6 Simple Things Artists Can Do to Feel Happier in Their Studios

Casey Lesser
Oct 2, 2018 8:47PM

José Lourenco, Let's Paint. Courtesy of the artist.

A typical art studio—where natural light and breathing room come at a premium—might not be the most appealing piece of real estate. But like any physical space, it can be filled with certain objects and colors to make the experience of being there more enjoyable.

This premise—that we can find happiness through our environments, rather than just within ourselves—is at the crux of Joyful, a new book written by Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and former design director at the firm IDEO. She began investigating what can cause feelings of elation following a formative experience during her master’s program in industrial design: A professor judging her thesis work told her that her buoyant and colorful furniture pieces incited joy.

“We often think of the physical world as incidental to our happiness,” Fetell Lee explained. “I think we’ve been made to feel like it’s all within us,” she added, nodding to the way that psychology tells us that the answers to our problems exist on the inside. But our surroundings can play a role, too.

By researching scientific studies, interviewing creative people, and making a large mood board, Fetell Lee landed on 10 aesthetics we can harness—like energy, abundance, magic, and play—to bring more joy into our lives. While she doesn’t recommend trying to pack all 10 of them into a single space, we recently caught up with the author to discuss ways that artists can bring these aesthetics into their studios.

Change your light bulbs

Adding light and vibrant colors to a space is central to Joyful’s first chapter, “Energy.”

“Artists really understand the importance of natural light,” Fetell Lee offered. But if you don’t have much light (or you could use some more), she recommends working in a space with light colors (to reflect whatever light you do have) and using light bulbs that mimic broad-spectrum lighting.

“The way that you choose to light your studio is not just a functional concern, it’s actually affecting you on a deeper level,” she explained. Light regulates our circadian rhythm and affects our energy levels. Research has shown that workers in spaces with more natural light sleep better at night, and they’re more likely to be more active during the day.

Embrace your materials

“One of the things that makes walking into a studio so wonderful is that there’s a sense of natural abundance,” Fetell Lee explained, nodding to the large quantities of art supplies, like brushes and paints, that artists possess. Rather than storing them away, she recommends giving them pride of place in the studio.

“Embracing that abundance and putting it on display in some way can be one way to bring joy,” she said. In her own studio (located in a corner of her apartment), Fetell Lee keeps her paints laid out in a tray on her desk.

Bring order to your setup

Bringing a sense of harmony into your space, Fetell Lee explained, enables flow. Having your surroundings organized, she said, is not only conducive to feeling positive energy, but also good workflow.

One way to do this is through knolling, the technique of organizing physical objects on a surface using right angles and grid formations. Before hitting the mainstream, it was used by Frank Gehry’s furniture firm in the 1980s, and it was made popular by contemporary artist Tom Sachs. (Photographer Austin Radcliffe’s popular Tumblr–turned–Instagram project Things Organized Neatly offers many great examples.)

Fetell Lee added that it’s important to bring harmony to the items in your space. Rather than getting rid of materials or decluttering in order to “spark joy,” as Japanese author Marie Kondo teaches (Fetell Lee herself has followed Kondo’s method), you can also develop a sense of happiness by implementing a sense of order.

Add something cute to your workspace

In her chapter on adding playfulness to your space, Fetell Lee writes about research out of Japan that has shown that looking at cute things helps us focus. While she keeps several cute things on her desk—including a set of tiny spinning tops; googly eyes on her stapler; and a miniature figurine of Totoro, the popular creature from a Miyazaki film of the same name—having just one will do.

Cute objects also tap into the aesthetic of play, which speaks to the natural inclination many artists have to try to get away from preconceived notions and tap into an open-minded, childlike mindset.

Blow bubbles

While it’s hard to create, developing a sense of magic in a studio can be inspiring and serves as a reminder to take things a little less seriously. Fetell Lee keeps a hanging prism in her own studio, which scatters rainbows everywhere, though she also recommends keeping a jar of bubbles at hand or bringing some iridescent colors into the space.

Other options include hanging posters that show optical illusions or artworks that are visually captivating—like Josef Albers’s color studies. “Many of those have elements of illusion in them—they play with the ways that colors shift and change,” Fetell Lee explained. “Many things we would be drawn to—interesting studies for us as artists or creatives—have that natural effect.”

Get a plant

Fetell Lee writes about how opening up spaces (for example, by taking down walls) and having views of nature can conjure a sense of freedom in an interior. The easiest way to bring that into a small space is through adding plants—even one will do the trick.

“Nature reduces stress, and there’s some preliminary research that is starting to suggest that there’s an association between the color green and creativity,” Fetell Lee explained. “Maybe especially for artists, it could be wise to think about bringing in some greenery.”

Plants with flowers, or a fresh-cut bouquet, are also conducive to joy in conveying a sense of renewal. “It really comes back to having curved elements in your space—things that expand or blossom open,” she explained.

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.