Art studio tour + can clutter really boost creativity?

Home art studio tour + why artists and creatives thrive in a messy environment

At the end of each year, I do an annual studio clean up: clear out the mess, scrub the dried paint off the table, and throw out the junk that tends to accumulate over the months. I thought I’d give you a little before and after of the process, plus a quick little studio tour!

My art studio is in a spare room that also doubles up as the husband’s study area, and these days as my home office.

Art studio clean up and organization: before and after

I have 2 desks dedicated to art: one is my research and “catch-all” table, which is where all my books, journals, and notes pile up, along with some of the daily “life junk” – mail, important papers that need to be filed and the like. 

Here’s what that table looked like at the end of 2020: A mess of notes and journals for various projects and classes; books; wires, and an old lightbulb {don’t ask me why!} 

Messy artist studio. Jumble of papers and knick knacks on the desk.

And here it is, all spiffy and shiny for all that the new year will hold!

small art table organized

My main art table is a standing desk, which tends to be covered in collage paper, text paper, paint tubes and brushes. I couldn’t bring myself to take a Before photograph – this one is from September 2020. I ended the year with this mess times five!

messy art table

And here it is, all shiny and new! 

small home art studio organization

I removed a large multi-part frame that had been leaning against the side of the painty table since 2 years, just waiting for me to create some art to grace its frames. If it hasn’t happened so far…well, I’ll pull it out when I get around to finishing some paintings for that frame! 

I also removed the box filled with collage papers – it’s gone into the cabinet below my art table for now. Let’s see for how long it stays there, ’cause I’m already missing the easy access I had to scrap paper to soak up wet paint.

Art studio walkthrough

Want a little studio tour?

Join me as I show you around my small art studio + home office.

This whole process of cleaning + organizing my studio got me thinking about the link between creativity, clutter, and organization.

While I love looking at clean and organized studio spaces, I’ve never actually wanted to create a “pretty aesthetic” – i.e. a completely organized, spick and span, picture perfect workspace.

Which brings me to the question: do you thrive in a creative mess or do you need your desk to be clean and tidy?

Also read: Organized vs Messy: What’s your desk style?

How a messy studio can help you as an artist

Personally, I’ve never really been able to keep a clean and organised studio. I thrive in the mess! The paint tubes strewn around the table, collage and scrapbook paper pieces, text paper, random magazine images, all inspire my creativity. A random word, pattern, colour, or image may spark an idea and be the inspiration for my next painting. 

Sculptor and mosaic artist John T. Unger says:

“Keep your tools very organized so you can find them. Let the materials cross-pollinate in a mess.”

That’s exactly what my mess helps me do: cross-pollinate and find new ideas.

A pristine, organised, clutter free studio space, on the other hand, feels a bit sterile. There’s nothing there for me to riff off of. It’s almost like staring at a blank page – slightly scary, a bit frozen, unsure of what to do next. 

According to Austin Kleon, “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.” 

His motto is When in doubt, tidy up. 

Albert Einstein's messy desk
Albert Einstein’s deck. Image via Art Sheep

“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.” 

Austin Kleon, via Artsy.net

That pretty much sums up my approach to cleaning as well. I tend to tidy up my studio when I’m feeling stuck, or when I want to very deliberately choose a different color palette to work with. Then I will put all of my paint bottles back in their designated place, so I can feel into the colors I want to use for a particular piece of art. 

The scientific link between creativity and messiness

In fact, some of the most creative minds of our times had messy decks. Einstein, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs are all famous for their cluttered desks. As are artists Picasso, Jason Pollock, Francis Bacon and Marc Chagall. 

Markus Lupertz's studio and the link between mess and creativity
German contemporary artist Markus Lupertz’s studio. Image via Bored Panda.

There’s also research to back up the link between creativity and clutter. 

Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, found that working in a tidy room encourages people to be socially responsible, while those working in a messy room are more likely to try new things and come up with creative ideas.

There are, of course, advocates for clean and organised spaces too.

According to Jeff Goins, “Clutter is procrastination. It is the Resistance, a subtle form of stalling and self-sabotage. And it keeps me (and you) from creating stuff that matters. The mess is not inevitable. It is not cute or idiosyncratic. It is a foe, and it is killing your art.”

Ouch! Those are some harsh words indeed! For the record, though, my creative mess hasn’t “killed my art” or prevented me from “creating stuff that matters”. #JustSayin!

Is there such a thing as too much of a creative mess?

Francis Bacon's art studio. cluttered studio and the impact of a messy studio on creativity
Francis Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998. Photo: Perry Ogden; Image via Art & Object

Goins goes on to say:

You need to clear your life of distractions, not perfectly, but enough so that there’s room for you to create. The relationship between clutter and creativity is inverse. The more you have of the former, the less you have of the latter. Mess creates stress. Which is far from an ideal environment for being brilliant.

Well, there is some truth in that. There does appear to be a line between a messy studio and clutter that takes over your life. 

According to an article in Science Times,

“In cases of extreme clutter-where a desk is covered in piles of paper, food, and miscellaneous knickknacks to the point of having to shuffle around to actually find a place to work –research shows such excess stimulation takes attention off work, causing an overall loss in productivity. In fact, those shown to multitask and retain focus in this type of work environment are the exception. In most cases, it’s the complete opposite.”

{I’m willing to bet Francis Bacon was an exception. His studio, pictured above, is an example of extreme clutter.}

For me, a messy studio gets a resounding aye! It’s how I thrive as an artist, and I’m pretty sure that as the year progresses, there will be more creative clutter around my studio.

What about you: do you thrive in the midst of a creative mess, or do you need an organized and tidy workspace? Do tell me in the comments!

Posted in On My Art Table.

11 Comments

  1. For me, as a kid, I used to always find an order in my mess. But with age, I also changed now I am keeping my desk clean and neat and trying to stop myself from expecting my son to keep his room neat and clean😂

    • I guess that’s also part of trying to be a role model for the kid, right? You can’t lecture him to keep his room clean and tidy if your workspaces are a mess! 🙂

  2. Last year I picked up some paints and paper and started painting. I am still in the discovery/training mode regarding painting materials and paper. I have always loved drawing and painting. When I jumped into it last year, I realized why I stayed away from it all this while. It was the mess that it creates. Before, I couldn’t find the time to paint, forget about finding time to clean up! I have mild OCD about this. Even now while painting, I think about all ways I can avoid ruining my only work (All purpose) desk.

    I am learning to accept this theory about art too. Mess creates creativity. Or rather, the mess itself is creativity. Organized thoughts and processes rarely create a masterpiece I guess. Your studio looks very inspiring. I will come back to learn more about all the things I saw in it later on.

    • I’m always excited when people pick up paints and paper and start painting! I think everyone should spend some time creating art, lol! If you’re really worried about your desk, line it with newspaper or any other paper. That will keep your desk nice and clean. Don’t let a little bit of mess come in the way of your creativity 😉

  3. Love your Studio tour and reflections/examples of other spaces! Mine is generally messy, with islands of order! I will add”tidy” to my “When in doubt” option list.
    My materials regularly cross pollinate … I have different materials in bins and boxes, a lovely IKEA cart with different materials at each level, and several areas for different tasks – TV trays, and ones with short legs for working on the floor (great for collage!)
    Years ago, a neighbor visited when I had been working on something, and materials were scattered all over my small living room … He (kindly) asked if such disarray bothered me, and told me with his OCD/ADD, he couldn’t think of his space was disorganized!

    For my classes, I put materials out on square trays – a spray bottle, palette, water cup, paint rag and bushes. Some students leave them in their trays, others spread them around their paint stations! Using some system like that for different projects might help someone who gets stressed by too much mess.

    • Oh, I love seeing those IKEA carts in everyone’s studios! I’m so tempted to go looking for one, when an IKEA store opens up in my city. Though to be honest, I don’t really have any space for it in my already cluttered studio!

      When my mom comes visiting, she asks me the same question that your neighbor did – on how the mess doesn’t bother me. But without the mess, it does feel a bit daunting to get in there and create! That was certainly my experience at the start of this year. Now that my painty table is a mess of paint bottles, it’s so much easier for me to just start painting without fear!

  4. Omg the before and after photos look so awesome. And look at those art supplies. I have locked all mine because the little one still puts things in his mouth. I don’t even sharpen my pencil anymore.
    My clean desk lasts for exactly 2.5 seconds. I am physically incapable of keeping a clean desk, mostly because I can’t find things when everytjing is organized. Takes too much time. 😂 But I do clean my desk else the mess can be very uninspiring.

    • Aww! Your little is absolutely adorable, Raj! I’m sure once you can get all your art supplies out, both of you will create up a storm! And also, very happy to meet someone who is just like me when it comes to keeping a clean desk. One day after the filming of this video, the painty table was back to being beautifully messy 😉 I’m really trying to keep some semblance of order on the research desk, though! Fingers crossed!!

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