How to Gift Your Art Without Stress

In various periods of my life when I’ve been big into art in a public way, I’ve had friends and family ask for art as a gift, or received comments at the holidays such as “Gift-giving will be easy for you this year since you can just give your art.” This is always intimidating, because the idea of giving my art as a gift can be stressful!

At the same time, I have happily and successfully given my art as gifts on a number of occasions! In this post, I’ll offer tips on how to come up with a great gift idea and keep your stress level low.

Generating Ideas

The best art gifts are specific to the recipient. This matters more than making “good” art. “It’s the thought that counts” is true of all gifts, but especially art, where the gift itself can convey meaning and emotion.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to generate more specific ideas:

What kind of art do you enjoy & feel comforting making?

Ask yourself this first because this will limit the universe of options. Don’t stress yourself out by forcing yourself to work in a medium or subject you don’t enjoy.

Let’s say you are a painter and you brainstorm a list of potentially meaningful gifts for a friend including a portrait of their pet, a botanical painting of their wedding bouquet, a landscape painting of their favorite vacation spot, and a still life of the coffee they make themselves every morning. These are really different subjects and techniques, and there are probably some that made you feel like, “Yay! Yes! I can do that! That would be fun!” and some that made you feel like “Ugh, that would be hard/boring, that’s not my style, I don’t feel confident in my ability to do that.”

Just because it’s a gift doesn’t mean you need to go with one of the subjects in the “Ugh” category. It doesn’t matter how perfect it would be for them, or how great an idea it is. Make it easy and fun for yourself and choose something from the “Yay!” category.

What is a memory that you share with this person?

A gift will feel more personal if it not only conveys something about them, but something about you and your relationship with them. Let them know you treasure a memory you shared by commemorating it in your painting.

It does not have to be an intrinsically “meaningful” or picture-perfect memory. Probably you want it to be generally positive, or at least have a positive spin, but something mundane would work very well. The fact that you remembered it already makes it special, and you’ll also imbue more specialness on it with the act of making art.

This may be enough to get you going, but if not, or if you want to add a little more personalization, consider these bonus questions:

What vibe or aesthetic do you associate with this person?

Think about their interests, their fashion sense, the way they decorate, the color palette they gravitate toward. Do you know what other types of art they like, even if it’s a different genre? Maybe there’s something about those arthouse films they love that you can port to collage. Or whatever. Depending on whether you’re a more verbal or visual person, you could brainstorm options with a list of adjectives or a mood board.

What topics or subjects do you associate with this person?

Consider their favorite people, places, things, animals, flowers, foods, etc.

If you have to choose, I would tend to rank this question as least important, e.g. if you have a special memory to draw on, or you have nailed the overlap of the kind of art you do + their vibe, it’s not really necessarily to put a frog in it because they love frogs.

Reducing Stress

Here are the guidelines I follow to reduce gift-giving stress.

Only do what is fun & easy

This is my mantra for art all the time, but it especially applies in gift-giving, when the internally or externally imposed pressure to meet others’ expectations can override your normal decision-making processes about how to spend your creative time.

You don’t have to give your art at all. If giving itself is not fun, don’t do it. Many beginners take time to become comfortable with it, and some people never do it. I only recently became okay with it, and there was really no downside to waiting until I was ready. If other people have expectations of you, they can stuff them. You’re the artist and you’re in charge.

Keep in mind what makes art fun for you. Your joy will be evident (or not) in your work, so there’s no point in forcing yourself to reluctantly make things you don’t enjoy. If gift-giving fundamentally ruins the magic for you, you don’t need to engage in it at all.

On the other hand, if there are parts of gift-giving that you like and parts you don’t, there may be ways to adapt the process to make it less stressful. Read on!

Avoid major holidays

Here’s my ranking, from worst to best, of the times to give art:

WORST: Christmas.

Having a massive list of people to give to is one of the most stressful aspects of the holidays, and it’s bad enough when all you have to do is buy something for each person. Making art is a larger investment of time and effort (and maybe money depending on your craft). The easiest way to drive yourself up a wall is to have a long list of people you need to churn something out for, assembly-line style.

Even if you sometimes want to give art to some people, not everyone needs art, and certainly not every year or every gift-giving occasion.

In fact, if you celebrate a mass gift-giving holiday like Christmas, I would advise having a moratorium on making custom art for that holiday since it can so easily spiral out of control to “I need to have something equal for everyone, or someone will feel slighted.”

BAD: Birthdays.

At least it’s one person at a time, but it still happens every year. It’s so easy for recurring events to inspire traditions that neither person actually wants to uphold. Plus, everyone has a birthday, so you’re still potentially creating a Christmas-style list that’s just spread out more in the year.

GOOD: Housewarming.

It’s rare and one-off enough that it doesn’t create expectations and there is a logical connection between moving into a new home and needing art for it.

BEST: Just Because!

Give art only and exactly when you feel inspired.

Keep it a surprise

I no longer tell people I’m going to make them something, I just do it (or don’t). If I had planned to but end up not doing it, they can’t be disappointed if they didn’t know.

Personally, I find that the joy of art is sucked out when it feels like an assignment or obligation, even if the obligation is self-imposed.

I don’t promise anything ahead of time, I don’t take commissions/requests/prompts, and I don’t set expectations.

Aim for the middle

When I sit down and think “I have to make this extra nice because it’s for somebody else,” it gives me the yips! It makes me feel stressed and inhibited, the opposite of the creative, exploratory, curious mindset that I need to enjoy myself. It’s a mindset that activates my perfectionism and removes what I love and need about art.

That’s why I find it better not to aim for “the best I can possibly do,” but for “smack in the middle to slightly worse than my usual level.” I can only make art as good as I can make it. Not everything can be in the top 10% of my work, and I can’t predict which pieces will be the good ones ahead of time, so why should I expect that every gift will end up there? Aim for the middle 50% or lower, and sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If your recipient has seen your art before, knows your typical style and skill level, and still wants art, obviously they’re fine with whatever you produce. If they haven’t seen your art before, and they want it sight unseen, it’s more about their relationship with you and the meaningfulness of having something you made than it is about the objective quality of your work. Either way, don’t stress. Your medium is good enough.

I’m not saying to dash off something with no effort or care – you might as well do nothing at all if that’s how you feel – but to maintain a mindset of process over outcome. Do your art the way you usually do, because “trying to make it nice” is counterproductive.

Give pieces you’ve already made

A neat way to do an end run around the gift yips is to simply gift pieces you have already created. If you make a lot of pieces “just because,” for practice, in classes, etc., you may have an extensive back catalogue to choose from. (I often give art I’ve made in a tutorial, for example; I would find it unethical to profit off of a copy of another artist’s work, but I don’t see a problem with gifting it.)

I didn’t start making anything expressly to gift until quite recently. For my first few years of watercolor, I only ever gave pieces I’d made anyway for another reason. I maintain that this is a great strategy. People were perfectly happy with pieces I’d made purely for the joy of it; I think my own joy comes across in the work!

This works especially well if you are still able to find some basis on which to match subject matter to recipient, and convey to your recipient what the piece means to you and how you connected it to them.

Keep it casual

My toes-in-the-pool first steps toward giving were not Official Gifts that were wrapped or anything like that. They were things like postcards and greeting cards. There is something that feels more casual about sending a homemade greeting card over a similarly-sized Piece of Artwork.

Don’t frame it

Look, you can if you want, but this tip is about keeping things simple for you. I have found that beginner painters and sketchers often stress over the hypothetical frame. Don’t let the cost or logistics of framing be the thing that makes or breaks this process. The frame does not need to part of the gift, and is particularly impractical for mailed gifts. Paper is so easy to mail unframed that it’s a shame to turn it into a bulky plastic or glass object, especially when the recipient may simply not like the frame and choose a different one.

The art is the gift. The frame does not need to be your problem. I would say that your obligation begins and ends with, at most, working in a reasonably standard size. Let the recipient pick out a frame that matches their d├ęcor and don’t worry about it.

Embrace flaws

When I look at my own art, I usually see the flaws more than the good points. I’ll see a place where I dripped or a section I overworked and think, “This has a flaw and therefore it isn’t good enough to give.” In other words, I have higher standards for art that I intend to give. This is frustrating and leads to a lot of self-criticism.

Two things helped this.

One is simply time. My skill and confidence improved, and I feel like I crossed a threshhold of readiness where I began to feel my art was good enough to give. It’s okay if you’re not there yet (see: you don’t have to give if you don’t want to), and it’s okay if you never get there. BUT…

The other thing that can help is a mindset shift. It’s important to note that when other people look at your art, they won’t have the same reaction you do. When I look at other beginners’ art, the good points honestly jump out at me more than the flaws. The artist usually needs to point out the flaws. Even if the imperfections are obvious, I also feel they’re part of the charm of beginner art. Seasoned artists go to a lot of effort to recapture beginner randomness.

The bottom line, though, is that all art is flawed. If you can’t give flawed art, you can’t give art.

Keep pieces you love

The opposite of the self-criticism problem: the self-love problem. Sometimes I make a piece I absolutely love, and I want to keep it for myself!

Just as you need not feel obligated to give away pieces that you’re not proud of, you also need not feel obligated to give away a piece because it was especially successful. Many of us grow up feeling we need to live for others and give away the best of ourselves. It’s okay to keep something for yourself. After all, you probably became an artist because you loved beautiful things and wanted to surround yourself with them. So go for it!

Even if you started a piece for the express purpose of gifting it, you’re allowed to change your mind. You’re allowed to fall in love. The best outcome is that the art goes to the person who will enjoy it most, and maybe that’s you.