SUMMARY: Fuad Arif explores the artist’s studio’s vital role in nurturing creativity, community, and individual growth, reflecting on its historical significance and contemporary relevance in fostering artistic journeys and research. This essay, originally titled Open Constraints, will feature in G13 Gallery’s upcoming book titled, The Artist’s Studio: Exploring the Workspace of 17 Malaysian Artists.
“I’ve tried to clean it up, but I work much better in chaos. I couldn’t work if it was a beautifully tidy studio. It would be absolutely impossible for me. Chaos, for me, breeds images.”
– France Bacon
Many artists widely hold the view that the art studio plays a central role in nurturing their creative processes. Functioning as a working sanctuary, the studio encompasses a range of activities, with its core purpose being the creation of artworks, while also operating as a place for reflection, discussions, preparations for exhibitions, research, and storage, for some, it serves as a place to unwind and sleep. The presence of a studio is instrumental in allowing artists to maintain their creative journey and make substantial contributions to their professional portfolio and their artistic reputation.
In his book, “The Artist’s Studio: A Cultural History,” James Hall examines the multifaceted dimensions of this creative space, delving into its physical, social, and psychological significance. By drawing upon examples from various historical periods and cultural contexts, Hall meticulously examines how the layout of the studio influenced renowned painters. During the Renaissance, studios prioritised natural light, as exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci’s Milan studio, while Dutch Golden Age artists favoured intimate spaces for mastering the chiaroscuro techniques. The 19th century witnessed a shift in plein-air painting away from traditional studios, with Impressionists embracing outdoor settings. Notably, artists like Jackson Pollock redefined the studio by using its floor as his ‘easel.’
Beyond serving as a hub for individual creativity, studios have historically nurtured artistic communities. Shared spaces have fostered collaboration, critical discourse, and the exchange of ideas. The artistic camaraderie seen in late 19th-century Montmartre gatherings is a testament to this phenomenon. In Malaysia now, particularly within the Lembah Klang and certain regions such as Perak, Melaka, and Pulau Pinang, young artists similarly find conducive conditions for collaborative works that utilise shophouses as their art hub.
An art studio embodies a dual nature—both isolated and interconnected. It moulds exhibition pieces and informs artists’ strategies in the broader art realm. It transcends being a mere physical workspace; it is a site for introspection on societal norms that influence art. Artists engage with Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “spaces of possibilities,” navigating shared frameworks that shape their creative pursuits. This dynamic significantly influences artists’ relationships with tradition, innovation, and their artistic identity.
Within the studio, artists wholeheartedly embrace imaginative, experimental, and experiential practices. They uncover fresh dimensions within familiar and unfamiliar outcomes, thereby expanding their artistic expertise and deepening their universal understanding. This studio-centered approach entails a continuous journey of professional development, seamlessly bridging the realms of repetition and exploration.
In “Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education” (2007, Hetland, L., Winner, E., S Veenema, S. & Sheridan, K.M.) investigate the concept of the studio as a place for fostering creativity in the context of visual arts education. The studio environment plays a crucial role in nurturing students’ creativity, encouraging self-expression, and developing essential thinking skills. The studio setting in schools or higher learning provides a supportive space where students can explore their creativity amongst their peers and seniors. In allowing experimentation, risk-taking, and self-directed learning, students are conditioned to make creative choices while encouraging a sense of ownership as they mitigate a working space that is shared. Compared to artist-owned studios, studios set up by institutions act like co-sharing spaces that bring together various perspectives and artistic approaches that are regulated by academic regulations. Although sound-restricted, this environment fosters collaboration and critical thinking where students learn from one another, exchange ideas, and draw inspiration from dissimilar sources and contexts while navigating whatever guidelines are bound towards them.
In a dedicated space, students are given and are taught to plan and work smart with deadlines while at the same time having to immerse themselves in the creative process. This allows them to focus not only on their art-making but also on time management, leading to deeper engagement and meaningful exploration, so much-needed skills when they finish their study and go out into the world as artists. The institutional studio gives them the tools to be able to analyse and scrutinise their artistic choices, identify areas for improvement, and learn from their successes and challenges within a confined space. Within a reflective and reflexive practice, this contributes to their artistic growth and personal development. While reflective practice involves individuals reflecting on their learning and applying it, reflexive practice goes a step further by considering how their learning impacts the larger context they operate. In the studio setting, students continuously receive constructive feedback from peers and teachers. This feedback helps them to refine their work, understand different horizons, and build resilience in the face of criticism and failure. A studio is more than just a physical space, it represents a nurturing and dynamic environment that empowers and cultivates individual potential.
Recently, there has been a growing interest in the role of the studio as a creative space in research methods in postgraduate studies. This interest I experience is evident in the increased publication of journals, books on practice-based research, and exhibitions that centre around the function of the studio in the academic setting during my postgraduate study. Existing accounts of the art studio as a ‘research’ space have primarily focused on the studio as a venue for the creation of new knowledge. In reflecting on the scientific laboratories that are well-established in most universities, the current status in artistic research is experiencing steady growth as more critical exploration of artists’ studios in the research schemes is being acknowledged and strategically placed as part of the research procedure.
In the modern era, the role of the artist and artistic work has undergone significant transformations. The emergence of conceptual art, exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s exploration of “the readymade” in the 1920s, challenged traditional notions of artistic practice and craftsmanship. This shift led to a redefinition of artistic labour, emphasising immaterial production and conceptual thinking. As conceptual interests resurfaced as a kind of evolution in which specific methods were developed to address these inquiries. Sullivan (2010) argues that contemporary artistic production is a form of investigative, imaginative, and intellectual work—a research-based and critically creative human activity that takes place in various spaces such as studios, galleries, and open inaccessible places that are remote to the public.
Conceptual artist and their particular creative behaviour and practices are a categorisation that prescribes methods for artistic innovation, which are systematic and investigative artistic practices. They often employ strategies focused on precision and preparation in their art-making process. However, it is important to note that while research and preparation are integral to artistic production, they do not overshadow the role of physical creation and imagination. Many contemporary artists engage in a process of working through ideas as a method of both thinking and making. A systematic approach to the creative process should be complemented by an acknowledgement of the environmentally situated and perceptually engaged activities that contribute to the emergence and preservation of artistic form. While plans can provide resources for the art-making process, they do not dictate its course. It is the regular and controlled movements and activities that actually generate the form, not just the preconceived design. In addition to conceptual artists, artists are also experimental innovators who discover the image and idea during the process of making it.
In the practice of contemporary artists, one can observe elements of both conceptual and experimental approaches, which are evident in discussions about the methodological significance and function of the modern art studio. Artists possess various forms of knowledge that are applied in different professional practices. While artistic production may be influenced by ideas, it is not solely driven by intangible concepts; it can also be imaginative, practical, and material-oriented. For example, the readymade may have removed the artisanal aspect from art, but it doesn’t mean that it lacks the artist’s hands and craftsmanship. Knowledge is viewed here as action and practice.
Visual artists can be seen as pioneers in managing their own creative work, and learning processes. Given that the art industry is not typically organised around large firms employing numerous artists, artists are often self-directed, becoming their own ‘boss’. They function as professional owners/workers who may not always have the opportunity to develop their knowledge within an employment-based organisation or institution. Artists frequently engage in self-controlled practice and learning, exhibiting a significant degree of personal autonomy. Self-direction entails taking command of one’s own goals and actively working toward them. Fundamentally artists are driven by self-discipline that motivates them to articulate and describe their experiences and ways of being in the world. However, self-direction should not be seen as an isolated path from goal setting to the finished result. It is shaped and influenced by factors such as artists’ involvement in flexible production arrangements and short-term collaborations with external partners. Nevertheless, certain phases of an artist’s work are practised in isolation and behind closed studio doors. Yet I argue that artists’ creative and experimental actions are intertwined with their stationary and self-directed practices within their personal physical environment—their studio space. The learning that takes place within artists’ studios relies on an individual dialogue between their studio practice, past experiences, documented knowledge, and the outside world.
In reference to what I have discussed before, today’s artists are also those who engage in systematic and investigative, as well as imaginative approaches, addressing issues and problems that are pertinent to their interests and concerns. Knowledge and new insights do not solely emerge when an individual faces a precarious situation. At times they are shaped by the environments in which these situations arise. Skills and knowledge are acquired through interaction with social and geographical spaces. Thus, in and through the studio, knowing through the act of creating art emerges from a combination of the artist’s body, other bodies, techniques, strategies, objects, contexts, and prior and tacit knowledge. Work and artworks are also manifested due to the buildings and spaces they inhabit. The studio’s materiality is active and ever-changing evidence, allowing glimpses into the artists’ work, creativity, methodologies, and the possibilities and challenges offered by the space they are working in. In essence, the studio is a form of marking that is as revealing as the artworks themselves.
At its core, the studio serves as an individual workshop where artists engage in the process of production and creation. Before the artist starts applying paint to canvas or chiselling away a stone or a piece of wood, there is a need to develop and refine ideas, requiring the use of knowledge. This process occurs not only for each individual artwork but also accumulates throughout the artist’s career. The studio provides a private space and time for intellectual contemplation and physical work. While it remains connected to the surrounding area, whether they are cities or towns, it is also a space for personal activities and, most importantly, a bustling workshop where art is brought to unconcealment.
Having a dedicated studio is crucial for all if not most artists’ creative process. Some artists emphasise the need for a spacious area to accommodate the materials and tools required for their work. Some prefer a much smaller intimate room. Artist values the mental space the studio offers, where artists bring together their collected objects, research materials, and experiences, allowing them to provoke thinking and create connections. The studio becomes a repository of collections, research materials, and archives that artists reflect upon. It offers a pause from the artistic process, allowing artists to think deeply and gain new insights.
In the reflective practice of artists, which involves both reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action, artists can uncover and criticise the tacit understandings that develop from their repetitive experiences in their specialised practice. They can make sense of uncertain or unique situations and explore new possibilities. In addition, artists benefit from reflecting on both their experiences within the studio and their experiences outside of it. As Latour (1999) explained, “To know is not simply to explore, but rather to be able to make your way back over your own footsteps, following
the path you have just marked out”.
As an artist myself, I always try to navigate an ongoing balancing act between creative space and family life, which is encapsulated in the ever-evolving interplay of my studio, which is an extension of my home. As I immerse myself in studio work, I remain keenly attuned to shifting circumstances, adapting my actions in response. Attentively, although it is not something regular, I do track my progress, consistently assessing mistakes, sterilely and making nuanced adjustments. This dynamic engagement and acute awareness of the artistic process foster the expansion of my skills and the refinement of my artistic thinking. Guiding the formation of my workspaces, I actively cast and adapt my studio, coexisting harmoniously with the distinctive arrangement between my home.
My pursuits span an array of activities, from sketching and painting to arranging objects, sorting archives, selecting props, and adorning walls with artworks, some are mine some not. Beyond the mere creation of art, the establishment of my workspace shapes the very atmosphere of my creative purview. A symbiotic bond forms between the output of my artistic endeavours and the very structure in which they are nurtured.
Amid spirited exploration, I manipulate, experiment, and seamlessly merge tools and materials, allowing a creative metamorphosis to unfold within my studio. Unlike the meticulous orderliness of my living space, here I find the freedom to embrace chaos.
While the distinction between preparation and experience is well acknowledged in the artist’s journey, my focus gravitates toward the very act of creation. Emphasising the significance of intuition and intrinsic approach, I firmly believe that creation necessitates a balance of spontaneity and mindful consideration. In this process, I acknowledge that the culmination of understanding may only crystallise upon completion. Without completion, goals become too ambiguous. Thus, while the idea of the artist’s journey can sometimes involve the belief in going beyond the physical creation, for me this is paradoxical and meaningless.
In the art studio, proficiency demands good judgment, dexterity, and discernment. A process entailing repetitive, haptic practice necessitates continual monitoring and adjustment. Dynamic in its arrangement, my studio continually evolves, however subtle the shifts may be. This intricate interplay between artistic creation and the design of the workspace is profoundly impactful. My studio becomes an extension of my identity within space—a realm where ideas converge, materials transform, and artistic vision comes to life. The alignment of objects, organisation of materials, and
visual displays all contribute to my creative practice and influence my artistic output.
While studios often resonate as private sanctuaries, their essence remains interconnected with the broader artistic milieu and cultural fabric that envelops them. Artists’ endeavours are intrinsically intertwined with the cultural and economic dynamics of the art world, as well as the local and regional contexts encompassing their studios, homes, neighbourhoods, communities, cities, and nations. These diverse scales and spheres intricately shape the construction of art and the emergence of artistic identities.
Although phases of isolation punctuate the artist’s journey, engagement and interaction remain integral to the creative process. Venturing beyond my studio, I often gather experiences, information, inspiration, and materials from my immediate surroundings and local community. The objects and materials I introduce into my studio become markers of moments, sensations, and traces of past experiences, culminating in a rich tapestry of artistic research and exploration beyond the studio’s confines. As a result, my studio emerges as a nexus, bridging the gap between the inner creative realm and the external world. This synergy between the studio and surroundings amplifies the depth of artistic practice and fortifies my artistic personality.
Studio spaces, though often perceived as intimate retreats, remain deeply connected to the vibrant tapestry of the broader art world and its societal dynamics. Artists actively participate in this dynamic arena, weighing potential exhibitions, upcoming meetings, desired outcomes, and the dialogues and movements they aspire to contribute to. Firmly believing that artists should anticipate reactions to their creations, I also relish the practice of welcoming visitors to my modest studio. While collector visits remain infrequent, the majority of visitors include friends, students, former pupils, and industry-affiliated individuals. While some may not hold a precise interpretation of my work, it is essential for me to approach their responses with thoughtful attention.
Indeed, the practices nurtured within art studios are profoundly influenced by the physical environment enveloping them. My location, adjacent to the Bukit Cherakah forest reserve in Shah Alam, offers distinct advantages. Living in close proximity to lush green landscapes, where tall forest trees resemble stately broccoli, infuses my studio activities with myriad benefits. The immediacy to nature cultivates tranquillity and enhances the quality of the air I breathe. Moreover, it serves as a wellspring of inspiration that kindles creative thought. This spatial arrangement fosters equilibrium between professional commitments and personal needs, nurturing physical engagement and sharpening focus and productivity. This harmonious alliance with the natural world transcends mental well-being, also aiding in avoiding potential distractions. While some might deem this a privilege, I perceive it as ‘fate’. However, achieving this harmony was no straightforward journey, fraught with frustrations and challenges during the construction process. It was not a walk in the park.
In the extensive tapestry of artistic endeavour, the studio emerges as a luminous thread for all artists using them. Its significance transcends its boundaries to encompass the artist’s entire creative engagement—from tentative first steps into the realm of creativity to confident strides that define their artistic expression. The space embodies the fusion of tangible and intangible, raw and refined, reflecting the harmonious coexistence of the artist’s environment and surroundings with that of human creativity.
G13 Gallery is thrilled to announce the launch of “The Artist’s Studio: Exploring the Workspace of 17 Malaysian Artists”, an exquisite 300-page publication. This book is a year-long project organised and curated by the director of G13 Gallery, Kenny Teng, marking a significant milestone for G13 Gallery. Mark your calendars for 2 December 2023 (Saturday) at 2 pm, as we celebrate the book launching of “The Artist’s Studio” and the group exhibition at G13 Gallery. This promises to be an immersive artistic experience you won’t want to miss. The group exhibition runs from 2 to 23 December 2023.
Graeme, S. (2010). Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts. Sage.
Hall, J. (2022). The Artist’s Studio: A Cultural History. Thames & Hudson.
Hetland, L., Winner, E., S Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K.M. (2007). Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. Teachers College Press.
Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press.