Having a Messy Studio Can Help You as an Artist

Austin Kleon
Apr 2, 2019 3:45PM

London studio of Irish artist Francis Bacon as reconstructed in Dublin for an exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery, 2001. Photo by Chris Bacon/PA Images via Getty Images.

In his new book Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, writer Austin Kleon offers strategies for maintaining the necessary drive to sustain a creative career. A New York Times bestselling author (for his 2012 book Steal Like an Artist), Kleon is a beloved for his books, as well as his newsletter and blog—platforms where he taps into the cultural zeitgeist, and thoughtfully surfaces his own creative brilliance (often in the form of poems) and that of his forebears and peers. Here, we share an excerpt from the eighth chapter of Keep Going, entitled “When in Doubt, Tidy Up.”

Keep your tools tidy and your materials messy

Image from Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. Courtesy of the author and Workman


This is a bad time to be a pack rat. The propaganda against clutter and the mania for tidying has been whipped up by TV shows like Hoarders and Storage Wars and countless blogs that fetishize orderly studios and perfect workspaces with “things organized neatly,” culminating in Marie Kondo’s gigantic bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. While Kondo’s tips can work wonders on your sock drawer or your kitchen pantry, I have serious doubts about their usefulness to artists.

My studio, like my mind, is always a bit of a mess. Books and newspapers are piled everywhere, pictures are torn out and stuck on the wall, cut-up scraps litter the floor. But it’s not an accident that my studio is a mess. I love my mess. I intentionally cultivate my mess.

Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.

You may think that if your studio is tidy, it will free you up to be more efficient, and therefore, you will produce more. Maybe that will help you in the execution stage of your work if you’re, say, a printmaker pulling prints, but it won’t help you come up with an interesting design for the next print. It’s always a mistake to equate productivity and creativity. They are not the same. In fact, they’re frequently at odds with each other: You’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.

There is, of course, such a thing as too much clutter. It’s hard to work if you can’t find the things you need when you need them. French chefs practice something called mise en place, which means “set in place.” It’s about planning and preparation: making sure all the ingredients and tools you need are ready before you set to work. “Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks,” Anthony Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential. “Your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system.”

That’s the key word we can steal from chefs: readiness. Most of us don’t have hungry diners or health inspectors to worry about. We don’t have to keep our spaces perfectly clean and tidy. We just have to keep them ready for when we want to work. Cartoonist Kevin Huizenga makes the point that having your studio organized does not mean it needs to look organized. “If papers everywhere on the floor makes working easier right now, because you need to constantly refer to them, then they should stay there.”

There’s a balance in a workspace between chaos and order. My friend John T. Unger has the perfect rule: Keep your tools organized and your materials messy. “Keep your tools very organized so you can find them,” he says. “Let the materials cross-pollinate in a mess. Some pieces of art I made were utter happenstance, where a couple items came together in a pile and the piece was mostly done. But if you can’t lay your hands right on the tool you need, you can blow a day (or your enthusiasm and inspiration) seeking it.”

Tidying is exploring

Image from Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. Courtesy of the author and Workman.

I keep one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” on a big sign above my desk: WHEN IN DOUBT, TIDY UP.

Note that it says “when in doubt,” not “always.” Tidying up is for when I’m stalled out or stuck. Tidying up a studio is—sorry, Ms. Kondo—not life-changing or magical. It’s just a form of productive procrastination. (Avoiding work by doing other work.)

The best thing about tidying is that it busies my hands and loosens up my mind so that I either a) get unstuck or solve a new problem in my head, or b) come across something in the mess that leads to new work. For example, I’ll start tidying and unearth an unfinished poem that’s been buried in a stack of papers, or an unfinished drawing that was blown across the garage by the air conditioner.

The best studio tidying is a kind of exploring. I rediscover things as I work my way through the clutter. The reason I tidy is not really to clean, but to come into contact with something I’ve forgotten which I can now use.

This is a slow, dreamy, ruminative form of tidying. When I come across a long-lost book, for example, I flip to random pages and see if they have anything to tell me. Sometimes scraps of paper fall out of the book like a secret message from the universe.

I often stop tidying because I get swept up in reading. This is the exact opposite of what Marie Kondo prescribes. When going through your books, she says, “Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment.” Heaven forbid!

Tidying in the hope of obtaining perfect order is stressful work. Tidying without worrying too much about the results can be a soothing form of play.

When in doubt, tidy up.

Excerpted from Keep Going: 10 Ways To Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon (Workman). © 2019.

Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon is the author of Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work!, and The Steal Like an Artist Journal. His work has been featured by NPR, PBS, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.