What I've learned about creating art from my van

As I've not been in my van since November and looking at the year ahead, I thought I'd share with you my experiences of living and creating from a small space. We plan to be returning to our van adventures soon but it does raise questions about what I can and can't do so it's requiring some careful thought.

Now, when we converted the van, I had no plans for it to function as a studio so we didn’t take that into account. Neither did we expect to have a little but boisterous cat travelling with us.

Right: How it looked when we moved in (though a reporter wanted to take photos and used on of those fish-eye lenses making it look so much larger than it actually is!) Needless to say, it looks nothing like that now.

One thing I have to be extremely careful with is posture.

During our travels around Germany in 2018, I spent a lot of time hunched over in bed working on several portraits with my partner working on the sofa. Sometimes I’d be drawing for up to a solid 6 hours a day pretty much in one sitting. As a result (and this probably comes as no surprise!), I ended up with quite severe shoulder pain putting me out of action for about a week.

These days, I pay more attention to how I’m sitting. Despite drawing every day for the Inktober Challenge in 2019, I emerged unscathed (apart from a weird bone nodule that appeared on my little finger).

Lighting and temperature are other problems I’ve had to get my head around. Our van has no side windows – just the back that opens up, and of course the front cab where the driver and passenger sit so it can be quite dark. Although insulated, it can also get unbearably hot, forcing you to sit outside – this isn’t a bad thing until you realise that you can’t position yourself all that comfortably at times (see point no. 1 above!) and you’re constantly at the mercy of wind, potential bird droppings and kamikaze bugs.

Although I absolutely love the sun, working in watercolour was taxing as the heat would make the paint dry so quickly, it was unworkable. The other issue with painting is where do you safely get rid of your paint water? We only use completely biodegradeable products in our van so we’d have to use separate bottles to fill with the murky water and then dispose of them at a designated spot.  

We have to ration our water and I estimate we use between us around 60-70 litres a week each for cooking, washing, cleaning and drinking (as a comparison, the average UK household uses 349 litres...a day!) Granted, we don't have a washing machine which would use a considerable amount (we go to launderettes), but managing with that amount can be especially hard if I'm using up resources for painting. There have been many times where I've looked glumly at 5 litres that we have to make last us 2 days and realising I cannot paint. 

The way I’ve got around these issues is to focus on working with materials that are more portable and where strong and accurate lighting isn’t so important as there’s no colour in my work. I invested in a chair and got a secondhand small fold-up table so I can now work outside when the conditions are right.  I also purchased an LED architects lamp with several brightness settings and a swivel head so I can focus the light right where I need it. It’s also just about good enough to film a video inside the van, though when I do, I’m pretty much taking over with very little space for my partner to manoeuvre himself. As a writer, he has a LOT less equipment…

Left: My humble recording setup

Just as the van can get incredibly hot, it can also get incredibly cold! When we lived in London and travelled through Switzerland, the temperature could be as low as 4C in the morning and you could see your breath in the air. Also, the van leaks...We have some skylights in our van so when it rains heavily, we can end up with several pools of water at unexpected spots so I have to be especially careful of where I leave my drawings.

Our van runs on solar power and while this was fantastic in Europe, when we travelled through Scotland in Autumn, we frequently ran out of power. I didn’t resort to the romantic notion of working by candlelight but instead tried to make the most of the daylight hours. Very occasionally, we can also be in areas where there is no internet signal – this is wonderful for avoiding distractions but can make it impossible to respond to messages and upload posts to social media on a regular basis. We do have a wifi booster though and that helps.

In terms of storage, I’m conjuring up ideas as to how I can keep my supplies safe from the inevitable rocking when the van moves. It’s rare to have a single journey without hearing something clattering to the floor in the back, resulting in my partner and I exchanging anxious glances. For now my pens are stored in wooden hinged boxes and put into cubby-holes and I keep my lightbox protected in the duvet during transit. I did try storing my larges sheets of paper under our mattress but this just resulted in unwanted creases and bends to the paper so I’m thinking instead of sticking to pads and rolling my printmaking paper up.

I'm probably not selling this very well but overall, I love van-life! Of course, it can be challenging, and even more challenging when you want to create and run a business. You're just faced with a different set of problems than you have in a house. You do with much less and have to brave crazy elements at times (like the van rocking in a storm when you're trying to do steady work) but that's the trade off.

I don't know how much longer I will be in the van. You can't really take these things for granted as I can never predict when it might be stolen or break-down beyond repair, but I've cherished the experience. In all honesty, it probably needs an entire month of hard graft and a few hundred pounds to get it up to the standard it was when we moved in - new cushions, coats of paint, fixtures and fittings repaired, new batteries...the wear and tear from two people in a small space like that can really stack up.

But I can't tell you how amazing it feels when you do reach that sweet-spot of having perfect ambient weather, a beautiful view and complete peace. If we want a change of scenery or have noisy neighbours, we can just pack up go! That for me is what it's all about and makes it completely worth the journey.


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