As an artist I cultivate messy. Yes, I am bringing messy back!

I remember watching my toddler son pick up a paintbrush thick with 4 different paint colors, the paint oozing off the tip of the brush and as he whacked that brush on the newsprint, paint splattered across the page. He peered into the paint jars again, grabbed a ruler I had on the floor of my studio, pushed it into the paint and then proceeded to foam roll a new color of paint over the ruler laying on the paper. He lifted off the ruler to find a crisp white line where the ruler had been and his little body danced with glee from his findings. He repeated these steps over and over. After watching this process for 5 minutes I realized that in this “mess” and experimentation he was figuring things out. He was playing and mixing and being curious about the materials and the marks and he was mesmerized. His small easel was set up next to the large table that I painted on and his energy and mess inspired my own creativity. It was in those moments of working side by side that I came to find my “messy” again and found my way back to something I had forgotten long ago.

I was trained in art school to learn technique and find my voice and vision in whatever media I chose. I was encouraged to be engaged with process over product and I lived in a place of pure flow when I was able to blissfully paint for hours at a time. But something happens in art school. You get surrounded also with voices of “how it should be” or “how can I be the most cutting edge” and you lose that pure space of play and process that we all possess when we are very young. It was only after having my own children that I could witness first hand on a daily basis how to live in the space of what I call “messy knowing.” It is getting to a place where the critical voices subside and you can work and experiment and not know and yet still know. When you can get messy and still know and are open to the knowing and understanding that is coming through to you.

Tim Harford’s book: Messy: the power of disorder to transform our lives

In Tim Harford’s book, “Messy: the power of disorder to transform our lives,” he examines the important role that messiness can play in our lives and workplaces. He also shares with readers different strategies that musicians, mathematicians, scientists, and corporations have used to welcome mess and unknown outcomes.

In his book, Tim says…

“Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds a way to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak…”

When companies ask employees to get out of their comfort zone and try to work in new and unusual ways and to embrace the not knowing, unexpected outcomes are possible.


What would happen if a company was asked to spend the morning fingerpainting together on large sheets of paper in the corporate parking lot to live music? What would happen if your work team went to the beach and held a sand castle contest and then was asked to draw the finished castles with their opposite hand? What would happen if your company went on a hike for the day and no speaking was allowed and everyone had to communicate during the walk, through drawing? And while they were hiking each person had to stop along the way to draw 8 things (a sound, a tree, a bird) and then at the end of the hike back at the office each person shared their experience and drawings. How could these experiences that push each person out of the normal routines open our minds to finding new solutions and possibilities?

Musician Brian Eno says…

“The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually. And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

What could you do in your workplace to invite messy, unknown outcomes? What can you do to invite an open mind and messy hands?


Drawing Challenge - making marks with charcoal - helping to bring messy back to business


Here’s a challenge to try:

I created “The Drawing Lab” where I invite people to experience messiness and unknown outcomes through drawing. Would you like to try a few messy ideas with your team?

Set aside some time (could be 30 minutes or more) to bring your team/group/corporation together. Tell them this is a time to get messy together and practice process over product. A way to connect with each other and their own approaches to exploration and discovery.

  1. To loosen everyone up put some Miles Davis jazz music on and ask people to close their eyes and “let their pencil dance” on the page. Listen to the music for about a minute.
  2. Switch to another piece of music like a Yo Yo Ma’s classical cello piece and using your non-dominant hand, close your eyes and “let your pencil dance on the page”.
  3. Then after a minute or so switch to upbeat music (with no words) and ask people to draw using both hands at the same time.
  4. Look at all the drawings. Ask people to reflect on what the experience was like for them.


bringing messy back with Deb Putnoi - try this business challenge to build your culture.


To loosen everyone up play 3-4 music selections from The Drawing Lab Drawing Music playlist from Spotify to make things easy for you.



If you want to keep going:

Have each person draw a 5 sided shape in the center of the paper and write their name on the back of the paper. Then have them hand the paper to the person to the left of them. Then ask everyone to add on to the drawing for 15 seconds. Keep passing the papers and adding on to the drawings. Fill up the paper as much as possible. Explore using different shapes, lines, and marks. Do this until everyone has made marks on everyone else’s paper and everyone gets their original drawing (probably easier done by smaller groups than full corporations. Ideal group sizes are 20 people or less. So if you have a big group split up into smaller groups. Then do the exercises and get back together to discuss everyone’s experience.). Look at all the drawings. Ask people to reflect on what the experience was like for them.

After you have done these experiences please feel free to share your drawings and the reflections that people had. You can do sessions like this monthly or quarterly and see what happens over time. Check out the Drawing Lab for more ideas.


Want to dig deeper into how to use drawing for creative problem solving and culture building? Then check out this article – CREATIVE TEAM BUILDING FOR COMPANIES WANTING STRONG CULTURES.



Photos by Deb Putnoi.