Tools of the Trade

Today I had intended to write about inspiration – those artists whose work inspires, educates and inflames me.  But, as is so often the case, the best laid plans can go astray.  As I wandered the aisles of the art store this morning intent on spending my gift certificate (spoils from placing third in this year’s Irving National Wildlife Art Show) I took in all the tools of the trade, those amazing but silent raw materials that allow artists to do what they do – create something out of nothing.

Rows and rows of paint tubes in every color of the rainbow.  Stacks upon stacks of paper in every possible texture, size and shade.  Displays of brushes poke their heads up vying for attention, all begging to be touched.  Pastels, charcoal, pens, ink, canvas.  All of it sitting mute on the shelf, waiting for someone to dig into them and make something.  I want to buy ALL of it.

So what is essential to me in my studio?  Understand, my current studio is not ideal.  My husband and I share a studio space, and both of us have a LOT of stuff, so it’s a little cramped.  It’s kind of dusty (despite my best efforts), the light is nice but uneven, and … did I mention it was cramped?  But I have my half of the room and he has him, and we’ve each made the space ours and come here to do serious work.

The whole studio is dominated by a full wall of bookshelves.  All the shelves are overfull, so there are also books stacked sideways on top and lined up on the sides, sometimes two and three rows deep.  All our friends are here: Rembrandt, Sargent, Caravaggio, Audobon, Hogarth, Parrish, Wyeth, Rousseau, and Magritte.  There are shelves devoted to the wizards of Disney traditional (and CG) animation, Byzantine iconography, art nouveau, art instruction, art theory, art history, figure drawing and animal anatomy.  There are favorite books whose pages are smudged with paint or dusty with charcoal, and the books wear those marks like a badge of honor.  Inspiration lives on those shelves, and I cannot count the number of times that being able to reach over and grab a book has saved the day… and the piece.

My drawing/ painting desk is an old architectural drafting table.  The thing is massive, creaky and ancient.  It tilts back and forth and slides up and down, and the surface is a much written upon self-healing matt.  I’ve got all kinds of stuff scribbled on here, quotes from artists or authors, bits of songs or phrases that tickle my ear, admonitions and motivation.  Since the matt is rubber, the words eventually fade away, and I can either rewrite them or add something new, providing a continuously changing inspiration board.  At the moment, “The Wind of Heaven” is tacked to the board with snap clamps (another essential for me), along with a plastic glove from oil painting and a picture of my little sister.

Directly above my desk is more inspiration.  The cork bulletin board is almost totally covered in tear sheets, photos, show dates, reminders, and a few odds and ends that I rather like.  It’s a huge mess, but whenever I try to clean it off all the empty space makes me uneasy, so back go the photos.  Some of these are future paintings, some of them are cool photos, and some of them are photos that would make wonderful paintings (or etchings), if only I could figure out how to do them.  They live above my desk as a kind of permanent “tickle board”, and every once in awhile, I can pull a photo off and work a painting from it.

My oils live in a fishing tackle box, a holdover from college days.  Watercolors and gouache have their own boxes, since they don’t play together very well, and my desk drawers hold a plethora of pens, inks, framing supplies, office stuff, oil pastels (I now have an entire drawer dedicated to my Sennelier oil pastels, and I am psyched!), painting mediums, and rags.  All of my brushes live on my desk, loosely sorted by size and medium.  My watercolor brushes are kept together in one of my water jars- an antique mason jar that has only gotten prettier with age, paint and use.  I have two good lights and a comfy chair.  The big Epson and my filing cabinets full of carefully sorted reference photos live on the other side of the room.

The only other thing that is absolutely integral to my studio is the dread machine I am typing on.  Not only for the computer-y goodness, but because it holds quite a bit of my music collection, and it has a neat “shuffle” button.  I can’t work in silence.  (My husband, by contrast, works ONLY in silence, which explains why the two of us can’t work at the same time.)  I listen to a wide variety of music when I’m working (or any time, really), anything from classical to Dixieland Jazz to Eminem.  Right now I’m rocking out to Clare Fader and Janis Joplin, and in awhile I’ll pick up a brush and turn on Florence and the Machine and Muse.  (Of course now it just shuffled to Mozart’s Requiem.  Of course.)

Today’s art store haul included a bunch of yummy oil paints (and I even brought a list to prevent impulse buys!) and two wonderful new long handled brushes, both with excellent snap and a really nice feel in the hand.  I can’t wait to dig into my palette later and try them out.  I’ve got a few paintings to finish (and they’re so close to being done!) and it will be a great way to get to know these brushes and for them to get to know me.  I think we’re going to be friends.

Turpentine and Ochre
All text and images © Joanna Zeller Quentin 2011.  All Rights Reserved.