The Morning Routines of Famous Artists, from Andy Warhol to Louise Bourgeois
Salvador Dali, surrealist painter, in bed. Photo by Bettmann, via Getty Images.
In keeping with his character, Salvador Dalí’s daily routine featured a healthy dose of self-importance. “Every morning upon awakening,” he wrote in 1953, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.”
The Surrealist was not the only artist with a morning ritual—though most lean heavier on the caffeine and lighter on the ego. But, as the 10 artists below demonstrate, there’s no one answer when it comes to scheduling a day for maximum creativity and productivity. In fact, several prodigious painters didn’t qualify for this list because they routinely woke up after noon. Pablo Picasso often arrived at his Paris studio around 2 p.m., while Jackson Pollock once told a reporter: “I’ve got the old Eighth Street habit of sleeping all day and working all night pretty well licked.”
Many of the examples below are drawn from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, in which author Mason Currey details the daily routines of 161 great minds, from novelists to scientists to philosophers. But our focus is on fine artists—and, more specifically, the early birds. Here’s how 10 renowned artists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Andy Warhol, started their days off on the right foot.
Each weekday morning between 1976 and 1987, Andy Warhol woke up and had a phone call with his friend Pat Hackett around 9 a.m., to dictate the previous day’s events. (The conversations were originally intended to create a careful record of the artist’s expenses—the Internal Revenue Service audited his business each year beginning in 1972—but they eventually became the basis of The Andy Warhol Diaries, an intimate memoir by the Pop powerhouse and Hackett.)
These calls could last up to two hours, after which Warhol would shower, get dressed, and take his two daschunds downstairs to the kitchen where he breakfasted with his housekeepers. Then, he spent the rest of the morning shopping—on Madison Avenue, at auction houses, in the Jewelry District, or in the Village antique shops. Warhol always had a few copies of Interview on hand, which he either left with store owners to encourage them to advertise or handed out to admiring fans.
Painter Balthus and his wife Setsuko in their wooden hut of Rossiniere, Switzerland in February, 1998. Photo by Raphael Gaillard/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
In response to the Tate Gallery’s request for biographical information for his 1968 retrospective, the eccentric painter sent a telegram that read: “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards, B.” He was slightly more forthcoming by his eighties; the series of anecdotes he related to French journalist Alain Vircondelet during the final years of his life, woven together for a 2002 memoir, allow us to reconstruct his morning routine.
In his later years, Balthus lived in an enormous Swiss chalet with cats, servants, and his second wife. Each morning, he sat down for breakfast around 9:30 a.m. After reading the mail, he scrutinized the quality of the sunlight to decide whether or not he would paint that day. Assuming the light was right, in the late morning or early afternoon, he walked (or, later in life, was pushed in a wheelchair by his wife) to his studio in a nearby village. Before getting to work, he said a prayer and meditated for several hours in front of an unfinished painting—smoking all the while. “I intuitively understood that smoking doubled my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas,” he once said.
Matt Hall, hired by Robert Rauschenberg in 1993 to manage the artist’s Florida property, recalled him waking up each morning and eating “a nice, healthy breakfast.” He’d take his vitamins, then drink an espresso. “My god, he’d have a triple, double espresso,” Hall said during a 2015 interview. “I’d be climbing the wall, and it was getting him kick-started.”
The centerpiece of Rauschenberg’s morning routine, however, was The Young and the Restless, which he watched religiously. Soap operas and other television programs played constantly in his studio, as well. “He was very much a TV person,” David White, senior curator at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, told Artsy in 2016. “I think that was obviously for visual stimulation.” The American artist was an insatiable consumer of images, from newspaper clippings to glossy magazine pages, and would bring them together in the influential assemblages he dubbed “combines.”
Turner Prize-winning YBA Chris Ofili left Britain for Trinidad in 2005. But in the years leading up to the move, he unknowingly developed a strict working routine. “I never realized I was so set in my ways until now,” he told a New York Times reporter after describing his process. “But I guess I have tons of rules.”
His London studio was divided between a “center stage,” where he tackled his large, collaged oil paintings, and a separate corner for watercolors and drawings. Ofili, who arrived each morning between 9 and 10 a.m., began his day in that corner space. After tearing up a large sheet of paper into eight equal pieces, he would loosen up by making abstract marks with his pencil. Then, he would move on to watercolor, painting a different African person’s head on each sheet (the artist refers to these works as his “Afro-Muses”). Each piece took between 5 and 15 minutes. Some days, he completed just one; on others, he finished as many as 10. Eventually, these watercolors—181 of them, made over a decade—became the basis of an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Louise Bourgeois was “very habitual,” according to her longtime assistant Jerry Gorovoy. Each morning, the artist woke up and drank a cup of tea “with some jelly straight out of the jar,” Gorovoy recalled. Afterwards, he explained, “she’d have a bit of a sugar high and be ready to roll.” Gorovoy picked her up from her Chelsea row house at 10 a.m., and together, the pair would drive to her Brooklyn studio, a former bluejeans factory (it was later torn down to make room for the Barclays Center). This routine was so entrenched that Bourgeois created an artwork entitled 10 am is When You Come to Me (2006), featuring tracings of her and Gorovoy’s hands.
Bourgeois demanded silence and solitude in her studio. “The least noise would upset her,” Gorovoy noted. The artist generally spent the morning engaged in more physical activities, such as preparing for welders and other technical assistants. After lunch, she would draw for several hours, allowing her to recuperate slightly so she could get back to sculpting later in the day.
N.C. Wyeth, “One more step, Mr. Hands,” said I, “and I'll blow your brains out!,” from Treasure Island, 1911. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
N.C. Wyeth in his studio, ca. 1903-04. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
N.C. Wyeth, the American artist who illustrated such literary classics as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, milked the morning for all it was worth. He rose at 5 a.m. and immediately set to chopping wood. He put down the axe around 6:30 a.m., at which point he would devour a full breakfast of grapefruit, pancakes, eggs, and coffee. As he waited for the food to settle, he would head up the hill to his Pennsylvania studio and compose a letter or two. Often, he mailed them right then and there, driving his station wagon to the post office and dropping by on a painting student or two during the return trip.
Then, it was time to get to work. The artist threw on a smock, lit his pipe, and began to paint. Wyeth generally worked fast, sometimes completing an entire painting in just a few hours. If he was stuck, however, he would tape a small piece of cardboard to the side of his glasses to block out the view through his studio’s large north window. If he forgot to remove the cardboard when he paused for lunch at 1 p.m., his family knew the work that day was slow-going.
Willem de Kooning was never a morning person. As a young man, he would wake, reluctantly, around 10 or 11 a.m. and immediately gulp down several cups of strong coffee. He then proceeded to paint the day away, pausing only for dinner or a visit from friends.
Even marriage couldn’t disrupt his routine. When the AbEx painter wedded fellow artist Elaine Fried in 1943, the couple continued to wake late in the morning. Rather than a full breakfast, they drank coffee with milk they kept cooling on the window ledge in the winter (in the 1940s, a refrigerator was a luxury they couldn’t afford). Fully caffeinated, they got to work in a shared studio attached to their Union Square apartment—breaking every so often for another cup of coffee or a cigarette.
Joan Miró adhered to his routine religiously, in part because he worried the severe depression he dealt with when he was younger (before he began painting, beginning around age 18) might return. Throughout the 1930s, while living in Barcelona with his wife and daughter, the Spanish painter rose daily at 6 a.m. He bathed and ate a light breakfast of coffee and bread, before settling down in front of his easel. He painted without stopping from 7 a.m. to noon, at which point he would leave his studio and exercise for an hour.
Miró was serious about working out, which he saw as another method to keep depression at bay. In Barcelona, he jumped rope and did Swedish gymnastics at a gym; in Paris, he boxed; and on vacation in Catalonia, he swam and jogged along the beach.
Over the course of Abramović’s most talked-about work, The Artist Is Present (2010), the performance artist sat, unmoving, in a Museum of Modern Art gallery for seven hours a day (10 hours on Fridays), six days a week, for 11 consecutive weeks. Like much of her oeuvre, it was a feat of physical endurance that necessitated a strict daily regimen.
One of her most pressing challenges was to remain sufficiently hydrated, since she did not eat or drink during the performance. Abramović ended up adopting a nighttime routine in which she woke up every 45 minutes to drink a small glass of water. She rose at 6:30 a.m. each day of the show’s run, and at 7 a.m., she had her final drink of water. Breakfast consisted of rice, lentils, and a cup of black tea.
A car arrived at 9 a.m. to take the artist, her assistant, and her photographer to MoMA, where she donned her signature high-collared dress. Over the next 45 minutes, she used the bathroom four times. (Abramovic did not get up to use the restroom during the performance. Journalists speculated that she must have had a catheter, though the artist was adamant that she simply held it.) Then, she marked the previous day’s completed performance on the wall and sat alone for 15 minutes before the museum opened its doors.
“The morning is the best time, there are no people around,” Georgia O’Keeffe told an interviewer in 1966. “My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.” Unsurprisingly, then, after moving to New Mexico full-time in 1949, the painter typically rose with the sun. She often built a fire or brewed some tea, then reclined in bed to watch the dawn break. Then, she set out for a half-hour walk through the southwestern desert. She brought a walking stick, which she used to wallop any rattlesnakes unlucky enough to cross her path. (O’Keeffe kept a box of their rattles to show visitors.)
At 7 a.m., she sat down to eat a breakfast prepared by her cook—a mouth-watering spread featuring soft-boiled or scrambled eggs, bread with savory jam, hot chili with garlic oil, sliced fruit, and coffee or tea. Some mornings, she tended to her garden or entertained visitors, but her favorite days were the ones she spent in the studio. “Always you are hurrying through these things with a certain amount of aggravation,” she once mused, “so that you can get at the paintings again because that is the high spot—in a way it is what you do all the other things for.”