The Atelier
what makes a traditional Parisian art studio?

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My atelier is in a villa d'artistes. What's that? 

These are complexes that were built in Paris’ Montparnasse quarter in the early twentieth century, and consist of literally dozens of art studios of all sizes laid out on several floors and in several directions, like a rabbits’ warren.  They were the haven of all the great artists whose names marked art history at the time:  Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Rodin, Cezanne, Pissaro and on and on.

There are very few of these left now, as they have been either torn down or converted into apartments.  My art studio is in one of the few remaining ones, located in rue Daguerre, about a ten-minute walk from where Picasso had his own art studio on boulevard Raspail.  

Picasso and Foujita in the 1960s in Paris.

Foujita's 1954 drawing entitled "Rue Daguerre" actually depicts where I work and teach today.  The row of art studios to the left includes my own. 

The rue Daguerre villa d’artistes was built in the 1930s, and played its own part in the thriving artistic and intellectual foment of the times: notably, the Japanese artist Foujita spent time here, and in fact even painted the very narrow courtyard where I teach my students rules of perspective today.

Atelier Mends, which for me is a pretty wonderful art studio, faces north.  Traditionally, it is the soft northern lighting which is the artist’s ideal.  Why? 

For starters, it means that you are less likely to have direct sunshine flooding onto whatever you’re working on; but more importantly, it is better for the artist because you get more constant lighting. 

11 rue Daguerre, depicted in Foujita's work, as it looks today.

Not perfect, but more constant that you would get with direct sunlight.

Also note that the tradition of northern light only holds true for…the Northern Hemisphere!

There are two kinds of studios, at least in the villa d’artistes – those for painters, printers, draftsmen, and those for sculptors.

What’s the difference?

Weight! 

As sculptors are necessarily working with big masses, atelier construction is pretty minimal.  It’s not meant to be a solid home, just a workplace, although many people do live in them today.  So if a sculptor’s atelier were built on one of the upper stories of the building, somebody’s weighty masterpiece might go crashing through a few floors of the more lightweight painter, printer and draughtsman studios.

So sculptor art studios are like little cottages on ground level, with big flat-bottom sinks for washing and working huge lumps of clay easily in them.  And although I am a painter and draftwoman, it so happens that I have one of these, with a tiny little garden in front of it on the narrow courtyard.

My art studio is a true Parisian "atelier", in a "villa d’artistes".

Another advantage to my studio is that it is painted white inside, and the northern light that comes in just bounces around and creates a very diffuse, almost shadowless light.  For painting it’s just great, because you get much less glare.

This can be a problem, on the other hand, when trying to get strong lights and shadows, and especially halftone for drawing.  That’s when blackout curtains are necessary, with artificial lighting to create a single light source for more Classical lighting.

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