Mapping the Trail

 ‘The only thing an artist gets to keep is his trail.’  Cecil Touchon

…So the more documented, the more breadcrumbs, the better. Otherwise it all slips into oblivion.

This article started as an email exchange with artist James White who was asking about putting his collage works into a catalog. By the time I finished writing back I realized a lot of other artists might want to follow this program for their own body of work.

These days it is so easy to document your artistic trail it is just a matter of organizing oneself to do it step by step so it doesn’t get out of hand.

Keeping Your Ducks All in a Row

CORRESPONDENCE – “Eventually I need to talk to you about putting all of my collages into one book. Just to point me in the right direction. God knows I have enough to fill one.” James White

“The Best Logic is Chronologic.”

Cecil Touchon

The important thing before working on a book is inventorying your artworks with a consistent global numbering system in chronological order. The number should be written on the back of the artwork and the same number in all digital files of that work.

Do it like this:

  1. When a work is completed sign the back of it, put the date of completion and the unique inventory number for that year.
  2. Scan or photograph each work, give the digital the same inventory file name and keep them all in the same folder, also chronological by the year.  Each year should be its own folder. On your computer it might be something like /main artist folder/catalog raisonne/2020/,  /main artist folder/catalog raisonne/2021/, etc.
  3. The digital images should be of two sorts, the original digital photo and an edited, book sized digital.

Number them in a way that they all fall into order in the folder with the original digital, the book formatted digital at 300.dpi which can also be the web digital. I number mine like I number the museum archives which is 2020.001,  2020.002,  2020.003 etc. Then I normally put the rest of the ‘caption’ into the the file name so in your case something like:[ 2020.002-collage on paper -TITLE – 10x10inches-james white.jpg ] Then you have all the info you need for the caption in the book and you put your name so that if you send digitals to other people, the file name identifies you as the artist.

Your print on demand book (I am using is likely to be as big as 11×8.5 inches. So, to leave room on the pages for text, save the book sized digital as no taller than 8 inches (7 is even better for leaving breathing room on the page) and no wider than 6.5 inches at 300 dpi. Then all your digitals will fit in that sized book without additional formatting and leave room for text.
Global pre-organization is key and then with those digitals all set up, slapping out a book is easy. Even better would be to set up your book manuscript ahead of time, (I use word for windows), and then, when you make your digital photo files, you can also put the images in the book document as you go.  It is a little bit of extra work but then you are building the book in small time increments which helps to make it manageable and not seem so overwhelming.
As artists we don’t usually think of the fact that we are going to be making artwork for 40-60 years. That makes a big accumulated mess if you don’t keep it in order from the start. That order is inventorying.
Let’s say you make 300 somethings a year, collages, sketches, drawings, doodles, paintings, etc. (everything counts and if you are not going to throw it in the trash, it has to be documented and inventoried) considering the 40-60 years estimate,  that is 12,000 to 18,000 works over a lifetime. That is 40-60 volumes at 300 pages each. That’s a lot of ‘shelf feet’ as they say in the librarian world.
If you are already deep into your body of work, at least start with the present and that way you’ll have control over the future. If you have some extra time now and then you can then try to go backwards and clean up the mess as best you can but a lot will have already fallen into oblivion by then.
The Artist him/her self is the only person who actually witnesses everything that happens, knows what happened and why things happen the way they do. So don’t expect anyone else to be able to figure that out after the fact – they will only be speculating and sermising or making things up to fill in the gaps of the story. It is up to you to document yourself and leave a clear map of your path. Even if you are not doing it for anyone else, this is an extremely valuable record for your own future use and your future self will be grateful to you for having done it.
It is a matter of setting up your organizational procedures and then stick with them consistently, almost ritualistically. You as artist are the main beneficiary of this work. If you are selling art in galleries, you need all of this organization for inventory control and for communicating with your dealers about a specific work. Your digital files are what tell you, from a distance, what artwork they are talking to you about, and the file’s name has all the critical info in it that you need to know.
Once the book hits 200-250 pages (or the end of the year whichever comes first), you publish and start the next manuscript using the first one as a template.  200-300 pages makes a hefty book so you don’t really want to make it any bigger than that for a color paperback. If you think of it as a catalog raisonne then you just keep making one every year with all your art and poetry and notes and whatever. Then later all of your art is already formatted for a book and you can just take whole sets of pages from this set of books and copy/paste together other books that focus on certain trends ideas or styles you notice in your body of work that you want to edit and highlight from the pages you already have made.
As the archivist of the [Your Name Here] Archive, it doesn’t matter how good or bad, important or worthless any given work is, as archivist, EVERYTHING in the archive is important and helps to make it more complete and hence more clear. The granularity, the detail large and small is what gives high definition and fidelity to your archives. Without the detail the picture becomes foggy and blurry and hence uncertain. Everything together is what makes up the map and shows the landscape of our trail.
“The great thing about computers is that they save us a lot of time on work we would have never done.”
Cecil Touchon
So, there’s that to consider as well. If you can’t bare the idea of all that effort then just throw all your artwork in a pile and forget about it. Maybe memory isn’t that important. I can’t remember.

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