Several years ago during a visit to Santa Fe, I saw one of the most interesting presentations of fine art I’d seen in a museum gallery.* It left a big impression. Next to each painting, there was a display of relevant documentation by the artist. Field notes, sketches, photographs. Paste-ups with drawings and photos combined. It gave me a sense of something being worked out for that specific painting, not just appearing fully formed onto a canvas. I couldn’t get enough.
*(My record keeping being imperfect, I have misplaced the notebook with the names of the museum and the artists.)
Skip forward many years, and I realize every painting I make has some kind of supporting objects and documentation. Sometimes not much. Sometimes there’s a lot; not all of it is saved or even savable. (A smelly piece of kelp comes to mind.)
For some time now, when a painting is purchased I send the owner a copy of my worksheet that summarizes some of this information. I also keep a file on each piece, for whatever scraps of notes, samples, sketches & photos I have.
Here’s the kind of stuff that collects there:
Field notes, which could be painted swatches, notations, quick drawings or photos. (I wrote about road trip field notes here in Coastal Trip – field notes.)
A photograph of a broken window taken on the road in 2009 proved a vital element for Coming Undone in 2015, which was essentially a work as much concerned with composing space as coming apart.
A photo of a plaque describing the history of the stockyard in Magdalena, New Mexico kept me grounded in the scene I was painting for Stockyard.
Since a lot of my work is still life, I have boxes of objects that I use and reference in paintings. Mostly household things and bones. Even if I’m doing an invented composition, I like to look at, and hold to the light, the actual object when I can. Here are some early sketches on tissue paper with deer mandibles on the left, as I begin the composition for the final painting Metamorphosis on the right.
Especially for larger works, I do drawings and even paintings as studies, which can be artworks in their own right. For the large work, A Profound Silence, I did several. The one shown below was done working out under-color and geometry, and didn’t have much to do with the style of the final piece.
Composition notes, which may be typed up, handwritten or sketched, keep me on track when making decisions about which elements are essential, and which are superfluous ideas that should be discarded.
Swatch cards and written notes record the color palette I’m using. Working both in watercolor and oil keeps me trying things out with pigments, lessons that carry over between media. Here are swatches and a detail from Invasive Species.
In my worksheets, I keep track of my materials, such as type of paper or other support, pigments, varnish, coatings, and framing. The worksheets are available to the owner and can be useful not only as back story, but also if the piece needs repair, restoration, or identification in the future. (I wrote about a case of stolen art here in Purloined Paintings.)
I’ll note pertinent history of the piece, such as when it was in a special show or publication. I record if the piece sells, or changes hands, and its location when I know it. In short, the provenance.
Progress photos are sometimes kept. I assembled them for this video on the making of the painting Crash (2014. oil on canvas, 24″x24″).
And I’ll leave you with this one: early progress photos of Western Exposure (2014, oil on canvas, 48″x36″) along with a link to a video which shows it in certainly its biggest finished glory to date, behind the drummer of the Bernal Jazz Quintet as they performed F.S.R. here in the studio last month.