How to keep on top of organising your artwork

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A few years back I wrote about clearing out my art studio in preparation for moving to a new house. As we are now very close to actually moving, I felt it would be good to revisit the subject.

What is slightly unnerving is that when I wrote that piece in 2019, just as I finished it, I heard about the death of my next-door neighbour. Today, as I prepare to send this week’s blog off to my editor, I am saddened by the news that my father-in-law died in the early hours of this morning (21st April 2021). He will be greatly missed.

Having gone through years’ worth of artwork back in 2019, the task of going through what I have now is nowhere near as daunting, but it still needs to be revisited for me and I suspect you too need to do something similar.

Let’s start with all those unresolved paintings sitting in a pile in the corner. How do you decide what needs to go and what should stay and, probably more important, make the decision to let go of the work you really don’t need to hang on to?

It is not easy. Every artist I know finds themselves in this position and needs to have a clear out and reorganise from time to time. But the more you stay on top of it the easier it is to cope with.

So, the first thing I suggest is to sort your work into piles for selling and those that you won’t sell. The “won’t sell” work falls into two categories: work you won’t sell because you love it too much to let go of it or won’t sell because it is unfinished or just a practice piece you no longer need to keep. With the “ready for selling” pile, make sure that you do all the relevant cataloging of your work, just in case you get asked to take part in an exhibition at the last moment. This has happened to me on numerous occasions so get it framed or wrapped, cataloged, and labelled so that you are ready.

The “won’t sell” pile is difficult. Emotions often play a huge part in making decisions about what to keep and what to let go of. In the pile I sorted a couple of years ago were lots of pieces by my children. They stayed but have been organised into keepsake boxes so that when I die my children will be able to lay their hands on their work which I have saved for them. What they do with it then is their decision, but I have done the work, and put things in order so that I don’t have to organise it again.

As I went through all this in 2019 the task of doing it again now, isn’t anywhere near as huge, but the process is still the same. Canvases are split into three groups: acrylics to be painted over; works in oils to be painted over; and canvases to be either thrown out because they are damaged or possibly re-canvased. I’m not sure if that’s actually a word [Me neither, Ed] but if the canvas has been damaged then the old one can be removed, and a new canvas stretched in place. I never used to do this as the frames I bought were fairly inexpensive and it just didn’t feel worth the effort to do the work. However, these days I tend to buy expensive canvases so when they are damaged it really is worth doing.

Next tackle the paper works. I make tons of ‘play’ pieces. When I am experimenting with line or colour I use sheets of beautiful and expensive watercolour paper to make these works on. I used to rip up the ones I didn’t want so that no-one else could use them but these days I do a couple of things. Watercolour paper is great for taking acrylic paint so if I have tried something in watercolour and it hasn’t worked, I will put it to one side for painting on with acrylic instead, although these days I will work on those sheets of watercolour paper to make acrylic pieces for lining my leather journals.

Just to go back to the ripping up. Many years ago, an artist friend had a clear out and had placed all her unwanted works in her recycling bin, ready for collection. A man walking past decided to go through them and took a bunch out for himself. I know she didn’t want them anymore, but she felt cheated that he had helped himself and probably never bought any of her artwork.

If your paper pile is huge and you are struggling to decide what to keep and what to throw out, just pick a number which is reasonable for you to hang on to and then photograph the rest to remind yourself of the work. By letting go of this store of work and organising things to make sense you will make room, both in your art space and your head space, for new works to emerge.

Finally, for me I have to store my BA work. I am in the second year of my BA (it is a 12-year course which gives you four years for each university year. If I were full time, it would be a three-year course). Having passed my first year some time ago and finished a large amount of my second-year coursework, I think it is doubtful that I will need any of that work again. I have kept my sketch books and I have hung onto my research files but the rest of it has gone and a couple of years on from having done this last time, I haven’t missed any of it and neither will you.

By reorganising and reducing the stored works, you will be able to find things more easily and you will feel less stressed about what you have stored. Letting go of unwanted or nonessential works is cathartic and will open up new avenues of exploration without having to buy more expensive supplies.

I hope that when I decide to revisit this subject in a few years’ time it will be without a report of someone’s death. My father-in-law will be greatly missed. He was a fascinating man with an even more fascinating life which he was able to share with a fellow patient during his last days, which was a joyful experience for them both. I hope one day to be able to organise an exhibition of his photographs. He was a photojournalist and photographed all manner of famous people. He had an amazing talent for capturing the best of people in these pictures. RIP Kenneth Saunders. 

Ken Saunders RIP

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