The Artist’s Life: Keeping Your Art Studio Clean

When I was a young mom, I found myself ill equipped to manage the everyday tasks that came with caring for a home. I didn’t know how to boil water, let alone fully comprehend the ins and outs of managing a family and a household. But I knew enough to look for the information I needed. Home and lifestyle magazines became my training manuals. I poured over them for simple recipes, advice on organizing the kids’ toys, and keeping the house clean. Now, after the kids have grown and flown the coop, I find the same skills that helped me get control of the playroom translate well to organizing my art studio.

I just can’t help it—the very nature of working in mixed media and collage means that I make huge messes. When I am in the midst of a big project or a new body of work, that mess can get pretty unruly very quickly. While I do try to tidy up my work area at the end of a typical day in the studio, it doesn’t take long for it to get out of hand. Here are some tips that I have picked up over the years that keep the task of tidying up my space from feeling overwhelming.

Shelve it: While I like the concept of having work zones in my art studio, I find that the reality just doesn’t work for me. What does work is having lots of shelving and bins for different categories of supplies. One cabinet has small drawers that can be pulled out and carried to my worktable. In one drawer I keep things like nails and fasteners, and in another, scissors and blades. I have several large bins on a shelf that hold craft paints, and a wheeled cart contains all of my graphite and drawing supplies. When I need a particular item I know exactly where to find it—and exactly where to put it away. Taking just five minutes to return the items I’ve used at the end of each workday really makes a difference in the long run.

"American Dream" by Crystal Neubauer
“American Dream” by Crystal Neubauer

Taking steps: When I do have a bigger mess to deal with, it can be easy to procrastinate. Do I really want to spend my precious art studio time on cleaning? But if I wait too long to tackle the mess, it starts to inhibit my creative flow. I can’t work when too many items are piled up. One mantra that I found effective as a young mom was, “Action creates motivation.” If I wait to feel motivated first, the job will never get done. Digging in and taking one simple step often gives me the motivation to keep going.

Nibbling away: I start any big job by giving myself bite-size tasks. I might decide that I will only clean a specific type of item, or put all of my paints away, or clean only my collage papers. I might even set a timer and work on the job for just 15 minutes at a time. You would be surprised at what you can accomplish by deciding to work on something for only 15 minutes at a time. You may find that when the timer rings, you have developed a flow and will just keep going.

Cleaning combo: When the entire studio is a disaster, I find it helps to combine several cleaning techniques. Working “around the clock” gives me a place to start and keeps me focused in a way that allows me to quickly see results. I start in one corner of the room and work in a clockwise direction, saving the center for last. Each time I put something away, I return to the same place and keep moving in an orderly fashion. I combine this intentional flow with what I call the “pick it up/don’t put it down” method, which just means I pick up the first item I see and don’t put it down anywhere other than its designated place. Pick up a pair of scissors, put them in the scissors drawer. Return to the same area, pick up the glue, put that where it belongs. If I have multiples of similar items scattered throughout the space, I make neat piles and then return them all at once. The idea is to keep working in the same direction, and soon the tidy space behind me motivates me to keep going.

"No Place" by Crystal Neubauer
“No Place” by Crystal Neubauer

Toss, donate, or hoard: When it comes to the found items I use in my work, I sometimes have to ask myself the tough questions. Is the piece really a unique treasure? Collecting old books and ephemera to use for collage means that I drag a lot of stuff home. I am also the lucky recipient of several other collectors’ stuff. At any given moment I have multiple boxes of items sitting around waiting to be sorted. I am learning to look at these things with a very discriminating eye. Coverless books, for instance, sit in piles around my studio. There is no possible way to use them all. Each time I finish a collection of work, I have a pile of scraps on the table. Does it all look like usable material? Yes! Is it all unique, never-to-be-found again material? Um…no. Also, supplies like glitter, stamp pads, beads, and other crafty materials are likely to languish unused for a long time. I now donate these items to other artists who work with children in after-school programs. In general, I am ruthless with things that I use infrequently, discerning with the things I use often, and hoard to my heart’s delight the things that are a little less common or that bring me joy in some way.

Eyes on the prize: Rome wasn’t built in a day. And the mess you make means that you are doing what you love—creating art! So at a certain point you have to stop worrying about what it looks like, let it all go, and focus on the important stuff. The goal is not to have a perfect space ready to grace the cover of a magazine or impress all of your friends. The goal is to find a balance between making art and feeling good in the place where you do it. Your mess isn’t evidence of your inability to stay organized, it is evidence that you live your life well.

This month, instead of introducing another artist, I thought I’d share this little video of the messes I made while creating art for my current show. I hope you enjoy watching the process of mess making as much as I did creating it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go clean the studio….

About Crystal Neubauer

Crystal Neubauer

From obtaining gallery representation to writing the book The Art of Expressive Collage: Techniques for Creating with Paper and Glue (North Light Books) to teaching workshops nationwide and opening my studio, learning to tune in to the voice within has led me on a journey of learning “I can.” Join me for an “I can” experience of your own as you learn to tune in to the creative flow while identifying the negative messages and fears that stop you. Find my work on my website, and more about the process, techniques, and my life on the blog.


Crystal Neubauer

About Crystal Neubauer

Gallery represented artist. Author of The Art Of Expressive Collage; Techniques With Paper and Glue. Blogger. National workshop instructor.


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