How Artist Ellen Altfest Built a Fully Functioning Studio Outdoors—and Manages to Resist Cell-Phone Distractions While Painting There

The artist’s current show of watercolors is on view now at White Cube.

Ellen Altfest. © Vincent Dillio.

Ellen Altfest paints her subjects—gourds, armpits, male anatomy—in such painstakingly fine detail that it can take months, or even years, to realize a single composition.

In recent years, Altfest, who is based in New York, has increasingly turned her eye toward the natural world, painting scenes of moss, trees, and other features of her outdoor environment, always in natural light. A selection of these new watercolor works are on view now in an online solo show at White Cube titled “Nature.”

We spoke with the artist about how she learned to paint outdoors and where she’s finding creative inspiration now.


What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

1. My skylights. I make all my oil paintings from direct observation in natural light.

2. My 6/0 sable brushes are indispensable when making fine detail in both oil and watercolor.

3. A man-shaped tailor’s dummy that I use to pin still life objects to so they don’t move when I paint them.

4. The platform my husband built for me that keeps me level when painting outside.

5. My extensive leaf collection.

6. A tall wooden painting stool that I inherited from [the late New York City-based painter] Sylvia Sleigh, which is the perfect height and shape for painting.

Ellen Altfest’s studio. © Vincent Dillio.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I am enjoying spring and returning to my painting site, which is next to a stream. I have been making a painting of a tree with moss, which I began in spring 2019 and have worked on since, on days that are not too cold or wet. I’m at my favorite part of the painting, when many of the small pieces of bark are in the right place and mostly painted. After taking a break for the winter, I get to go back with a fresh eye and pull it all together, which should only take two or three more months, I hope. I will finish the trees in the distance at the end of October, which I can only see clearly when the leaves have fallen again.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

When I’m indoors, I like to make a little nest around myself of natural objects and books. I need visual information and texture to feel creative. I like parsing an abundance of subject matter, like what I see when I’m outside. Painting in the elements is in turn stressful and stimulating, but I like the sense of urgency that natural conditions provide.

I love listening to music when I work, but I can’t trust myself with the phone. It interferes with my ability to focus. Podcasts are an especially slippery slope, because they seem to offer a way to buffer the stresses of making a painting. The Daily is my gateway drug—I innocently want to check in with it at the start of the day, but pretty soon I become curious about something else I subscribe to, and then hours have passed and I find myself in the grips of Casefile, or some other dark and dispiriting true crime program that seems to wriggle its way into my subconscious mind and reemerge when I’m sleeping. So it’s best for me to abstain.

Altfest’s outdoor setup. © Vincent Dillio.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I think great art has a combination of qualities that all need to be present. In painting, there is a formal inventiveness, singular execution, an intensity and complexity of ideas and impulses, and evidence of a personal sensibility. I like when I can feel that something is at stake. When I see a work that is fully what it’s supposed to be, that I connect with, I feel energized and humbled.

I can’t really think of anything I despise. But I have a short memory, so when I see something that’s not to my liking, I will probably forget it.

What snack food could your studio not function without? 

Matcha tea! I order it from the Sazen Tea Company in Japan. Matcha is made of ground leaves, the best of which are a bright green, like springtime. I whisk the tea into water, mix it with almond milk and raw honey, and heat it.

Altfest in the studio. © Vincent Dillio.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

@artsmagazinedotcom: A successor to the legacy publication Arts Magazine, it makes insightful, nuanced, and funny art reviews in video. These three-to-five-minute productions appropriate an eclectic mix of source materials, high and low, old and new, creating a space somewhere between video art and art criticism. Full disclosure: the editor-in-chief is my husband.

@oumanijacobstudio: Ceramics that use glaze in such beautiful ways that they are as much paintings as useable objects. With just 432 followers, his work feels like a discovery.

@davidrisley: I first admired the gumption of David Risley for going back to art-making after owning a gallery, and then I was won over by his guileless watercolors. Now I’ve begun to follow his absurd insights into the art world and pretty hilarious visual essays made while recovering from a broken back.

@special_plants_world: Not about art, but plants that I find mysterious and surprising. I used to be a loyal succulent and cactus lover (even painting them), but the patterns on the variegated varieties are so good that I may have new favorites.

Ellen Altfest. © Vincent Dillio.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

Seeing other art and travel are what I turn to when I need inspiration. Some people get ideas in the shower, but I find that kind of mental hum in museums. Years ago, I went to a Mantegna show in Paris that was mind-blowing to me, and I stood in front of each work and made myself fully present to absorb what I was seeing. Then, in the hallway outside of the the exhibition, I had the idea to paint part of a leg on the ground. I still don’t exactly know where this came from.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

I saw this amazing Lee Krasner show at Kasmin gallery last month. I had read about her work in the book Ninth Street Women, but hadn’t seen her collage paintings before. The works from her 1955 show are so bold and raw, in color and composition. The fearlessness needed to rip up and reconfigure her own paintings (and some of her husband’s) was inspiring. I’m hoping for collage to work its way into my paintings, in its own way.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Compositions made of combinations of leaves as they have been arranged by water and wind on the forest floor.

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