The Posh Pen Paradox: when writers and artists fear their tools

Reluctant to use a fancy new notebook? Feel unworthy of expensive paints? There’s a psychological reason – and it’s affecting your work.

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For me it all began when I was doing art at school. My class was in the middle of painting our final A Level pieces, and at the start of the session, we were notified by our tutor that there were some new paint brushes available to use.

Counterintuitively, I felt fearful of the shiny new tools, and instead grabbed myself a handful of ancient barely functional brushes with loose ferrules and missing bristles that were in a pot by the sink.

I noticed that most of my classmates chose to use the old brushes as well.

This strange occurrence happened again when my birthday came around and I was gifted a beautiful set of new oil paints by my Nan, and yet when the time came for me to paint, I found myself feeling unworthy of my lovely new oils, and instead opted for cheapo acrylics.

This ended up becoming a vicious circle of using poor quality materials, producing bad quality work and then feeling unworthy of using good quality materials because I had produced bad quality work.

Around the art studios at the University of Chichester, I brought up this topic with my fellow students, and they told me that often they have felt fearful of using their good paints or starting work on a new blank canvas in case they create something they dislike.

Money plays into this fear, with the idea that you should only invest expensive materials in to a piece of work that will turn out to be a worthwhile investment, and as mere students we think: Why bother?

I wondered if other people share my hang-up about “high quality” equipment recently over Twitter. It turns out this phobia around using decent equipment is widespread, as I got an overwhelming response from more than my usual 40 followers.

Plenty of people, working across various industries, have this problem and ended up getting in touch with me to give me their own personal anecdotes relating to my tweets.

“I definitely do this with woodwork,” was one response. “Used to think I was just cheap, but I’m even hesitant to use nice wood I’ve sawn myself that’s cost me nothing.” Another told me: “A friend bought me a beautiful personalised hand-made notebook. Can’t write in it. Too gorgeous.”

“Totally relatable. New, ready stretched canvas is the worst. I’m more likely to do my best work over an old painting,” said one artist. “At school I was afraid to write on the first page of a new exercise book because I felt my work wouldn’t be good enough. Now I leave the first page blank and start on page 3,” said another respondent. “Have many notebooks that are too nice for me to write in. Trying to get over it, slowly.”

Celebrity psychotherapist Philippa Perry tells me “It’s the opposite of the L’Oréal ad: ‘Because you’re worth it’,” when I ask why we might not feel worthy of decent art materials, and how to overcome this crippling feeling that hinders our work.

“It’s because what we imagine that fresh canvas could hold never holds up to what we paint on to it,” she says. “Amazing imagination is always going to be disappointed by the reality. The thing to remember is, although what you produce isn’t as good as what you imagine it to be, it is still amazing to someone else. So you are worth it after all.”