Keeping records


Dear Artist,

Naturally, because of my extreme incompetence at keeping records, I’m fascinated with the subject of record keeping. Recently I was given a small device that hooks on my belt and keeps track of some of my daily activities. Yesterday, for example, I took 5034 steps, covered 3.8 kilometers and burned 143 calories. Pretty sedentary — and as for the calories — that’s about as much as two buttered crackers. But this is valuable knowledge. It gives me a new goal for today.

Several years ago I devised a small notebook that also fitted on my belt. My idea was to enter my own name every time I signed a painting. At the beginning all went well, three here, two there. Then, inexplicably, I went for 18 days without a single signature. I was sufficiently frightened by the bookkeeping truth that I pulled up my socks and started signing like a crazed wildlife-print artist. I had learned that you can’t take the “keeping” out of bookkeeping. My signature became my odometer.

While seeming frivolous, small rituals can beef up productivity and reinforce habit formation. As creative people our record-keeping methods can be tailor made. One artist I know has had the lifelong habit of jogging three times around the studio as a punctuation mark for each piece. His is an ephemeral type of record — a sort of physical celebration — but it’s always memorable and something to look forward to.

Our basic unit of bookkeeping is “project.” There are general projects and specific projects. Projects go through several distinct phases — dreaming, conceiving, producing, vetting and finishing. I’ve found that blow-by-blow accounting is not particularly useful. The creative mind works in too strange a way to be micromanaged or even monitored. But putting paid to “finished” — giving yourself the silver star — gives life-points of a high order. While work itself is its own joy and its own record, there’s everything to gain by keeping track of the valuable act of completion.

This letter has taken 38 minutes and 34 seconds to write. Checking my belt I see that it has used no calories. C’mon Emily, we’re going for a walk.

Best regards,


PS: “Great journeys start with the space between one’s feet.” (Lao Tzu) “He who awaits much can expect little.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Esoterica: Edgar Whitney’s idea “Plan like a turtle; paint like a rabbit,” is okay. Perhaps the best approach is to work in a “teleological” manner. This means thinking in terms of ends — the final results. It’s the golden rule of accomplishment and success. It means getting to “yes,” laying down the final varnish, signing your name, making a delivery. You can’t keep track of anything until it’s done.

Thanks for writing.


Another way of distracting ourselves
by Cecilia Echeverria, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’m not so sure on the suggestion of keeping records as a way of stay motivated. As you observe in your letter, work itself should be your reward. We tend to look outside for the certainties we should be looking for inside, in our “soul.” A lot of finished works means a lot of quality works? I know myself that times goes by and sometimes we let it go in a very insignificant way… As a screenplay writer I regret not having written at least a script a year… But indeed what I regret is not having committed more to my work… and having more works done could give me the sensation I had… But the truth, every one of us knows inside what is the truth. Definitively I agree on the need of celebrating in a special manner every work, but regarding the idea of working harder in order to score more finished works… I think it could be another way of distracting ourselves.


Staying focused
by Anne Copeland

I love your letters, but this one made me say, “Amen to that!” If we want to do something, we won’t do it by doing other things. Perhaps if we keep doing other things first, we really don’t want to do what we tell ourselves we want. Life is a feast (I am sure you have read this before), but most artists are starving! If you want to partake of life, you have to grab a big fork and dig in!


Inspiration hits at the oddest times
by Lois Coletti, Adirondacks, USA

Today’s subject “keeping records” rung a discordant note within me. Yes, the artistic mind has difficulty with record-keeping. But the rest of the primarily left-brained world demands an accounting for time, money and energy. So, of necessity, we learn to adapt. Forming good habits makes record keeping, or any other seemingly uninteresting task more effortless. But establishing routines often can be insufficient when inspiration hits at the oddest times (like 3:00 AM). Who of us has a routine for that time of night?

I’ve discovered that in my premature retirement from the work-a-day world, establishing new routines has reduced my tendency to fritter away my time. Setting a beginning and ending time for each daily task keeps me more focused. So, for instance, I will set 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM for the sketching and planning of my next painting. Then after that I’ll take a break, enjoy the great outdoors, do the usual household tasks and return to the art studio at 8 PM to put paint to paper. With my direct approach to watercolor painting, the planning part will make the execution more seamless and coherent. Tomorrow will entail finishing touches after it is all completely dry. Okay, now back to the task at hand. A little discipline goes a long way!


Using a list
by Sara Genn, Vancouver, Canada


painting by Sara Genn

I dislike the idea of micromanaging myself, but I do have an effective system and I am consistent in my decade-old addiction to this system. The system is the list. A piece of paper, a scrap, a page in a book, repeated often at my bedside, desk, easel, traveling notebook, breakfast setting. It’s a list of big and small projects. Every task is given equal importance — that way I can pick and choose my tasks based on the ebb and flow of my creative metabolism. Buy white, pick up book on order, varnish show, order big ones, finish 60 x 60’s, make macrobiotic salad, circumnavigate Mont Blanc.

I tick or cross off every task when I get it done. Sometimes I add stuff I’ve already accomplished so I can get going on my feelings of accomplishment. I value the momentum of making the list and the drive to tick.


A well-recorded life
by Jerry Waese


Jerry Waese

I keep digital logs at my day job with the date and time of phone calls and developments. It is extremely handy for me to unravel what happened or to recreate software from scratch. This also permits me to generate hourly billings with backup. (this goes back over 12 years) I keep other kinds of diaries for personal experiences, which include aspects of my painting process, and my explorations of visual events that relate to my paintings. I also keep lists of paintings that have been in shows (because I would forget for sure) and I keep a sequential list of my paintings on my website  (  Life is work, process and art is part of that: work, work, work. The logs and the paintings help me find my place in the world.


Recording art on film or floppy
by Janet M. Trahan, Long Island, NY, USA


painting by Janet M. Trahan

Regarding record keeping, I’m constantly fighting the tendency of hating organization. I try to record all of my paintings on photo, slide and the best on 4 x 4 transparencies, as well as keeping track of where everyone of “my babies” (my fond description of my work) are currently. This is a monumental task. What do you think of recording all or most paintings on film or floppy (digital image) and do you do it? I think I desperately need a secretary or an assistant. My celebration for signing a work is starting another new exciting adventure on canvas, and continuing the adventure on the others in progress. I love my studio, brushes and paint.

(RG note) Recording all works is a good idea. Looking back, I wish I had done more of it. This concept is called “Albuming.” It makes a permanent album gallery of your work for the edification of yourself and others — which anchors the commercial dispersion of the actual art. Stopping to photograph sometimes interrupts one’s celebration and distracts the flow of muse — for this reason alone an assistant is worthwhile.


Dance on completion
by Violette Clarke

I like the idea of ephemeral record keeping. It appeals to the child in me who needs some sort of reward for being a good girl. Not too long ago when I was painting houses for a living I was so incredibly miserable that I had to do something to get myself out the door. I kept thinking of ways I could get out of going to work such as poking my eye out with a sharp object or burning my hand or something equally immature. I devised a system of rewards… on my lovely white (now splashed in various shades of taupe) painter’s overalls I placed a coloured star. At the end of the week I had different coloured stars on the pockets of my overalls. Sometimes the stars peel off into the paint! I managed to reward myself this way for 3 months until I could no longer drag myself out the door. Now I’m not sure if the same system of rewards would work for me to complete paintings… but doing a little dance around my studio to the Gypsy Kings might get me going!


Society equates speed with success
by James Swan

Artists all work in different ways. The amount of time taken to do quality work should not be an issue. But I know it is — galleries want fast production, artists need to cover the cost of living, and somehow our society equates speed with success.


Trusting the inner clock
by Paul Kane

A little alarm goes off in my head when it is time for me to pick up a particular project and work on it. I trust my inner clock, but I sometimes wonder if it is out of sync with the flow of life. Sometimes I wonder if it assumes that there is much more time available than there really is in a lifetime, even a relatively long and relatively healthy lifetime.


by Sintha Anderson

Once you’ve fallen in love with the process of making art, all else falls to the side. The desire to make art, express oneself, and follow the journey to its end, becomes the vehicle in which all artists ride. Painting makes me happy, no matter what the outcome. It’s because I’ve fallen in love with the process and I must see how the journey ends. I believe once you fall in love with the process, you stay in love. I’m very fortunate to be able to follow my bliss!


Priming of wooden panels
by Daniel Feuermann


painting by Daniel Feuermann

For my next trip I’m taking a pochade box; I cut 8×10 and 9×12 mahogany and birch 1/8 and 1/4 inch “door skin” boards. Can I paint in acrylics over a Shellac primed board? What about in oils? If not, could you please let me know what are the easier methods to prepare these boards for acrylics and for oils.

(RG note) A good system is to prime the panels with acrylic medium — either with some stain or colour of your choice added — or clear. In order to prevent buckling over time, prime the backs and edges at the same time as well. This surface can be sanded to roughen it a bit, or primed again for more smoothness. It’s an excellent ground for painting with both oil and acrylic.


Most useful site
by Thom Whitbeck, Katy, Texas, USA

I enjoy your comments and views so much I just had to pass them along to my fellow artists. I am past President and board member of an art league in Katy, Texas, USA — The Cinco Ranch Area Art League. We have about 120 members and I know they would like to share the knowledge and insights. I took the liberty of putting the Painter’s Keys website address in our newsletter so you probably will get a few more hits from down South.

(RG note) Thanks Thom. This is one of the main ways that artists hear about the twice weekly letters and the Painter’s Keys site. We are improving the site at all times. As a matter of fact we are determined to make it the most valuable site for artists. This week, for example, we are adding another 500 art quotations to the Resource of Art Quotations. Over 1000 artists a day are currently accessing this resource. If you wish to add more quotations — even your own, please feel free to join in. We are currently having a bit of a campaign — searching for more of the wise, informative and inspirational words of contemporary, living artists.







Elegy for a Dead Admiral

print by Jack Vettriano, Scotland


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.

That includes Heather Brown who wrote, “Keeping track helps me keep my integrity.”

And Francoise Olivier who wrote, “Until I started keeping records of my finished paintings I never realized how much I had accomplished and now can pat myself on the back even though I have never sold one.”

And Karen Goodfellow who wrote, “This was the funniest thing I ever read. You are too funny.”


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