Q&A with Andrew Mellen: Organizing an artist's studio

Image Courtesy iStock

Image Courtesy iStock

Q: Would you please post something specific to organizing (de-cluttering) an artist’s studio? I’ve applied many of your concepts about home offices to my makeshift art space but there comes a point where the two thing diverge. I now find myself in the happy position of setting up a new studio space. I’d like to make it functional, comfortable and pleasant. Seems like a good time to avoid chaos from the ground up. Any resources you can point me to? J.A., Artist

A: At every workshop, there is at least one artist in attendance and some version of this question comes up. So I’ll tell you what I tell them—the guiding principles of The Organizational Triangle® are the foundation for creating and maintaining a workable and uncluttered artist’s studio. If you’re working in two dimensions and need wall space for creating and viewing work, it’s imperative that you have one wall established as the storage wall. That way the three remaining walls are free for hanging/displaying work.

Shelving that goes to the ceiling, an adequate ladder or step stool and lots of bins or other ways of corralling and storing similar supplies together are the ideal in setting up this storage area. Depending on the limitations of your space, you’ll make the necessary compromises to have a place for everything you need and still retain enough room to work.

If you work in multiple mediums, create zones, as you would in the kitchen, where certain kinds of work are created. Like With Like is the best way to create work areas and keep them tidy.

I don’t have a shopping list of products specific to artists and I don’t think that getting and staying organized requires a big outlay of cash. Use what you have on hand. And simple sturdy shelving and see-thru containers that are clearly labeled will provide you excellent ‘bones’ for creating a practical and manageable studio.

Make sure you budget time to return things to their home as part of your work time. ‘Later’ is the step-child of someday, so don’t leave things a mess for later and then set yourself up to be annoyed when you return to your space and discover that the last person to use the space (you) left you a mess to clean up before you start working again.

Regardless of how tall you are, with the help of a ladder you can take advantage of as much vertical room as is available. Evaluate the space and see where things can be hung on the wall, hung or suspended from the ceiling and keep as much off the floor as possible.

For artists and craftspeople, the accumulation of objects that could be used in the work or used to inspire the work is an ongoing hurdle—your own personal Groundhog’s Day of inspiration and frustration. If you are someone who constantly accumulates things that intrigue and fascinate you, you’ll find this next suggestion both challenging and ultimately rewarding. Stop bringing things home. 🙂

If you are surrounded by things that have already intrigued and fascinated you, take the next action and actually use them in the work or to fuel the work. If they were important enough to drag home in the first place, use them now. BEFORE you accumulate anything else. And if you look at them and instead are thinking, “Oh, they’re all so tired and I can’t imagine why I brought this home in the first place,” then let them go NOW.

Do not waffle or defer, saying, “Well, perhaps in the future they will inspire me again so I’ll just hang onto them in case I need them someday.” Remember, someday doesn’t exist. Let them go and gather new objects to replace them.

Artists and craftspeople are notorious for getting lost in the acquisition of things and procrastinating the actual creation of things. Don’t let this be you. Acquiring inspirational totems is not the same thing as BEING inspired. Please read that sentence again, out loud. Your job is to be a channel FOR inspiration and a conduit for expressing it. So get to work.

This also goes for the accumulation of supplies. More paint or pencils or brushes or canvases or paper or other materials brings you no closer to creating something, it just means you have lots of supplies. If that applies to you, start using them and acquire nothing else until you’ve used up what you currently have on hand.

You will not suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, brimming with inspiration to find that you have absolutely NOTHING to create with. Chances are, you’re quite a bit away from running out of anything. So be mindful of bringing things home and be active in creating work.

Be smart in assigning zones for types of work, be tidy in returning supplies to their homes when you’re finished using them and you should have a pleasant and functional studio for years to come! I hope that helps and please share some before and after pics with us all!

Andrew Mellen is a professional organizer, speaker and author who helps America declutter, simplify, and get organized through tutorials, tips, how-to’s, Q&As, and hacks. He is the founder of Unstuff University and the best-selling author of Unstuff Your Life! (available in print, e-book, and as an audio book from Audible.) He also frequently appears on TV, on radio, and in print. Visit his website here.