Making a Mess

Starting an art practice can be daunting. Here are my best tips and ideas to help get you set up for a sustainable practice. Make a Mess. This is third in my series on How to Create Your Art Practice.

For me, making a mess is an effort. Messes weren’t allowed when I was a kiddo. I could color but not outside the lines. I could play with play-doh but not mix the colors. I could paint but it had to be watercolors on a vinyl tablecloth with an apron so nothing got dirty. This sounds like a horrible childhood and if you’re worried my parents were ogres don’t be! They only imposed some of those guidelines, half of it was me. They allowed me tons of supplies and I learned to work with parameters. That’s good for all of us to learn! I got to be messy at my Aunt’s house because she was a kindergarten teacher and used to managing it. But because of this I tend to want to follow the rules and keep things tidy. 

I knew I had broken through a mental barrier when I started using the wall behind my desk as an art space. One day I was tired of bending over the table to work so I just got my big thumb tacks out and started hanging works in progress on the wall. Now there are paint streaks running down in glorious technicolor. Professional-artist me knows you have to make a little mess to get to the good stuff.

Look at the paint on that wall! What a mess!

The thrill of it all

There are two thrills that come from making a mess for me. The first is the pushing of that personal boundary of what is too messy. It is part of my mental makeup so it crops up for me in weird ways. A few years ago, someone dared me to Gelli print my face. My first, visceral response was a hearty NO THANK YOU. But as I sat with it, I realized that the response was excessive and I could clean up easily from the experience. And it would be an experience! So I did it:

Boundary pushed. Personal experience expanded. Hilarious story. Totally worth it. Stretching ourselves out of our comfort zone can be really healthy and liberating. For me making a mess falls into this category.

The second thrill for me is the actual physical sensations that accompany so many parts of my art practice. Tactile things I can explore. Visual things to puzzle over, proces, and enjoy. The physical movement of putting paint on things. Feeling glue squish between pages. Smelly markers and paints take me right into the work zone frame of mind. Art making makes me feel good physically. We all chase that in different ways.

I’ve always enjoyed the textures of paper. I’ve talked before about how paper makes up some of my earliest memories. Paper and the enjoyment of it have created a feedback loop. Because I like paper I work with it, so I work with it more and I make fun things with it, so I like paper a little bit more. See what happens there? The trick here is to find what creates that feedback loop for you.

Make a mess. A big one.

I think making as big a mess as you can is good practice. Is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it worth it? Also yes.

Gelli printing is where I make the biggest mess. There’s paint everywhere. Wet prints are on every available surface, including the floor where sometimes the dog walks across them. I use a ton of baby wipes to keep my rollers and hands clean. It’s just a lot of chaos sometimes for a handful of good prints. Which sounds like mayyyyyybe I don’t get much out of it? But I do! 

There’s process: what makes a useful print for me? (This is different for everyone! I like grungy things so perfect prints are never my goal.) Can I recreate what went into that good print? Can I do it again but with these colors? Also, ooh look squishy paint!!

There’s results: I make 5-7 “good” prints that might be the outcome I wanted for the project at hand and 20 that I don’t know what I’ll do with but are collage fodder for something, sometime down the road.

a Gelli printing mess

Making a big mess allows you freedom to explore and figure things out. Can you figure things out by using a pencil and notebook? Sure but maybe there the mess boundary pushing is using a giant notebook and graphite powder with a brush. I can’t dictate your mess, only encourage you to make one with the hopes that it will stretch you past your comfort zone and spark good things for you.

Make a mess as often as you can.

This is once again about sustainable practice making. Making a regular BIG mess-making playdate with yourself is something to look forward to during the between times. I cannot sustain making Gelli prints every day. It’s too much chaos. But once every few weeks is very fun. Same with big canvas work. I love it and if I had more space, I might do it more often but for now, in my space, it’s a treat. But making smaller messes on the regular is a must too!

I make smaller messes every day. Just painting for me is a mess because I mostly use my fingers and not a brush. This is part because there was a time not so long ago that my carpal tunnel was so bad I couldn’t hold a brush for longer than about 3 seconds before it just fell out of my hand. And part because not being able to hold a brush pushed me to use my fingers instead and now I like using my fingers.

If you aren’t an art maker, cooking is a fabulous substitute in the mess making category. Or gardening. If you are a maker who doesn’t create a lot of mess (I’m looking at you writer siblings), you might have to branch out here. Try your skills at something that’s more messy than keyboard catting. 

I think making a mess stimulates different parts of our brain and allows us to make some new and interesting connections. Getting our hands dirty is a good way to connect with our physical bodies and experience the world.

Make a mess and…enjoy yourself!

While you are making, enjoy yourself!! Don’t worry about outcomes just play and then play some more. Play is fun and we all need more fun!

I am often too serious when I work. I concentrate. Then I get the forehead crease that looks like a butt and you can tell by looking that I’m having Intense Process Thoughts™. Being intentional about play helps me lighten that up. I’m not curing cancer. I’m not creating world peace (although wouldn’t that be awesome? To make something so people just stopped fighting and hugged it out while looking at my art?) Nothing but time and paper is being wasted and I’m willing to give those. I can just breathe with my diaphragm and let it all go and dance and paint.

Play is such an important part of innovation because it can help us make connections that we might not have thought of with other methods. Holding your practice loosely with play allows you to start forming those connections. Some of my best breakthroughs come from, “What if I put this here? Then what if I try this color next?” Following the path of “What if?” is absolutely play. Getting loose and curious is always a satisfying path to me in the process. For me, it also comes with mess built right in!

I have a piece right now I’m struggling with. I started it and then lost the momentum. It’s a commission so I need to finish but I’m frustrated by where I left off in the process. I need to get it out, set it up, and just play. If I wreck it, there’s more canvas at the store. But if I play around, I just might break through to the next part of the process.

Make things that make you happy. 

Lastly, make things that you get jazzed about. Chase your interests. It’s easy to look at Instagram and want your stuff to look like someone else’s. I can think of three artists right now whose work makes me swoon with envy, If only my stuff looked like theirs… (Sidebar: I talk about this in my post The Gap. Go read it when you are done here. It is a thought process I visit over and over. )

But trying to make my stuff look like those artists’ work won’t be satisfying to chase for the next few years or even the next few months. You have to figure out what you enjoy looking at, what gives you that buzz of excitement, and chase making that. And that’s going to involve you making a lot of messes. Playing and getting your hands dirty. Just remember that you are your own first, best, and last audience. If you aren’t happy with the stuff you are making then no one else will be either. 

Does that mean I love everything I make? OF COURSE NOT. I make my share of crap too. I blob things up, over work them, make fat lines when I should have made thin ones. My working process is always “More is more and less is a bore.” (Shamelessly swiped from Queen Iris Apfel.) So doing too much is always where I hit the skid. But I love my process I’ve developed. I love my work space. I love many things I make now. I love sharing my art with others. I love writing about it here. There’s a lot for me to lean into now. And there will be for you too but you might have to experiment with a lot of things first to get there.

What are your questions?

Hopefully you’ve read the two previous post and now this week’s post. What’s coming up for you? Are you feeling energized to start? Do you have questions that you are hoping I’ll answer in this series? Send me an email and let me know what you are looking for or wondering about.