As artists, we often find ourselves caught in an eternal flip-flop between states of motivation and states of overwhelm. Having lots of ideas is a sign of healthy creativity. Keeping multiple projects in-progress prevents boredom. Unfortunately, there can be a tipping point when that creative motivation spins out into burn-out or paralysis, and our work spaces and our brains are mired in equal amounts of clutter.
Some people need a minimalistic, clean slate looking studio space so they can enter each work session with a clear head. I’ve known graphic artists who felt this way. A lot of metalsmiths, however, have studios and workbenches more like mine: layer upon layer of stuff we’re afraid we’ll forget to work on until there are no visible work surfaces left.
While a certain level of chaos can be wildly, creatively motivating, at some point, I melt down like Eddie from Absolutely Fabulous, screaming, “WHERE are my SURFACES?!?”
It’s not easy to strike a physical and mental balance between keeping our work-in-progress on the bench and on our radar and in not getting distracted by the first shiny thing we see that needs its next step completed. The shiny-thing’s-next-step method of completion is like moving all my game pieces in Senet, Sorry, or Pachisi a few spaces at a time instead of moving only one or two closer to home with each roll of the dice. For me though, working primarily on only one or two pieces at a time might seem expedient, but it’s also the prefect recipe for boredom.
A few months ago, the shiny-thing’s-next-step distraction got so bad that every time I went to the bench, I’d start fiddling with whatever I’d left there even thought the whole reason I’d sat down at my bench was to work on something else entirely. I bagged up a number of projects that I needed to keep for teaching purposes but which I had to admit I had no plans to finish anytime this year (or maybe next year either). I employed a mini version of the way my friend and student Joan organizes her studio with Trays, Boxes, and Bins (Oh My)! For the work that needed to stay on my radar, I made better use of the stacking trays on my Shelf Arm Accessory on my Foredom® Flex Shaft Stand and left in only what had a serious deadline or on which I was genuinely excited to work.
Trust me, there are still a ton of projects within easy reach. They’re also highly visible in their small clear stacking bins, so I’m not likely to forget about them. Best of all, they’re not the first thing I see when I go to the bench, so they can’t sidetrack me.
Why work-in-progress needs a “Nap Space” even if I don’t nap
There is another important reason to organize work-in-progress so that I’m not staring at it every time I walk by it or sit down in front of it: intuition and ease of decision making.
Occasionally, I need to prop up a painting because I know that the 20th time I walk by it while doing other things, my brain will suddenly realize, “Oh, that highlight is too big. Okay, now I know what to fix tomorrow.” The act of staring at a piece repeatedly while concentrating on something else can lead to breakthroughs and creative insights. Most of the time, however, I need a break from looking at my work because my inner critic won’t shut up asking “What’s wrong with it?” or I stress at not having the answer to the question “What does it need?”
I have a top drawer in my flat files where in-progress paintings go. Every day when I begin painting, that’s the place I automatically go to grab the work, so it’s not going to fall off my radar. Like the clear stacking trays at my bench, the work isn’t hidden from my to-do list, but it is temporarily hidden from my awareness. When I pull out a piece to resume work, I see it with, not only fresh eyes, but with curiosity, and curiosity has an automatic advantage of taking up so much brain space that fear and an inner critic can’t get a word in edgewise. Even better, that break from looking at work-in-progress can instantly spark an idea of what to do next. Suddenly and intuitively, I know what to that I couldn’t have thought of before.
I was recently describing this working strategy in a live Q&A session for one of my online courses, and, brilliantly, my student Milena said, “Ah, I will create a nap spot for the pieces. So they will just go for a nap, and I will just leave them there, and after a while, I will come back and say, hey, wake up.”
Works in-progress are children who have to lie down for a nap, so they’re not cranky (and so we won’t be either).
It was the perfect metaphor. A nap space isn’t out of sight, out of mind. It’s a known holding space that provides a much needed break from trying to come up with all the answers. Instead of shiny-thing’s-next-step syndrome, or worse, getting caught up in endless perfectionism, we get to look at pieces with fresh and curious eyes each time we’re ready to work on them.
It also means we’re less likely to have an Eddie-style meltdown over lost surfaces.
What do you do when your creative space is out of control?
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