Tip for Artists: Get Organized

Time is a valuable commodity for any artist. The more you paint and the busier you get, the more you’ll need to depend on tools for keeping the business details of your life in order. Organized artists make life easier for themselves. How you organize the various facets of your art business isn’t quite as important as the fact that you do organize and that the system works for you. Give some thought to the following guidelines and see how they can help you put your hands on things faster, free up some hours at tax time or simply assist you in presenting a more professional image.

Take inventory
Creating an inventory of your work is simply a matter of creating a history of your paintings, including the medium, surface, size, title and so forth of each one. You can save this information on simple index cards, in a loose-leaf binder with one page per painting, or as a computer file that organizes your works of art by subject matter or medium.

Regardless of the specific system you use, the most helpful thing you can do to keep track of your work is to give each painting a title that’s both simple and descriptive. When you use only Untitled, it helps neither you nor the viewer. Just imagine being informed that Untitled won a major award, but you can’t talk intelligently about it to the exhibition chair because you can’t remember which Untitled you submitted. How embarrassing is that? By naming each work, you can also readily identify your gallery sales on paper and help convey your message to viewers.

Several artists I talked with also assign a number to each painting in a coded system based on yearly output and month/year of completion. This system helps them keep track of similarly themed paintings, as well as better organize their slides and photo records using these same numbers. You’ll find that the more detailed your records are, the more help they’ll be to you in the future.

Florida watercolor artist and teacher Judi Wagner has created an art inventory notebook that contains 8×11 sheets of paper to log all the necessary information about each painting as she completes it. She draws a quick sketch on the page and then later replaces that with a snapshot. She also records the painting’s title, code number (year and painting number), medium, size, gallery location, date when on view and the price. Each time the work is sent out to a show, she lists the exhibit and dates. She leaves space for purchaser information (name, address and check number) and another space for comments. Her art inventory notebook also has a section where she moves these pages once the paintings sell.

Another great system is a file card catalog. Landscape artist Loring Coleman of Harvard, Massachusetts, uses 6×8 file cards to organize his inventory and help him locate works produced over his 65-year career. His master catalog cards include the same information as Wagner’s notebook pages, but he files them alphabetically by the works’ titles. He then cross-references these cards with his file drawers, where he stores his sketches, snapshots and such extensive details as the weight of paper used, the price of a frame and the cost of supplies. All this information helps him both with his taxes and when he looks back to recall how he achieved a certain effect.

Moving to a more technical option, pastel artist Tom Sierak uses his computer for both his inventory and bookkeeping details. The Dracut, Massachusetts, artist says he’s able to use the computer to market his paintings much more effectively and efficiently. He relies on QuarkXpress and Adobe Photoshop to store and “tweak his prints,” and QuickBooks for processing orders and doing business analysis. He records the standard information about each painting, and the computer can print invoices or make graphs providing an overview of his business. He records credit card information from sales of his originals and reproductions and keeps all transactions in separate folders for each gallery, supplier, printer or workshop. As a result, he has the facts he needs at his fingertips at tax time. Along the way, he’s created all the necessary paperwork for gallery consignments and direct sales. For tax preparation, he simply downloads the year’s financial information from QuickBooks onto a disk for his accountant.

Take care of the visuals
While you’re keeping track of your paintings, be sure to do the same for your photographs, slides and transparencies. A magazine or newspaper, for example, may request images of your artwork to accompany an article about you or for an announcement of an upcoming event. Coleman stores both slides and transparencies of his work in boxes and he attaches photographic prints, including close-up details, to his 6×8 master cards.

When it comes to storing your photos, slides and larger transparencies, you have several options: file folders, boxes, disks or CD-ROMS, or in plastic sleeves in binders. For extra safekeeping, though, you may want to think about storing transparencies and photo disks in a fireproof place, and keeping your back-up files and financial records in a safe-deposit box or other secure location, in case of a studio fire.

Save receipts
You may get outside help from an accountant or a spouse to crunch numbers. Or, you may keep a running account tabulated after successful shows or gallery exhibits. You might even wait until April 14 to look at expenses. No matter which style you choose, you’ll want to store business receipts all in one place. Receipts for frames and supplies, as well as your own bills of sale, may go into a shoebox or large manila envelope. Then, whether by an Excel spreadsheet or hand-tabulation, you’ll be able to sit down and accurately process your business dealings.

Wagner travels frequently between her studios in Maine and Florida, and teaches workshops throughout the United States and abroad. To keep track of all this, she creates an envelope to record details of all art-related travel expenses; while on the road, she files her receipts in the appropriate day’s envelope and jots down every expense from tollbooths to plane tickets and meals. Between her inventory notebook and her travel receipt envelopes, she has all the financial details of her business accounts.

Organize contacts Probably the easiest time-saver you can set up is a file of names and numbers of your art-related contacts. Your network of artist friends, gallery connections and other professionals can be alphabetized on cards that you update regularly or even file in a folder for business cards. Being able to easily find contact information allows you to focus on painting and keeps you from having to dig for that scrap of paper you scrawled a number on.

More extensive than a phone file, but just as useful and easy to create, is your mailing list. To identify people interested in your work and to remember your established customers, you can create a list in Microsoft Word, in a spreadsheet or in a notebook. Visitors to your gallery or art festival booth, as well as students in workshops, are all potential clients who belong on your mailing list. The information you’ll want to record is name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, preference for being contacted and type of client (buyer, gallery, local media, freelance writers and so forth). Once you have these lists, you can generate e-mails or labels to send out postcards announcing upcoming shows, workshops or awards.

By organizing art business details, you can keep manageable and useful records, quickly locate necessary financial information and more easily promote your own work. Being organized keeps you from feeling harried and lends you the appearance—if not the actuality—of being a professional. Better yet, not having to spend time digging through piles of stuff to find that one slide will give you more time to do what you love: paint.

Lisa Wurster is a former assistant editor for The Artist’s Magazine and Artist’s Sketchbook.

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