested in bringing to my artwork this time?”
Think about the artists you admire. Can you visualise the kind of artist you want to become? What kind of projects will stretch you and excite you? How would your space have to change to accommodate this? Write these down until you have a sense of what you would like to move towards. Keeping your ideas forward looking rather than backward looking is a key realisation that has helped me.
Use the pinboard or a notebook or whatever works for you. Knowing why you need some clear creative space – and what you intend to create within it will help.
KonMari step 2: move through the categories in order
In the Kon Mari method you don’t tidy by location, but work through your possessions in a particular order; clothes, books, paper, ‘Komono’ (miscellaneous & huge! bathroom, kitchen, garage, hobbies) and sentimental.
I go through my studio usually twice a year. Many things in there cross all these categories: art clothes, books, paper and certainly when I first did it, a lot of what I was sorting would come under sentimental. The space had just evolved from a study and storage area. In that sense it’s been a long process, but that’s OK. Things have changed a LOT over that time so be forgiving of yourself.
To do the whole method they say to allow 6 months. That’s a big task, especially when we really want to be creating, not tidying! If you find it difficult to sort then using the system may help, but otherwise….
My version: start with what will make the most difference
You may want to begin with another small area within your home. I find that our art-related spaces often have strong emotional ties. That’s kind of obvious – they need to. There is a reason Marie Kondo leaves sentimental objects until last – it can be much harder to see things objectively. Starting with something you are less attached to is like training your de-clutter muscle and will ease you in gently.
Think of ONE place you know you could improve in a short space of time. Start there; it will motivate you to keep going.
KonMari step 3: gather everything together!
You are supposed to gather all the items in that category in one place. I can’t imagine anything worse and this seems a lot of work.
It feels like a LOT of moving things around needlessly. To have everything heaped together must be kind of overwhelming. I think it would make me feel exhausted before I even began and turn to chocolate eclairs instead.
If you haven’t done anything like this before then I can sort of understand. After all it’s a kind of shock tactic; “I have HOW MUCH stuff?!” But doing this on your own, unless you have a good amount of time, there is a danger that you begin, and then grind to a halt as it takes longer than you anticipate. Plus, in a studio space it ties you up and stops you doing any work! Which kind of defeats the purpose.
My version: start with what is most important – or least
If our focus is on just our creative space, it’s OK to leave the most sentimental objects until later. Instead look at areas of your studio you use most – and least.
What do I mean by that?
What we use most is part of our current practice. Disordered is usually an understatement once I get into the flow of painting; messy rags build up, cleaned brushes get randomly brought back in to play, pastels end up scattered on the floor, strips of tape hang from the walls, mixing bowls stack up with dried layers of colour.
If you can make an improvement here it will help your work flow hugely.
What do you use least?
The chances are these items are part of a “someday/maybe project” or you are keeping things because you have spent time or money on them. We can have a desire to keep everything as it’s all been part of our art journey. At one point I had huge piles of large A1 drawings from life class. They represented hours of learning and some of them were pretty beautiful. It was difficult and some might say a waste to let them go, but that’s not the direction I wanted to move forward with my work. I had done the learning. It felt great to let these go (see step 4) and reclaim the space.
What bothers you the most about your creative space?
Is there one thing you know you would like to improve?
Do you need storage for raw materials?
What do you trip over? Is there a stack of boxes in the corner you don’t even know what’s inside?
Which one thing, if it’s done today, will bring a big improvement?
Maybe it’s a task-based thing. I recently realised that when I need to wrap a parcel I have to collect items from 3 different rooms. Stupid and not necessary. I haven’t yet worked out how to persuade my husband to keep the giant roll of brown paper in the dining room, but it’s on my radar and I can now easily gather all the other items I need for that task together and make my life just a bit easier.
In part the method is about awareness. Life changes and shifts all the time – this is a way to re-asses and re-set what’s important for you.
Don’t have all day? Make it easy on yourself and do just one shelf or cupboard at a time. This is manageable in short time blocks and unless you really have things in the wrong place it makes sense. You could even do this for 10 minutes at the start of each studio session as a way of re-acquainting yourself. I do like to take everything out from that one place, sort what I need to keep, clean the shelf or cupboard and then replace.
Once you’ve done this you have fewer items which you can actually see and it encourages you to continue. If you need to move and re-arrange later, it’s easier to do because you know what items you are dealing with.
The aim isn’t to get rid of everything. My aim is to have a home which feels personal, works for us as a family, is welcoming and comfortable with things we enjoy and need. I like to have books and objects (and art of course) arranged, including strange nerdy Go-Gos (playground craze from 10 years ago) yelling up at a model of the Eiffel tower in my bathroom.
Is this practical? Not particularly, but it does make me smile – it’s a memory of a family trip to Paris and reminds me each morning the children won’t be small forever. (Note: they’re not small now – the big one is 17!)
The same is true in my studio. If I gathered everything it would be daunting and delay actually doing the creative work. I don’t want tidying to become a means of procrastination. Shelf by shelf it’s easy to look at what you have and if you still need it. Which brings me to:
KonMari step 4: Sort first; keep what “sparks joy” and let things go
There is no point in organising your stuff, buying containers, moving things around if it’s no longer relevant. Marie’s advice is to hold each item and feel if it “sparks joy”.
This can be pretty hard to judge. After all, many things are purely practical rather than filling you with a well of emotion. She also advises you to thank each item as a way of moving forward.
My version: respect
Maybe it’s personal, but the spark joy phrase seems a bit twee to me and I think it puts a lot of people off. Creative spaces are busy, messy places; just as they should be, and often need to be. Not everything is beautiful. But, I agree that we need to feel inspired within our space.
A few years ago my studio could become the dumping ground. It’s on the top floor with the only access to attic/eaves storage, and boxes sometimes got left “in transit”. I don’t often clean up there, but the dust and general dirt gathers and when it gets too much the space can feel neglected and sad.
I think of this part as showing your creative zone some love and respect
If your art is important to you, or you would like it to be, then honour how you do things and what you keep there.
Keep to hand only what you need for your current work practice.
- Throw away anything you clearly no longer need. Check any lids, caps, dried up paints. No point keeping those! Rubbish, tatty paper.
- Does it make your heart sing or sink? If you are only keeping it because you feel guilty (it was a gift or you spent money and never used it) then the idea of thanking it before you let it go is worth experimenting with.
- Do you need it? With art materials, if I don’t know what’s in a cupboard or box, that means it needs re-housing or placing somewhere else or probably I don’t even need it. Instead of thinking about how to store all these material, think about what you need in order to create the art you want to make now.
- Will you use this? Either make it a priority or accept this is not for now.
- Check for duplicates; do you have more than you need of certain items? Would duplicate items be more convenient in another place?
- Do you love it? Some things we keep in our creative spaces because they do honour our journey or inspire us. They deserve to be recognised – more about this below.
- Will I really miss this if it goes?
Letting go of items you no longer want to keep
If you find this tough, have a ‘maybe’ box and postpone the decision until later. Once you’ve made some headway and can see the benefits of keeping things clearer it will be easier to decide what you no longer want. If art materials are in good condition, pass them on to a school or donate them.
In practice this gets swifter. You may not achieve Zen levels of de-cluttering but, just as Marie Kondo leaves the sentimental items to the end, I’ve found over the years that sometimes I need to keep things for a while. Having considered them once and given them a reprieve, I find it far easier the next time (Spring or back to school Autumn) to acknowledge that project probably isn’t going to happen and I can let things go more easily.
I find the idea of thanking objects helpful. Nope, I don’t say it out loud, but acknowledging that stack of life drawing pages and being thankful for the classes definitely helped me to let them go.
Still finding this hard? Yearning for a bigger studio? ( I don’t know an artist who isn’t!) Just imagine what could you do with the space you currently have allocated to storage/materials you don’t use. No creative space is ideal, but you can make the best of what you have.
KonMari step 5: …THEN organise
Now you have what you love or need you can organise. I find it helps me to think less about where I put things, but about knowing where I can go quickly to find things.
A few tips I use to organise:
1. Group similar together and think by task
eg collage material together. I try to keep all my spare and ‘waiting’ panels stacked in one place rather than dotted around. All my finishing materials are together in one place. Items I use to ‘grab and go’ when I want to take paints outside are kept together in the bag I use for that. Items for hanging at shows are kept in one moveable box. This is one place I keep duplicates, tape measure, screwdrivers, blu-tack – it’s all in one place so I don’t have to search and gather.
2. Divide into boxes
One thing I have been doing for years is to re-use boxes to store smaller items (it’s not rocket science is it?) Divide drawing materials by colour and use low height boxes on your work surface. My paint tubes are sorted into three shoe boxes on my trolley: one for white, black and neutrals, one for blues and greens and one for reds, oranges yellows. This has worked well – quick enough to chuck the tubes back in quickly, but also find what I need.
Shoe boxes with lids can be great for keeping like items together and stacked on shelves.
3. Store vertically where you can
Or at least so that you can see and remove items easily. Don’t over-fill spaces so you can’t see what’s at the back or stack bottles too deep to get them out.
4. Label things
The cupboards in my work space house things I don’t use on a daily basis. Maybe just because I’m visual, once something is in a cupboard I can easily forget what’s in there. For quick labels I write on masking tape. You can tape a sheet of paper inside a cupboard door with what’s inside if it has lots of small items. I do the same with drawers.
TIP: If you don’t want the labels to be visible you can add them to the top of the drawer edge as you open the drawer – this works for papers in a desk I have in our living space.
5. Use your space in creative ways
I work in an attic conversion so I have sloping ceilings. I’d love to have more wall space but cupboards in the eaves are great for keeping squash-able bubble wrap, and I have created a false wall on one side and behind there I keep poster tubes for sending prints and smaller paintings ‘in waiting’.
We tend to ‘move in’ once and then not change how we keep things. In reality our process is changing all the time. Think creatively about what suits you now.
6. It’s not all practical – refresh your inspiration
Find places for the things which inspire or motivate you. I have a small mantelpiece and a shelf where I keep certain items. I see the shelf on the way out of the studio every day but we get used to seeing the same things and glaze over them. Refresh your pinboard, or postcards from exhibitions, or gathered natural objects or collections of colour…. whatever you gather to inspire you.
Keeping it this way…
Will my socks stay folded? This may be one area where my husband is right; maybe life is too short for this. However I did find 6 odd socks, pairs with holes in the heels I was keeping but never wearing and it doesn’t take any longer to put them away this way. We’ll see.
Will my studio stay tidy all the time? I really hope not! Getting messy is a natural by-product of making art. The last thing we need is to hold ourselves accountable for an immaculate work space.
Creativity is like a gas: it expands to fill the space available for it.
We can help by making sure that space is available as intended, so we can do the work we really want.
Doing a major de-clutter is a big undertaking, but this is actually about the same thing all artists do – paying attention; looking at what’s important, for you, at this point. It’s inevitable that things build up, but the large printmaking studio I used to work in only functioned because everything had its place – and things went back or you were in trouble!
Tidying can bring a lasting change to your work space and help you keep on track with the art you intend to make. Going through this process maybe twice a year becomes easier each time and helps me appreciate the space I do have.
I’d love to know your views on an ordered/messy work space and please share any tips you’ve discovered in the comments below. If you’d like to see and share photos of your work space come over and join us in the Art Explorers facebook group where we shall be using the hashtag #tidystudio to share tips and motivation.