How to Set Up a Painting Studio
Save yourself frustration and hassle by setting up your art studio space the right way.
Learning how to draw and paint at the highest levels is challenging enough – there is no need to make the task even harder with an inadequate setup. In order to make your studio space work for you, you need to set up your space in a way that allows you to set your easel properly, control your light, and place your still life setup in the right location in relation to your easel.
An extraordinarily common mistake I see students make is that they set up their easels so that they are tilting backwards quite a bit. This is bad! You want your canvas or drawing board to be in the most vertical position on your easel that you can make it. When your work surface is tilted away from you, it creates distortion in your work due to perspective. Having your drawing or painting surface vertical eliminates much of this distortion.
Another common mistake I see is students sitting at their easel. One of the greatest assets you have as an atelier student is to stand back far away from your work. It helps you see big, which is one of the most important skills to learn in atelier training. If you do not have room to stand back, you are depriving yourself of a huge advantage for progressing in your realistic drawing and painting skills.
If you have physical limitations that prevent you from standing for long periods, I strongly encourage you to place a second chair further away from your easel so that you can see it from a distance in between painting sessions.
There are two approaches to lighting in the studio. One is to use natural light, and the other is to use artificial light. Both approaches have their pros and cons.
Pros: Subtlety of light on the forms of your subjects, more nuance of color visible when painting, atmospheric with a wide range of edges visible
Cons: You cannot work after sundown, the light can shift the colors of your subjects depending on how overcast it is, and ideally you need north-facing light in order to have the most consistent lighting which limits the potential locations of your studio space.
Pros: More defined lights and shadows which make it easier to draw and paint, you can work any time day or night, you can set up anywhere
Cons: Sometimes it is challenging to light your easel without polluting the lighting of your subject, working in a dark room with spots on your subject and easel can be hard on the eyes, there is less nuance of value and color on your subject when lit by a spotlight.
Natural Light Setup
If you want to work with natural light, you need to be able to control the light as much as possible. Ideally, you want to find a North-facing window. The worst option is a South-facing window. This is because you don’t want any direct sunbeams hitting your subject, only indirect light. You can make do with a West- or East-facing window as long as you understand what the limitations of them are.
You never want direct sunbeams on your subject. Instead, you want to make an oculus out of your window that allows only some of the indirect sunlight to hit your still-life setup. You can do this by blocking out the lower half of your window. This allows light to enter your studio from above and creates a nice angle of light for lighting your subject.
In the image below, notice how the lower half of the window is covered with a curtain. If you have other windows in your studio space, you want to block them out entirely. You want only one light source coming from one direction on your subject.
Artificial Light Setup
This is the recommended setup for anyone who is new to atelier training. Artificial light creates clearly-defined shadows, bed-bug lines and cast shadows, which are all very helpful when drawing and painting using atelier methods for the first time. Artificial light also makes values when shading more obvious.
The most important thing about setting up with artificial light is to make sure that the light on your easel does not pollute the subject which is lit by its own separate light. See the image below and notice how the light on the easel is raking from upper left to lower right across the easel board.
The easel light is placed in a way where light pollution will not get into the still life setup. It also prevents your arm from casting a shadow on your canvas in the area you are working. If you are left handed, you will want to set up the lighting in reverse.
Where does your still life go?
Finally, to perfect your studio setup you want to be smart about where you place your still life setup. If you are right handed, you want to place the still life to your left. This way, you do not have to look over your arm in order to get a clear view of your setup. Left-handed folks will want to place their subjects to their right.
If you are working sight-size, you will want to align the front edge of your shadow box with your drawing board.
Generally speaking, you do not want to have to look too far up or too far down in order to see your subject. This is why I recommend placing both your drawing board and the center of your box at eye level. See the image below.
You may have a specific artistic purpose to place your still life higher or lower than this recommended location. But if you are new to atelier training, you can literally save yourself some neck aches by being smart about your still life placement in relationship to your easel.
I hope that this article helps you set up the perfect art studio and propels you into a period of prolific art-making.
What do you think about this easel setup? Do you do something different at home? Let me know in the comments below.