During these unprecedented times, it’s important to maintain a healthy state of mind, and whether you’re in quarantine or self-isolation during the current Coronavirus crisis, engaging with drawing or painting can help. The therapeutic qualities of creating can help you keep your mind focused and will inevitably make your confined space feel bigger as you create space in your imagination. Many of us will be using our time at home to create art, often in a space we have not previously thought of as an art-making space. In this post I will suggest ways of opening up to the possibility of taking a more flexible approach to the space you have available to you. I will also offer tips on how to keep this space as ergonomic and safe as possible.
Making the most of your space
With the latest advice from government being to stay at home unless absolutely unnecessary, with only one trip out per day in isolation, it’s easy to feel a little claustrophobic. However in these times we need to find ways to use the restrictions to our advantage. If you’re a painter you may find it helpful to liken the restriction in space to a limited palette – by using just 3 colours you are more likely to achieve colour harmony in your painting. Perhaps in these times by reducing the focus to what is immediately around you and what you feel within, you’ll find a coherency and clarity in your creative expression? It’s food for thought in the very least. Here’s my checklist for making a workable art space in your home, no matter how little space you have.
1. Find a suitable spot
Choose a space you can dedicate to your art – not necessary for weeks on end, just long enough for your painting/drawing session (I’d plan for an hour at least).
If you have access to a garden- use it. If it’s warm enough, paint in it. Do you have a view you can paint, or plants you can observe? If not ensure you take breaks in your outdoor space for fresh air at regular intervals (every hour or so) – taking a little walk if you can, to stop you staying in one fixed position for prolonged periods of time (if you don’t have an outdoor space make sure you walk around the space you do have once an hour, for circulation and a healthy mind). If you are going to paint with oils inside you might like to set up a brush washing station outside – it doesn’t have to be elaborate, just a bottle of solvent and a bucket with a lid and a rag to blot rinsed brushes on.
Set your space up by a window if possible, if not at least an electric light source. If you can be near both – even better! That way you can work into the night if you want to.
Clear your intended space entirely. Try to take a flexible approach to your space. You might find it useful to put all the stuff you usually have on your chosen surface in a box or carrier bag, and then another separate box/bag for your art stuff, so you can quickly change from one to the other as and when you need/want to. My art space is going to be my bedside table! It’s tiny but it’s by a wall, and a window, and a light…so in a lot of ways, it’s ideal.
At the time of writing, all but essential shopping is prohibited, but the upside is you probably have everything you need to engage with your creativity, in the home, already. The key to creative success during this time is to think laterally about what you have access to and what you can do with it.
Now is not the time to think about permanency and light-fastness as your highest priority. The work you make during self-isolation is about pure creativity. It might take the form of art-as-catharsis, expressing anger and frustration. It might be about developing observational skills. It might be about engaging with a mindful process. Try not to worry about whether it will last for hundreds of years – your state of mind is more important.
You may need to take your creativity into uncharted territory if you don’t have the materials you usually work with. Maybe now’s the time to try collage with paper you find around the house and in your recycling. There’s value in drawing with a biro on the margin of a newspaper. Picasso used to add his own characters on magazine photos – and now they’re in an exhibition at the Royal Academy (which will reopen eventually!) Maybe you have excess house paints…check whether they’re oil or water based and use them as you would use your artist paints. There are ways around this and if the materials you pick up don’t behave how you expect them to then put it down to experience and try something else. Often the disposability of found materials can help serve to free up creativity. This has potential to be a significantly creatively nourishing time.
Advice for artist materials in the house
If you are lucky enough to have materials in the house, here’s some thoughts about safe and practical use within the home.
Drawing – Gather all your pencils, pens, markers and crayons (whatever you like to use) and have them all in one place. Scour the house for what you might have squirrelled away. Separate out the materials by medium and keep them grouped – perhaps separate them using pencil cases or old ice-cream or take-away boxes. Ask yourself what else you’ll need – a bin for sharpenings, kitchen roll for blotting, a putty eraser, and of course some paper or card to draw on. Once you have everything gathered think strategically about where to place it in your art space – what do you need quick and easy access to, what’s less important, how will you avoid tripping over while working, are all electric wires from lamps and radios out of harm’s way? It could be worth laying everything out on a bit of cardboard or scrap paper so that leaks and smudges don’t happen on surfaces that you want to keep clean. Think practically first, get everything laid out, and then start drawing. It really will help you immerse yourself in your drawing and achieve a bit of flow.
Oil painting – It’s strongly advised to use oil paints in a ventilated space. However, solvent is not absolutely essential to the oil painting process; you can even clean oil painting brushes without solvents if you really need to. If you are oil painting in your living space I suggest working with neat oil paint with a little fast drying medium (although this does contain some solvent, so if you have respiratory issues, steer clear) or linseed oil if you wish to, and no solvent. Blot your brushes on a rag or kitchen paper in the absence of rinsing. When you need to properly clean, loosen paint in the brush hairs with vegetable oil and finish by washing with soap and warm water. You can paint with oils on any acrylic primed or oil primed canvas/card/panel, or if you don’t mind impermanency and an absorbent surface that you may need to throw away eventually, paper or card. Cover surfaces you wish to protect with a plastic sheet, and keep plenty of rags to hand. Finished wet paintings could replace dry paintings on the wall as a good drying place, out of harm’s way. Or alternatively bookshelves lined with paper or the shed are favourite places of mine to carefully place paintings to dry.
Acrylic painting – It’s a good idea to paint in a ventilated space. Again, cover surfaces you wish to protect with a plastic sheet, keep a damp rag close by to help lift off paint if it gets anywhere it shouldn’t. You can paint with acrylic paints on practically any surface – paper, canvas or card. Try to blot brushes rather than rinse to minimise the amount of acrylic going in to the water supply afterwards.
Watercolour painting – arguably the easiest medium to work with at home. Easy to wash off surfaces and relatively safe to handle. Rediscover that old watercolour set that’s sat neglected in the corner of your bedroom! They can also be combined very easily with drawing media, especially watercolour pencils.
Whatever your materials…Try to keep organised. Group related materials together where you can. If you have a piece of wood lying about consider attaching hooks to it (or pins in a corkboard could also work)….then, attach bulldog clips to the ends of your tubes of paint and hang to the board – it will make it easier to find the colours you want and the bulldog clip also doubles up as tube squeezer.
Good working posture is important, whether working on a computer, drawing or painting. Head, shoulders, and hips should be in alignment, whether sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time.
Try and stand when possible as sitting for long periods of time can be bad for circulation, and make you feel a little stale. Use masking tape to fix sheets or paper or card, or unstretched canvas to a wall to draw on if you don’t have an easel. If you’re worried about getting paint on your wall fix a bigger sheet (some lining paper would be perfect) – newspaper or anything that has print on it is not a good idea as it may smudge. If you need to sit, keep a straight back and make sure you are not over-reaching to paint. Remember to have a little walk around the room and stretch every hour at least.
4. Subject Matter
If you’re stuck for what to paint or draw…try not to think of your creative session as a grand gesture. Don’t set any expectations for the outcome of your creative session. Be open to drawing or painting from intuition. If emotions are running high, use your art as a form of mindfulness, or an outlet for your frustration. Remember too that painting from photos is not a crime! See if you have any photos on your phone that inspire you. Or consider setting up a still life arrangement. If life drawing is what you miss most, there’s plenty of resources online that you can draw from.
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