Ryan McGinness in the studio. Photograph by Joe Fig.

Inside The Painter's Studio

Few artistic professions carry more mystique and romance than that of the painter. We visit their work in hushed galleries and museums, and read colorful stories about their lovers or outlandish adventures. But we rarely learn much about what happens down in the trenches. Fortunately, Brooklyn-based artist Joe Fig set out to change all that a little over a decade ago, when he embarked on the series of remarkable, process-oriented interviews that became Inside the Painter’s Studio.

Using a standard questionnaire for every interview, Fig asked the painters to describe their daily routines, how they lay out their studios, what custom tools they use, and when they considered themselves professional artists. The result is a fascinating catalogue of the day-to-day activities, life experiences, and wisdom of 24 painters ranging from Chuck Close, Fred Tomaselli, and Julie Mehretu to Ryan McGinness, Amy Sillman, and Dana Schutz.

Here’s Ross Bleckner on his daily routine:

In the summer, I get up at six thirty. I read the paper. I meditate. I get myself together, and I usually like to be at my studio by eight. I like to get to work early because I like the sense of silence that you get at a certain time of day — a calm. It is really an extension of my time that I meditate. And the phone doesn’t ring, nothing happens. So I go to the studio, and I usually work until twelve or twelve thirty, and then I go and pick up a sandwich…Then I work for a few more hours, and that is kind of cleaning up, preparing for the next time I come to work. Then, depending on the work I’m doing, that’s where I have some flexibility. Depending on my mood, I either take a nap, read a book, or go back to work. If there is something I really need to work on, I just take a short break and go back to work.

Then come five o’clock, it’s the physical hour [laughs], when I try to keep in shape. I got to the gym. I have a very steady schedule. I’ve had the same trainer for fifteen years… We go kayaking, biking, running, lifting weights — it is very important for me to do something regularly.

Then I go home and take a shower, cast around for someone to have dinner with. I usually go to one of the same three restaurants, and I am home by ten thirty. I like to be in bed, sleeping by eleven, maybe read a book or watch Charlie Rose.

I work seven days a week.

Mary Heilmann on becoming part of a community:

I tell people to find a community to work in. Like not necessarily that they need to try to show their art in a gallery and such, but at least to have other people in their lives so that they could look at each other’s work and talk about it, and that is probably the main reason why I started doing art work, to be able to have a conversation with other people that I like.

Malcolm Morley in his studio. Photograph by Joe Fig.

Chuck Close on deciding when to share your work with the world:

Contrary to what’s happening with undergraduate and graduate students today — where collectors are buying their work and they’re in shows while they’re still in school — I actually had a number of opportunities to show my work, and I chose not to until 1968. That was a very conscious decision that had to do with the work.

I had a very strong belief — I still do — that the act of going public is a very important decision. Everything you do from the point when you go public is part of the public record and is out there and you cannot get it back. Anything before the time when you go public is nobody’s business, and you don’t have to talk about it, you don’t have to show it, you’re not responsible, you can destroy it all, or whatever.But there is something about that decision, ‘OK, I think I can put my neck on the line for this work and I feel strongly enough about it that I will live with it however I feel about it later. This is now part of the public realm.’

Ryan McGinness on trying less and doing more:

I think there is something to be said for ‘stick-to-it-ness.’ You have got to be in it to win it. And I think it’s important to recognize if you are an artist or not. Build a life and a career that accommodates your being an artist instead of trying to be an artist…I think that was one of the biggest breakthroughs for me, just realizing… because I went through a period where I was just trying to make art, and consequently I made things that were really imitative. There was no real model or precedent for what I liked to do, but when you realize that you just have to do what you do and not worry about whether or not it fits the mold or a model of what art is, then you’re truly making innovative or breatkthrough — and at the very least honest — work.


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

Joan Snyder on sustaining a career as an artist:

My secret is… well, it’s not a secret that I have never hung out too much, and I’ve just worked very, very hard for thirty-five years. It’s just a lot of hard work. That’s my secret—it’s a big secret. [laughs] A lot of hard work and then being with my family, which for me has always been a priority. And I was a single mother for years, so out of necessity I did not hang out anywhere but at home and in the studio. I actually amaze myself that I’m still making paintings that seem interesting… There’s nobody more surprised than I am…When I’m in here painting, I’m actually feeling my best. I am my least neurotic in the studio… When I’m not painting is when I get a little crazy. It’s easy when I am in the house to be online and to be on the phone and to be distracted with what’s going on in the world… So I come in here, and it’s very peaceful. I turn on beautiful music. And I work. What could be better? At times like that I don’t have to give myself a boost.

When asked by The Morning News what common traits emerged across the various artists, Fig, who is himself a prolific artist, says:

I found that in at least this group of particular artists, they are successful because they work incessantly. Several work seven days a week. They all seem to have very set schedules and daily routines that they diligently keep to. […]There is no idea that I have ever had that comes to me outside of the process of work… I guess the operative metaphor for me is that I am a scientist in a lab, on the verge of discovering something. Or I am just a hound dog sniffing around trying to catch the scent. But in order to do that, I need the [daily] consistency.

An incredible resource for any student of the creative process, Inside the Painter’s Studio offers a clear-eyed perspective on what it really takes to make a career as an artist.

Fig currently has an exhibition based on the book up at MassArt in Boston through March 2, 2011.

–> Get Inside the Painter’s Studio on Amazon.

99U’s “Creative’s Bookshelf” series highlights touchstone books for creative minds.

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Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
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