Working in the studio

elizabeth whelan at workWhen I began oil painting, I already had many years of illustration and graphic design behind me. That experience was very helpful as I changed the focus of my work and began concentrating on painting in oils. For many fine artists, the challenges of self-employment and time management in particular can be a difficult adjustment. I highly recommend some experience in the commercial arts for younger artists finding their way; you will pick up valuable skills.

Although I'd like my schedule to be the same from day to day, seven days a week, it really doesn't work that way. The ebb and flow is more organic, and deadlines for commissions and shows push me along. However in general, the early morning is for paperwork, email, marketing efforts, some exercise or a walk. By late morning I am at the easel, taking advantage of as many daylight hours as possible. Daylight is particularly valuable when I am painting skin tones for portraits.

Artist Elizabeth Whelan's studioI manage about 4 hours of painting at a time, break for late lunch and then put in some more studio time, however this will almost always be work on a different canvas and a different genre. Sometimes I will simply be prepping canvases, working on a monochromatic oil sketch, or working on drawings at the drafting table.

In the evening I am often working in my sketchbook on a gouache painting, getting in some reading, or brainstorming ideas for paintings and classes. The next day I may continue with the same painting from the day before, or put it aside to dry. Typically I am working on a number of oil paintings concurrently.

Good lighting is important but as I gained experience I discovered that waiting for perfect lighting would drastically shorten the amount of time I spent at the easel! There is always a part of a painting that can be worked, no matter the conditions.

drafting table in Elizabeth Whelan's studioLately I have been making sure that drawing is a priority. Not only is it fun, it's relaxing and inexpensive to get started. I admit I was a little rusty when I started back to drawing after so many years in commercial art, but I am glad I took up drawing again--it's very meditative. And in 2019 I created the Martha's Vineyard Drawing Prize, an annual competition to encourage excellence in drawing. If you like to draw, consider entering!

Years ago, I met an artist whose goal in life was to have 'time to think'. I know what she meant. Time to paint is important, but it's no less important to have the quiet and space to think deeply about what you are doing. Because of this I have sought to live in a manner where quiet and space are the norm, not the exception, often at the expense of comforts I used to take for granted. I have to say, it's well worth it.

Studio artist materials

In the studio brushesBrushes

I find that I use the more coarse-haired brushes at the start of a painting, and in most cases I try to use the largest brush I can for the stroke; it stops a lot of fiddling around. I use filbert, bright, and flat brush profiles the most. I am replacing my older sable and hogs bristle brushes with synthetic and I am very pleased with the results.


Paint Elizabeth R. Whelan uses in her studio


When choosing oil paints I go for professional grade all the time. The difference in quality, ease of use, and results is more than worth the price. Careful color mixing will allow you to use fewer colors and achieve excellent results, so don't skimp on paint or canvas. With brushes you can have a little more leeway. I've scumbled large paintings with throwaway chip brushes, for example.


canvas Elizabeth R. Whelan uses in her studio


I find that a certain amount of tooth can make for very interesting layering effects. I will use a nice portrait-grade pre-stretched cotton canvas or if I need a smoother surface, I'll get a roll of the Belgian linen canvas and stretch it myself.
With art supplies consistency is key. When you find supplies you like, get to know them well before branching out. It will save confusion and expense.