Notes from the Studio

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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Three main factors determine the cost and quality of frames: Joinery, finishing and material. Don’t be fooled by terms like museum quality, custom, or gold leaf. Anyone can use these terms.

Joinery: The best frames have what are called “closed corners”. That means the frame is constructed first, then the finishing is done. You should not be able to see the mitered joint. The best frames are built like fine furniture, with corners joined by splines, mortise and tenon, or recessed dowels or screws.

Mid-quality frames often have stapled corners, and then they are finished like the better frames. These look great, and are used most frequently. But over decades, or with handling, the corners may separate slightly.

Lower quality joinery techniques include what is called “chop”. The framer purchases prefinished moulding (some of it is truly high quality), cuts it, glues and staples the frame together. The better framers will fill the mitered corners to create the illusion of a closed corner. Chop frames can get very expensive, but they have the advantage of being very stylish and individualized to your décor.

Perhaps the worst joinery has a little plastic plug that straddles the mitered corner. This is not a very stable corner.

Finishing: The best wood finishes are done in many stages, just like fine furniture. Gold finishes also involve several steps. But what you need to be aware of are the different definitions of gold: The best gold finish is genuine gold leaf, up to 24kt.  It may be applied smoothly, or it may be antiqued.  It is expensive and time consuming to apply well. It is gorgeous.

Mid- to lower-mid quality frames usually use what is called “gold paint leaf”, often shortened to just gold leaf. If it doesn’t have karats it is not the real thing. Gold paint leaf is an acceptable finish. It can look fine. Just don’t be deceived about what you are getting.

Lowest quality finishing generally lacks luster and depth.

Materials: Again, fine furniture construction applies. Quality hardwoods last longest. But softwood pine and barn wood have their place for rustic paintings. The artist may know in what country the frame is assembled, but will rarely know where the wood originated or under what conditions it was milled and finished. 

Manufactured wood is turning up, mostly in low quality frames and moulding. And then there is plastic.… It doesn’t bear discussion.

I would say, “You get what you pay for” in frames, but it is just not true. Mid-quality and chop frames can command very high prices. It is up to you to understand the quality possibilities and realities.  Ask your artist about the frames he/she uses, and understand that artists have to choose their line of frames based on what their collectors are willing to pay.  If you want a Cadillac frame you may have to buy it later.

In my next Blog you’ll get links showing you how the best framers actually make and finish frames, and inside scoop from an anonymous framer.

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