Making the Artist Studio

Joan Miro's studio
Joan Miro’s tidy, specimen filled studio

A look inside an artist’s studio is undoubtedly a view into the artist’s mind. A place of creation and personal haven, the studio, like a diary, is full of an artist’s personal baggage… It is a place where one’s greatest artistic triumphs sit beside one’s greatest failures, finished pieces among works in progress, where piles of books, clippings, and other specimens of inspiration or just general interest collide, to form great ideas and eventually great works of art. It is both a place of joy and disappointment; inspiration and frustration. But most of all it is a necessary place in which an artist may grow.

“A room of one’s own is perhaps even more important for your mindset than for practical reasons. It’s a place for you to grow and develop, a haven and a sanctuary.”  (Anna Held Audette, “The Blank Canvas: Inviting the Muse”)

From a cave wall in Lascaux to a downtown industrial loft, for as long as artists have been creating, they have found a private place, “a room of one’s own,” in which to do it in. With that said let’s take a peak into some of the great artists’ studios, past and present, for a glimpse into their most personal space and also explore what it takes to have a successful studio practice of your own.

 

I always prefer to work in the studio. It isolates people from their environment. They become in a sense… symbolic of themselves. (Richard Avedon)

 

Richard Avedon, Avedon Studio, New York 1985
Richard Avedon, Avedon Studio, New York 1985

 

Perception vs. Reality:
Francis Bacon in his cluttered and chaotic studio, 1970's
Francis Bacon in his cluttered and chaotic studio, 1970’s
Artist or Hoarder?

I’d say the most common misconception of artists is that they are messy, paint covered, hoarders – a’la Francis Bacon as seen above. Though it is true that most artists don’t mind getting messy from time to time and every artist I know loves to collect something whether it be tree leaves or teeth (yes I know an artist who has a collection of teeth, and other dental related objects) not every artist can function in a total mess worthy of being on an episode of Hoarders. I strongly believe, however, that the work produced is a reflection of the workspace. For instance, I couldn’t imagine Francis Bacon creating his horrific paintings in a brightly lit, tidy studio (like Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio below)…the dark, garbage pit of chaos is much more suitable. Like each one of us, every artist is different and the work each one produces is just as different so therefore it would make sense that every studio should be different as well.

So the question is now, how to make your studio your own?

Georgia O'Keeffe opening the curtains of her studioi in Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1960 photo by Tony Vaccaro
Georgia O’Keeffe opening the curtains of her gorgeous studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1960 photo by Tony Vaccaro

 

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)

 

Making it Yours:

When setting up your own artist studio there are many questions you need to ask yourself first, some may seem obvious but others can only be answered through trial and error. One can safely assume that all artists, even the ones mentioned in this post, will and have had multiple “studios” throughout their careers. From the kitchen table of their childhood home to a small white cubicle in art school to an old, gutted, practically windowless laundromat (speaking from my personal experiences) as the artist grows generally the spaces grow, or at least get better along the way. So here are a few questions to ponder when setting up shop:

1. What kind of work do I make, or want to make?

This may seem like a dumb question, but it is probably the first thing you need to consider when finding or building a studio for yourself. Do you paint? Build large sculptures? Work with clay? Weld? Need a dark room? the list could go on and on forever…but you get the idea, each one of these disciplines needs a completely different space. A painter would probably prefer a space with a window or two and lots of wall space, a ceramics artist a place that can get very dirty, and anyone doing anything with chemicals, flammable, or other possibly dangerous equipment would need a space where this is permissible and has good ventilation among other things. Another thing to consider when selecting a space is whether you have room to grow or change? Is the space multifunctional? Most artists are either multidisciplinary or have dabbled a bit in other mediums, so having a studio where you have the possibility of doing different things would certainly be beneficial in the long run.

Alexander Calder at work in his studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, 1963
Alexander Calder at work in his studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, 1963
2. Let there be light…or not.

Simple enough, do you need natural light? Most painters prefer natural light to view their paintings in, though there are many “natural light” lightbulbs on the market, which could work as well, a space with some windows would probably be ideal. When considering a space for its natural light, think about what time of day do you like to work and where the windows face; north, south, east, and west; the intensity and color of light will drastically vary throughout the day. On the other hand for those who don’t want any natural light for instance, those who work in a dark room, it would be much easier to find a basement studio with no windows, rather than blocking out preexisting ones.

Willem de Kooning's light filled studio
A painter’s dream…Willem de Kooning’s light filled studio
3.  Messy or meditative?

Do you need to, or can you make a big mess: yes or no? Let’s just say Jackson Pollock may have had some problems if he had a landlord who said you couldn’t get any paint on the floor…

 

“On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” (Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), on drip painting).

 

Lee Krasner watching her husband Jackson Pollock work on one of his famous “action paintings”….at their studio / house in New York
Lee Krasner watching her husband Jackson Pollock work on one of his famous “action paintings”….at their studio / house in New York
4.  In solitude or in good company?

Do you like to work alone or do you prefer the constant feedback and collaboration of others around you, like Warhol and The Factory, one of the most infamous group studios and hip hangouts for artists and socialists. Group studios, like Warhol’s, may seem fun and even glamorous, but it takes a certain person to stay productive in distracting environment. But on the other hand, when working in solitude, getting out of a rut can be quite difficult without the constant motivation of others. Deciding how much socialization you and your art needs will most likely be discovered through trial and error and most will probably find that they will want more privacy or more people around at different stages of their work.

 

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”  (Andy Warhol)

 

 Andy Warhol in the Factory, Warhol's studio, New York, New York, 1964.
Andy Warhol in the Factory, Warhol’s studio, New York, New York, 1964.
5. Decorate to your desire

Arranging and “decorating” your space is probably the most “self-defining” act you can do to make your studio your own. Inspiration comes from what is around us. So filling your space with things that either directly influence or inform your work or things that you find intriguing, beautiful, or just like for some reason or another is vital to a enjoyable and productive workspace. For example, while in school a fellow student painted her studio bubblegum pink, instead of keeping it the traditional “white cube” to which we are more accustomed to. Not only did her new pretty in pink space make her feel more comfortable, but it was more conducive to her watercolor paintings of kitsch figurines situated among flowers and pastries. The space sets the mood, not only for you, but for your work; so think carefully about how best to arrange and decorate your space.

A wall in Guston's Woodstock studio showing several paintings from 1968
Considered and carefully arranged, a wall in Guston’s Woodstock studio showing several paintings from 1968
6. Living with your work…literally?

At some point, probably right out of art school, you will come to a crossroads. To have a studio in my home or apartment, or not…Many will attempt (as I did) to save money on additional studio rent and convert your dining room, extra bedroom, or corner in your living room into a makeshift studio. Most of you however, will probably fail at making this actually work. (as I did). Though it sounds too good to be true, waking up every morning (or in the middle of the night) to go work on your art for a few hours before the day begins. Or at a moments notice, when you are hit like a bolt of lighting by an amazing idea and jolted out of your Netflix-induced comma, jump up and begin working in your home/studio. Like I said, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” the home-studio is no different and two situations will most likely play out. One: either your studio will overtake your home and consume all of your living space until you are literally living with your work , like Robert Rauschenberg below, or Two: your easel and paint brushes will begin to collect dust and projects will get pushed aside by dirty laundry, dishes, a day job, family life etc…In either scenario there are pros and cons, in the former you are extremely productive, however you might have issues with guests visiting a home stinking of turpentine, with piles of canvases rather than furniture…(and not to mention, being around your work 24/7 would probably make you obsess about it and eventually ruin it, remember fresh eyes see things more clearly.) In the latter you have “failed” as a productive artist, but on the bright side you probably have a better home life…Unless you are really good at separating home life from studio life within one space (I’m so jealous of you!), if you can afford it, I would highly recommend finding a studio space to rent outside your home. (or maybe if you’re fortunate enough to have a garage or barn on your property to use, jealous again!) Ultimately when you are in your studio you need to be present with your work, and when you’re NOT at home it’s easier to tell yourself that pile of dirty dishes can wait.

 

“You’re always jumping up at night; you want to paint, and you start wrecking things.” (Romare Bearden)

 

Robert Rauschenberg sitting on a bed in the corner of his New York studio
Robert Rauschenberg sitting on a bed in the corner of his New York studio
7.  Frame of Mind:

Probably the biggest myth of all is that artists, whether  it be fine artists, writers, composers, designers etc, only work when in the “right frame of mind.” Honestly, I am rarely in the mood or “right frame of mind” to drop everything and go to the studio. The possibilities for either a good day in the studio or a bad day in the studio are endless, and when you feel like you have so much on your plate already, it can be daunting to begin working. That’s when you have to say “screw it,” I don’t care about anything else, I just want to paint! or draw, or take photographs, or build something, or just make something whether or not it ends up being “good” or “bad.” In the end work makes more work, so to develop as an artist you must be brave enough to accept your ideas and impulses and begin making. Trust me when it’s all over, you will be happy you did.

 

“As you work, the mood grows on you. There are certain images which suddenly get hold of me and I really want to do them. ” (Francis Bacon)

 

Louise Bourgeois working on her mixed media sculpture entitled Confrontation in 1978, Photo: Inge Morath
Louise Bourgeois working on her mixed media sculpture entitled Confrontation in 1978, Photo: Inge Morath
8. Productivity and fighting the creative block:

I have no real answer on how to stay productive or fight the creative block other than keep doodling, drawing, reading, writing, listening, looking, observing, stay open to inspiration and most of all try to keep working. always. (easier said than done) YOU CAN DO IT!

 

“When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes. ( David Bayles & Ted Orland, “Art & Fear”)

 

Alex Katz takes a break in his Manhattan work space amid recently completed canvases. photo via architectural digest
Alex Katz takes a break in his Manhattan work space amid recently completed canvases. photo via architectural digest
9. work.

really.

10. work.

Not kidding. That’s all you can do, it’s the secret to their success.

 

 

 

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