Abuse Your Art Supplies

by | Oct 15, 2009 | Articles | 12 comments

It took me 15 years  to discover that I had no talent for writing but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.
-Robert C. Benchley

Who says you have to be any good in order to be creative?

The very first (and last) painting class I ever took (which was about 22 years ago) was a process painting class. I had no interest in taking a traditional art class that taught technique because I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do. And I certainly didn’t want anybody telling me I was doing it wrong. I didn’t care about all that. I just wanted to paint.

And who the heck is it that can tell you your creativity is “wrong” anyway? That has always seemed like the most insane thing imaginable. It’s like grading someone on how they breathe.

Unfortunately, that is not the prevailing attitude in this culture. What we do hear over and over again is that there are definite standards we have to live up to in order to be creative.

Keep your eyes peeled for the art supplies police

One of my students has a young son and she was asked by her boys teacher if she could fill in to cover for a session of the childrens art class. The teacher had created a pre-made art project for the kids to do. I think it was around Thanksgiving and they were all supposed trace an identical turkey on construction paper, cut it out and then decorate it. My student was just supposed to give the kids the instructions and then supervise the assignment.

But my student had been hanging out in my studio for too long and decided, “Hey what the heck. Give the kids a little free rein.” So she just set the art supplies out and told the class to have at it and make whatever they wanted to make.

And of course they came out with all kinds of wonderfully wild and charmingly goofy things. I think one or two of them might have even cut out the turkey. But the point was, they had fun. And they were actually given the opportunity to be creative.

When the teacher returned and saw what had happened she was HORRIFIED. She was actually pretty close to apoplectic and started sputtering to my student about how allowing the children to create freely without sticking to the plan and doing what was expected of them was AN ABUSE OF ART SUPPLIES!

She actually used those words.

I had no idea that it was even POSSIBLE to abuse art supplies, but then what do I know?

It’s no wonder that we have so many unhelpful ideas about what it means to be a creative person. If we are worried that we might be in danger of traumatizing our oil pastels if we don’t stay inside the lines we are going to be more than a little hesitant to create with any kind of freedom or abandon.

We also learn that there’s only one correct way to be creative and if we don’t follow the rules someone is going to blow a fuse.

We are all perfectly crazy.

It reminds me of the time I was doing some work with a woman client around her relationship issues and she was going on and on about how perfect and amazing and wonderfully healed she had to be before she could ever find herself paired up.

And I said to her “Ah, excuse me, but have you ever looked around and actually noticed the kinds of people who are already IN relationships? Most people who are intimately hooked up are not anywhere near being totally realized ascended masters. Or even particularly well adjusted.”

People who are married or part of a committed partnership are by and large not exactly perfect. In fact, they are usually pretty gosh darned far from being perfect. They are tall and fat or short and bony and cranky and bossy and self centered. They have bad habits and worse breath. Being human, they are always some form of wacky. But love finds them anyway.

Your creativity is a lot less demanding than you are.

It’s the same with your muse. She doesn’t care how good you are at something. She just wants you to express yourself. However you can. The act of BEING creative is all she really cares about.

We don’t have to be perfect in order to make art. We don’t have to cut that turkey out in just the right way. Skill and creativity are two radically different things. Technique and creativity are not even on the same street much less in the same house. You can be a creative person without having developed any expertise at all. You don’t need to follow any rules or even know what you are doing in order to make art or to create. You really don’t.

Please don’t make me say it again.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record in that I keep harping on this same topic over and over again. But the reason I keep yammering on about it is because it’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks that I see in my students around letting themselves live fully creative lives.

This whole issue of not being good enough to make art or to be creative is huge. The tyranny of technique is crippling for most people. Many of us have experienced some version of having been terrorized by well meaning but misguided art teachers more concerned with the preciousness of art supplies than they are with the precious contents of our creative souls.

So how about abusing some art supplies today? Get out your paints or your pastels, your glue sticks and your collage materials, and produce some art that would make your grade school teachers eyes bug out. Put on some music and risk being completely foolish by getting out of your chair and merrily moving that awkward old body of yours. Sit down at your computer or with a pen and paper and just start writing the worst, most trite and boring stuff imaginable.

The only pre-requisite is to let yourself have as much fun as possible. It’s important to be a gleeful abuser. Make those crayons squeal. Flail. Write very, very badly.

See how good that feels? The more you do this the harder it’s going to be to let yourself be shackled by the “doesn’t play well with others” perfection demon. And I GUARANTEE that no one will call the art police on you!

If you are looking for a great place to get total permission to abuse your art supplies to your hearts content I have a Painting From The Wild Heart weekend workshop coming up on November 13-15 in my wildly creative Oakland studio. For more info on that retreat click here.



  1. Chris,
    I have a recurring dream (nightmare?) where the fancy pants art school I went to discover what I am doing with my art and come and confiscate my degree for doing unacceptable things. It probably took a decade after graduating to begin to recover my voice, and probably another for me to feel I have approached regaining my authentic visual voice!

    Very much like the issues around body image for women, I have internalized so much of the crap around what is Ok and what is not. I am so grateful to have people like you in my life to help counter the voices and remind us all of the joy in our inherent creativity and expression.

  2. Chris,

    I had to laugh at your student’s story because two years ago, I was volunteering at “Colonial Camp” at my kids’ school. The event was for 5th graders. I was in charge of helping them make necklaces. The staffers told us how we were to have the kids make the necklaces (which beads in which order, etc.) Three moms were volunteering. One treated the thing as if it were going to be a Harvard admissions requirement. (The staff intimated there may be an impromptu “pop quiz” at the end, so she turned it into a lesson. “This is waxed cotton cord. Can everyone say that?”

    The other mother and I threw that notion out the window before we were finished with the first group. We did ration the horn beads to ensure everyone got some (there weren’t many), but other than that, we gave the kids free rein. I thought the other mother was going to pop something, she was so upset. “But what about their TEST?!”

    “This is an on-campus field trip and hands-on learning activity,” I finally said after ignoring this query at least ten times. “What about them having fun?”

    This really gets me as a parent because our kids’ educational lives are so regimented (at least where I live). Most of them spend all of their extracurricular time in supervised, scheduled-to-the-second activities. How are they going to know how to entertain themselves, or what makes their hearts sing if they’re never given the freedom to find out? (I haven’t raised my kids to be regimented soldiers and I’ve been called on the carpet for it by more than one parent, and a few teachers, too.)

  3. You have no idea how wonderful this was for me to read. I have that same feeling about taking classes or, egads, getting a degree in art…I don’t want anyone telling me the “right” uses or techniques for doing art because it would probably spoil all the fun I have in doing the art I do. I am so going to send everyone I know here to read this…we all need to learn to abuse our art supplies! Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!
    Peace & Love,

  4. Thanks for this great encouragement. I found you through your comment Mark Silver’s blog (the post about the diapers~!)
    Just the kick I needed, here, to get off the perfectionista pedestal and get down to some fun. messy fun. yeah! painting! writing! drooling…. (?) (well, it could happen….)

  5. Amen, sister! I love this post and will share it with my clients, friends, and family! Abuse art supplies!?!?!? What the?? You made the point beautifully (and creatively, might I add?) We’re all creative beings – every breath and choice we take and make is an opportunity to live a creatively fulfilled life. Thanks for keeping the creative juices flowing with your brilliant blog!

  6. Oh, the idea of making crayons squeal is just too delicious for words!

    I too have an art class failure story lurking in my mental closet like a terrible skeleton. Just the thought of trying to sketch a church makes me shudder… urgh. I feel much more comfortable with words, perhaps that’s one of the reasons why?

  7. Good evening, everybody!
    (Yes, around here it is late. *g*)

    I like the idea of abusing art supplies a lot (and I’ve done so on many occasions myself), but on the other hand I have had exactly that kind of discussion with my significant other just a few weeks back when talking about education… while it is really necessary to let kids (and grown-ups, and the rest of us) use their creativity and imagination as freely as possible and to have fun and discover new ways of doing new things with new materials, it is also necessary (at least with children) to give them special tasks to see how well they perform certain tasks that kids should be able to perform at a certain age – like cutting along a given line or painting inside the lines. This may not be what doing “real” art is like, but it helps discover development problems at an early stage.

    With other words, I absolutely understand what your student did and I really, *really* love it that the kids had fun, but I also understand to a certain degree why there was this task the kids were meant to perform. Although I cannot quite see the horror of doing it the next lesson… but maybe that’s just me being too relaxed. (°v^)

  8. I am so grateful I found your site, (via tweet from @EmApocalyptic). I’ve always colored “outside the lines” in every form of art there is, and have gotten some strange looks because of it. Even my family says “Oh no” when I have an idea. But I couldn’t live without letting loose my creativity. I just couldn’t.
    My son started middle school this year and it’s the first time he’s talked about what he’s learning in school without being asked. The teachers make all the difference. He was excited when his agri-science teacher took the class to a corn field that borders the school, reached across the fence and picked an ear of corn. He then peeled the husk off to show them what makes the corn grow. Wow – interactive learning! About time is all I’ve got to say. I can’t wait until my other son gets to middle school, which will be next year.
    Thanks so much for this post. I now want to drag out my craft box and go to town!

  9. LOL! I found you thru Zom’s site and I just loved this post! hysterical! and very sad that our children are still being turned into Zombies around creativity! No wonder so many of them hated art in school!
    and loved the Benchley quote!

  10. I LOVE this post! As an artsworker myself, I constantly come into contact with people who think thay aren’t creative and are so afraid of ‘wasting’ art materials on themselves!
    I love what you are doing Chris ~ I am SO inspired!

  11. Great…..you done a awesome blog on art supplies…. Ideas are too good…… Children are crazy…… creativity was the best. good post. thanks

  12. Thanks for writing this … probably the most encouraging post I ever read. Keep on posting such stuff. ;)

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe To Our Newsletter



Come and be a part of my wild heart circle of creative soul revolutionaries, magic kingdom makers and the sacred clan of intuitive painting wisdom. I will send you my monthly newsletter and occaisonal emails about my events and classes.

You have Successfully Subscribed!