Waiting for the marshmallows: on patience & delayed gratification

Waiting / Photo by Paul Chiorean (under CC licence)

It is sometimes ironic and almost amusing how life will surprise us with challenges in the areas where we struggle most. Patience has never been my forté, and while I have improved myself in that regard over the course of a decade or so, I admit that I am often incapable of waiting the remaining three seconds for the microwave to heat up a bowl of meat for my cats.

And now that I’m in a long-distance relationship, I’ve been challenged with a lot of waiting and longing before my partner and I can settle together in one place. And while this can be hard to endure at times, I have learned to treat it as a training of patience, for, as Lisa McKay says in an article for Lifehack, “When you are being patient in your long-distance relationship you are not just nurturing love, you are developing your character”.

This training is indeed very valuable, since waiting is something we generally struggle with in the modern age. We are surrounded by an increasing number of things advertised as “instant” which not only take away the need for self-improvement, but make us even more impatient. Instant delivery, instant nail varnish, instant meal, instant coffee, instant download, instant sex. In his article Instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient for the Boston Globe, Christopher Muther quotes Ramesh Sitaraman, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst, who examined the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users. Sitaraman discovered that people started displaying impatience only after two seconds of waiting for the video to load and would abandon it if it didn’t start loading after – yes – mere two seconds. He is genuinely worried that “someday people will be too impatient to conduct studies on patience.” Compared to that, my inability to wait for the microwave to do a full 2.5 min cycle without me interrupting a few seconds before the end, seems entirely normal, for impatience seems to be the norm these days.

Maruchan Akai Kitsune instant udon / Photo by Richard Masoner  (under CC licence)

But impatience takes its toll on our perception abilities. How often do we keep multiple tabs open in our browsers and rather than read one article from start to finish, we merely scan it and skip between several webpages, reading snippets of completely different pieces, without giving either of them our full attention and focus? Darrell Worthy, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University who studies decision making and motivation, cited in Christopher Muther’s piece, says that we’re turning away from reading books and magazines, and spending more time with quick fun in the form of mobile apps and games (i.e. Angry Birds on the iPhone). Which is hardly surprising, given how much more time and focus a book demands over an online article. According to Worthy, immediate gratification is the default expectation, and overcoming these urges is becoming increasingly more difficult.

We are hooked on instant gratification, even though we have very clear data demonstrating how the exact opposite helps us achieve success. The most important study on this topic is of course the famous Stanford experiment (often referred to as the “marshmallow experiment”), conducted 50 years ago by Walter Mischel on hundreds of children around the age of 4 and 5 (here is an excellent in-depth piece from The New Yorker on both the experiments and Mischel himself). Each child was offered a choice between one small reward (a marshmallow, cookie or a pretzel) provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e. two marshmallows) if they waited for approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester would leave the room and return with the reward. Among the 600 children who took part in the experiment most attempted to delay the gratification, and one third of that group deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. Over the course of forty years following the experiment, the researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas. What they found out was that those kids who were willing to wait for the second marshmallow ended up having “higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures”, as James Clear writes on his blog.

Heavy Traffic / photo by Vera & Jean-Christophe (under CC licence)

It’s often easy to fall for the trap of thinking that deferring making a decision and giving oneself more time to ponder stuff will inevitably lead to missing out on opportunities and falling behind those who act and respond instantly. But patience doesn’t necessarily mean missing the boat. Distance, be it time or spatial, facilitates a deeper reflection, appreciation, and gratitude. As Elle Kaplan writes in How the Simple Power of Waiting Can Radically Improve Your Life and Your Wealth for The Medium “Science has proven that even 50 millisecond delay can drastically improve our decision-making abilities. And as the old saying goes, ‘don’t make a permanent decision out of a temporary emotion’.”

The trick is not just to learn to wait, but to learn to wait well. Or, as Petrus Spronk puts it, to “use the time waiting in a positive way, rather than getting upset, which is the negative version and uses far too much energy.” In her lovely piece The Art Of Patience And Inner Guidance for The Huffington Post, Joan Borysenko describes a conversation she had with a friend dying from AIDS whose plants she was looking after, which gave her an incentive to take a critical view at her own impatience. Having noticed that one of the plants, a large Christmas cactus, was about to start losing its already drying blossoms, and wanting to spare her friend the need to go on his knees to clean the fallen bits, Joan began pinching off the dying flowers. That’s when her friend said to her: “Everything has its own destiny. People, trees, plants, clothes, even stones. And the cycle isn’t done for these flowers yet. I know they’re kind of ratty looking and that they’ve passed their peak. But please, let them finish life on their own timetable. I’m happy to pick them up off the floor.” She admits that she will still occasionally get annoyed with traffic, or that she will want to hurry through conversations and meals but has now a lot more willingness to let her life unfold at its own pace.

World Class Traffic Jam 2 / Photo by joiseyshowaa (under CC licence)

My willingness to wait to be with the person I love, to have a work schedule and lifestyle that I dream of, is not just a response to the Marshmallow experiment or other studies. I have a deep conviction that good things are worth waiting for. Which doesn’t mean waiting idly and passively, but working towards our goals with the acceptance that they won’t happen overnight.

The process of waiting is also useful in helping to establish the level of our passion for something or someone, as opposed to a temporary spark of enthusiasm. As Kim Quindlen writes in her article on long-distance relationships, “LDR’s involve a lot of coordination – asking for days off, saving up money for flights, knowing when you’re free to talk on the phone. It requires even more work than a regular relationship. So you can’t help but be very open with yourself about whether or not you see a future with this person and what it is about them that makes you willing to drive or fly hundreds of miles to be with them for forty-eight hours.” If the relationship can survive long distance, it can survive most other things as well, thanks to all the skills developed in the process of building it when being physically apart: trust, communication, commitment, appreciation.

In the work area, patience and perseverance can mean a lot more than talent, skills, connections etc. Seth Godin wrote about persevering and pushing through “dips” – the periods between starting a project and successfully finalising it – which weeds out one’s competition, for most people are likely to give up after the initial excitement has worn off and there are no signs of success on the horizon. As one reviewer summarises the idea, “If you can make it through the Dip, you’ll come out on the other side as one of a very small number who can call themselves the best in their chosen field. And being the best carries big rewards. Microsoft, Stephen King and Starbucks all survived the Dip.”

Hugh MacLeod also wrote about patience in his excellent book, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Ways to Creativity (first published on his blog, Gaping Void):

I get asked a lot, “Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?”

Standard Answer: Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me.

What gives the work its edge is the simple fact that I’ve spent years drawing them. I’ve drawn thousands. Tens of thousands of man hours.

So if somebody wants to rip my idea off, go ahead. If somebody wants to overtake me in the business card doodle wars, go ahead. You’ve got many long years in front of you. And unlike me, you won’t be doing it for the joy of it. You’ll be doing it for some self-loathing, ill-informed, lame-ass mercenary reason. So the years will be even longer and far, far more painful. Lucky you.

Delayed gratification is nothing other than choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction, to quote James Clear again. And while I have no problem with discipline, thanks to years of working and learning from great books that came my way, I know that waiting well is a skill I need to improve on. Therefore, being aware of my shortcomings in this area, I welcome opportunities to learn how to be patient. Even if the “training” is simply not getting annoyed when stuck in the longest queue to a till. Or patiently waiting for that microwave beep.

Is the grass greener across the English Channel?

MChabocka Europe map

I have recently returned from a really good holiday in Poland. So good, in fact, that I discarded the original return ticket and stayed for another week and a half.

My definition of a great holiday is one that allows me to recharge physically, emotionally and intellectually so that I come back home with new energy and ideas. This trip provided more than enough food for thought and the fact that I was in another country enabled me to get some distance and re-evaluate my UK life.

Now, Poland isn’t exactly “abroad” – it’s my second home. I feel equally connected to people there as I am to my UK friends and colleagues. After several years of travelling between the two countries (I did my foundation and BA in London, and my MA in Warsaw), I can honestly say that I feel at ease in both. There are certain cultural differences, but fundamentally people here and elsewhere really aren’t that much different. In today’s world of ever-growing technologies which allow for effortless connectivity with the rest of the world and easiness of travelling, people’s mentality, dreams, plans, interests etc. are less and less anchored in the geographical location. And similarly, location no longer dictates whether an artist can reach an audience or find a career opportunity. With Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Behance, Tumblr, and many other online platforms, one can showcase their work, present their personality and opinions to people around the globe without having to leave the house.

Of course, the process of being discovered on the internet is entirely random, and there are no guarantees it will happen (best to assume it won’t). But at the same time, the same randomness is taking place in the physical world of job-hunting and self-promotion. If the supply of services offered by creative and talented people seriously exceeds the demand, and there are often no objective criteria to use when choosing someone, the process of finding a job, commission, getting an agent, gallery, publisher is completely subjective and unpredictable. And this randomization is likely to affect artists’ careers more and more.

This is why there are lots of extremely talented people working in fields unrelated to their background, and doing creative work in the privacy of their room, in the little spare time they have. This is one strategy. Another option is juggling several different freelance jobs, an example of which you can see here. Some people spend their time writing applications to the Arts Council, determined to obtain public money, despite increasing cuts in art funding. Nothing wrong with that, except that it often results in their work being driven by the needs of ACE criteria. Another option might be looking for a place with a smaller supply of artistic services, i.e. smaller competition, though this is something people tend to rule out. Artists (myself included) remain attracted to cities which on one hand provide cultural fuel, excitement and inspiration, but on the other – have the highest rents and the highest number of fellow artists. David Bowden covered the topic nicely in a recent Ideas Tap column, wondering whether London might simply be overrated as a place for artists. At the same time, in her article about living in the country, Hazel Davis quotes writer Heidi Scrimgeour, who lives in rural Northern Ireland and says: “I’m the only freelance writer I know of for miles around and word travels fast in small towns so people come to me when they need something I can help with. It’s effortless. That would never have happened in London.”

Yet the notion of London’s superiority over life elsewhere, including other European capitals, is strongly embedded in people’s minds. As someone who grew up in Kielce, a mid-size city in the south of Poland, then spent 5 years in London and 2.5 years in Warsaw before returning to the Big Smoke in 2012, I feel lucky to be free from romanticizing about the greenness of the grass on the other side of the English Channel. ­The trip I’ve just come back from only helped me gain a more objective perspective.

CSM, King’s Cross London | Photo by Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder

There are nearly 40 art schools in London, all of which offer numerous foundation, undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses with often hundreds of students on each one. At the same time, in Warsaw there are 3 art academies. The most reputable one is the Academy of Fine Arts, which has similarly demanding entry exams as the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford, and takes approximately 10-20 people on each full-time course. Warsaw has 1.724404 million people, while London has approx. 4.7 times more. You can do the maths.

Among my London friends and acquaintances, there are people who do interesting things, are getting some recognition or at least a foot in the right door. But unfortunately, I know many more who are struggling to find any work and are gradually losing enthusiasm to keep swimming against the stream. This is why my trip to Poland was so interesting – over there, both in Kielce and Warsaw, I talked to various people who are, by London standards, quite successful. They are interior designers, graphic designers, art directors in agencies, architects, copywriters, media and PR people; they are employed, they are freelancers, or they run their own businesses. Some are more and some are less successful but none of them work at a call-centre or Tesco. They might worry that they’re not doing exactly what they want to or feel most passionate about, and that they’re most certainly not getting enough money, but the mere fact of working creatively and getting paid for that work is a success. The trouble is, until you have tried living and working elsewhere, especially in a city as aggressively competitive as London or New York, you might always feel like an underachiever when visualizing the scintillating career one could have in that dream foreign city. I would like to say to people: the grass is exactly the same over there, and if anything, it’s more trodden on. I would like them to enjoy the fact that they have jobs, time to see friends and family, go out, spend a weekend away. These things shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is also worth stressing that working in a small city equals smaller income but also smaller expenses, something to keep in mind when comparing your income to those from a Big City who have to pay proportionally (or often disproportionally) larger rents.

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts | Photo by Marek & Ewa Wojciechowscy

“Let’s fill this town with artists!,” says a banner outside Cass Art, one of London’s largest art shops. Every time I shop there and see that sign, I feel the bitterness of its seemingly cheerful slogan. London is already filled with artists – many of them being unemployed and unhappy. When I was studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, I loved their methods of teaching, with an emphasis on developing one’s creativity and originality, exchanging ideas with other people, collaborating and experimenting. I used to be critical of the Polish system of Academies of Fine Arts (there are seven of them in the country), due to its harsh attitude towards both applicants and students, an insane amount of lectures, workshops, classes etc., and simultaneous project deadlines with practical and theoretical exams. But now I think that perhaps there is something to an art institution which takes on very few students and puts them through an ordeal. The stubbornness and determination they need to demonstrate in order to complete the course are what they will need once they’re out of school, in order to stay in the industry. London art schools are these wonderfully friendly places where hundreds of students from all over the world are encouraged and inspired to do what they care so much about, and made to believe that others care about it too. The truth is closer to what Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody: “Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.” (He then adds: “Making a big deal over your creative shtick to other people is the kiss of death.” As harsh as it sounds, it is probably true.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love London and I won’t deny that this city has given me a lot, and that I enjoy living here. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and done really interesting jobs and projects. To paraphrase a song by a late 90s British indie band, Black Box Recorder, London made me. But I strongly agree with David Bowden who says that: “In an increasingly global age London cannot afford to rest on its laurels as a centre of the artistic universe. Maybe artists should look on this as an opportunity to embrace the shock of the new, rather than trudge desolately back to their parents’ doors.” The quality of life one can lead and satisfaction from one’s own work are far more important than being in a place which millions of people consider most desirable.

Imperfections in art & wabi-sabi

Vintage mirror | Photo from private collection

I recently bought myself a new sketchbook. I normally go for something very plain from Cass Art or Muji but this time, wanting a notebook with an elastic, I purchased an A6 one with creamy pages and a suede cover which, despite its low price, looks like a relative of the famous Moleskin.

As I took it out of the cellophane, I felt daunted by the crispiness of the blank pages. I was instantly taken back to my school years when, in the beginning of a new semester, I would feel trepidation when starting a new notebook. I was always terrified of writing in an ugly way, smudging the ink, staining the page or making a mistake I would need to cross out. Sometimes, if I wasn’t happy with my handwriting, I would tear out the page and rewrite all the text back at home in the evening. This was probably good for memorizing notes but not at all good for my emotional development. I didn’t see the notebook as a place for making notes and learning from, but as some sort of testimony to how good a person I was. Having a notebook with crossed out lines and shaky handwriting made me feel bad about myself. I craved perfection.

Perfectionism is something I admit to having a massive problem with. Of course, there are many times when being detailed, thorough and ruthlessly attentive brings great results and high quality. But a lot of the time I feel strangled by my obsession and paralysed by the fear of imperfection. The struggle to embrace my own imperfection sometimes puzzles me, for I have no problem with appreciating the beauty of the imperfect reality around me. In fact, I have recently discovered that I had unknowingly adopted the Japanese philosophy which is gaining more and more popularity in the Western Europe (unfortunately more for its novelty than the actual idea): the art of wabi-sabi.

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, a Japanese translator and author of books on Buddhism, Zen and Shin, was one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners including the world-view of wabi-sabi. He described it as freeing oneself from the concerns of material wealth: “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.” The modern interpretation of the philosophy comes from the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando who said that “the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.” Wabi, which originally meant sad, desolate, and lonely, is now used to refer to simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature, while Sabi, translated as “the bloom of time,” encompasses the natural processes of ageing: tarnishing, rusting, hoariness. The catchy juxtaposition of these two words represents the idea of accepting transience and imperfection.

My 1920s compact case | Photo from private collection

In an essay on a website dedicated to the history of tea, we can read that:

In home decor, wabi-sabi inspires a minimalism that celebrates the human rather than the machine. Possessions are pared down, and pared down again, until only those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (and ideally both) are left. What makes the cut? Items that you both admire and love to use, like those hand-crank eggbeaters that still work just fine. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts: the chair your grandfather made, your six-year-old’s lumpy pottery, an afghan you knitted yourself (out of handspun sheep’s wool, perhaps). Pieces of your own history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, the Nancy Drew mysteries you read over and over again as a kid.

The flat where I am currently living is an ideal representation of the wabi-sabi aesthetic (though it is important to emphasize that it is not merely a “style” of design or architecture but a mind-set.) I love the battered wooden table I got from my friend Juliette when she was moving out of her house; a set of four chairs, a chest of drawers and a wooden cabinet that came from my boyfriend’s father’s flat in Cambridge; two shabby old suitcases I got from Freecycle and used in one of my theatre projects; a bedside table made by my boyfriend’s sister when she was at school. I grew up surrounded by old furniture, porcelain, dry flowers, and I have never ceased to adore the charm of wooden cracks and faded manufacturers’ stamps underneath the fragile saucers. I shop primarily at second-hand shops, for I love buying objects with a history, be it a piece of pottery or clothing.

Old teacups | Photo from private collection

I am somewhat daunted by modern trends in interior design with their expensive straight-out-of-manufacturers materials, shiny, flawless surfaces; kitchens, where all objects are hidden behind panels of white opaque glass. Ironically, while black marks on an antique mirror are entirely acceptable, a scratch on a Philippe Starck tabletop doesn’t look as good. The sign of imperfection on an object that’s trying to make us forget about the frailty of things and the natural process of decaying, is almost like a mockery of its glorious design. Maybe that is why I prefer to surround myself with objects which have been gracefully taking the beating of time but at the same time are built well enough that they’re able to withstand more years to come.

Going back to my original statement, I keep wondering what it is that makes me so reluctant to accept a bad line or an oily stain in a sketchbook, if I can be so fond of cracks and marks on furniture. When does the noble idea of improvement and doing one’s best turn against the creator? And, more importantly, can imperfection be of any use in the creative process? We say that a threadbare leather jacket has more “character,” so I wonder whether the same idea can be applied to artwork.

Last year, Phil Hansen, an American multimedia artist, gave a very interesting TED talk on the idea of embracing the limitation, which in his case was a permanent nerve damage in his hand resulting from a “single-minded pursuit of pointillism,” to use his own words. As an art student, he used to force himself to hold the pen as tight as possible to be able to make perfect round dots. Unfortunately, not only did the dots become more and more shapeless, but he quickly became unable to hold anything as his hand was shaking so badly. And so he left art school and abandoned art. A doctor he visited a few years later asked him a question which revolutionised his thinking: “Why don’t you just embrace the shake?” Phil went home, took a pencil and started drawing scribble pictures. “And even though it wasn’t the kind of art that I was ultimately passionate about, it felt great. And more importantly, once I embraced the shake, I realized I could still make art. I just had to find a different approach to making the art that I wanted,” he said. He decided to take the idea of pointillist fragmentation and began experimenting with other ways to fragment an image where the shake wouldn’t affect the work like dipping feet in paint and walking over canvas, working in bigger scale etc.

Still from Phil Hansen's TED talk 2013

Still from Phil Hansen’s TED talk 2013

He discovered that embracing limitation can drive creativity.

But he soon faced another obstacle. Having bought himself all the supplies at the art store, he sat down at his desk, determined to create something completely outside of the box. But he sat there for hours, devoid of ideas, and gradually losing enthusiasm and courage. “As I searched around in the darkness,” he says, “I realized I was actually paralyzed by all of the choices that I never had before. And it was then that I thought back to my jittery hands. Embrace the shake.” He understood that the way to regain his creativity was to stop forcing himself to think outside of the box and “get back into it.

Ever since this experience, he has been devoted to one mission – creating art within limitations. Be it setting oneself financial or media restrictions (i.e. making a project for 80 cents), relying on other people to provide contents for the piece, or creating artwork to be destroyed rather than displayed (none of the 23 pieces from his Goodbye Art had anything left physically to display); the goal was to embrace the limitation, which soon turned into ultimate liberation: “As I destroyed each project, I was learning to let go, let go of outcomes, let go of failures, and let go of imperfections.

Stills from Phil Hansen's TED talk 2013

Stills from Phil Hansen’s TED talk 2013

Chapter 20 from a great book which I frequently refer to on this blog – Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod, talks about the same idea that Phil Hansen advocates. MacLeod says: “The really good artists, the really successful entrepreneurs, figure out how to circumvent their limitations (…) The fact that Turner couldn’t draw human beings very well left him no choice but to improve his landscape paintings, which had no equal. Had Bob Dylan been more of a technical virtuoso, he might not have felt the need to give his song lyrics such power and resonance.

An interesting take on playing with the idea of imperfection is Roy Lichtenstein’s Perfect/Imperfect series of paintings created between 1978–95. The Perfect paintings were made by drawing a line, following it along the canvas and returning to its starting point. The spaces in between were then filled with areas of dots, diagonal lines, and flat color. In the Imperfect paintings the line was taken beyond the edge of the painting, and the artist would then add triangular bits to that particular edge, which disturbed the perfect rectangle of the frame. The Imperfects therefore subverted the boundaries in a humorous way. This was by no means a philosophical statement, for Lichtenstein considered them a parody of making abstractions, yet I cannot help thinking that in a way, they demonstrate the potential of breaking with the “perfect” – in this case the perfect composition.

Roy Lichtenstein: Imperfect Diptych, 1988

Roy Lichtenstein: Imperfect Diptych, 1988 | Image from Artsy

Sitting on one of my old wooden chairs which are desperately crying to be re-varnished, at a table with numerous stains and scratches, I am thinking of ways to face the intimidating immaculateness of the notebook I bought. Overcoming perfectionism is not an easy task, especially these days, when we’re used to obsessively improving images on in Adobe Photoshop. I often ask myself where to draw the line between cleaning an accidental smudge mark on a drawing I’ve scanned and making corrections that are taking away the character of the piece. Perhaps forcing myself to make mistakes in a notebook is a good way to break from the habit of soulless over-improving.

I might christen the sketchbook with a big blot of ink then.

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.

reece 05

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.