How to Play Big When You’re Afraid of Wasting

August 1st, 2008

When I talked about playing on a big piece of paper the other day, a few people mentioned wishing they were able to let go and create like that. It sounds like a simple thing, but if you've ever been in front of a big piece of paper or canvas or hunk of clay and were afraid to begin, then you know it can be tricky. For many people, myself included, there's a fear of wasting material. We might think, "Oh, I spent 'x' amount of dollars on that canvas. If I just start playing and it turns out awful, what a waste it will be! I better do something good on this or forget about it." Those are some paralyzing thoughts!  I don't believe that you should let the cost of the material interfere with your free-flowing creativity, but sometimes you need some tools to get beyond that ingrained fear of waste.

I remember in junior high, I used to try to cram all my math homework onto one page because I didn't want to waste paper. I had a fear of lack and didn't want to run out of materials and have to ask for more. Some of this came from the fact that my parents were divorced and money was an issue, but we could afford paper. I just didn't want to ask for anything, so I'd write teeny-tiny and try to make my paper last. I actually got graded down on one of my math homework assignments because of it. The teacher was having trouble reading the tiny numbers and asked me to please, use more paper. Heh. I started to get some clarity around my fear of waste and lack way back then and although it has continued to come up for me as an adult, it's far less often.

For me, the fear of waste with art supplies became an issue after college. During college, materials were required of you, so I didn't worry about wasting things. But after college, when money was tight, it seemed like a big risk to work on a canvas or use a lot of paint when I didn't have a lot to spare. Around that time, I started reading about intuitive art making, which involved letting your intuition guide your color choices and the flow of your work. This was the way I'd always preferred to work and having this as my intention really helped me to loosen up and let go. I also started working this way with collage. In both cases, I began with cheap materials, things I had readily available. If you have issues with perfection, lack, and wasting materials, starting with cheaper materials is a great way to begin. I used sketchbook pages, magazines, a glue stick, and cheap paints to begin. That way if I "screwed up", it didn't matter. I felt freer to experiment, to play, to go with my whims and I also gained confidence from the experience of creating from that deeper source within me.

When I moved on to better quality materials and had to face those fears of lack again, I found that giving myself permission to make complete and utter crap was enough to get me past the initial roadblock and into the flow of my creativity. It may sound silly, but I will literally say this out loud or in my head to myself, "It's o.k. to make complete and utter crap. You can throw it out at the end, cut it up, or paint over it in the end if you want to." And sometimes I do cut it up, paint over it or throw it out. And that's totally fine. Each experience leads to the next and having some "failures" are important too.

I recently bought two large pieces of paper for a project that I ended up not needing. So, I decided to devote them to playful creation with no plan or direction or purpose. I painted with a painting knife, making big strokes, looking for images that `popped out at me from the texture of the knife strokes and following my intuition as to where to take it. Simply having told myself that this paper was for play and that it didn't matter if it turned into a big page of mud was enough to get me started. And I think starting is the hardest part. Once you get started, the sense of fun kicks in and you lose yourself in the process. And if you find yourself stuck in fear along the way, a simple reminder to let go of the end-product is usually enough to get going again. The images in this post are all part of one of those big pieces of paper I'm working. It's still in process and I don't know where I'm going with it, but I sure am having a fabulous time making it! I've been layering, drawing, scraping, and playing all over the place.

The fun part about working big on a piece of paper, is that you often find lovely small pieces of it that you really like. And with a piece of paper you can always crop it into smaller compositions. When I first wanted to play big with cheaper materials, I went out an got a big roll of inexpensive white paper, tempera paints (less expensive), and some gloss paint to go over the tempera and make it more shiny if I wanted to do that. Big rolls of craft paper that you can buy at office supply stores work well too.

I feel like I've got loads more to say on this topic, but this is a good start. Try playing big (whatever big means to you), give yourself permission to make "bad art", and most importantly, have fun with it. Hope you have a beautiful, creative, and joy-filled weekend!

20 Responses

Love this post… true for me. I was just at Dick Blick and they had this canvas that stood over 6′ tall and about 4′ wide….huge. I thought “never in a million years could I work on that. Seriously, anything over 5″x7″ scares me. It’s about wasting a canvas and feeling as thoogh I’m not worthy of that size…definitely things to work on!!

Even your “Play art” is fantastic. Loooourve the colors you chose in this. The detail…lovely as ever.
Maybe that is what I need to do to get back into the painting groove. Just go crazy on a big piece of paper. Ha!


Thank you so much for the advice. I am one who has a fear of wasting because money is tight. I’m sure it surfaces from childhood experiences too. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to waste ~~ Environmental concerns come up for me too. But, You’re right, why waste when we can reduce by re-using our old stuff by cutting them up and using them in collage, or painting over them! If we don’t allow ourselves to play, then we can’t make mistakes and we’ll never learn valuable artistic lessons if we can’t make mistakes. Plus, if we never make mistakes I believe our work loses its sincerity and freshness.

I got a good piece of advice from an artist instructor last year..

She mentioned that many artists find a large canvas intimidating, because you pay so much for one, and they don’t want to “waste” it.

What she does is she sets the new large canvas up in her studio and then begins to write on it…yes, write on it…notes, to do lists, phone numbers, things to remember. She uses a writing implement which she can paint over of course.

She finds that later the canvas is much less intimidating and it is then easier to use.

I really get what you’re saying about the “waste” issue. When I was a kid in art school, my mom really had to scrimp to afford art supplies every term. Once, I was copying Van Gogh, and I couldn’t bear to do impasto because it would waste too much paint. It came out cool, but no impasto.

But there’s another issue I have with painting big. BIG means REAL ART. BIG is SERIOUS. BIG is a SHOWPIECE. Yikes. I always get stage fright and worry it will be crap and prove that I’m not good enough.

Then again, I really like the intimacy of small pieces. It’s not just fear.

I don’t think…

Hi Leah !

I am working on giving myself permission to make bad art. It has been a really great lesson for me to think about the process and not the end result. The funny thing is that I can always find a sweet spot of something I love even in the really bad pieces because I think I really love that it came from inside me, freely, without those nasty critics keeping it at bay.

For people who are looking to work BIG and want something manageable money-wise when they try it out, I have a great tip I learned from Lynn Perrella. She uses red rosline paper (I think that’s how you spell it ?1) from the hardware store. It is what construction guys use to cover floors to protect them. It is comes in a huge roll, is super tough and with a coat of gesso on it, a very cool sized canvas for very few pennies !

Let’s all keep looking for those sweet spots !
Have a super weekend !

Hey Leah!
What about the psychological aspect of working large? I think that wasting materials is enormous, but another is seeing your work as art, in a larger space. I recently posted a journal on my blog; it’s a bit complex for a journal but if I’d started out with a canvas, or watercolor paper even, the results wouldn’t have been the same. The fact that a journal is functional rather than a ‘just’ a piece of art is something I’m trying to get past.
Thanks for sharing your work and wonderful thoughts on creativity!

i can sooooo relate to this. i don’t really use canvas (at least not yet…everything is subject to change as they say)…but i know what its like to feel miserly with resources…
recently im finding thoughts are going from small to larger possibilities…so why be miserly with your energy too? this is something that challenges me over and over again..

Me too, Leah! It IS frightening using good stuff and going big. I’m weaving white cloth that I’ll dye and shibori — talk about being afraid to mess up! Fortunately with textiles, they can be discharged or overdyed, or pieced over, or cut up and used elsewhere, the possibilities are endless. So that’s a saving grace in the back of my mind as I mark up beautiful white silk fabric I’ve just woven! At least I got over the fear of using silk early on.
Thanks for this wonderful post. Have a great weekend!

you’re so right on here. Clay one can always smoosh back into a blob and start over. Paper? Canvas? paint over it? it has taken me YEARS to do that. Great post!

I sure like how you used your paper…/canvas?
I like what you created…isn’t it interesting how we can stiffle our own creativity? Mine today is having too many things I want to do at once and can’t so am barely squeaking one out and that just a rough draft, with some knitting in between…at least there I see I am progressing on something that will be completed eventually.

Hi Leah, would have responded sooner but my computer would not let me get on your site…was weird.

I hear ya on the waste. My “postcard from the tree” I just posted the other day started as a painting I just really did not like so a bit of gesso, a pinch of gel medium, lots of ephemura and bingo…new art. I was really frustrated with the painting because it was a deep edge canvas which cost a bit more and had that feeling of “wasting” it. I do love how it turned out.

also been reading a bit on drawing and they do recommend going big, more room to “correct”!

Interesting and encouraging Leah. I think one issue I have is: if I work big where to store it all? I do want to sell my art, but if I don’t I can’t box it away as eaisly as when I’m working 10×10cm! :-)


I just found your blog, and it is amazing. I so connect with your every word, you are so talented and creative. Will be back for more inspiration. Thanks for a super blog. Sincerely! Pj

Reminds me when I used to live in my first appartment on my own. I had painted on the walls just letting all of my emotions flow out big time. Man it was so cool. so restrictions. I had been so used to letting it all in all the time. That no more. I wish I could do this all over again, maybe I wouldn’t have nervous breakdowns no more. Or I would feel better. Anyways on with better news, it’s my 1st year blogoversary and I’m having a giveaway. So tell all your friends and come on over. Thanks and have a terrific day.

Oh boy, can I relate to this. I’m into watercolors and started off working on small sizes.

I have been working in small sketchbooks and have one 11 by 14 sketchbook, and I truly feel like I am liberated by the sketchbook format. I can just do what I want. I still feel that on paper I have to be doing “a work of art” and that seems too serious ..

I did do one on half a big piece of Arches paper … but it didn’t turn out as nice as the preparatory sketch. I was so proud that I’d used the big paper, but not thrilled with the result … it was just okay.

However, I have been facing another fear recently, that is drawing faces … and have done alright with that.

So … with your inspiration maybe it is time to break out the big paper which hides behind my bedroom bureau in a plastic bag. Afterall, I could always paint on the other side !!!

Thanks for the inspiration.

I always love getting a peek into your studio space. And I love those little circles within the bigger circle!

Here’s to creating with absolute abandonment. Your work is beautiful and has taken on such a strong life of its own. I think that CED has catapulted your artwork into a whole new realm. You have such a strong and beautiful style. I feel like I am basking in your energy–and I love it!

What a fabulous post, Leah! This is so, so, so good to hear! I loved the pictures you posted of this work in progress. It’s moving and enjoyable, I can tell you’re having fun with it :) So beautiful!

OMG! Great post AND I’m LOVING your blog and CED!!!
You’re my hero!
Looks like you’re part of Leone’s Goddess circles, but I don’t know how to find you there.
I would love to connect! Please drop me a note if you’re so moved….

This is exactly a problem I have struggled with. Even when I was in school I’d becareful of what I purchased and what I used so I wouldn’t use up my materials unnessasarily. I still struggle with it a bit especially when I run out of paint at $20 a tube. But, your CED challange is really helping me work through it and I’m entering my first art show tomorrow!!! So excited, Thank you!

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