What makes an artist’s studio productive?

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Preparing paper in my studio

Over the years I have had a number of studios in a range of circumstances. But my current studio space stands head and shoulders above the others when I think about how productive I have been in it. This led me to ponder what makes a studio a productive space? In simple terms, what I mean by productivity in this article is ‘how much time and effort you have to invest to create finished art work’.

I posted the question “What makes a studio productive?” across my networks and the answers where mixed, with some surprising insights and some common features emerging. The three stand out features of a productive studio according to my completely non-rigorous survey of friends were: warmth, proximity to home (the nearer the better) and a good studio group (the other artists in the building).

Warmth

I have to admit, the demand for warmth made me laugh a knowing laugh. I’m guessing if you are reading this, you are in some way connected to the arts. If you have or have ever had a studio in the UK you will know how much of a challenge it is to keep it warm in winter. It’s fairly common to try to work and think in a studio that is so cold you can’t even feel your face. Inevitably you give up early and go home. I have moved out of perfectly good studios in the past because they were only use-able for 7 months of the year. Jokes aside, it’s a serious issue and we should consider it as something that needs addressing alongside the other ways in which we artists can be our own worst boss ever. No employer would be allowed to make their staff work in the Bob Cratchit like conditions we put ourselves through. Would they? I know laborers, postmen and engineers work outdoors in winter. But they will or at least should have safeguards in place. We are producing delicate shimmering objects of pure joy that require the use of fine motor skills over extended periods of time. So yes, trying to work whilst huddled over your oil filled radiator has a negative impact upon your productivity.

Proximity

My studio is a ten minute drive away from my home. That also equates to a 25 minute bike ride, a one hour walk or 30 minutes door to door if I catch a prompt metro. All of my previous studios have been at least one hour’s journey away. So, on lazy/busy days when I drive there, I am saving myself one hour and forty minutes each day. That is already a huge time saving and over a week it mounts up. But as creative people, that time saving is not the main benefit. Sometimes you need to act upon an idea quickly before it floats away. And you cannot contain this moment to set times or locations. If your studio is near home, then you can get in there and start experimenting before the initial rush of N.I.M. (New Idea Motivation) fades. There are also fallow periods of waiting for things to dry or periods of repetitive, low thought activity such as priming canvas, sizing paper or rendering a video being a small example. You only need to be in there for an hour or two, and if you are smart you can fit those moments in around other responsibilities like family or a job. That one hour isn’t going to happen if your studio is miles away. You might think it will or that you can be disciplined and fit everything into full days. I’ve told myself that countless times but it never pans out like that (for me, anyway).

Community

This is perhaps the most complicated and nuanced feature of a productive studio. The sense of community can make or break a studio group and in turn your desire to be there, making work. Studios can be of various sizes. From one or two rooms above a shop through to large tower blocks that have been taken over as ‘meanwhile space’ artist’s studios. As artists we tend to crave community for inspiration and connection amongst peers, contrasting with the need for solitude, quiet concentration and action. The best studios work with this alternating workflow. As Steve Manthorp put it in his reply to my question “The right balance between privacy and cross-fertilisation”. This desire varied from some people, such as Steven Walker, describing it effectively as a being surrounded by good people, through to Narbi Price describing the entire package as “Warmth, light. A door to close. Quiet.” In terms of productivity this differs for everyone on a daily basis. But we don’t exist in a vacuum. You have to connect with others to support and nourish the ecology that you are a part of, it’s just good for your creative karma.

Susan Jones replied simply to the main question with the answer “Situated Practices”, when I asked if this meant the location and/or context she unpacked it a bit, referencing ‘Artists livelihoods: the artists and arts policy conundrum’ (2020). Presently unpublished though aspects will be in due course & also available through presentations e.g. https://camp-plymouth.org/susan-jones/. Her answer was that situated practices are “practices conceived, developed & modified by artists over time in relation to artistic ambitions which encompass social reality — personalised circumstances including location & family contexts — one of 3 core conditions for sustaining art practices & livelihoods”.

The other answers

The other interesting points people made were level access, good light (both natural and artificial), plenty of electrical sockets. There were a few people who said they like to find a good balance between messy and tidy areas, something that they can’t do at home. Isabella Streffen said that it was “a sense of being unobserved”. Erin Dickson said “Tools”, I think she may have been the only person with this answer, but I fully agree. My studio became infinitely more productive once I equipped it with the right tools. Something I will explain later. And Alan Smith said “kettle”, which he then elaborated upon showing that he has a well-considered series of working spaces for different ways of working. Sustainability was a point that occurred in a number of ways. Elisabeth Ross said that longevity is important, and this was an important point. Communal studio spaces develop over time, developing unique personalities and individual ethos. Longevity also build confidence in people and organisations who can support the space and the artists in it. Vicki Bennet pointed out that a productive space for her (in London) would be one she could afford. And, I guess at this point I should explain that most of the feedback has been from my peers in the North of England where one of the only benefits of the recession for artists has been the availability of affordable studio spaces in buildings that are now empty and disused meanwhile spaces. David Macdonald was even more direct in saying “Money. For both the artist & the studio owners.” And he is correct. You are not being productive in your studio if you are at work elsewhere, doing something else for someone else.

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Alan Smiths studio system at Alllenheads Contemporary Arts
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A view inside Alan Smith’s studio

My approach

My studio is set up as a mixed studio darkroom space. For the first time, when setting up this space I considered my work triangle. This is something that comes from kitchen layouts believe it or not. The idea being that to be productive in the kitchen you need to be able to move in a straight line between the sink, the cooker and the fridge. And, as barmy as that sounds, it works. I have a wet area which is a sink, trays and an enlarger, I have a printing area with a really big contact printing table that I made and I have my desk area for cutting and preparing paper as well as mounting and framing. I never go into the studio without a plan. Yes I will experiment and ruminate, but my main goal each day is to complete a set amount of work. I rarely sit down in my studio.

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The printing and cutting parts of my studio

The ultimate productivity tool in the studio

Deadlines. I’m sorry to say it. But (in my case) it is deadlines. These don’t have to be exhibitions or commissions, but it does help to have an external immovable set date that you commit to. It doesn’t matter what your work triangle is like, or if you have the perfect studio temperature, if you don’t have a deadline, you are going to struggle to break down what it is you need to do into manageable chunks of studio activity.

Final word

Matthew Collings answered with “Your own sense of order.” And he is one hundred percent correct. Some work spaces are constructed according to a very specific task, obviously. But that is not the case with artists studios. We all have our own unique evolving approach to our work which is one of the many beautiful things about the arts. It has taken me years to find a good working system. I would probably have arrived at this point much sooner if I had not been so tolerant of studio situations that did not fit with my own sense of order. So if your studio is too cold, do something about it or move. If it is too far away, don’t kid yourself, you’ll probably not go very often and if the community doesn’t work for you, find one that does.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion. It took place on both Twitter and Facebook. The Twitter thread can be found HERE I’m afraid I started the Facebook discussion as a private thread so I will respect the privacy of those who shared while it was in that state. But you can follow me for updates HERE. If you want to read more about my weekly capers in the art world I have a newsletter you can sign up to HERE.

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Artist, Curator, Carer. Join my weekly mailing list, for project info, opps, artwork and updates: https://tinyletter.com/dominicsmith

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