Toolbox or artbox?

I am guilty.

I have committed this sin several times without thinking.

I am not the only one to have done it.

I have used the ‘T’ word.

I have used it on numerous occastions.

I have been known…

…when talking about the value of exploring theories and models…

…to use the phrase…

…’more tools in your toolbox’.

Art brushes

A brush with destiny

However, the more I think about it, the more I am annoyed by the limitations of the toolbox metaphor.

If you want to tighten a nut, you use a spanner. If you want to unscrew something, you use a screwdriver. Each tool has a specific, limited purpose. OK, if you need to bash in a nail and you don’t have a hammer, you could use a heavy spanner, but you wouldn’t be able to use the spanner to cut pieces of wood.

Giving career help to people is much more complicated. You don’t usually face a simple task for which one tool or approach is the best and only answer. Career problems are multifaceted and we often have to deal with a number of different issues simultaneously. This calls for something more sophisticated and creative than a mechanical ‘fix it’ approach and the toolbox metaphor that goes with it. Perhaps it’s time to swap the toolbox for the artbox.

Using the image of artist materials introduces the possibility of creativity, versatility and flexibility. The more materials you have in your artbox, the greater range of images you can produce, However, if all you have is a pencil and a sufficient amount of skill, you can still create amazing things. Even though everything you draw will be in black and white, you can create light and shade, form and texture. Even with a limited knowledge of career theories and models, you can still produce good results with a client, if you are creative and skillful.

Of course, there are special tools for particular jobs. There are brushes specifically designed for use with oil paints and ones that are best for watercolours. However, even if you don’t have the right brush, you can still paint. You may have to work a little harder to achieve the same results, but it’s not impossible. You can improvise with the materials you have available. There may be clients for whom particular theories would have special relevance, but if you don’t know the theory, it doesn’t mean you can’t help them.

You can read books on art techniques and they will help you to learn from the experience of others. You can find out about which materials will produce certain effects. You can learn that pastels work best on rough paper and ink works best on smooth fine paper. You can learn about perspective and colour theory. However, you can still be creative and produce attractive results using the wrong combination of materials and without knowing the theory. Guidance models will tell you what should happen in ideal situations, but real life is more flexible. As with any craft, some knowledge only comes with experimentation and careful observation.

  • Do you see yourself as an artist or a technician — van Gogh or Bob the Builder?
  • How do you go about improving your craft?
  • Does the toolbox metaphor annoy you as much as it annoys me?

Related post: What makes a theory useful?


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  1. #1 by Vinny on 14 December 2009 - 16:48

    I like the toolbox metaphor. (or do I just like to be a devil’s advocate?)

    Lets think about the toolbox of my Grandad, who was into carpentry.
    He had more than 20 saws of different sizes and types, including tenon saws, crosscut hand saws, hacksaws, jigsaws, circular saws etc.
    You can use a common hand saw to cut most bits of wood, but learning how to use each individual saw (and knowing WHEN to use it) will make a big difference.

    Now imagine that a piece of wood my Grandad cut is just slightly too wide. He could try to use a saw to shave a bit of wood off, but if he used sandpaper or a plane, it would be much better

    Now lets say he wanted to cut chunks out of the wood. Again, he could use a saw, but it would be much better to use one of his many chisels or one of a couple of dozen woodcarving tools, such as fishtail or straight gouges or a veiner.

    Just like when I learned carpentry from my Grandad, I need to learn about each tool, how and when to use it and then practice using it to become proficient.

    Also, I need to spend some time regularly maintaining my tool shed, so that I can easily find the right tool when I need it.

    I will get more tools over time so that when I encounter a new task, I’ll have a tool that will do the job.

    When working with wood, (just like in guidance), sometimes you need a gentle touch to smooth things over, and occasionally, you need an axe to really break things up before you can start working with it.

    You said that creativity, flexibility and versatility are absent from the toolbox metaphor, but making a beautiful piece of furniture needs all of these things.

    Where the paintbrush metaphor falls down heavily is that when painting, you are not thinking about the canvass at all, you just fill the white space with your own choice of colours and shapes.

    In contrast, when working with wood, you need to appreciate the type of wood you have, it’s strength, the grain, the knots and imperfections. Based on this information, you can then decide which tool you will use, and how you will use it, (i.e. whether you cut with or against the grain). To me this is closer to what we do in guidance.

    • #2 by David Winter on 14 December 2009 - 18:22

      Thank you Vinny. That was delightful.

      I didn’t have many male role models in my childhood who could teach me the appreciation of tools and sheds and stuff. I was always rubbish at woodwork. So, for me the artbox has more resonance. Either way, we are both talking about the same thing – craft. Gradually, learning the basic skills and honing them. Finding equipment that helps us to be more subtle and effective in the work that we do.

      That’s the thing about a metaphor – it’s like a Christmas tree. It’s just a tree, but when we have unearthed our box of decorations and hung them on the branches, it becomes our family Christmas tree – full of memories and unlike any other.

      Sorry! I’ve just been struggling with our Christmas tree. This was a job which required a saw, a chisel, a hammer and a Stanley knife – none of which I’m particularly skilful in using. Good news – I still have all my fingers!

      P.S. One one point you are completely wrong. A good artist thinks a lot about the canvas or the paper, gets to know its idiosyncrasies and finds ways of making it more receptive to the paint or the pastel. If you are a watercolourist, for example, you are dependent on the paper to give your painting all of its light.

      Still, any metaphor will break down if you push it too far.

  2. #3 by Vinny on 15 December 2009 - 09:59

    I love it.
    “A metaphor is like a christmas tree.”
    That’s the best quote I’ve heard in ages!

    • #4 by David Winter on 15 December 2009 - 10:12

      OK, so using an analogy for a metaphor is like using a brush to clean a brush. Do you really want to see how far I can go with this?

  3. #5 by Vinny on 15 December 2009 - 14:07

    It was a similie, not an analogy.
    It’s a bit like calling the kettle a figure of speech.

    • #6 by David Winter on 15 December 2009 - 16:02

      It would have been a simile if I had just stuck to the ‘like’ comparison. Because I extended it with further description explaining, expanding and extrapolating the comparison it became a (fairly rudimentary) analogy.

      Do you mean ‘like the pot calling the kettle a figure of speech’?

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