Notes from the Studio

The Aging Artist: Staying Creative in a Retirement Community

Many artists are approaching retirement, or are already there.  I use the term “retirement” very loosely, because artists usually just keep on doing what they do until they no longer can see, or hold a brush, or handle the heft of clay.  


Long before we sold our home, we considered whether to move into an “over 55” community, which is simply a senior development, or to move into a continuing care retirement community (CCRC).  We chose a CCRC because we do not have children to take care of us when we begin to fail.


The CCRC we selected is a new high-tech 30-story high-rise with handy public transportation, close to art galleries, museums and theaters.  I never thought of myself as a city girl, but boy, did I change quickly.  I would not go back to the challenges of my lovely home:  In a handful of years before we moved two friends had been seriously injured in falls off their roofs, and another two friends had died in falls down their stairs.


This article has suggestions for selecting a CCRC in which you can continue to flourish as an artist.


What artists should look for in a CCRC

  • Generous community studio space.  It may or may not have natural light (ours is in the basement) but it should have bright lighting, sturdy tables, comfortable chairs, and ample space for a variety of art and craft activities.  Ask about the budget for arts and crafts, and the frequency of classes and creative activities.  Having a director in charge of this is not necessarily an asset:  We plan our own classes, hire instructors and volunteer ourselves.  We get what we want.
  • The apartment/house you are considering should be large enough to allow you to have a scaled down studio.  Click here and read the blog entries to see how I adapted a small room to painting.  I also quilt here.  I don’t recommend using the community’s studio as your personal studio.  That can be very limiting and inconvenient unless it is all you can afford, and it gives you no privacy.
  • Other artists in the CCRC.  My CCRC attracted many working artists.  Some are active in the community studio, others are not.  Never the less, we all know and encourage each other.  A few maintain off-site studios, a good option if your apartment is small and you are mobile.
  • An art activities budget provided by the CCRC.  Our art committee prepares and submits a budget for activities and materials for the year.  It is always approved.
  • An active, inclusive art committee if there is no activities director.  Get a calendar of current activities in the studio.  Plan on becoming part of that committee.   Make your contribution to a vital creative experience for all residents.  If you can, attend some of the art activities to gauge their quality.
  • Other happy, active artist residents.  Ask your contact person to introduce you to resident artists.  Have dinner with some of them before you make a commitment.  Are they happy?  Friendly?  Have they tried and enjoyed new creative activities since moving in?  Come armed with lots of questions—they will be happy to answer, I guarantee you.

We have oil painters, water colorists, weavers, sculptors (clay, metal and wood), photographers, print makers, quilters, wearable art seamstresses, book makers, miniaturists—all in residence.  It is glorious.  I am surrounded by more creativity on a daily basis than I was in my private home.


New and updated CCRCs are not your grandmother’s rest home.  Increasingly, they are designed to promote a very active and involved lifestyle, physically and intellectually.  New communities offer larger residences.  Most have apartment style living, but some also offer individual houses.  If you choose apartment style, check for good sound-proofing.  My CCRC is so heavily sound-proofed we do not hear anyone’s TV or flushing toilet.


Location may or may not be important to you.  Some cities have a more vibrant art scene than others, and this may affect your choice.   Do your homework—don’t just select the one closest to your kids. Selecting a CCRC—the place you will live for the rest of your life—is a big job.  It is far better to make the move when you are healthy, rather than under duress.


There are books and online information that will help you choose the right CCRC.  The most important factors are the quality of care and the financial stability of the CCRC.  However, I don’t know of any sources that will help you find a place that will fill your needs as a still-working artist.  I hope this helps.

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Compact Art Studio Revisited

Compact efficient art studio

In 2011 and 2012 I posted 4 illustrated blog entries about my compact efficient art studio.  Artists continue to find them useful, judging by the web stats.  The simple uncluttered style of my studio remains very functional.  However, I made one tweak:  To prevent paint from spattering as I work on 18x24” panels, I got a new 22x26” pressed board support that goes on the easel tray behind the panel (or canvas).

To read all four posts about my small art studio, scroll down to December 2011 and March 2012.

My efforts were not very productive to find links to other bloggers who describe their space efficient studios.  However, these were interesting: is Lori McNee's article on small studios, her own and those of other artists.   This is just too good to ignore:  A converted FEMA trailer does not fit my definition of a “compact art studio”, but the provocative concept may work for some artists in a modified form.  The huge skylight would cause difficulties for artists working in color because of variations in light intensity caused by clouds passing the sun.  Some useful storage ideas.  When purchasing storage containers, realize that square is more space-efficient than round.

For all you bloggers looking for a valuable topic, compact and efficient art studio is a worthy subject.  Even if you have just one thing in your studio that makes it work efficiently, post it.  A friend of mine lived in her van, which was also her art studio.  It was a very efficient (but not too comfortable) microcosm with floor-to-ceiling well-anchored storage.

May 28, 2013 Adding ideas as I find them:

Pinterest is a surprising resource.  Google "repurposed armoirs" or some similar phrase.

While these armoires have been converted for craft use, they provide plenty of ideas for painters. 

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Useful Equipment for Plein Air Painting

My first foray into plein air painting involved a Jullian French easel.  Once it is set up, a French easel makes painting a true pleasure.  However, it is heavy, and it does not protect wet oil paintings.  When pochade boxes first began making waves, I bought one.  It made plein air painting much easier.


An 8x10” pochade box holds quite a bit of stuff.  A homemade adapter for smaller panels increases its versatility.  It is light-weight, compact, and best of all—it fully protects 2-4 wet oil paintings, depending on the thickness of the panels.  My box is a prototype made by California artist John Budicin (the box is a work of art!)  Guerrilla makes very well-rated pochade boxes, with the 8x10” running around $100 at


ArtComber, a canvas cart, further contributed to making plein air painting easy.  It is capacious enough to hold everything I need when painting out—including a hefty tripod for the pochade box.  Water container, lunch, extra jacket, 12x16” palette keeper—it all goes in.  If that is not enough to recommend it, it comes with a fold-down chair which can also serve as a low table.  The ArtComber handles smooth to moderate terrain, such as uneven dirt paths and packed sand.  It would probably bog down in loose beach sand, and you would not want to drag it up the face of a bluff, but in my normal painting environs it works perfectly.  ArtCombers are about $60 at


I don’t buy many art gadgets.  But these two items have really made plein air painting more accessible for me. 

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The Compact Studio, Part 4: Untried Ideas

Judging by the spike in readership during the compact art studio series, there is a lot of interest in art studio design.  I hope other writers pick up on this and publish their successful solutions for efficient use of space.  Meanwhile, I apologize for dropping the ball—I was going to list a few untried (by me) ideas.  Here they are:

Remember those huge television armoires?  For an artist who has inquisitive toddlers and no designated space in which to work, I would think the interior of a big tv armoire could be converted to easel/painting space without too much difficulty.  Under-counter lighting could provide necessary light.  A tabletop easel could sit in the tv space.  Attach some wire or plastic racks to the interior walls to hold supplies.  A lock on the cabinet would make it child-proof.  For artists who sit, an old computer armoire might be better.

For artists lucky enough to have a room in which to work, but challenged by kids or pets, a Dutch-door (the top half open, bottom half closed) can allow contact and communication with less under-foot distraction.  There are other types of door barriers that are more transparent and can accomplish the same thing.

That’s it for my compact studio ideas.  Next blog is about my all-time favorite art blogger.  Find out who that is and why!

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The Compact Art Studio, Part 3

Shelves for picture frames

Frame storage should be designed to allow frames to set on end, not stacked.  I built shelving in the studio closet, which has 2’ of inaccessible space at one end.  Were it being used as a bedroom, that is where you would stuff your off-season clothes.


  • Two 1x12”x5’ pine boards
  • Four 6’ standards
  • Clips for the standards (four for each shelf)
  • Enough 1x12” pine to make as many shelves as you need
  • Wood block (scrap) the same thickness as your floor molding—use the block as a spacer between the wall and the board at the top, so it stands vertically.

I went cheap on these shelves, using materials left over from another home.  It would be a more useful system had I purchased plywood and made the system two feet deep, completely filling the available space.

One nice thing about these shelves is that they fit in their space by pressure.  Nothing is attached to the walls, so if you rent your home you can install this without damage.  In a different home we used this same system running the width of a 5-6’ closet—that held lots of stuff!

I specialize in paintings 8x10” and smaller.  12” deep shelves accommodate frames this size.  If you work larger you will require deeper shelves made of plywood.

While on shelves, keep your frames padded.  I sew old bath towels into bags, and while you cannot see which frame is inside, that frame will never get scuffed.  If the frames are new, the corner protectors are sufficient.

Many artists will frown on this, however I currently paint in only two sizes.  This is very economical in both space and money:  My frame inventory never needs to be as large as my painting inventory.  Paintings can be shifted in and out of frames as needed for exhibit.  During good economic times, and when I had a grand studio, I worked in more sizes.  That just doesn’t fit my life now.

Next week:  While I wrote this series on the “Compact Studio” I thought of other ways artists could make extremely limited spaces work.  I’ll write about those in case you find them useful.

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The Compact Art Studio, Part 2

Behind-the-door drying rack

In my last blog I wrote about the choice of easel and furniture in a small art studio.  Today is about “the drying rack”, which serves several purposes.  In many ways it is the nerve center of my studio, and it really helps me stay organized.  In this studio the shelves are on the wall behind the door.  In a prior studio (when I was young and willing to climb ladders) I had one long shelf near the ceiling.  Behind the door is much more accessible.

What the shelves do:

  • They keep the oil paintings fully visible/accessible, making it easier to determine needed adjustments
  • They offer a clean and safe place for paintings to dry
  • They provide a sorting area for paintings that need to be photographed, varnished, or selected for exhibit.
  • It is handy storage space  for unframed paintings.


Behind the door on that otherwise wasted expanse of wall with 4” of available depth.


  • 4” brackets (not available in any of the big-box hardware stores.  I found these online at     4” brackets are a little pricey, but they allow the shelves to be adjustable.
  • Two 6’ standards from Lowes or Home Depot.  Brackets and standards are usually interchangeable between brands, so buying standards from Lowes or Home Depot saved a lot of money.
  • A doorstop in the door hinge guarantees the door cannot bash the shelves and paintings.
  • 1x4”x5’ oak was used for the shelves.  Oak is expensive, but it does not warp like pine does.
  • ½ x1” cheap trim was glued and tacked to the front of each shelf to keep things from sliding off.

Prior to installing these shelves, I stored my small paintings in little plastic letter organizers from Office Depot.  It worked well as an extremely compact drying/storage device, but I could never see the paintings.

I cannot concentrate in a cluttered environment.  However, I know many artists who would go nuts unless they could have all their artsy stuff scattered about, exuding creative energy.  How you design your compact studio has to be determined by how you work best.  Google “art studio design” and you will find sites that offer many more ideas.

Next week:  Frame storage in the closet.

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The Compact Efficient Art Studio

Easel with small footprint, mobile "taborets", steel compact bookcases.

 We live in an era of downsizing and doubling-up.  For many, studio space is getting squeezed.   My next three blog entries will show you how I’ve dealt with creating an efficient painting studio out of a fraction of the space I used to enjoy.

I am fortunate.  I have a whole room (a smallish second bedroom sans bed) for office, sewing, and art.  Multi-purposing an art studio provides many distractions from creativity.  The trick is to make it efficient enough to move from one activity to another with little hassle.

One side of the room contains a high-boy dresser, a large L-shaped secretary’s desk and the fold-out sewing machine cabinet.  You don’t need to see photos of those.  It is the studio side you want to see.

Cornerstone of the studio wall is the Maybef Lyre easel, a sturdy beechwood tripod that has a small footprint.   I wrote an article in my enewsletter, The Palette Keeper, about the easels in my life—you might enjoy itThe easel is flanked by three microwave stands on wheels, which can easily be reconfigured for framing projects.  These “taborets” hold a tremendous amount of painting paraphernalia plus a paper cutter and a box of mini-frames.  They roll easiest on hard floors or low-pile carpeting with no padding.  The Persian rug is very thick wool and provides cushion while standing at the easel.

Beautiful oak bookcases had to be replaced with something more space efficient.  We had two vintage 1970’s olive green steel bookcases in a storage room that fit the bill.  You can’t get more compact and sturdy—or ugly.  We shortened one of them.  Together, they contain my much reduced library, as well as framing materials and a compact HEPA filter.

The ceilings are 9’ high.  A tall person could make good use of high wall space with cabinets and shelves, but I am short and have retired from climbing ladders and step-stools.

A four-tube flourescent fixture in the center of the ceiling lights the entire room.  No auxiliary lamps are needed, saving lots of surface space.

This is not the perfect art studio.  Working in a compact setting requires a certain amount of self-discipline:  You must keep art supplies limited to those you actually use.   I finally had to admit to a downside:  By defining myself exclusively as a painter of small works my brushwork and compositions become continually tighter.  I need the expressive space of larger panels, once in a while, to maintain looser brushwork in the small paintings.  I'll find a way to accomodate the occassional larger paintings and frames, but it does introduce a complication into my tidy studio plan.  In designing your studio space, allow yourself to change and improve it as you discover ways in which it constricts you.

Next week:  The coup de grace:  A drying, sorting and storage rack for oil paintings!

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