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Monday, February 11, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: how to set up a studio on the cheap

Our ancestors produced masterpieces in badly-lighted, small, cold cramped spaces. You don't need to spend a fortune to furnish a studio.
The Testrite #500 easel has served me well for many, many years.
I recently got an email about how to set up a studio. After counting about $20,000 in construction and equipment, I laughed and pitched it in the trash. For most new painters, such an expenditure is not justified. Buy expensive easels, taborets, and lighting systems if you can afford them and like pretty things. But never confuse equipment with competence. Nobody ever painted better because he or she had pricey equipment.

When I first started painting professionally, my ‘studio’ was a corner of my kitchen. I had toddlers then, and I worked when I could steal time. The basement was damp and moldy, with occasional freshets of water across the floor. There was simply no room for a dedicated painting space.

Autumn in the Genesee Valley, by Carol L. Douglas. Pastel dust is a bigger environmental concern than oil paint in a small space.
So I threw down a mat to protect the kitchen floor and set up an easel by my son’s high chair. For a taboret, I used an old rolling kitchen cart. I retired it, eventually. Now I’m using a hand-me-down taboret from a retired artist friend. You can buy used rolling kitchen cabinets for $25-50. They’re durable and have storage and a wooden top. The only functional difference between them and the pricey oak cabinets at the art store is that they don’t come with pretty stainless-steel turps cans. Use a coffee can with a coiled wire or pebbles on the bottom. It works just as well.

My teaching studio is furnished with Testrite #500 aluminum easels. They’re less than $100. Mine have survived a few decades of student abuse. When a part gets lost—as they inevitably do—I just buy a replacement online.

Mohawk Valley midnight, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil pastels are less likely to go airborne, and sometimes they're fun to goof around with.
My own work easel is the Testrite #700, which handles 60” square canvases with no trouble. Anything bigger, I just lean on a wall. I think aluminum easels are great value for money, especially if you’re in a climate with big humidity changes.

The best light source you can have is a north- or east-facing window. If you lack that, you used to have to buy expensive daylight florescent tubes or an Ott Light. Now you can put LED daylight-balanced bulbs in a regular fixture. (These are not appropriate for video, however.)

Just as better lightbulb colors have dropped in price, so have air cleaning systems. I have a $5000 heat-exchanger/filter sitting in a case in my garage. It’s no longer necessary. The introduction of cheap HEPA filter air cleaners made it obsolete. (In general, it’s not the medium but the pigments that are dangerous in art. Worry more about pastel dust than your Gamsol or the vegetable oils in your paints.)

Niagara Falls, by Carol L. Douglas (pastel)
It’s a bad idea to clean your brushes in the kitchen sink. If you don’t have a utility sink, you can make a dry sink. Buy a used sink; our local ReStore always has them. A 5-gallon bucket underneath can catch your drain-water and a 2-liter soda bottle is sufficient to clean most brushes. If that’s too big for your space, be sure to scour your sink carefully after each art cleanup. You don’t want to add pigment to your food.

I use a tie rack, set on its side, as a drying rack for boards and a plate rack for canvases. If a canvas is large enough to need extra support, I simply put a piece of cardboard behind it while it dries.

I bought my flat files used from a printing shop that was going out of business. They’re the one thing that doesn’t have a real-world analog that’s cheaper, but they’re also heavy and take up a lot of real estate. If your collection of papers, etc. is small, you can put it in flat cardboard frame boxes and store it under your bed(s).

Now, to catch my plane!

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