Studio conditions


Dear Artist,

In 1973, when my Dad chose the site to build his studio, he selected the small pad of dirt beside the suburban split-level ranch he’d just bought with my Mother. It was neither a warehouse in an industrial park, or an office in the city, or a sprawling country estate. “It had just enough of a view,” he told me. “Open and private enough to keep my head clear, and rich in touch-points: an eagle’s nest, a tidal sandbar, and a distant, snow-dusted range of mountains. Not too stimulating as to de-incentivize my own imagination.” For him, it was ideal, and he worked there, without changing much but the lightbulbs, for 40 years.

The studio of Francis Bacon (1909- 1992) at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, London, where he painted from 1961 until his death.

The studio of Francis Bacon (1909- 1992) at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, London, where he painted from 1961 until his death.

For my Dad, a self-diagnosed Highly Sensitive Person, over-stimulation came in the form of an urban art scene, heavy social activity or too much cross-pollinating with other artists. After trying out some scenarios in his youth, by the time he and my Mum were putting down roots, he knew what was needed. “Small rooms or dwellings set the mind in the right path,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci. “Large ones cause it to go astray.” If you’re feeling like your own conditions are in need of a tweak, here are a few ideas:

Consider the larger environment as opposed to the nuts and bolts of the studio itself. I’ve found that the mechanics of an actual workspace seem to shake themselves out organically, but conditions such as proximity to nature, light and noise pollution, and support systems can shift dramatically by location.

Studio of Alex Katz (b. 1927) on West Broadway, New York, NY. Gillian Laub photo.

Studio of Alex Katz (b. 1927) on West Broadway, New York, NY.
Gillian Laub photo.

Can you imagine a sojourn in a foreign place? Switching up work conditions to unrecognizable, or at least temporarily discomforting can make for a hotbed of new thought and language. Don’t presume what worked for you in a previous lifetime is what you need creatively, now.

Test your limitations for mobility by embarking on a painting adventure whereby you move locations regularly for an extended period. Have you ever camped and painted? Have you done it on horseback?

If you work in a multi-purpose spot that needs to be kept tidy, see if you can commit to carving out a totally private space of your own, no matter how small. “The rain doesn’t reach me, my room is well heated,” wrote Paul Klee. “What more can one ask for?”

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) at Lake George, 1918. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) at Lake George, 1918.
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz.

I haven’t met an artist yet who didn’t have a dream studio tucked away in her imagination – a symbol, perhaps of other ideal things like ideal paintings and the ideal amount of time and freedom from concerns to make them. There are even some fortunate enough among us who have been able to fashion this tranquility in their lifetime. How do they get there? We are all, possibly, there already. Right at this moment, a child is plopped on the ground. She is grinding out a masterpiece with a crayon.



PS: “I hate studio. For me, studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution.” (Marina Abramovic)

“The room in which I spend most of my life is as beautiful as I can make it.” (Alex Katz)

Tom Thomson (1877 - 1917) studio (interior). The shack was located adjacent to the studio building Dr. James MacCallum and Lawren Harris erected on Severn Street, Toronto. in 1968, the shack was relocated to the McMichael Conservation Collection of Art in Kleinberg, Ontario.

Tom Thomson (1877 – 1917) studio (interior). The shack was located adjacent to the studio building Dr. James MacCallum and Lawren Harris built on Severn Street in Toronto. In 1968, the shack was relocated to the McMichael Conservation Collection of Art in Kleinberg, Ontario.

Esoterica: I’ve lost count of my personal number of studios to date. Let’s just say I’ve wrecked a lot of floors, including the one at the foot of my bed. Currently, I’m painting in a mid-century post and beam not unlike the one I grew up in. These ideal conditions make me think I could not have it better had I dreamt, designed and built it myself, from scratch. We all, also, understand that the work does not begin when the conditions are perfect. “Nothing is ever ideal. You have to work all the same.” (Rumaan Alam)

“As far as outdoor work is concerned, a studio is only a garage; a place in which to store pictures and repair them, never a place in which to paint them.” (Joaquin Sorolla)

“I believe in deeply ordered chaos.” (Francis Bacon)

“Tom did not want a studio in the building. It was altogether too pretentious for him… There was a dilapidated old shack on the back of the property… We fixed it up…and he [Tom] lived in that place as he would a cabin in the north.” (Lawren Harris)



  1. My “studio” is a mess to the visiting eye… but it is just perfect for me. It originally built onto our house for my aging dad. After he passed…. I suddenly realized that now I have a studio…. and it has been such ever since. I call it my sanctuary. It would appear to be a disorganized mess to the visiting eye but to me it is my heaven on earth. Pat Weekey

    • Chris Carless on

      I have been painting out of my garage since 2008. During that time I have folded up what ever it was and put it in a corner while I drove off to work. For ten years I had a fine,supportive creative and eccentric painting partner who helped me stretch my boundaries and together we created a truely unique body of work. He passed away in 2019 and though his absence is still felt, I have reached out and am again painting. My space has always been cluttered but as a result of a recent renovation I have all my materials organized. It remains to be seen if order will bring productivity, but its nice to have a drawer for everything. Painting is a hidden treasure, and there are still gems to be found.

  2. As long as I can remember I have had some sort of area to work. In high school my over the bed drop down desk built by my dad served as my desk and easel. I was unknowingly finding my artistic self even then. I have had apartments with small bedrooms. I was always looking for that feature at rental time. In my present home of 35 years my studio area has moved three times. First, in the basement inside studs wrapped with plastic. I had very little, and needed little. Things were damp so I built a room there with lights and heat runs. After our son outgrew his room, I moved upstairs. A 9 x 12 space jammed with my accumulations. There, I was able to watch the seasons through the window. The downside was being too accessible to family and other interruptions. I moved it all to an old mill for a few years until the rent was too high. Currently, I work Ina much more comfortable 10 x 20 space using half my garage. Gallery lighting, running water, heat, and a c. All but a coffee maker and fridge. I have rearranged it may times in search of efficiency. An office space, storage closet, dressers for long items like tripods all neat and tidy but not for long. I take a studio class one day a week. All I have is my paint box and a cart. All I need along with other artists working as with one subject in mind. Painting. We will sell the house and move soon. The “cabin” like Robert’s is a dream of mine. Detached solitude. It will be one of the last places I work. I think I’ll go back to the beginning leaving behind my final works, a paintbox and a cart. Much like Rocky Balboa went back to the sweatie, dingy boxing club to find the eye of the tiger. He had lost sight of himself and where he came from. Maybe we all need our own Apollo Creed to show us the way back.

    • I retired to become a professional artist and had my ideal studio planned from about the time we built the house. 10 years ago an uncle unexpectedly left us an inheritance that allowed the expansion. The timing was perfect as was the 16×16 ft addition to the house, with shelves and cabinets, french doors to the living area and a door to the deck. The yard is deep with large, tall trees so instead of sunlight I have 8 windows surrounding me with daylight and shades when my lights needs direction. The ceiling supports 6 daylight led cans and the only mistake I made in the design was not making them spots so they were moveable and could be directed. I do drawings as well as oil and pastel painting and have separate areas for each, with a couple of comfortable wicker chairs for reading and studying. all you need and nothing more.

  3. This came at just the right time for me, as my husband and I are downsizing and I am about to lose my current beautiful home studio space with it’s built-in flat files, cabinets, sink, lighting and storage space galore. Fretting is an understatement but I’m hanging onto those quotes by Da Vinci and Abramovic and hopeful that a change in space will bring new insights and forms of creativity. Thank you for this.

  4. Barbara Belyea on

    Space is difficult to negotiate when you need backup. I’m a historian; a mass of papers in my study is always part of the work. The room is tidy but cramped because of all the stuff. A few years ago, after finishing a book I cleared the shelves, took many trips to the recycling bin, painted the walls and rearranged the furniture. I was ready to start again though I immediately missed the references which had been tossed away. Even so, I can’t regret clearing and reinventing the space. It seems that space is the most important element — room to think differently and start again.

  5. I remember working in Roberts studio, peering down as he sat himself down to work on another piece, rotating between his paintings by frisbee-ing them down onto the ground to dry. Dorothy napping on the couch and the radio blasting another symphony after a 10 minute description and breakdown of the piece by the radio hosts. To this day he taught me, his little studio assistant, the value of routine, of small studios and the balance of rest and work. Every day I miss him.

  6. For years I have dreamed of a space for art, and it started with kitchen counters, overwhelming scenes that compelled me to paint from the car trunk, nooks and crannies upstairs and down. In the outer half of our basement the space is perfect for me to work large, on easels, on the floor, on carpenter’s horses. I keep easels in the laundry room for small work, and a large easel in the garage for the few days our southwestern Utah weather is calm and deep. But I plan never to have the “perfect” studio, as creation for me blossoms from chaos, muck, and wandering mindscapes.

  7. When my husband and I developed plans for our new house, it included a studio for me, with an eye-popping view, and all the technically appropriate space one might need. Lessons were learned from that mistake. Through those expansive windows, the mountain’s constant, solid presence shouted at this prairie girl, who missed the short grasses and changing skies. I felt like a stranger, a tourist. We have moved houses 12 years later. I’ve been putting off organizing my much humbler space with just enough sky. I’m glad I trusted my instincts to let the new space evolve, rather than impose myself on it. Your dad’s words (and yours!) were just the tonic I needed today. Thanks for stating so eloquently what I somehow already knew to be true.

      • Threadpainter on

        I’ve always wished for a ‘studio’, somewhere, perfect as in my imagination.
        Alas, being raised in a multiple generation home, then raising 4 children in my own home, babysitting countless nieces and nephews, a small space of my own (for my sewing machine, fabrics, threads and art supplies) was a very precious and elusive thing. But as the children grew and left home, bedrooms became a luxury.
        But in the end, I realized that any space was a good space and I am content.

  8. This is so timely for me to see. I am know (“famous in my own mind”) for large oil transitional landscapes, having arrived here from over 50 years of necessity income art-making. We have a lovely modest rural home, a separate small building for my studio … perfectly imperfect for about 15 years.
    However, now that building is a bedroom for a ‘trauma lost’ 16 year old grand daughter. Our home is too small to give her the space she needs to heal. It has been ‘hers’ for almost two years, and will be until College or move-on what ever happens for her next.
    I mourn my separate space, and have moved what I thought essential into the house in a sunny location, that is too close to the daily living spaces now also used to raise two smaller siblings of my loved studio usurper.
    Although I am curtailed in art production, I know it is due to my mental challenges only, as I really would have it no other way.

  9. You must have looking at my search history! I have lately been researching how to build a studio space!!! There are even kits that are now available to purchase online which provides everything to build one of your liking in your own backyard. But too pricey for me. Wonderful and timely as always. Happy Canada Day to my Canadian friends. Happy Independence Day to the people in the US. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

  10. Great timing for me on this letter! I’m currently on a self sponsored residency in the Savoie region of France. While I’m getting out in location as I normally do, my studio space is the child’s bedroom of the family home we are renting. Ideal? Hardly! Serviceable – heck yes! At this point it doesn’t matter where I’m working, just that I’m working, recording each days’ wonders. Thanks, Sara!

  11. Angelika Ouellette on

    So love your father and your letters Sarah. :)

    My art studio (an unused bedroom with slanted ceilings) has moments of organization, until I start a project. Most of my present work is downstairs in my study on computers because I work from home.

    When I do go into my studio, and despite being disorganized – it spurs me on to paint. When it’s tidy I hate to mess it up…fortunately it’s not that often.

  12. Jo Williams on

    How ironic that what everyone is saying about how nice small studios are, that it’s taken me years to figure this out. My first ‘studio’ as a child was a 6’x 12′ anteroom with two eastern exposure windows off of my bedroom. The morning sunshine in there was glorious and I loved to draw on my small drawing table. Then marriage and many moves later, I had a small corner bedroom with southern and western windows that became my studio. I loved the sunlight, and especially the water reflections on the wall from our pool just outside while living in Florida. I was fairly prolific as an artist with that studio as my ‘happy place.’ For the last thirty years my studio has been in the basement of our house with northern exposure windows with a porch overhang that cuts out most of the daylight, and absolutely no sunlight comes in. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve done almost no art in that time period, despite installing fluorescent lights that mimic daylight. I find myself following the sun during the day by doing housework either on the eastern or western sides of the house. I really miss my sunny little studios, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be a ‘solar-powered’ artist. ;-D

  13. The space I call my ‘workshop’ was one of the buying points of our property when we found it. And we were lucky enough to be across the street from your parents – it was wonderful to discover that there were many like-minded people in the area, although I don’t put myself in the same class. I’m just a crafter, but we all need space to do our thing. My little 13’ diameter hot-tub shack turned workshop is perfect for me!

  14. Sorolla called his studio a garage. Mine literally is. No sweeping views, no natural light, and right now, half of it is filled with building supplies for the home renovation gone wrong–really wrong. The only reason I have the half I now occupy as my studio is because I sold or gave away all of my furniture so I could have some space. That said, at 4:00 a.m. when I start working each day, it is a quiet and peaceful place where I can indulge my creative urges. I am grateful to have dedicated space.

  15. James Ramsdell on

    Love the post! I have tried and painted in many studios over my career before settling into my current studio some 36 years ago. Finding the right place to paint is, I think, a fun and an enlightening process!
    My only complaint about your posting: What? No pictures of your father’s and your studios!!

  16. This is grreat!! In “On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft”, Stephen King addresses this very same issue. As does Annie Dillard in ,” The Writing Life”. I now rent a very small live in studio…. a wild outdoors area, The severity keeps me focussed. Not unlike the freedom that comes from a limited palette. Cityscapes and environs are at the same time inspirational with their energy, but overwhelming, some times paralyzing, with their sensory overload to me.
    Thank you for this and the studio photos!!

  17. I loved this post Sara and also all of the comments. My current dedicated studio space is an open plan 11 x 10 foot sunken sunroom with a cathedral ceiling below our kitchen. It is south exposure and less than idea light midday most of the year. However, I am making it work and the truth is our home is a studio space with paintings pushing and shoving us around most of the rooms, except my husband’s office. He draws the line there and admittance of a painting he hasn’t purchased is limited to moving them away from the dining area for guests to come to dinner. Then they must immediately make their exit again. I have had studio space outside my home several times and I have found it just doesn’t easily work with either my painting practice or the flow of my life’s work. I need to be able to weave my caregiver tasks and household responsibilities and art business tasks into the movement of my brush across the canvases. I complete only 30 – 40 paintings a year of various sizes from large 40 x 60 inch canvases to small 8 x 10 inch plein air studies. But this is enough it seems and a different studio area that is more separate didn’t increase this output and seemed to disrupt my natural rhythm of working. So here is cheer to having small art studios and getting the work done no matter what! I am comforted by having so much good company as is evident in the comments. High five to us!

  18. To escape the desert heat in summers we moved to a small cabin in the mountains. No room inside so my studio became a space in the back yard under a 10×10 canopy. It was the best, birds singing, squirrels running along the top of the fence and beautiful pine branches reaching into my space. Every winter it was all stored away ready to come out the next summer. No we live near the ocean and let’s just say I park the car in my studio. As long as you are making art, the space is less important than the process and the joy experienced.

  19. How apropos that this particular Letter has come in at the perfect time, as I contemplate the possibility of constructing a detached-from-the-house art studio. My main drawback has seemed to be fear: will I have enough energy to manifest this as well as continue to do all of the other things that I love, but that require my energy and attention?? I’m not confident that I can do it all. I am 76 so even though I believe I will continue to live a healthy life to the age of 104, I could be wrong :-). So the question is: Am I too old to actually make this happen? Inspired by the post from 73 y.o. John Francis, I just may actively pursue the dream. Thanks John.

    A relatively late bloomer, I have been intermittently painting in oils for about 15 years. For the past 7 years in our current log cabin home, I have tried painting in the various room locations. My favourite painting space turns out to be at the kitchen window, which overlooks an unobstructed view of majestic mountains, a beautiful river, and wonderful natural light. This location, however, is definitely not very practical. My dream studio would have this same physical orientation.

    If any of you could see my/our home with 4 very nice potential studio areas up for grabs, you would say, “Shame on you! (for desiring a detached studio)”. But that is who I am. As such, I, too, have been gathering studio design plans and photos online. It is such fun. The posts above have been so affirming because not only do they clearly demonstrate “different strokes for different folks” but they confirm that I don’t have to “settle.” I want it all! Wish me luck!



  20. Barb Newton on

    I’m so grateful that my dad could take your dad to Savary Island to paint!
    He would drop him off and come back a few days later to pick him up….great studio on the beach!

  21. Your dads studio was an awesome space.
    I had the opportunity visit.

    Lots going on in every corner.
    Spaces are sensory.
    Personalities are revealed in our spaces.

    My personal space has changed over the years…good light…sensory compatible…and enough room to move around in is my preference.
    A station for each creative process is fabulous also…efficient that way. No setting up and taking down.

    The studio of the outdoors is a most wonderful space. The key I find…is traveling light.

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CDLN 6Uncorking Your Creative Core: Paint, Write & Walk in Mexico

October 17 – 23, 2022

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Details at 23rd Psalm, 2019
30 x 24 inches

Featured Artist

I grew up on a farm in Ohio, and that experience gave me a love of nature and the seasons and a deep belief in personal independence, as well as a love of experimentation. These have been the foundations of my work as a painter. I believe that learning in art or any subject is lifelong, and that the most important lessons we learn are through our personal interests and experimentation. After my husband’s death in 2018, I visited Israel the next year, and was inspired by the amazing landscape colors, and especially the old city of Jerusalem, with its crumbling walls, and its deep religious importance. I found my way out of grief by painting the Eight Gates of the old city.


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