advice from an old artist for your art studio floor
As an artist for all of my now middle aged life, I’ve lived and worked in many different kinds of places over the years. From typical US style rambler houses to warehouse spaces with cement floors and high ceilings, plus many, many apartment spaces. I hope this post will not scare any landlords away from artists, but will serve to the contrary, as useful advice. My goal when considering the floor before I start to make art is to have a functional space that I can create art in and also leave in better condition then when I found it. So whatever the case may be, I can either get my cleaning deposit back, sell the space, or rent it when I move on.
As an artist who works with any kind of serious archetypal quality materials, paints or inks, the best situation is to have a separate warehouse studio space with cement floors that can be scraped clean, have presses or other machines bolted the floor and then the holes properly refilled for the next person.
Wooden floors studio spaces are also great, as long as your artwork process isn’t ridiculously heavy, water or fire intensive, because most wood floors can be sanded and refinished when an artist is done with the space.
But, like many people in this economy, most warehouse artist spaces have been gentrified years ago, and artist's options have been reduced to working in community studios or with lighter weight, simpler materials in a room or area in their living spaces. This post is about finding the edges of limits to what is possible to make in a room without damage to the floor. An artist is first and foremost creative in dealing with what’s at hand to set up a space to work, so it isn't the creative work that is limited. Setting up a workable studio can become an art-form in itself.
Conversely carpet is the enemy under our feet. For everybody, not just artist. Stapled down carpet that can’t be removed from the floor, traps dust and makes a cozy home only for pests and allergens. As an artist I hate carpet. If you own the room rip it out. I’ve tried using carpet as the matt that I rip out after making art on it for several years. The problem with this is the scruffy stuff is porous and only semi-obsorbant. Dry stains on carpet are hard to distinguish from fresh stains, any tiny specks and splatters of ink or paint can hide in the carpet until you step on them, then get tracked out of the room for miles. Also if you work with anything that makes dust, plaster, saw-dust, charcoal, pastels or raw pigments of any kind then the carpet prevents complete clean-up powdery spills. Even worse is spilled glue or any kind of sealer or plastic paint. If you remove your carpet after working over it for several years, then you have a heavy dusty mess to tear out and haul out of your space and after that messy chore of removing the ruined carpet, it doesn’t even serve as a matt that protects the actual floor underneath it, especially if there is any gaps or tears in the carpet mat material under your room's carpet.
Next on the list of wasteful floor coverings that doesn’t work is tarps and tape. While these do work okay if you are doing one or two coats of house painting, then remove them after you are done, they are not a good long term solution, long term being anything that takes more than a couple weeks to complete. Tarps get holes poked in them if you drop anything sharp, like drywall screws, framing nails, linocut or matt cutting knives etc... also tarps can be a tripping hazard and do wear over time, and tear, wrinkle or rip in high traffic areas, and then you find you are reinforcing them with tape.
Tape, the blue removable stuff pulls off over time and most other tape that doesn’t pull off in a few years, will often bind to or ruin the surface of the moulding, wall or floor it's adhered to. When the tape residue becomes one with your moulding it rips off the entire surface when you remove it, or if the surface is tougher than the tape, the tape residue then has to be scraped off. Basically for art purposes leave truck tarps for teamsters, and masking tape to house painters, they can be good durable tools if used correctly, as a floor covering they are just large wads of garbage. Not to mention a waste of a good tarp - If it’s a canvas tarp, the material should be used over and over or as painting surface for art work, not garbage.
After you rip up your carpet, what you do next depends on what's under it. If it's pressed chip-board, then floor paint or a good floor worthy enamel will work well. Be sure to choose a floor paint that is better for your health then the glue used to hold the chipboard together. If you are going to be working with a lot of either water or dust you might choose to apply a layer of floor wax over the floor paint. Wax naturally repels dust and water beads up in it making for much easier clean up of your painted flooring.
Lastly if it's a rental or a relative's house or apartment, and ripping up the carpet isn't an option. Then you have a couple options; a semi-temporary three layers of cardboard floor or a durable reusable floor matt with gaffing tape.
Just to be clear, I don't recommend the cardboard option for long term, but if you need a floor in a temporary location, like say the set of a movie and you're going to be making some massive messy art. Like, I don't know ? the set of an alien world or something. This how you do it. You need enough cardboard to cover your entire floor with three layers and it's also a good idea to make a box moulding up around the edges of the walls. Sort the boxes by thickness. Layer the boxes like bricks are stacked, so that the middle of one box is over the flaps and cut seams of the box below it. Tape the undersides of the floor together, put the tape side face down. Cut and arrange your second layer of cardboard, and tape all the seams. Put a thin amount of wood glue between the layers, ( less glue is better, you want enough glue to "tac" the layers together to keep the pieces of the cardboard from slipping around, but not enough to squish out of any seam). Dry the two layers flat preferably with weights overnight, large even weights like for example, a layer of book boxes will do. After the first two layers are glued together and let dry completely, then add the third layer. Again, stacking like bricks so none of the seams line up and tape all the top seams so there are no lose flaps to trip over. This three ply cardboard floor can last for a few months, more if it's sealed with something like floor wax or gritty grey non-slip paint on the side you are walking on, but, card board isn't waterproof, and will tear and wear through like the tarps. The only benefit is that, right now everything is shipped in boxes, so it can be found for free. But, remember the glue and tape aren't free, and be careful to not have any loose flaps that can be a tripping hazard. Also, when you are done with your project, it's almost as much work tearing it up, ripping off the tape and sorting the recycling from the tape and whatever the art was made of. So if you plan to do this for more than one project, invest in some proper floor mats.
This brings me to, if you're going to spend the time to do something, then do it right in the first place. If I could go back, in retrospect and all that, I'd have invested in a few miles of heavy duty clear plastic floor mats and some good gaffing tape eons ago.
Do you remember those clear plastic mats they used to put in hallways or under office chairs with wheels in the 70s and 80s ? Well those things last forever. And while plastic is disgusting as a once use object for food or for water bottles that leaches BPA into our food and drink, it's the right stuff for durable flooring for an artist's studio, especially where one is working with ink and pigments like Cadmium, and mortar mix and plate cutting knives etc...
Measure your room, and figure out the width of the rolls at your local hardware store or order on-line at a flooring supply. Make sure to order more than you need because the machine that measures the floor mats isn't the most accurate, and an extra piece is good to have around to line a closet with or something. If you get the heavy duty stuff, cut it with a box knife and a T-square like one would cut mat boards. Then like the cardboard floor, tape the seams on the underside, except don't use just any tape - use gaffing tape. Gaffing tape is not duct tape, it's a cloth tape used on the handles of tennis rackets and golf clubs. It is very sticky and stretches with the plastic flooring, if you use a cheaper weaker tape, it will very likely not stay with the floor as the plastic mats stretch a bit as one walks or move wheeled carts or tables over them. Also don't put the gaffing tape on your carpet, moulding or anything else, — adhere it to the underside of the clear mat only. Then seal the top of the seam with heavy duty clear long-term storage tape. The clear of the floor and the top layer of clear seam of tape have the obvious advantage over opaque tape or mats of making any stain or spill visible. Then in a few years when you have to move your studio, cut the seams and roll up the floor and take them with you.
You know the three R's Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce is ripping up the carpet and protecting the floor already in the room. Reuse is what you do when you invest in any durable goods that can be used over and over for years and years. And lastly, recycle only if there isn't a better option. And remember just like everything else in this world, we are all living and creating in borrowed time on this little planet, so please leave your art studio space better than you found it.
Here's to grand art making.
peace ~ Uva_Be
Aleksey on December 16, 2014:
I think rugs are fantastic and can be used in any room. The cenrte a space and people just love to dig their toes in! You just need to be careful what you buy. A plain fluffy rug that's just one colour will work best with any carpet base. If you have just plain white carpet with no patterns you could go for a pattern just make sure the colours you chose complement your other accessories or are in them.
Micheal on December 14, 2014:
Geez, that's unblbievaele. Kudos and such.
Barbara Mills on August 03, 2013:
I want to do the plastic floor mat option, It seems perfect for my situation (moving out of home I own to rent home) I am not super messy but I need the solution going forward and this sounds right.
Problem, I don't know exactly what you are talking about. Gaf tape is no problem, husband is a filmmaker but could you please pos a picture or link so I can understand what I am looking for. The office mats I see are hard plastic in funny shapes - That can't be what you mean.
Candice on May 01, 2013:
I know this was posted a while back but THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR!!!!!! Thanks
Mieke Wiegman on May 15, 2012:
Thank you for the very in-depth article. I am an amateur painter and our new home has a wonderful, very large art studio, adjacent to the family room. The carpet for both the family room and studio are all the same and attached.... SO I was wondering what can I use to put over the carpet underneath my painting easel. I am a very messy painter, using bold colors and working in oil, with lots of paint splashes everywhere... I googled many sites, but your article helped me to find an answer. Thank you!.
BS on June 02, 2011:
This is just what I was looking for, having moved into a rental apartment with carpet flooring and looking to work in pastel.