Inside the Painter’s Studio

Today I saw the phrase “show up” three times. The first time was in Seth Godin’s blog around 7 am, where he reminds us that we have to do more than show up, that our job is “to surprise and delight and to change the agenda.”  Around 9 am I got an email from a friend with a link to an NPR blog review of Jeff Bridge’s and Bernie Glassman’s new book The Dude and the Zen Master, where the key message was that showing up matters because “being present for whatever appears without pushing it away or demanding it be different is the only way we can act with real freedom.”

Tonight I was flipping through my blog ideas trying to decide what to write about when I glanced down at a book on my desk that I recently finished reading for the second time. Procrastinating, I started flipping through it yet again (I love this book), and then noticed that the inside cover has the following quote in huge bold type:

“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.” – Chuck Close

Hmmmm, I think I’m supposed to write about showing up!

I’m not going to repeat what Seth and the NPR article talked about.  Instead, I want to tell you about this great book that I’ve now read twice and the message it conveys about “showing up”.

The book is called Inside the Painter’s Studio by Joe Fig. In it, Fig, a sculptor and artist himself, replicated the studios of the interviewed artists through miniature sculptures.  They are beautiful and sit on the page next to the real-life photographs of the studios.  I feel like a voyeur when I read this book, and sometimes I do double-takes to figure out if the photograph is real-life or the sculpture.

Matthew Ritchie in his studio. Photograph of a sculpture by Joe Fig.

Matthew Ritchie in his studio. Photograph of a sculpture by Joe Fig.

Inka Essenhigh in her studio.  Photograph of a sculpture by Joe Fig.

Inka Essenhigh in her studio. Photograph of a sculpture by Joe Fig.

Fig conducted interviews with 24 contemporary artists (very weighted to those in New York) about their day-to-day creative lives, asking the same 20 questions of all the artists, from “what time do you get up in the morning?” to “how often do you clean your studio and does that affect your work?” to “do you have a motto or creed as an artist that you live by?” The artists really open up to Fig, and I delighted in learning about their tools and what drives them to get up each day to paint.

I am fascinated by the practical details of a professional artist’s life – what their studios and day-to-day lives are like.  I love seeing their supplies, the canvases in progress on the walls, the ideas in notebooks or on chalkboards. Whenever Michael (my instructor) switches things up at his studio, I want to pry and bombard him with questions:  Why did you move your easels over there and your desk there?  Why are you listening to Arcade Fire incessantly this month?  Why did you stop work on that painting?  Where did you get that huge roll of canvas?  What makes you show up here every day?

The common thread throughout the book is that the artists are constantly working, constantly showing up to their work space, whether it’s a small cramped space, or a fabulous dream studio.  They have set schedules and a routine they stick to. They don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.  In the words of one of the artists interviewed:  “…I am a scientist in the lab, on the verge of discovering something…..But in order to do that, I need the daily consistency.”  Fig found that inspiration rarely strikes outside the process of work, and keeping diligently to a schedule or routine is more likely to lead to success. I know this is true for me, both at work and in my training as an artist, and I think this is one of the reasons this book is getting worn from thumbing through it so much.

What do you think?  How important are the physical and logistical details to the creative process?

5 thoughts on “Inside the Painter’s Studio

  1. Paul

    Curious to know if any of the artists in the book refer to their creative process as a form of meditation? When we in western traditions refer to ‘time flying’ and being ‘in the zone’ as is probably experienced in those bursts of creativity, we are likely approaching a state of ‘no mind’ as expressed by zen meditation. I write the occasional haiku while cycling, which certainly requires showing up. My favorite, “Silence of no mind, ten thousand things come and go, yet no thing linger.”

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  2. Teresa de Onis Post author

    Fantastic comment, Paul. The book is so focused on the practicalities of the process that it does not dive into a lot of the emotional aspects. Some of the artists describe working late into the night when they’re “in the groove,” and some describe the stage fright of facing the empty canvas, but for the most part, the interviews are focused on the day-to-day. Like professionals in other areas, they keep mostly regular hours with the occasional all-nighter. I’ll plan an upcoming post on the questions that were asked and other common themes.

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  3. Art á Ray

    Great article!! “They don’s sit around waiting for inspiration” – well yeah what are you waiting for and how long are you going to be waiting too many people under achieve because they are waiting for the right moment yet in reality there is no such thing as the “right moment”

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  4. Pingback: Confronting a disappointing piece | Where's my paintbrush?

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