If there’s an artist in your life the best gift you can give them is inspiration. Whether they’re a painter, writer, musician or anything else. Something to get their creative juices flowing will be welcome. Trust us. There are countless ways to spur creativity and aid the creative process — many of which don’t require spending any money, like meditation or simply taking a long walk. But there are tools out there that can help someone stretch beyond their comfort zone, or simply document and fine-tune their own ideas. From subscriptions, to books, to extremely bizarre instruments, here are the best gifts for the creative in your life.
You Are an Artist by Sarah Urist Green
It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes just being told what to do is a great way to spur creativity. Because, truth is, rarely is the actually creative part in the original idea, but rather in the execution of it. The problem is, once someone leaves school nobody is giving them assignments any more. That’s where You Are an Artist comes in, a book compiled by Sarah Urist Green, the host of PBS’ The Art Assignment on YouTube. It’s a collection of 50 assignments crafted by a diverse set of artists to help get the creative on your list, well, creating.
Many of the assignments focus on visual arts, asking them to make endless copies of an image using a Xerox machine, or to take random photos of a location and make notes on details they might normally miss. But there are others that encourage them to hum or clap along with the sounds of traffic, or engage in word games. You Are an Artist is the sort of book they’ll probably revisit time and time again. — Terrence O'Brien, Managing Editor
Apple Pencil (second-gen)
The iPad has become a key tool for creatives over the years and arguably nothing has contributed to that more than the Apple Pencil. Most of the newest iPads support the second-generation Pencil and it’s admittedly much more convenient than the first purely for its magnetic charging method. But otherwise, the Apple Pencil is the best stylus I’ve ever used because it has little to no latency and that helps mimic the feeling of drawing with a traditional pen and paper.
While investing in a paper-like screen protector will blur the lines even further, you don’t have to do that to get an excellent experience from the Apple Pencil. Drawing is seamless, taking notes is a breeze (especially with iPadOS 15 if you use Apple’s Notes app) and the possibilities are endless once you get familiar with third-party programs like Procreate. Battery life is superb, too: I’ve spent hours drawing in Procreate or experimenting with different planner layouts in GoodNotes and I have yet to pause a session to recharge the Pencil. While the Apple Pencil hasn’t completely replaced traditional art forms for me, it’s certainly the most useful tool I own for when I want to be creative. — Valentina Palladino, Commerce Editor
Astrohaus Freewrite smart typewriter
The Freewrite smart typewriter is a niche device that would nonetheless make a wonderful present for any aspiring writer. Or, come to think of it, anyone who is already committed to the art of putting words to the page. The Freewrite combines an excellent mechanical keyboard with an E Ink display, and while it can get online to sync drafts to the web, that's the only thing it can do. There's no way to browse the web, play a game, or watch YouTube on the Freewrite, which makes it a lot easier to just sit down and get into a flow state. The E Ink screen and keyboard can take a little getting used to, but both things quickly become assets when just looking to get some writing done. And thanks to the low-power display, the Freewrite lasts for a week or two of heavy writing. At $600, it's a serious investment — but gifting one to an aspiring writer should give them great motivation to write that book they're always talking about. — Nathan Ingraham, Deputy Managing Editor
Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album
Mute: A Visual Document: From 1978 - Tomorrow
Decades worth of record label design offers a wellspring of visual aesthetics to kickstart your own creativity. There are even a few monoliths of music and design culture that succeeded in the record industry without succumbing to the corporate machine. Factory and Mute records are such creatures. Spawned in the UK in the late ‘70s (though only Mute remains today), both companies informed generations through tales of — sometimes careless — business tactics and quality curated output. In general, they were groups driven by a DIY aesthetic and creativity unhindered by official structure.
Not only did these labels champion freedom of musical expression and help drive new genres of music, but they also became an outlet for visual designers. Most notably, Peter Saville’s (found) cover art for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album (Factory) is ubiquitous today with its mountainous range of wavy lines. Spending time digging through either of these books which are chock full of art, music and history can get your creative juices flowing. Either are a welcome gift for family, friends or even yourself. — Jon Turi, Homepage Editor
Ruhlman's Twenty by Michael Ruhlman
I’ve gotten to the point in my cooking journey where trying recipes isn’t as interesting to me as learning new techniques. Do I have a pile of go-to recipes in my Paprika app? Yes, but now I’m more interested in mastering cooking methods that essentially set you up to make your own recipes from scratch. Ruhlman’s Twenty is one of the “cookbooks” I’ve been turning to the most in my quest, and if some of the concepts in the book may seem basic, that’s because they are. Most cooking shows and online recipe blogs don’t explain why they add an acid to a tomato sauce or how to get a perfectly crispy french fry rather than an oily, soggy mess — but this book does. It takes you back to basics, explaining the proper techniques behind different ways of cooking, so that you can understand what’s happening to your food as you prepare it. And don’t worry, it doesn’t read like a textbook and there are even complete recipes in there for you to follow if you wish. Ultimately, Ruhlman’s Twenty has made me a more competent cook who isn’t forced to consult a recipe every time I prepare a meal. — V.P.
Make Noise Strega
A new instrument can be a decent way to snap someone out of a creative rut. But even better than a new instrument is a weird instrument. And if the musician in your life likes things on the weird side, I highly recommend the Make Noise Strega. It was designed in collaboration with Alessandro Cortini (touring member of Nine Inch Nails), and eschews most of your usual synth controls and makes sounds that are best described as weathered.
The front panel is a confounding array of glyphs and lines that look like something out of a book on the occult. The express goal of the Strega is to get someone experimenting — literally poking and prodding at the various touch panels that serve as modulation sources and destinations using a person's own body as a patch cable. It won’t be for everyone, but if you’re shopping for the kind of person who loves lo-fi warbles and nightmarish drones, they’ll love the Strega. — T.O.
POTAR Design's Sound Urchin
Okay, calling the Sound Urchin an “instrument” might seem like a stretch, but the otherworldly sounds it creates are sure to inspire the musician in your life to tackle composing differently. It’s essentially a bunch of metal rods stuck to a guitar pedal enclosure with a microphone inside it. The rods aren’t really tuned in any traditional way, which allows for the creation of unexpected melodies, but it can also be a source of clanging percussion or ominous wails. When paired with some effects this strange little box is capable of being the basis for an entire composition — albeit a slightly odd one.
This particular recommendation came courtesy of Abby Santourian, a Chicago-based musician and music gear expert at Reverb who told Engadget via email: “For centuries, artists have been inspired by the sea, but I think this takes that idea to a new level…. When combined with other pedals and effects, the sonic possibilities and combinations are seriously endless.” — T.O.
The Artist Way by Julia Cameron
If you’ve heard about Morning Pages, or Artist Dates, both are two core habits established in The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s decades-old book on creative practice. That’s probably the most straightforward way to describe this book, which walks you through a 12-week program of writing exercises and tasks, all aimed at freeing up your creative powers. The crux of it is demanding three pages of handwritten writing every day. While it’s often a stream of consciousness — and if your handwriting is atrocious, barely legible — Cameron’s advice is to simply put the writing out there, and see where it takes you. Famous fans include Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, Alicia Keys and practically half of the comedians whose podcasts I listen to, it seems. The book does get a little bit spiritual at times, which you may or may not be fine with, but the core exercises and ideas can be pretty powerful, especially if you’re in a creative rut, or simply looking to add more artistic output to your day-to-day life. — Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief
Another slightly weird instrument to consider is the Moog Subharmonicon. The sounds it produces are more “standard” than the Strega (for lack of a better term), but its sequencer and focus on subharmonics are anything but. It takes inspiration from a pair of early experimental electronic instruments — the Mixtur-Trautonium and the Rhythmicon. The Subharmonicon encourages one to explore the concepts of subharmonics and polyrhythms to create unexpected melodies and rhythms. It’s capable of that classic Moog sound, but it will also force someone out of their comfort zone. — T.O.
Sensel Morph with Thunder overlay
Sometimes a person doesn’t need whole new sounds to get the creative juices flowing, but just a new way of making those sounds. The Sensel Morph is an impressively portable and flexible MPE MIDI controller with amazing shapeshifting possibilities. It can be a piano, a pad-based drum machine, a sketch pad, or an obscure controller inspired by Don Buchla — the driving force of West Coast-style synthesis.
The Buchla Thunder overlay marries the expressive possibilities of the Morph with an approach to composing melodies and harmonies that it’s fairly safe to assume your giftee has never experienced. Instead of a traditional piano layout it’s a series of pads organized into a roughly bird-like shape that you’re supposed to tap and slide along to create unique timbres. Its unfamiliarity forces anyone to stop thinking about what they already know about playing music and focus instead on the results.
Plus, the Morph has a number of other overlays so, if the Thunder has worn out its welcome, it’s still incredibly useful and flexible. — T.O.
Splice Creator plan
Sure it’s easy to just grab a drum loop from the top of the Splice charts and wind up sounding like everyone else. But there are far more interesting ways to find sounds. For one, search results can be shuffled. So, rather than just using the same Rhodes sample that thousands of other bedroom producers have relied on, a person can hit the shuffle button and grab something that might be flying under the radar. This technique can also be combined with searching for random terms on Splice, rather than pulling up specific instruments. (Just Google “random word generator” and use that as the basis for a search.) There are lots of interesting and sometimes strange sounds and loops to be found by searching for things like “clinic” and “preparation.”
The entry-level $10 Sounds+ plan includes 100 sample credits. But your giftee would probably really appreciate the upgrade to the Creator Plan. That includes 200 credits, plus access to Splice’s surprisingly excellent Astra soft synth, its Beatmaker drum machine plugin and a library of tutorials and lessons on music production under the Skills banner. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what to do, simply learning a new skill or trick can get the creative juices flowing again. — T.O.
A decent field recorder should be in pretty much every artist’s arsenal. For a musician, obviously, it’s valuable for recording samples and capturing impromptu jam sessions. Anyone can buy sample packs, sure, but building a custom drum kit from snapping twigs and the crunch of dead leaves is a surefire way to get someone thinking outside the box.
But even beyond that, it’s great for documenting ideas and finding inspiration. Yes, there are voice-note apps, but your giftee might like having a dedicated (and distraction-free) tool for documenting ideas, inspiring sounds and capturing interesting lectures or panels. A writer can set a recorder up and talk through the plot of a novel they’re working on, without worrying that their battery will die. Or a painter can record the ambience of a cafe they frequented while traveling in Paris and revisit it to find inspiration for a new work. — T.O.