It’s Not About The Stuff

I was struck, as maybe you were, too, by Christen’s post this week on how Stampington gets those great photographs you see in their magazines. You think they have a team of photographers come in and set up tons of expensive equipment, with models and lighting and, well, you know: stuff. Nope, she says: it’s just two and a half (one part-time assistant) people, sunlight, and the staff of the magazines.

If you spend much time in blogland reading the blogs with all the great photographs, you’ve maybe been overwhelmed with all the photography equipment people use. Lights and flashes and fancy lenses, props and drapes and just, you know, stuff. Expensive stuff. Maybe you were thinking, “Gee, I’d love to take more photographs, but I can’t afford all this Stuff.”

And that got me thinking about how lots of people approach creativity. They think maybe they’d like to try watercolor. So they check out some watercolor sites, visit some of the linked blogs, read the suggestions. You start seeing what everyone’s doing and what materials and supplies they recommend, and you start making a list of what you need, and before you know it, you’ve got a shopping list that’s going to require taking out a bank loan.

I’ve known many people over the years who would get interested in something new–rubber stamping or encaustics or quilting–and before they ever even tried it to see if it was going to be something they loved, they went shopping. Maybe you know people like this, too: you try something new and tell them about it, and the next time you go to their house, they’ve got every single new thing, all the sizes, all the colors, all the fancy brushes. The sewing machine that sews by itself. Maybe they go on to make tons of art with all this stuff, but maybe they’re like the people I’ve known: they collect everything, maybe take it out of the package and try it out, and then they arrange it all neatly and admire it and then–oh, look! A chicken!

You know: something else new and sparkly catches their attention, and they’re off on another search for other materials and supplies and a whole new collection of fabulous stuff.

Don’t fall into this trap. Making stuff is not the same as amassing a huge collection of stuff. Making stuff is about making stuff. You can make stuff out of almost anything. If you want to make different stuff, you may need different supplies, but you don’t have to buy a ton of those in order to jump in and splash around and see if you’re going to like it. If you really want to try painting, all you need is 1) some paint and 2) something to paint–paper, canvas, wood, cardboard. Here’s something to think about: if you decide you want to paint and you find yourself walking the aisles of the art store, filling up a basket with hundreds of dollars worth of supplies, maybe you need to stop and think whether it’s the act of painting that appeals to you or the mental image you have of yourself standing at a beautiful easel, holding a sable brush, the light streaming through the new lace curtains over your shoulder and reflecting brilliantly off the brand-new-to-you-via-eBay silver coffee server you want to capture on that 4′ X 6′ professional-grade canvas. Maybe what you want to do is not so much about painting but more about living your life inside one of those photographs in the glossy magazines that art collectors buy so they can see how the artists are spending the money they, the collectors, pay for their work. You know, the ones with references to Sotheby’s and Christy’s.

When we took Jesse Reno‘s painting workshop at Artfest in 2010, he provided everything we needed for a full day of painting: a paper plate on which to squirt globs of cheapo acrylic paint, a pencil and a couple crayons for making marks, and some big sheets of paper. No fancy brushes (we used our fingers), no palettes (well, except that paper plate), no canvases. Jesse often paints on wood. You can, too: find some wood, sand it down, start painting. You can spread on some gesso if you want to, but I’d advise against it: once you start thinking, “Buy some gesso,” it’s just a short step to “Buy some brushes” and “Buy that $2100 easel from Anthropologie.”

Making stuff is not the same as buying stuff. In fact, you could argue that it’s the opposite of buying stuff. Just because you admire something that someone made using their all-inclusive-set-of-every-color of Copic markers doesn’t mean you can’t work until you can afford $981.30 for the full set. Please. That’s not about making stuff; that’s about having stuff. Buying stuff. Getting the stuff everybody else is talking about.

Don’t fall into that trap, please. If you’re going to solder metal, sure: you need some solder and a soldering iron. If you’re going to paint, you need paint. But you don’t need a ton of fancy metal findings, and you don’t need the entire range of watercolors. What you need, instead, are some basic materials and–the most important part–time to experiment, make mistakes, practice, play, find your groove, follow your ideas. Instead of spending two hours filling a cart with everything you think you might need, spend those two hours getting your fingers in the paint and moving that paint onto a piece of paper. At the end of those hours, you’ll feel so much more fulfilled.


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17 Responses to It’s Not About The Stuff

  1. katzenjammy says:

    But it’s such an *interesting* chicken!

  2. Artvisionz says:

    Girl, I work part time in a local rubber stamp/ book arts store and I know what you mean. We have customers that drop hundreds of dollars every month but I’ve rarely ever seen anything they have created. People often ask me how I get out with a paycheck. It’s easy… I don’t buy a bunch of supplies that are what I call “cookie cutter” supplies. Stuff anyone can get. I like “trash”. Finds that I can repurpose, etc… The supplies I purchase are things that are used up and needed such as paint, adhesive, thread, pens, paper, canvas, etc… but, I also love using old book covers as canvas instead of buying the real deal. I like being creative with my supplies as much as I like being creative in the process of art. It’s just how I think. There is a thrill in reusing and repurposing objects in art and not buying more ‘stuff’.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      You and I probably know some of the same people, I’m guessing. It makes me sad that they have all this stuff and never, ever do anything fabulous. Shopping is fun for about 10 minutes past the time you get the stuff home; making stuff is fabulous forever.

  3. Great article – I have been there! But then I had a similar Epiphany about 2 years ago when I realised that to get the lovely new paper I had bought to match anything else, I’d need to buy the (insert brand name)’s embellishments, inks and ribbons to get any of the colours to match and it would cost even MORE money.

    Fast forward 2 years, now I spend my time rather than my money creating art. AND my favourite materials are cereal box cardboard, cheap acrylic paints and old books I can turn into art journals and interesting ephemera!

    Thanks, Rice – I hope more heed the call to make rather than consume! I’m going to find a piece of wood!

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Your comment made me think: do you think those people create colors that are just slightly “off” so that they’re impossible to match unless you buy *their* matching stuff? Like they’ve got chemists mixing colors for them, and they go in and go, “Nah, that blue is too easy to match; add some more brown to it.”

  4. DycheDesigns says:

    Absolutely love this post . . . . it’s so true. It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype (definitely been there) but the trick really is starting simple, getting your feet wet and seeing where things take you.

  5. smithla8 says:

    Great post that hits right at the heart of the consuming/creating paradox. In January 2010, I challenged myself to not buy any new art supplies except to replace items that I’d used up or worn out. With one notable exception, a great little watercolor field kit that I now carry and use almost every day, I met that challenge and bought only a couple of glue sticks, some tape, and a bottle of India ink over the course of a year or so. Along the way, I’ve built a half dozen art journals, made nearly 100 small works for my Art on My Door project, created 25 metal tape and ink pieces for a one-woman show, created and exhibited a piece in a major international art exhibition, and participated in 30 Days of Creativity. It looks like I may need to buy some more watercolor paper soon (I use it to make the pages of my art journals) and I’m scraping the bottom of my jar of gel medium. Really, using the stuff up is way more fun than acquiring it.

  6. EvelineTimeless says:

    There must be something in the air, because this subject has been talked about at lenght on over the last few weeks. Over there it’s called ‘Cult of Stuff’, and Leslie Herger (owner of and has written a couple of pieces just like this to get people to understand that art is not about the stuff you use, and that you should try and get everything out of the supplies you do own, even if it’s something that you would not usually do.
    A lot of members there have shared their stories about how they fell for those new shiny supplies you can get at the store that then ended up at the back of the cupboard because you don’t know what to do with them, and have posted pictures of their experiments in trying new things with old supplies.
    It’s been talked about on blogs, on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr and the discussion is still going on today, 5 weeks after it started on the Ning site.

    Anyone looking to find inspiration on using up those supplies you don’t really know what to do with, come check out the ‘workshop’ Cult of Stuff on!

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Yeah, this is one of those things that’s always in the air. I wrote a series of “Too Much Stuff” posts on my personal blog back in December 2009, and I’m sure that’s not the first time I’ve whinged about the subject because, for those of us who grew up with parents who grew up in the Depression and never threw anything away, it’s been an issue we’ve had to face all our lives and something we’ve had to watch out for in ourselves every time we set out to buy something or save something or rent a building in which to store something or~~

  7. Zom says:

    I walked out of a huge shopping mall today because even though I saw some clothes on sale that I liked, it is so much more fun to make it! And imperfectly at that.

  8. Caatje says:

    A wonderful post!

    I think a lot of people do this accumulating of supplies because they want to do it (whatever it is they want to do) just right. I had someone who wanted to try collage ask me exactly what kind of papers and glues and other materials she needed. Her questions were so specific that she adressed aspects I had never even thought about. It’s like she thought she couldn’t start until she had just the right things in just the right amounts, but the point is of course that this is a myth. Collage is basically glueing stuff onto other stuff. So a glue stick and an any paper you have lying around will do if you just want to practice for a start and see if you like it.

    That may be the other problem. People act as if they will make masterpieces from the start and so worry about things like archival materials and durability, before they have even put something together for the first time. Whereas I think we all know that the first things we make are mostly just for practice and for practice your biggest supply is just ‘taking the time to do it’. A little devotion goes a lot further than any art supply ever could. It’s hard to get into people’s head that creativity does not come from materials, but from your own mind/recoursefulness.

    All that being said: I am a pretty paper addict and boy, would I love the full set of copic markers 😉

  9. PennyA says:

    *eek!* Hate to admit that I am/was guilty of this practice for a time — Heartened, though, by the (sometimes difficult) decision to reduce *the Stuff*, re-purpose and reCLAIM my space 🙂 It has been liberating to enjoy the new acreage of Floor in our home — and I ‘found’ some really cool Stuff I had (sadly) forgotten about… I have made other people giddy with the receipt of my no longer needed Stuff — and have experienced increased productivity in the interim. One really can DO more with less! Great post and interesting comments — THANKS!

    Oh, yeah… What are you doing with my chicken?!? *hee, hee!*

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      I thought that looked like a North Carolina Chicken! Shall I send her home?

      • PennyA says:

        HA! …not necessary, dear-heart, I know with great certainty she will find her way back here to distract/torment me soon enough 😉

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      My husband now says, when I see something in a store, “First, shop at home.” Because I’ve bought stuff only to come home and find the Exact Same Thing already here. I’ve gotten a lot better just to keep him from going, “Uh-huh. What did I tell you?”

      • PennyA says:

        OOOH, he is indeed very wise! I must remember this mantra *Shop at HOME* — good stuff!