The Work Space

Poorly cared for tools denotes neglect and sloppiness.

When there is both inner and outer cleanliness, it approaches godliness.” — Mahatma Gandhi

One of the things I’ve learned over my career is this: respect your work space. This could mean anything from the environment in which you work, including its people, all the way down to the tools that you use. Even the mind itself is a work space we must keep organized and tidy.

“Cleanliness and order are not matters of instinct; they are matters of education, and like most great things, you must cultivate a taste for them.” — Benjamin Disraeli

The common man underestimates the importance of order and cleanliness. He thinks it’s just a matter of freedom or personal hygienic preference. But every expert, from the field of medicine to the culinary arts all the way to the local plumber, knows the utmost importance of being clean, tidy and organized. It’s part of being prepared for the job and a sign of true professionalism.

We may never have as clean a workstation as minimalist Georgia O’Keefe, but our work spaces have a huge influence on us and our end product (i.e. our art).

To have a clear mind and  properly prepared work space is key to good performance. How can we possibly perform our best in the absence of an environment that induces excellence? How can we succeed using sub-par tools? Would we want our dentist to use unsanitized equipment in our mouths? The common artist is often caught so much less prepared than his counterparts in other fields of occupation. The site of the messy painter or digital artist with crap all over his desk or studio is a flashing sign of disorder and chaos. We mistake this for creativity and spontaneity but the reality, despite such fanciful notions, is that the state of our immediate environment (along with our creations) is always the most accurate reflection of our state of mind. We are defined by how we do things.

Cluttered workstations invite not only physical germs and confusion, they invite judgement from colleagues, and quite possibly, your superiors. Please don’t confuse garbage with genius!

Marie Kondo, the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, speaks with great wisdom when she notes that in order to get our lives in order, we must first get our houses in order. And the key to that she says is by first clearing out things that clutter both our physical space and our inner mind:

“By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space much more peaceful and comfortable.”

We are bombarded today with visual noise, and working in a visual medium, we need the utmost clairvoyance when it comes to the artistic ability to see and discern. Clutter and chaos robs us of focus. It complicates what is already a very complicated and difficult thing to do. To create something new and something of value requires top notch conditions.

Toulouse Lautrec, the marvelous 19th century Bohemian impressionist from Paris, was poor and physically disadvantaged, but painted with deep passion and dedication. He also kept a very orderly working environment.

Kondo also hints that we gain greater usefulness and joy from taking care of our work space and tools:

When you treat your belongings well, they will always respond in kind.”

I know this to be true. And this applies both to my digital work space as well as my physical painting space. If I don’t make a routine of premixing my colors thoughtfully and carefully, I run out during the process of painting or find myself frustrated with the quality of my preparation. Same things applies to me keeping my brushes and palettes clean.

I also keep the digital work space as minimalist as possible, keeping only those windows open that were crucial to my work — no chat boxes, Youtube videos or other kinds of nonsense that might detract from the state of mind of full-on concentration. When I was directing, I always had an order to the day; who I was going to see, what needed to be done, and what deadlines needed to be met. I met with my assistant and animation leads regularly and on schedule. I could not proceed otherwise. I always laid everything out in front of me, so I can see as clearly as possible.

Similar to the attitude that makes a method actor, I get very frustrated when disturbed out of my creative state. I’m in a dance with the muses here and any interruption will not do. The bottom line is performance.

From The Machinest (2004) to Batman Begins (2005), method actor Christian Bale’s unbelievable transformations between projects indicate his mind-blowing devotion to his craft.

Another crucial concept Kondo eludes to is that by making the choice to eliminate the inessential we improve our ability to make choices:

“… one of the magical effects of tidying is confidence in your decision-making capacity.”

Decision-making, like anything else, is an activity that needs to be practiced. When we avoid dealing with clutter or inconveniences, we build a habit of avoiding problems and dealing with issues. If we can’t even clear out some simple garbage in front our desk or workstation, how can we possibly deal with matters much more substantial? Building a strong mind takes effort and organizing one’s immediate environment is the simplest way to turn the bad into the good. Doing that, life becomes interesting because different forces have entered into the equation. And just like that, we create a change for the better.

“The good things grow better. There is always a new surprise each time you see them.” — Robert Henri

Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s muse and lover, seen here in the master’s studio. Despite his renown spontaneity, Pablo Picasso always had sketches and references (in this case, the model herself) nearby and ready.

So, take care of your tools; keep your work space clean, organized and ready for use. Making art is hard enough on its own, why risk further difficulty and disarray? A prepared and clean work environment denotes a clean and prepared mind. As they say, order begets more order.

“The brain can prove to be a wonderful tool, can be a willing slave, as have been evidenced by some men, but of course it works poorly when it has not the habit of usage.” — Robert Henri

If you’re a mess or your work’s a mess. Look at your environment first and foremost.

“If you’re gonna put your house in order, do it now.” — Marie Kondo