While we all salivate over the stunning, purpose-built artist’s studios of the nineteenth century that are so generously peppered around London, Paris, and various other European cities, the sad reality is that most of us will not have the opportunity to work in such an ideal space. Rather, we will have to compromise and simply do the best that we can with what is available to us—or at least until we have saved up enough money to build our dream studio. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to document the process of setting up my new studio in Glasgow, Scotland, with the aim of passing along some helpful tips for adapting a less than ideal space into a functioning studio. I think this post will be most helpful for students who have recently graduated from or studied at an atelier, or anyone who works in the classical realist tradition and is looking for a workspace to suit their needs.
As my fiancée and fellow painter, Lee Craigmile, and myself were planning our new studio, the first question that came to our minds was, of course, location. While there are many communal artists’ studios in the UK (and in the U.S.) which aim to rent out spaces to artists at affordable prices, we found a couple problems with them. Firstly, there is typically a long waiting list to get one of these spaces, and there is no predicting when a space may become available. Secondly, these studios (or at least the ones that we looked at) all seemed to be designed with the 'modern' artist in mind. Most of them have inadequate natural light—either the windows are too small, or there are no windows at all! And, as one would only be renting these spaces temporarily, the artist has relatively little control over making any fundamental changes to the space (such as wall-color, or curtain installation). This being the case, Lee and I decided to take another route: finding a two-bedroom apartment with North-facing windows, and converting the spare room into a studio.
After a good deal of searching we finally found a nice apartment with adequate space and light, which suited our budget. Our new flat has a large North-facing window in one of the two bedrooms, which made it optimal for becoming a painting studio. For those of you who may not know, North light is generally considered to be the best light for studio painting, as it is the most consistent throughout the day (being the reflection of the ambient light in the sky). It is possible to work in a space with south, east, or west-facing light, but you would have to keep in mind that the light on the model would change dramatically throughout the day. This can be somewhat minimized by attaching a translucent paper or piece of Plexiglas onto the windowpanes, thereby diffusing the light. Generally, though, north light is the best option (and the most beautiful, in my opinion).
Though our studio room is unfortunately not very large, we've found a way to maximize the space by dividing the room in half diagonally with curtains. In this way, we created two workstations which both utilize the greatest distance of the room. By academic standards, the painter is supposed to stand at a distance of at least three times the greatest length of their painting in order to have accurate perspective and see the painting properly. While Lee and I will easily have enough room to paint portraits and still-lifes in our studio, we won’t be able to do any life-size nudes or full-figure portraits until we find a bigger space. So the size of the room is definitely something to keep in mind as you select a space.
Our first painting station is situated directly next to our north-facing window, creating an ideal spot for working on portraits and still-lifes in natural light. The second workstation receives some natural light, though not as much, as it's in the opposite corner of the room. We will use this station to work on projects with artificial light. Though I infinitely prefer working from natural light, it's always good to give yourself options, and having the ability to work after sunset is important—especially in the dark winter months here in Scotland! We've set up two spotlights for working in this station: one to illuminate the model, and one to illuminate the painting. We’ve placed‘natural white light’ bulbs in both lamps, so as to come as close to natural light as possible.
For a number of reasons, Lee and I have decided to paint the walls a neutral, mid-tone beige color. The first reason for this decision is that we're currently renting and the landlord wanted a neutral, mid-tone color. Not much we could do, there! So while we would have preferred a slightly darker, warmer color for our studio walls, there are actually a couple of technical advantages to the mid-tone beige color. The first advantage is that it allows us to push the field color and the reflected lights of a particular painting in either the warm or the cool direction using only the colored curtains we hang in the background. The second advantage is that it is quite helpful to have at least one light, neutral wall in the studio, against which you can place your paintings to make sure that the light-effect will hold up against lighter walls (as most galleries have, for example).
The final step in the process of setting up our studio was organizing our props and equipment. Lee and I went ahead and made most of this equipment ourselves. Using a braided metal wire, which we looped through ringed screws in the walls (see photos below), we installed our own curtains in an inexpensive and impermanent way. With Lee’s father’s help, we built our own model stand (used for elevating a portrait model to eye-level when seated), still-life box/shelving unit, and shadow box (used for controlling the light in a still-life). If you don’t have access to woodworking tools yourself, you could hire a carpenter to build these props for you at a very low cost. The only other prop we needed was a taboret—a small table for keeping your palette on. Though you could order a very nice, purpose-built taboret on the Internet, we just bought a suitable alternative from Ikea (again, much cheaper).
We finished our studio set-up about one week ago, and have spent the subsequent time breaking it in. So far, the studio has more than met all of our needs. It's been striking to see how little is truly required to create a functioning painter’s studio. It may pale in comparison to Sargent’s beautiful Tite Street studio in London, or to Sorolla’s awe-inspiring studio in Madrid, but our humble apartment studio in Glasgow is both harmonious and functional, and it will furnish Lee and myself with everything necessary to create our artwork. And you couldn't want for much more than that when you’re just starting out.