Saturday Studio Time: Elyse Dunnahoo

Elyse Dunnahoo designed her 150-square feet of painting space as thoughtfully as she creates each of her realistic paintings. As a result, her studio provides a backdrop for the calmness and beauty she creates on canvas.

Elyse Dunnahoo
Elyse Dunnahoo with a drawing of “Winged Victory of Samothrace”


Elyse Dunnahoo

It has taken me years of fine tuning my studio space, organizing through trial and error which paints, brushes, mediums, and all other fundamentals —elbow room included— are quintessential for me to focus on my work without distractions. In my studio I am safe to make mistakes, to problem solve over, and over, and over again, and again, and again…and very happy to do so.

Still life painting
A current painting and the still-life set up.

Organized with the color wheel in mind

I have many shelves. One shelf holds fabrics and wallpapers, and another holds the numerous props I utilize in my still life set-ups. In the past, the various fabrics and wallpapers were tucked away in closed bins, but I prefer to have the fabrics and props organized by color on a shelf. This allows for me to actually see the colors and textures while I work, which facilitates envisioning future still life setups.

Bins filled with oil paint tubes.
Paint tubes organized by color and complement in stacked bins make it easier to find the correct paint when it’s needed.

I have a counter space where brushes and tubs of my oil paint tubes are located. The paints are organized by color group and in order of where they are located on the color wheel.  The tubs are stacked in twos, such that one color is stacked on top of its complement.

This make is easy for me to go to the right bin and find that particular color quickly.

Oil paint
Tubes of paint organized and ready to be squeezed onto the palette.

I prefer to stand at my easel. Directly behind me is a small shelf.  On this shelf the paint tubes I use consistently are organized by their order on the color wheel and as they appear on my palette.

Studio set up
Light from a north window floods the studio with natural light.


I use natural north light on my set-up, easel, and palette. One window in my studio is north facing. This is where I operate. All other windows are completely covered with black theater curtains, allowing no additional light into my space.
I have dark brown flooring and the walls are dark, too, to minimize the amount of light bouncing onto the set-up and interfering with the beautiful north light.


Prepainted color charts ease the pain of making the right color mixtur.
Prepainted color charts ease the pain of making the right color mixture.

Most helpful thing

I make my own color cards of paint mixtures using all the colors in my palette, and other colors as well. I have 16 color cards which are accessible from my easel. Each card is unique from the other, representing one color from my palette  that’s mixed with all other colors on my palette. I also have studies in neutrals (warm and cold) and a dead palette card. The cards are 16” x 20” illustration board and the squares are fashioned with 1/4″  tape. While I’m painting,  I ask myself “what is THAT color?” My color cards assist me to understand the color recipe. This has been an exceptional resource to understand color mixing.

Studio Tip

A blue plastic film can be placed over a light bulb to mimic the blue colored north light if natural north facing light is not available. I learned this at workshop by artist Qiang Huang. He uses the transparent blue filter as a standard set-up for his lighting. He sells the blue transparent film online at


Shelving purchased at IKEA.
Theater Curtains purchased at Target.
Wall color: Benjamin Moore, color: Sparrow-Matte (AF-720)
Flooring: Flor Tiles

You can see select paintings from Elyse in the “Women’s View 2015 Art Show” at the Caldwell Gallery at the San Mateo Courthouse, March 3-April 29, and at Silicon Valley Open Studios, May 2-3, 2015. See more of Elyse’s work at

On the Shoulder of Others
Elyse Dunnahoo
24″ x 20″ oil on board


Saturday Studio Time: A recently cleaned desk

My friend Doreen L. Barton mentioned that she’d like to see a studio that was messier than hers.

You’re out of luck on this post Doreen, because I just cleaned my desk.

Yes, I did.

Artist desk
My desk, shortly after having been tidied

I know, it still looks cluttered. That’s why I decided to annotate it for you, dear readers. You’ll see why it’s nearly impossible for me to keep my desk looking like those spic-and-span-tastical desks you find on Apartment Therapy. (Sweet mother of dog, do artists work at these desks?)

My dad and I made this desk from 2 x 2s and a sheet of some kind of laminate material. It’s a great desk, but it is not magazine-worthy, like this fancy glass-topped creation from an artist studio in Mexico. (It’s probably cleaned by the maid every morning while the artist is drinking her café con leche and reading the Mexico City News. It’s pretty easy to have a clean desk when you have an obsessive-compulsive housekeeper that organizes your color pencils based on your current drawing. I had one of those when I lived in Mexico. She’s probably running 18 successful businesses right now while I’m…well, I don’t work in color pencil anymore. And I clean my own desk. Occasionally.)

Anyway, I did clean the desk-of-shame, and shucks, I’m proud of it. So here it is, a tour of my desk.

1. Old papers

I can’t stand to throw away paper, especially if only one side has been used. So I usually have a stack of lightly used paper on the corner of the desk for quick sketches, notes, and paper airplanes.

2. Wire, bits of old ideas, rusty pen nibs that I’m hoping I can de-rust

Why do I have this stuff on my desk? Why, oh, why? But where can I put it? I can’t throw it away; I might need it someday. Where you put wire so that you can find it when you need it? Dear reader, do you have a wire drawer? A rusty pen nib drawer?

3. Pruning shears

Borrowed from my mom for an illustration. Sorry Mom, I’ll return them soon.

4. Broken cup from Whittard of Chelsea

I bought this cup on my one-and-only trip to London, and I can’t stand to throw it away. There’s a toothbrush and a couple of Pigma Microns in it. I do have a drawer for Pigma Microns, but not a drawer for used toothbrushes I use for spraying paint.

5. Palette of paint

This is a gouache palette. Sometimes it’s a watercolor palette.

6. Jar of scissors

There are also pens and pencils, most of which I rarely use. The pens and pencils I use regularly live in drawers dedicated to them. I need more drawers.

7. Table top drafting board

This was given to me, thankfully, because they are frightfully expensive. You can get one here, but I’m warning you, the tilt is not nearly high enough to save your back. When I’m drawing a lot at the table, I have to stack books under the board, which makes the desk even more cluttered. I need a drafting table, but have you checked out how much those things cost? If you have an old one gathering dust in your garage, hey, give me a shout.

8. Container of water

To use #5. We used to eat a lot of Pavel’s yogurt, so I’m fully stocked with plastic water containers.

9. Rogue piece of paper

It says,

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” — Crowfoot’s last words, 1890

When you put a clean desk in that perspective, it doesn’t seem so important, now does it?


Saturday Studio Time: Margaret Sloan

I’ve been asking my artist friends to participate in the Saturday Studio Time project, so I thought I’d better post my own thoughts about my personal studio too. Studios are so personal and private; I’m eternally grateful to the artists who have agreed to shed their natural inclination to shun publicity and offer a glimpse of their working spaces.

Artist studio
This is where I paint and draw. On the floor is a painter’s drop cloth. The lights are clamped to the bathroom door; someday I’ll get a light stand when I find the perfect thing. The easel belonged to the sister of a dear friend; she passed away, and he had no use for it, so he loaned it to me. It means so much to me to work on it.

What does your studio mean to you?
I’ve never before had a dedicated room for my studio; I’ve always worked in the living room of whatever small space I lived in. But with a recent move, I now have a room to myself, and it’s exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it makes me feel like a “real” artist. Terrifying because of the responsibility and expectations that are attached to having a dedicated space. I try to be very businesslike in the studio, as well as very creative.

Having a private space means I can allow myself  to work on projects that might be dumb. I can make mistakes. I don’t have to worry about anyone seeing them and commenting or judging. Work doesn’t have to be public before it’s ready. That’s incredibly freeing. Sometimes my mind feels like it’s spooling out into the universe and netting more ideas than I can possibly consume in a day, a week, or a lifetime. Every morning I get out of bed brimming with ideas, projects, and plans for the day.

Morning commute
This is my morning walk down a path to my studio

Where is your studio?
It’s at the bottom of the house, but since the house is on a hill, my window looks into trees.  It’s like being in a tree house, which about the most romantic thing in the world to me.

In the morning I leave the living space of the house and walk down a little path through cedars and sugar pines to get to the studio door under the house.  During that short walk, I make a transition from being at home to being at work. I’m able to set my intentions for the day during that brief time in the outdoors.

During the daylight hours I work really hard, but so far I don’t like being in the studio after darkness falls. It’s partly because we live in the country and the night is very dark. I often catastrophize about mountain lions hiding in the shadowy recesses under the deck, ready to leap out and eat me. I’m professional about it though. I stay and finish my work, because it’s got to be done. But at the end of my day, I often call my husband (his office is at the top of the house) and ask him to come walk me “home.”

What does your studio look like?
I have all sorts of plans to create a beautiful and fabulous space, but so far, working has taken precedence over decorating. Stuff is where it needs to be in order to get the job done. Sometimes I wonder why I am not the kind of person who absolutely requires a beautiful space in which to work; I think that I live in my head so much that I don’t often notice my surroundings. Except for the outdoors. I notice that.

For the most part, my studio is pretty messy, especially when I’m working on a project. Between projects I clean it a bit: collect the dirty coffee mugs and popcorn bowls, recycle scrap paper and printouts of projects, collect sketches and trial paintings and take them to the flat file, wipe up the drips of paint, sweep the floor.  I like working in a clean space. I just have trouble keeping the space clean.

Rolling kitchen cart with two drop-leaves.
Rolling kitchen-cart with two drop-leaves.

What’s the coolest, most helpful thing in your studio?
Last Christmas, my husband bought me a rolling kitchen-cart thingy at the local thrift shop. I love it. It’s the perfect height, so it has made my painting life less painful (before, I hunched over a folding tv-tray table). I can fit multiple palettes on the top of it, store my brushes and painting supplies in it, and roll it where I need it to be. I highly recommend something like it.

Also, I recently bought a light box for use in illustration. It makes transferring sketch ideas so much easier than tracing them on the window.

Light box
Light box with sketches of a current personal project


Studio tip?
My most useful tip, and one that I should heed more often is this one rule: No Facebook in the studio. I can waste way too much time looking at cute puppies and kitties or stressing over politics. I should be in my studio to work, not gander at the internets.

Saturday Studio Time: Doreen L. Barton

Saturday Studio Time is a new feature I hope appears regularly on this blog.  I am fascinated by the rooms where artists, writers, and musicians work; our spaces for creating art can be small or large, indoors or out, but they are intensely personal and private. I’m grateful to the artists who agree to share their creative spaces with us for this blog.

Painting by Doreen L. Barton
Self Portrait
© Doreen L. Barton
Pastels on paper

I met Doreen L. Barton when we studied at the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Oakland. Our teacher at the time, Christian Fagerlund, talked a lot about the artist’s mark—the way the artist touches the paper with pencil, chalk, paint. That touch and what it builds is like a piece of the artist’s soul, and gives the work depth, integrity, and substance. Doreen’s marks are so thoughtful, so beautifully sensual and graceful that they infuse her work with deeper meaning than just being pictures on paper.  Take some time to visit her website, and you’ll see what I mean. I’m pleased that she agreed to talk about her studio with me.

Where is your studio space and what does it look like?
My studio is in our converted garage. We added insulated walls, windows and adjustable lighting. It doubles as studio/office space and measures approximately 10′ x 12′. I was lucky in that I was able to plan the space and storage. The walls are a dull white/grey, mat finish. I’d advise anyone to try to adjust reflective surfaces. This is important since the light bouncing off different surfaces (including your walls) in a room will affect how you perceive light values in the subject you’re drawing or painting, even when looking at reference photographs.

I also planned the placement of my easel and work surfaces so that I’m able to stand about 12′ plus away from my work on the easel. I have several methods of checking my work. Stepping away and viewing it from at least 10′ is one; at a distance I see the whole piece at once. The first thing I usually see is where the light and shadow values need adjusting. I also see where my measurements are off. If I’m working on a portrait, standing at a distance is for me the best way I can see if the likeness is coming together.

How does being in your studio make you feel?

There is a certain amount of serenity. I think that putting time and thought into my space has helped me feel committed. I wanted a space where I could get away from outside distractions, so it is an inner sanctum of sorts.  I think we experience so many different feelings as we work on our art. It’s important for me to be able to acknowledge my impulses and choices, where ever they may come from. There are many days I am not “in bliss” in my studio; it’s a place where I can push on through the misstep, the conundrum, and try the initially grueling technique or concept again and again. It’s where I decide to take a certain path, set a goal. At times I don’t realize I’m doing so until later.

Craftsman tool chest
This Craftsman tool chest doubles as storage and a tabouret.

Describe your set up.
My easel, drawing board, tool chest and table are set up on one side of the room. The majority of my studio furniture and equipment can be collapsed and stored when I’m not using it.

I’m organized in that I can find my materials quickly. Keeping up with clutter is another issue altogether.  The stuff in my storage shelves spills out like some kind of living organism. Reference materials, class notes, business records and the like are filed.  My systems have evolved and I’ve improved at keeping up with them, particularly after I got a business license.  Art books, (catalogs and technical reference) are also in the studio. I know some folks keep their art books away from potential spills and splatters.  Not me. I want to be able to just grab and search as I need.

Homasote bulletin board covered with muslin.
Homasote bulletin board covered with muslin.


What do you use for lighting?
I use daylight spectrum lighting, bulbs and track lighting.

What’s a favorite piece of furniture in your studio?
Some favorite items are my homasote tackboards.  These are large, about 3′ x 4′ each. I got them from the local lumber store.  I covered them with muslin (I think you could just paint them if you prefer) and mounted them on two walls from about 3′ off the floor to near the ceiling line.  I like to be able to pin up images, work-in-progress, references, you name it.  I love big post-able areas.

A sturdy easel is essential. The table next to the easel is a height adjustable hospital bed-table purchased online.


What’s the coolest, most helpful thing in your studio?
My easel. It’s the wood frame type. Very solid (doesn’t shimmy or rock), very sturdy and it can hold large boards. I know they’re not cheap, but I they’re worth the investment. I often work with my surface almost directly horizontal to the floor to minimize any tendency to distortion the image as I sketch it out. I love that my easel can hold my work securely in that position or at any angle.  It’s very adjustable and steady.

Another valuable item for me is a level to use for determining the vertical and horizontal position of the subject.  Especially helpful in live model drawing.

Give us a studio tip. What one thing you use in your studio helps you to make the art you see in your head?
My best tip takes practice: Setting time to work exclusively in the studio. I try for three to four 5-hour-days a week.  This is a target, frequently not obtainable. But I find the more time I shoot for, the more time I give myself.  Secondly, I keep a notebook/journal in my studio. Mine’s in book form. On one side of the book I write down project or artistic ideas, and on the other business or logistic notes, action items that I need to complete in conjunction with my art, or to help execute. Writing down ideas frees my mind to concentrate on my work

This is about half the collection of pastels that Doreen uses in her work



How to build a cheap and easy shadow box for still life painting

This is the first post in a what I hope will be a regular series called Saturday Studio Time, about the trickery and design of setting up an art studio, whether it’s in a living room, a barn, or a fabulous heated room filled with glowing north light (I wish!). I intend to interview other artists as well as write about my own studio.

Shadow box.  I didn't have enough materials for the bottom, and the top is really two pieces of mat board taped to the shelf above.
Shadow box.
I didn’t have enough materials for the bottom, and the top is really two pieces of mat board taped to the shelf above.

I realized that my hour-a-day still-life studies for the 30-in-30 painting challenge need a better set up than a south facing window (although the window set up does give me some terrific back lighting).

A shadow box was needed, a place where I could light the subject independently of the light source of the room. But I don’t have a lot of room in my studio, or a lot of time and patience to build something fancy.

But I did have an empty shelf—at eye level when I stand—on my Ivar bookshelves from Ikea (the ugliest bookshelves in the world, but so, so useful to an artist). And I had a black mat board left over from long ago graphic design classes, when we used to mount and display our work. (Does anybody do that kind of handwork anymore? Or do all teachers and clients merely view digital offerings?)

And I had that modern miracle, duct tape.

A cheap clamp light from OSH is the light source. The bulb is a little strong for this set up; I'm going to replace it with a daylight bulb of a smaller wattage. See the duct tape holding the whole thing together?
A cheap clamp light from OSH is the light source. The bulb is a little strong for this set up; I’m going to replace it with a daylight bulb of a smaller wattage.
See the duct tape holding the whole thing together? Hooray for duct tape!

I cut the mat board to fit in the Ivar shelve space and taped together a box. It’s not the fanciest shadow box in the world, certainly not like this one, or even this one, and I still am not sure how to shield the front of the box from ambient light, but for a quick and dirty solution, it works fairly well.

Photo of a shell in shadow box. The fact that it's a jury-rigged box doesn't mean it doesn't work pretty well for a fast and dirty solution.
Photo of a shell in shadow box. The fact that it’s a jury-rigged box doesn’t mean it doesn’t work pretty well. It’s all about the illusion.

Back to painting!