From storage solutions to technology tools to sketchbooks, here’s what helps working artists in their quest for art studio organization.
By Anne Hevener
Art studio organization often comes down to what works best for you. Yet it can help to to hear what others have done to get the most from their painting spaces. We reached out to successful artists to learn how they organize their studios so they’re set up for success every time they go to work. Some embrace a bit of a mess, while others do their best work in a tidy, orderly space. We asked top art professionals “What has worked best for you?” and found many creative ideas in their responses.
1. Make Technology Work for You
Apps designed for artists can save time and space. “Forty-five years ago, when I first began my professional art career,” says Ken Goldman, “if I needed a photo reference for sketches, I’d trek to the public library’s photo-file morgue. Now, the iPad and iPhone have made conceptualizing and problem-solving even easier — and certainly tidier. Specifically, I use an app called ArtStudio. It’s a portable photo-editing program that helps me problem-solve paintings without ruining the original. The app has multiple drawing and painting tools, and every imaginable opaque or transparent color. Finally, hundreds of projects-in-process can be filed away neatly for later use, all within one small device.”
Painter Antonio Masi goes beyond individual apps to max out his iPad’s capabilities. “The most helpful item in my studio is my iPad,” Masi says. “It goes wherever I go; it’s like taking my studio with me. My iPad offers tremendous uses. I use it to store my references and photos of my work, and I use it in the different stages of a painting in progress. When using it to view a reference, I can enlarge a section to see it better. I also use it for record-keeping, sales, billing, accounts receivable, work schedule, workshop schedules, art contest and exhibition schedules, and deadline reminders.”
2. Eliminate Non-Essentials
“To an outsider looking in, art studio organization would be the last thing that would come to mind when viewing my studio,” says artist Iain Stewart. “I do, however, have a system in place that allows me to make sense of what my wife, Noelle, calls the ‘studio situation.’
“A few years ago, as my career began to get more chaotic, I realized that I was just shuffling papers, materials, dog beds, etc., from one part of the studio to another. The dogs followed the beds, but everything else was disorderly. To address the mess, I decided to remove as much of my storage capacity in the studio as possible, thus forcing myself to have only the essentials within reach. What that has meant is that my dedicated studio space now has fewer places to stack or squirrel away the detritus. As I work, my studio’s level of mess rises, but before it reaches critical mass, I have an organizational day when I sort and throw away things I don’t need. That day is on the schedule now.”
3. Have Tools at the Ready
“There are a number of essential tools that I want to have within arm’s reach when I paint,” says Laurin McCracken. “Since my chosen medium — watercolor — often paints itself and often has internal actions that can change in minutes, I don’t want to have to take time to think about where I put my small squares of blotting paper.
“Likewise, I use a lot of different types of masking. I want to know where the masking fluid is and where the drafting and X-Acto knives are. The most important of all these tools are my brushes. I want to know where my brushes are at all times, right down to where the No. 4 is placed versus the No. 6. Therefore, my art studio organization secret is to keep all of these materials in the same places to minimize disruption and to maximize my time and effort.”
4. Storage Solution: Vertical Dividers
“Storage is always a problem,” says Kathleen Conover, also a watercolorist. “I had my painting tables built with vertical divisions from floor level to countertop. It’s easy to store clean paper in its boxes, as well as my many painting ‘starts,’ vertically. Labeling the box ends lets me see what I have and easily pull out what I need. The tabletop has an overhang for ‘toe space.’ It isn’t exactly pretty, but it sure works well.”
5. Storage Solution: Flat Files
“I find my flat file to be very helpful,” says Jean Grastorf. “I have a drawer for tubes of watercolor paint, another for tubes of acrylic and a drawer for brushes, among many other things.”
6. Set the Records Straight
If tracking past work is your Achilles heel, make it easy to photograph and record your activity for art studio organization. “Over the last 40 years of making art, I’ve tried to keep a record of most everything I’ve done,” says painter Stephen Quiller. “It’s important to have this information for reference, for books and articles that I write, and for collectors who want to see my work.
“I have a photography setup in my studio with lights, camera and a vertical flat board wrapped with black felt. I shoot a painting, or paintings, and then insert my memory card into my computer where I rotate and crop the paintings, as needed, and place them in a permanent file. Each year, I make backup copies to ensure permanence.” Quiller is also lucky enough to have some special help. “My daughter Allison is currently archiving all of my paintings from 1972 to the present, adding keywords referring to the date, medium or media, and the subject matter and/or place where each was painted,” he says.
7. Use Organizing Principles
“Organizing tools and materials, while still keeping them accessible, is always a goal, so I organize tubes of paint by families of color,” says Birgit O’Connor. “You can use small plastic bags, clear plastic drawers with dividers or, to save room, even a clear plastic shoe organizer that hangs on a door. Because different painting styles require different needs, I organize brushes by size and type. To prevent ruining a tip, I place them tip-up in large stone containers where they’re easily accessible.
“I like to keep brands and weights of paper separate, too, and try not to mingle them. I don’t want to think I have one type of paper only to find out later that I grabbed the wrong one. For my reference photos, organizing by subject matter really helps and makes it easier for me to find what I’m looking for. So, for example, I sort by flowers first, then by flower type, and then by color.”
8. Tape Areas Off
“I have a lot of different paintings and pictures in the studio,” says watercolorist Z.L. Feng, “along with assorted materials and frames. What helps me stay organized is to set aside part of the room and dedicate that space exclusively to a certain item. For example, I’ll tape a border on my floor and place reference photos in baskets or folders in the left corner of my studio and then the easel somewhere in the center. This keeps references nearby, so I’m able to find what I’m looking for quickly and use it. Likewise, I keep my tools and materials blocked off to my right.”
9. Storage Solution: Stackable Bins
“I was awash in paint,” says John Salminen. “Some of the tubes I’d purchased; others I’d earned as merchandise awards; and some were given to me for testing. Tubes and tubes and more tubes. The bulk of them were heaped in boxes, Ziploc bags and random piles in corners of my studio. When I needed to find a specific color, I spent a lot of time rummaging.
“The solution to the chaos came during a trip to the local building center where I saw these plastic stackable bins (above). They’re intended for storing nuts and bolts, but they’re sized just right for multiple tubes of paint. The system is simple, but it has made my studio time much more productive, and I’ll never again realize partway through a painting that I’ve run out of a color.”
10. The Big Clean
Sometimes ruthless decluttering is in order — and can free your mind. “When, after 10 years of parental care, both of my parents had passed on, I felt that one stage of my life had ended and another had begun,” says Katherine Chang Liu. “Over the course of that decade, a lot of things had accumulated in my studio, and my working space had shrunk. So I did a big purge.
“I started with old work, tearing up a lot of old paintings I’d done on paper and gessoing a lot of the work I’d painted on canvas or panel. I took a cold eye to what needed to be discarded, and within a week, I’d reduced the amount of stuff in my studio by 75 percent. Then I did the same with art supplies and art books. Art supplies went to local schoolchildren, and books went to the library. After this purge, I reorganized everything, and my studio became spacious and more efficient.”
11. Make Your Sketchbook an Art Studio Organization Tool
“Like a lot of artists, I’m a horizontal stacker,” says Mark Mehaffey. “I can fill every flat space available to me. Rosie, my wife and business partner, however, is an inveterate picker-upper. If I put anything down in the house and expect it to be there a day or two later, it’s not. It has been picked up and put away. Drives me crazy!
“So Rosie has been banned from touching anything in the studio. Having said that, I give Rosie every credit. I couldn’t do what I do without her help. The one thing that really does keep me organized, though, is my sketchbook. It’s my place to find out if an idea might work; to see if a design is sound; to explore variations; and to make a connection. My sketchbook keeps me on track and organized. And, I always know where I put it down.”
Meet the Artists
To learn more about the artists in this story and to see their work, visit their websites: Katherine Chang Liu, Kathleen Conover, Z.L. Feng, Ken Goldman and Stephanie Goldman, Jean Grastorf, Laurin McCracken, Antonio Masi, Mark Mehaffey, Birgit O’Connor, Stephen Quiller, John Salminen, and Iain Stewart.
ANNE HEVENER is the editor-in-chief of Artists Magazine, Pastel Journal, and Watercolor Artist. A version of this story first appeared in Artists Magazine.
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