Overheads Under Your Heel

I recently read that Rufus Norris has been confirmed as Sir Nicholas Hytner’s successor as director of the National Theatre. In an interview for the Guardian in October 2012 he said:

I was 36 before I earned £10,000 in a year. People go, “Oh, you’ve got a lovely career, you must be rich,” but I still rent, and I don’t have a pension. Unless you get a War Horse or a Billy Elliot, you’re struggling.

To be honest, I was more relieved than disheartened when I read that. Relieved, because after graduating from Central Saint Martins College I was under the illusion that everybody else was making money while I was having bad luck in the matter. I sincerely wish that I had read Norris’s confession before I started my BA. Not because I would have changed my mind about pursuing an art career and studied law instead but because I would be prepared that it would take a long time to properly get on my feet. Every single arts BA course should begin with a lecture acquainting students with the statistics of what the salaries (freelance, part-time, full-time etc.) are in different art sectors in the real world. This would filter out those who simply don’t have the stamina which Norris calls “the greatest virtue in this game”, and are likely to find themselves depressed when they can’t make ends meet with their art.

But as I said, I’m not disheartened. My attitude is: accept the reality and try to find ways to survive in the jungle. The immediate thing any artist can do (and what Norris suggests) is very simple: minimise your overheads. One of the major overhead to minimise is the working space.

People often ask me about my studio because it seems like every respected artist should have one. Well, I do have a studio… flat. It’s literally one space where I live with my boyfriend and where we both do creative projects (sometimes at the same time) – art and music respectively. I draw on a large table (which is also a dining table), I paint at my easel, and do all the digital work on my computer (Colin and I share a large monitor on a separate desk to which both our laptops are connected.) The main thing for a painter is light and we are lucky to have massive windows going across most of the length of a wall. Someone might ask: Ok, but what if you’re a ceramic artist or a large-scale sculptor etc.? Well, of course, then you do need a space. (Having said that, I used to make large props, including a life-scale crocodile, in a living room/bathroom/corridor, depending on the size of flat I was living in.) My point is: there are plenty of artists in London who work with pen and paper on an A4 scale, and pay extra £400 or more for a studio (which they also need to travel to). The argument that “I have to work in a different space, I can’t concentrate at home” is completely irrelevant. If you want to be a self-employed artist, the main thing you need is discipline.

Hugh MacLeod in his wonderful book Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity says:

The more talented somebody is, the less they need props.(…) There’s no correlation between creativity and equipment ownership. None. Zilch. Nada.(…) A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.(…) Which is why there are so many unremarkable painters with expensive studios in trendy neighbourhoods.

I am not attempting to analyse the influence of space on the quality of art (though it might influence its nature: Damien Frost, a graphic designer I met last year, decreased the format of his paintings so that he could paint in a rented flat and carry the paintings between the UK and Australia.) I am merely talking about money. Minimising the overheads means that one needs less money to live on, and thus has more freedom. Artists often make the mistake of visualising themselves in hip roof-top Shoreditch apartments, sitting in cafes with a latte and a sketchbook, hanging out at galleries and vinyl record shops, and socialising in creative hubs. Here’s a question: is the goal to be an artist (i.e. fulfil the romantic notion of a cool artistic lifestyle) or to make art? If you want to create art, you might need to move to zone 4, cut way down on trips to pub, buy clothes in Oxfams and say goodbye to Mediterranean holidays. You’re not a lawyer locked in a Canary Wharf office building for 12 hours per day, but there’s a price to pay for it.

Edward Gorey, mentioned in my previous post, lived in an “awful one-room apartment with a little Pullman kitchen. If you cook anything, you can smell it three weeks later. (…) My drawing space is not arranged, if only because anywhere from one to six cats are almost always sitting on wherever I am working,” as he described it in a couple of interviews in 1978 and 1980. Francis Bacon remained in his Reece Mews apartment until his death: It was a sparsely furnished flat in South Kensington, where one room was used for painting, one for socialising/sleeping and the bathroom was combined with a kitchen. The painting room was “this tiny but dense and intense room, with a window at either end and a skylight where he painted. And there was just enough room in the centre of this topography of chaos for him to stand and paint the canvases,” as Brian Clarke described it. Arthur Kitching, a great painter (and my boyfriend’s great uncle), began his career in 1934, and, as we can read on a website dedicated to him, “for about the following twenty years endured a self-motivated and prolonged training.” Together with his wife Joyce, he lived and painted during a couple of periods in a caravan.

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I have recently stumbled on a very interesting website project by Kate Donnelly: From the Desk Of, which collects photos and interviews with successful contemporary artists who work predominantly at a desk. Unsurprisingly, many of the featured desks are located in their flats or houses, not in external studios.

Marc Johns, an illustrator, works in a dining room:

We don’t have the luxury of an extra room for a studio. We have kids – two boys, 5 and 8 – and they always have projects on the go, so there is a great deal of making that happens in our house. It’s not always ideal – I constantly have to clear my drawing and painting supplies off the dining room table before the next meal, and thoroughly scrub down the table.

The studio of Lorna Scobie, an illustrator and printmaker, is in her flat in a quiet suburb of South East London. “To visitors, my desk probably looks like a bit of a tip, but I like to think of it as a very ordered mess,” she says. Grant Snider, a comic artist, works on any spare surface in his flat (currently on a kitchen table): “When my daughter was born, the drawing room became the baby room.” Hiro Kurata, a painter, and Adrian Tomin, a graphic novelist, both work from their homes in Brooklyn, where the latter lives with his wife and daughter.

My good friend Andris Wood, a very talented painter, paints in his bedroom (and he paints using oil, various glazes etc.), often on a large scale.

Cutting down the cost of extra studio space, travel and entertainment can give the artist the most precious asset for any form of creative work: time.