Art journal blog

In a creative rut? Why more art supplies are not the answer

Get Messy is an online art journaling school that teaches you to cultivate your creativity. Without perfection.

We’d love for you to join us.

Blog Categories

When stuck in a creative rut, buying new art supplies can seem like a reasonable way to go about getting out of it. After all, we all know that art stores (and to a lesser extent, their online equivalent) are magical places; not only full of…uhh, art supplies, but allure and promise and potential. I’m here to tell you to hold your horses. Back up a little. Here’s why stocking up on more art supplies is not the answer.

The allure of the candy store

For all intents and purposes, “artist walks into the art store” is pretty much equivalent to “kid walks into a candy store”. Eyes light up. Heart rates quicken. Mouths potentially begin salivating. And if the protagonist is in possession of money – or has access to a convincible guardian with money – then the monies will be spent.

We start patrolling the shelves and, in the flashiest of flashes, a dozen items have somehow leapt into our baskets. We’re excited, nay – inspired, and the inspiration feels good. A delicious contrast to the stagnant pond of creative energy that’s been curdling inside us over the past few months.

Take that, rewind it back

Let’s go back to the scene of the crime, a.k.a. the place where your creative rut and current art supplies live. We look at our studio, our art corner, our desk, our pencil case, our whatever – and feel stuck. We feel like we know its contents already. We’re not inspired or excited by the materials we have before us. If only we had different stuff to play with, then maybe we’d actually be creating.

Art supplies are a distraction

This, my friends, is the same as looking into our wardrobe, seeing a heck of a lot of clothes staring back at us, and huffily proclaiming that we don’t have anything to wear. Nothing feels right, nothing looks right, nothing fits right; if only we had different stuff. We’re quick to blame the clothes – or lack thereof. Hard truth: the real problem may be that we’re not feeling good in ourselves, in those moments.

In the same way that buying new clothes may be a distraction from examining this hard truth, buying new art supplies may be a distraction from examining the real underlying causes of your creative rut.

Telling ourselves that we need more art supplies gives the power over to the art supplies. It outsources your creativity. We tell ourselves that we will be able to create when we get more, when we have this or that. We look forward to a future time which, no matter how soon we might be heading to the store, is not now, it’s not here, it’s not with what we’ve got.
So, the answer?

Start where you are

There are a million and one excellent and practical suggestions out there to getting out of a creative rut. To add my two cents’ worth, here’s my top tip:

Start where you are, start with what you’ve got.

Your reply to my asking you what you’ve got may very well be “no good ideas, no motivation and no good art supplies”. Great. All good. Start there.

In my experience, creative ruts rarely have anything to do with the quantity or adequacy of our art supplies. More often than not, they have everything to do with our fear and a lack of connection. Connection to ourselves, to our materials, to our ideas.

So dig a little deeper. Ask yourself what’s going on beneath the surface of that stagnant pond of creative energy. Look your fear in the face, and call it for what it is. Then, if you can muster the strength, feel free to loosen up a bit, and take a couple more steps.

Good enough art supplies

Once you’ve started where you are, start shifting the idea that you need more/perfect/the latest art supplies to being ok with having art supplies which are good enough.

Don’t have that perfect paper with the high-grade GSM and the fine tooth? That’s ok.

Don’t have enough brushes, collage materials, paints, markers? No worries.

Whatever you have, right now, try to make art with it.

If you have paper and a pencil, you’re pretty much good to go. All you need is something to make a mark with, and something to make a mark on. I once made a series of work with instant coffee and water on paper…so the category of “something to make a mark with” is a very, very broad category indeed.

My guess is you have some old pastels or coloured pencils or textas or something which have lain untouched for a while. Whatever it is, whichever material you’re drawn to (or repulsed by): pick it up. Make a mark with it. Get to know it, as if for the first time. Ask it what it’s suggesting to you, ask it how it wants to be used. Push it around. See if you can find its limits. See if you can make it look like something else. See if you can challenge your own ideas of what you thought this thing was or was capable of doing. Get curious, get frustrated, and get curious again. Maybe it will lead you somewhere you weren’t expecting.

The beauty in limitation

I remember waiting at the train station once, in my early twenties; I wanted to draw but didn’t have a pen or pencil on me. But then I realised that I actually did: I had my little makeup bag with me, and my eyeliner pencil in tow. Getting out some measly scrap of paper, I began to draw the people I observed around me with my eyeliner, mascara, lipstick.

Now, I don’t recall these drawings ending up being particularly good. But the point I’m trying to make is this:

It’s good to have limitations. It’s good to get bored.

Limitations and boredom feel pretty rubbish at first, but if we sit with them for long enough, we’re forced into using the creative side of our brain. In the same way that a child’s creativity kicks in when they have a Saturday afternoon, nowhere to be and nothing to do (and let’s add “no screens” to the list for good measure), so too can your creativity start to fizz and crank and whirr when it doesn’t seem like you have many creative options. And here’s the crunch factor:

the creativity doesn’t kick in despite not having many options. It kicks in because of it.

Sooner or later, something in the direction of the following might happen:

  • “I wonder what would happen if I used a stick/toothbrush/finger/leaf instead of a paintbrush?”
  • “I don’t have those stencils that I wanted, but could I make some with these old bits of plastic?”
  • “Huh, I used to always hate getting messy with charcoal – but now making a mess seems kinda fun.”

There is beauty in limitations; the limitations can spark creative ideas of their own.

The ultimate candy store

Now, I’m not trying to tell you that your current art supplies hold all of the answers to your problems. And I’m also definitely not trying to tell you to never go to the art store again.
But we do not need the new supplies in order to start. We do not need the supplies in order to feel inspired. We do not need that elusive something else in front of us before we can start creating.

There is a magic that happens when we connect with ourselves and start where we are.

There’s a magic that happens somewhere in those spaces in between us and our ideas and our materials.

If the art store is on par with the candy store, then this magic is on par with that magical candy landscape inside Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Ha, I didn’t see that metaphor coming until now. But I’m into it.

In trying to get out of a creative rut, the answer doesn’t lie at the art supply store. The answer lies within you. So get back out there and begin by starting where you are.

Rachael Helmore

Rachael Helmore is an Australian artist and writer, currently living in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. She writes and makes art to connect with herself, with others and with the world around her. Rapid observational drawing – normally without looking at the page – forms the basis of her art making practice. Her current works explore ideas of culture, home, homelands, landscape and belonging through the use of found images.