Ironically enough, my family is in the process of boxing things up to move at the end of the month. So when illustrator Evan Jensen queried the idea of a guest post on keeping workspace in mind when relocating, I couldn’t wait to read it. Thank you Evan!
Do you have a unique, inspiring space to make work happen, whether you work in physical, digital, or literary media? Even if it’s your kitchen table or just a couch that fits perfectly, finding an inviting space to do your art is key. Otherwise, you don’t want to sit down and do the grinding parts of your job, or even the really fun parts. You end up sketching and doodling here and there, thinking about awesome work… but the task of being in your workspace seems onerous. And if you can’t do the work in a cafe or somewhere outside your home, it becomes a bigger problem. Less gets done, and the quality will suffer. There are myriad considerations and small tweaks that can help you carve out a nook in even the most restrictive living situation. Here’s what I and my mate have done to accommodate studio space while living in sometimes-smaller dwellings.
Just after college, I lived in a Washington, D.C. “English Basement” (read: studio flat under a townhouse with free laundry) apartment and before that in a dorm. All one big room, in both cases. I didn’t have any elegant solutions for the dorm room (maybe hang curtains, make the best of it, and get good headphones), but the basement was a peach to arrange in a way that gave me the living area and a work area which didn’t overlap enough to make being home still feel like work. I did my first freelance work here, amid artificial lighting during the day and awful-loud robins next to the wall all night. I didn’t like this very much, though.
Then I moved to a D.C. suburb, in a basement rental with a 5’x8′ space in a utility room with a rug, drafting table, and computer. This was my studio; it was across the basement and separate from my bedroom. At the time, I was freelancing as a graphic designer and illustrator, depending on what paid during any given month. I got a lot of work done in this tiny room with the thin, cruel window near the ceiling. The dimensions of my studio weren’t huge, certainly; and it was cinderblock, below ground, and often cold… but it held my work materials and a place that was different from my living quarters where I could go and get stuff done. Off to my left was the laundry area, so it was often full of pleasant, warm scents. My landlord/roommate barely came down there, so it was also lacking interruption, and I wouldn’t disturb anyone by working those freelancer hours until 5:00 AM.
After moving out of there, I lived briefly in Texas, where I had a larger studio physically separate from my home… but it was Dallas, TX, and no more shall be mentioned. I got less artwork done here, and certainly felt less happy than anywhere else. Support for the idea that the comfort and inspiration of your environment play a huge role in productivity and mental health.
Following that travesty, my mate and I moved to a townhouse in Maryland and set up a joint studio in the dining room. Larger room, still separate from living space. I got some really great work done here; it felt like entering a cool house after a hot day outside. This set-up has lasted almost four years. It’s been alternately empty of Lisa or I, if we have an on-site contract somewhere, but has provided a superb stewpot for personal and client jobs. The balance of at-home-but-divided was enough to make my artwork something I could walk away from or bury myself in as needed. This is my ideal–something which allows the release of tension that inevitably builds up when your home is also your workplace. Plus, we have a cat, who keeps it awesome. One thing I learned, though: you might not want to put your studio in an open-plan space near the TV; it can be distracting. Also consider whether you really need all that furniture. We have a workbench, drafting table, and two desks… but I think we could manage without my desk and chair, since I have a laptop. Eliminating unnecessary items like that can really open up a room. Consider a standing desk to nix a chair, wall shelves rather than cabinets–anything to free up floor space.
Currently, I’m working a long-term contract that has me out of the house and away from my studio everyday. The job location is an awful, draining, windowless office. Come quitting time, even with a full evening ahead of me, I can barely contemplate starting on or making any new work, so thrilled am I to be free of that bunker. During the day, I’ll often have downtime to draw my own work or freelance at the office… but this place doesn’t lend itself or my state of mind to creating cool things, so I end up in a mental impasse where I should work at home, but home now feels too much like escape. As much the fault of the job itself as the workplace, but they all twine together. Still working on a solution.
When Lisa and I started looking into building or finding a place across the country (Did I mention we’re moving to Seattle this year?), we knew we needed to find something that allowed for a great studio space somewhere inside or nearby. This got me thinking about what makes a perfect little nook where you can write, paint, or draw your work in peace without as much outside stress. I must point out that what works for us, might not work for all. Everyone’s comfortable in different environments, so do whatever you feel is best for your workspace. Also, if it’s not working for whatever reason… move stuff around! It’s amazing how simply rearranging a room can change the whole psychological impact.
Our needs are probably different than a lot of yours… Lisa and I both work traditionally, so require a fair bit of storage space for work and materials. As a digital artist, one theoretically might only need a desk for your computer and tablet… but you should still create a space and make it your own, so you don’t fall into ambivalence about sitting down to work! Make the space exciting! Put up some art prints, or hang a tapestry. Shelve some toys you dig, put out candles, whatever. And if you can, separate it out somehow from your everyday living space (assuming it’s not already its own room). Maybe arrange the furniture to create an implied wall–we have a see-through bookcase between our living room and studio. Even just putting down a rug to define the area can be a move toward creating a mental space that feels welcoming and motivational within your actual space. As Lisa and I are aiming for “tiny house” living in the Pacific Northwest, this is of major concern for us, same as if we were going back into apartment life. Finding space can be hard, but I feel like the studio/workspace is one of the most important things you can consider when living as a freelancer, so don’t give it short shrift. Less floor area will obviously mean being more creative to comfortably define spaces, but it can be done even in tight quarters. One of the coolest things I’ve seen is raising the bed in a studio flat into a loft with some basic wood supports, to reclaim that floor space. Bunk beds would work the same way. One place I see neglected a lot is up. People just ignore their overhead. Hang things from or mount them in the ceiling! Especially useful for bikes and lamps, as floor lamps take up a lot of room.
But you personally don’t use much space when you work? That’s cool. I don’t personally know of any people who do all their professional work on their couch or in bed, but they’ve got to exist. And if that works for you, rock on with your bad self! In my experience, though, having a comfortable, defined workspace (even if it’s just a chair and desk facing a corner with some stuffed animals on a shelf) allows you to look forward to your workday while letting go of the home/life stuff that might otherwise distract when you need to buckle down and finish that project. It can let you to forget the surroundings themselves so that there isn’t tension between your environment and your focus on work, as there is if your home feels too much like an escape or your office feels too much like a dungeon. With rodents of unusual size and a creeping shadows around each corner. You just can’t get work done in those kind of places.
Have any interesting solutions I missed? Please share! New ideas make everything better.
Evan Jensen is a freelance illustrator who’s repertoire includes hedgehogs, children’s books, roleplaying games, alien rabbits, collectible card games, treasure hunts, genre magazines, and paperback fiction. He drinks coffee, tea, and thaumaturgic elixirs. His website is fathomlessbox.com and you can follow him on twitter @eimhinart