My art studio renovation (that took 4 years to complete)

Published by Nela Dunato on in Personal

Having a dedicated office or studio is not a requirement for creating great art, but I think we can all agree that it helps. I created art in all kinds of spaces: from drawing on my bed and painting on the floor of my shared bedroom, to the dining table, all the way to a cozy home office.

I’m not even counting public spaces here, but yes—I do make art in nature, on the beach, in the park, in cafés, on the street, at an airport, on the train… I draw wherever I can sit and rest a sketchbook on my knees.

Artist and designer Nela Dunato in her studio
Welcome to my studio!

I always tried to make the best of what I had.

I never used the lack of appropriate work space as an excuse for not making art.

Back in my parents’ home, I didn’t have a big enough desk where I could lay out all my drawing tools, so I asked my dad to help me out. He asked a carpenter friend to make a tilted drawing board for me that I could place anywhere. I mostly used it on my bed, sitting cross-legged, with pencils and ink containers scattered across the bed. (Surprisingly, I never spilled a drop on the bed.)

That drawing board moved with me through a number of rented apartments. Having it near me meant one thing: I could transform any space into an art studio. Just setting it out on the floor and sitting on a small cushion, I was no longer in a simple bedroom: I was in my atelier.

Painting on the floor
I wasn’t kidding about painting on the floor (photo taken in 2011)

All that is to say: I understand what creating is like when you don’t have a studio. I’ve been there, and it took me many years to get a dedicated creative space of my own.

When my partner and I moved in together, both of us had a wishlist for the apartment features. I had one big non-negotiable item on it: an extra room for my office. I had just started working from home, and it was important for me to have a quiet room. Plus, I didn’t want my art and craft supplies to spill over into different parts of the apartment, because that would drive both of us mad. I promised that if I had a room of my own, he’ll never have to move away brushes and water cups to make room to eat.

We found an apartment that had almost everything we wanted, including an adorable extra bedroom that I turned into an office. I loved this light and airy space, and enthusiastically shared photos of it on this blog.

My first proper art studio and home office in a rented apartment

The room even had a door to the balcony, so I could move my sketching sessions there during the warm months. It was everything I ever wanted.

After spending a year there, we moved into a new place. It was his mom’s property so we didn’t have to pay rent anymore (yay!), and it did have an extra room for my office, but…

My new studio was nothing like my previous one.

It was super small—4.5m2, or 48.4 square feet. It has a single window partially blocked by a tall hedge, so it isn’t very light or warm. (We do have a fenced yard though, so that makes up for it a bit. In the summer I move my sketching station into the yard under the grapevine.)

Even setting up an easel was a struggle—I couldn’t have an easel out and work on my computer at the same time. Even getting in and out of the room was tricky. This meant no more short painting sessions on workdays, which in practice meant zero painting for months.

Tiny cramped art studio before renovation
Previous home office / art studio setup in 2018

I had to move the majority of my tools and materials into the small storage room right next to my office, which was full of old furniture and stuff lying on the floor.

Tiny cluttered storage space before renovation
The disastrous storage room right before decluttering in summer 2019

I tried to keep it as orderly as I could, but seeing as it’s impossible to have the storage neat, I gave up and just kept shoving stuff inside and avoided looking at it. My sewing machine was at the bottom of a closet, under empty canvases and boxes of ribbons. I never mended or made clothes because just going in there was a chore.

My art supplies were organized in shoe boxes, because I was broke in those early days of freelancing, and decorative boxes were kind of expensive. They were on display all the time, reminding me how far I was from my ideal studio.

And eventually I got almost there, but it took a couple of stages and more time than I expected it would.

Stage 1: Slightly newer and improved

At the end of 2018, I had some profit in the business and decided to buy a few things I’ve had on my wishlist. The first were a large L-shaped work desk, a small drawer unit, and a new shelf. The huge white desk barely fits, I had to remove one electric outlet just so we could push it into place.

Temporary art studio / home office with a new desk

Normally I prefer black furniture, but it would suck out the little natural light this room gets. The glossy white surfaces all over the place reflect light, which results in a more airy and spacious feeling.

The next item on the list were wooden crates to keep my art supplies in. I wasn’t able to find exactly what I wanted in any of the furniture stores, so I bought plain wooden crates in Jysk and spray-painted them black and red. I love how they look. They were 9 euros a piece, but what the hell, I expect them to outlast all the cardboard boxes I could’ve bought instead.

Wooden crates for storing art supplies painted in red and black
They’re sticking out of the shelves a bit, but finding a perfect match was impossible

Another thing that bothered me were the mismatched jars containing writing and drawing instruments that you can see on the above photo of the desk. One of them was an empty peanut tin can that I meant to cover up in paint, but I was too lazy to do that, so it just stood there in all its peanut packaging glory.

After a long search for the perfect red planter pots to replace them with, my mom stumbled upon a couple in shades of red that fit wonderfully with the rest of my interior.

Decorative red ceramic pots containing art supplies

Making these upgrades changed my feelings about my studio significantly.

But I was still itching to make a really big change: connect the storage and office space into one. I had to wait another half a year for this to happen, but it was worth it!

Stage 2: Tearing down the wall

I blocked off my 2019 summer vacation (and social media sabbatical) to clean up and declutter my storage, in preparation of the big renovation. My dad and brother are home improvement contractors and agreed to help me out, so I had to coordinate with their work schedule, and wrap it up before my own work starts.

Storage area before renovation, mostly cleared up
Cleaned up storage room before the big renovation

Dad and bro tore down the thin brick wall fairly quickly, covered up the old ceramic tiling with plasterboard, and put new flooring that kinda-sorta matches the color of the wooden flooring in my office.

It looks like a single room now, although you can still see the remnants of the old room: two small steps that lead to the storage area, and a ridge on both sides where the wall used to be.

Art studio renovation: storage area in 2019

I moved all my shelves and boxes to the back of the storage area. This cleared up the room in my office area, so I could actually have my easel out at all times, which removed the biggest hurdle from painting.

Art studio renovation: office area in 2019

I was still missing a few pieces of furniture for storage, so I was relying on boxes more than I wanted to. It looked good on video since you couldn’t see the mess on the floor, and my whole family loved it… But I was still dissatisfied with the clutter.

Stage 3: The best I can do

The biggest challenge was finding furniture that would fit in the storage area. The room is narrow and it has steps in the middle of it, so I can’t have anything sticking out into the office area even by a few centimeters.

Each time I got to researching my options, I’d get frustrated and postponed it for another time. Then COVID happened so I didn’t want to spend my savings, and then my health became a priority so I couldn’t spare any bandwidth on non-essential tasks…

In 2023 things still weren’t looking much better than in 2019 where we left off.

My 2023 home-office setup
The office area hasn’t changed that much since 2019.

Then I realized what I really needed.

A large drawer cabinet and another desk.

Why, oh why would I need another desk on top of a mammoth L-shaped work desk you ask? Well, because it’s a work desk, not an art desk.

I can’t have my work area messy when I’m in the middle of client projects or on video calls, so I’m forced to move stuff out of the way all the time. It was really putting a damper on my self-expression. I noticed I kept using all the horizontal surfaces in my studio to just place things on them: the boxes, the printer, the scanner, and of course the floor… Everything became a “shelf” in a pinch.

I had a lightbulb moment when I saw an interesting looking desk with an integrated shelf, and just enough room underneath to fit medium-sized canvases and drawing boards. That made a lot more sense than a closet. It barely fits, but frankly at this point I just didn’t care, I wanted that desk.

Because the desk/shelf is about 5 cm too wide to fit right next to the shelves along the back wall, it’s pulled forward a bit, with another hidden shelf in the corner. Granted I need that shelf space, but it looks kinda stupid! So I thought I’d turn the stupid thing into a “feature” and bought an LED strip to illuminate that dark corner while I’m recording videos. I actually like it now.

First and foremost it’s functional—but it also looks a lot more pleasant, since all the ugly parts are hidden away, even from me.

I have a whole desk I can keep as messy as I want with personal art, and it won’t interfere with my client calls and design projects. Or I can keep my camera and lights there to record my drawing & painting process for Nela’s Art Chat video series. (The time it takes to set them up and put them away has prevented me from recording more often.)

It’s not perfect, but it’s by far the best studio I’ve had in my life.

Thanks for stopping by 😊


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