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How To/Techniques: Embrace chaos in your work

Jerry Florez

Insights Editor

Messy, mismatched, chaotic, unplanned – some might say these are negative terms. But lots of artists and designers and architects would say their brains, thought processes or initial ideas are just like this. It’s how you work with the chaos that matters.

Jerry takes you through some techniques and tips he learned while studying architecture.

In an ideal world, there would be a methodical, tried and tested process that we could execute whenever we needed to create something fine and rich, whether it was art, design, architecture or photography. But it is usually much more complicated than that. Making work is not a straight line from idea to final outcome.

There are ways to use our chaotic nature productively – and if we are more on the rigid end of the spectrum, or we simply lack that inclination to be messy in practice or thinking, applying a ‘messy’ process as a tool to spark our inspiration can really help.

If you have a chaotic way of thinking or making, embrace it. And if you don’t, we can always learn something from this approach. Here’s a few tips that have helped me research, develop and present my ideas. 

1. You shouldn’t feel bad for having lots of seemingly incompatible ideas

Sometimes we start with many ideas, or other times with none at all. It can be difficult to get started for either reason. If you do have lots of different thoughts, this can actually give you an advantage. Uncommon connections between things can lead to sophisticated ideas, and you can always downsize or simplify these at the end of your research.

Credit: Chaotic thinking- thinking process and research for Jerry’s dissertation.

The ability to make unorthodox links and draw ideas from a multitude of sources is a beneficial skill in art and design during research and development phases. It can also help you greatly when writing essays or longer pieces like dissertations regardless of your subject area.

Usually the best first step is to write thoughts and ideas down as lists or mind maps and pour your mind onto paper and beyond.

Credit: An early flowchart. illustrating topics or subject areas Jerry found interesting in relation to the theme of imperfection.

The format of mind maps can depend on your subject area and interests and even become an artwork in itself. There’s a great range of examples on

2. You don’t always have to be clean and neat throughout every step of your project.

The best way to think is to think while you make.  Take a chaotic rather than linear approach so each stage from research to experiments and working in 2D or 3D can help you reflect, test and refine your initial ideas.

Credit: Linear vs chaotic process diagram, Jerry Florez.

Draw rough sketches. Make shoddy models. Make mistakes while thinking. Sometimes these might even look good enough to include as part of your final presentations. They all help you think and grow. The whole point is that you enjoy the process while discovering new ways of doing things.

Break out of monotonous patterns that limit you without realising. Break rules. Destroy and reconstruct.

If it goes really, really wrong, you can always reflect and evaluate (explain what went wrong and right, and why, either in annotations, or by developing the work further.)

Credit: Let the pen flow- sketches Jerry produced while thinking about his final design.

3. Your initial samples and small sketches don’t have to be meaningless.

It doesn’t matter if your initial drawings or mixed media samples are messy or weird; not only can they can show development but they are also a record your thinking (which is very important).

Credit: Thinking sketches that made it to Jerry’s final portfolio.

Find parallels between your experiments and other artists’ ways of working. Try out their philosophies or ways of working. Mix ideas and approaches together then redraw or remake by focusing on what was successful.  It is not a waste of energy or time, think of it as a cycle of digging through good and bad ideas to find where the gold really is.

Credit: Thinking sketches that made it to Jerry’s final portfolio.

A ‘napkin sketch’ is a term for capturing initial ideas or inspiration in the moment, notoriously used by architects. Take a look at some examples on

4. You don’t have to work with the same materials all the time  – try scrap materials

Limitations and boundaries are catalysts for creativity. If you find that you don’t have enough materials for something you have in mind, you can use it as an opportunity.

This can be another way of being sustainable in your practice, using recycled materials that you find around home or at your school’s studio.

Credit: Hollow casts and fabric-dipped plaster experiment with Pringles cans and an old T-shirt. Photograph, Jerry Florez.

It may not even make a lot of sense initially – but that’s fine, follow your natural flow and really enjoy the process of experimenting with things you wouldn’t have used otherwise. You never know what will spark your next idea.

Watch Tate’s ‘How to cast’ video to find out more about this process.

5. You don’t have to stick to an A3 sketchbook – work in different scales

Sometimes the size of our sketchbook will restrict us negatively and make us reluctant to create larger work. It’s perfectly fine to work outside of your sketchbook and in practices such as architecture it is vital to know how to work in large and small formats (A1 for presenting plans, and A5 for sketching thoughts on the go).

Credit: Initial drawing experiment and its resulting 3D model.  Photographs, Jerry Florez.

Try to work in 3D (casting, modelling, sculpting, laser cutting), even if you think you aren’t good at it. All experiences good or bad help you to grow. Experiment with your ideas and real space as a way to understand your own ideas better.

Find scale model making tips in Nick’s ‘How To’ post

6. You can organise everything at the end photograph your experiments

Sometimes, for whatever reason, you are forced to present all your work within a specific format (sketchbook or a portfolio). Photographing and scanning are the best ways to keep a continuous record of your work inside the necessary format.

Credit: Celebrate your work: Some experiments actually became vital ‘final’ components for Jerry’s project.

Photographing your experiments allows you to create an archive in case you need your work later on. It also celebrates your work and allows you to have absolute control of how the viewer should look at it. You can be surprised by how much better a model or sculpture can look just by photographing it well. Experiment with lighting, warmth, composition and close ups to demonstrate atmosphere and mood.

And a very important tip: having a well-lit subject is more important than a good camera.

Explore Alex’s ‘How to photograph’ series for more tips and techniques on photographing yourwork.

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