Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Time management for artists

I received this e-mail:

I think a lot of us, especially if we are doing this full time, have difficulties in managing our time properly. Its difficult to organize a day when there are 20 things you'd like to paint, emails to respond too, late night deadlines that screw up the next days plans, people knocking on your door thinking that because you are a self employed artist and don;t punch a "normal" clock, you don't have any proper responsibilities and can drop anything you are doing because someone needs a favour. We have commissions to handle, money to manage, shows to submit to.
Some of us (me ) actually live in the studio so the line between what is work and rest gets blurred easily resulting in nothing really getting done. Some have rolodexes, some have schedules, "to do" lists that they make before they go to bed, big charts, or keep everything in their head.
What are some of your tips, and what have you learned to avoid throughout your career? Any pitfalls we should watch out for?
.........................a European friend

I am probably the last person to speak on time management. I get a lot done, but I am not orderly. My trick is that I work all the time. From when I get out of bed in the morning till I go to bed at night I am working. I have been doing that for almost 40 years. It works, at least in the long run. I sometimes am talking to a student in a workshop, or one of the people I mentor, and I realize that they think that any one day is going to make such a difference.

I have known many well organized
daybook planner types who migrated into the art from the business world, and I haven't noticed they had any great advantage. The race is very long and won by those who get up and run every morning till the light fails. So the short answer is


I am not well organized, forget to write stuff down and would rather paint than do all of the the things that those creepy books written by career counselors recommend. But I guess I can come up with a few things.

  • Find Earl Nightingale and study his material. Here is a link to a post I have written on that. I am not a devotee of self improvement literature. Earl is different.
  • I often carry an index card in my left pocket with five things that I want to get done during the day. I check them off as I go.
  • I avoid making appointments. I want to paint, not meet with people so I try to keep my schedule freed up. I will obsess about the damage to my work schedule caused by an hour long appointment sometime next week. If I have an appointment during an upcoming day, I look at that day as lost. I try to get as many things done after the light fails as I can, grocery shopping, laundry, family etc.
  • I have no hobbies, I don't play or watch those sport things. I don't play video games or Farmville (whatever that is).
  • I don't have a television. If you watch two hours of TV a day and wonder why you are not making it as an artist, you are kidding yourself about the size of what it takes to do this.
  • I don't seek to earn money from other sources than my art. I don't own a rental unit nor do I buy stock, I am afraid it will divert my attention from my work, part of which is to make a living. If a dollar comes into this house it has to be from the art. I don't do jobs or employment.
  • I have a a mental list of my contacts the people who are my dealers and fellow artist travelers. I call them routinely and check in. Speaking with my friends who are professional artists who are also at their easels helps. I have about a half dozen of those, and talking to them helps me build a model for my own efforts. We are working together, separately. Their lives are very like mine. We provide emotional support for one another. You need to have a network of people who you want to be like. I have that in spades, very important to me. These are successful painters, you would know their names. We become like the people we hang out with.
  • I keep mental track of my time at the easel. Doing business things, talking on the phone, etc is all essential but it is not time spent on your art. You have to account for it separately.There is a lot of advice for artists out there on business management, most of it written by people from the business world who want to help us spaced out artists. I know a few artists who do all that stuff too. Often their work takes on the same quality though. It is real important to put your art first. ALWAYS THE ART COMES FIRST. Then worry about marketing it. Good art will sell. I don't mean to say that you don't have to do all of that phone calling a list keeping, but it is not as important as the art. I know a very successful artist who has no e-mail, no web site and no business card. He does do the phone a lot though.
  • I use Google calender it is on G-mail. It notifies me before appointments and I can look in there and see what is coming up. Many computers are sold with calender and event programs and you probably have one.
  • Once a month or sometimes more often, I call all of my dealers. I don't do it to ask if they have sold my work. I do it just to talk, I need to work with friends. If I can't be friends with a dealer usually things don't work out.
I will think about this some more and see what else I can come up with. I will do a post aimed at the serious amateur who has to have a life outside of the studio, which I don't.


James Gunter said...

"ALWAYS THE ART COMES FIRST." - A good neck tattoo?

"IF YOU WANT TO BE AN ARTIST, HERE IS THE SECRET. GET UP EVERY DAY, AND DO IT ALL DAY." - Another good neck tattoo, even if you have to wrap it around your neck once or twice.

I really needed this post. I should print it out and keep it where I can see it frequently. It's a big challenge defending my time from people who seem to think that since I'm not working for a corporation, I've got lots of free time on my hands. And deflecting well meant "advice" about things like selling my paintings printed on coffee mugs!

But those things are not as hard as defending my time from my own spaciness! Emails, blogging, travel time, building equipment, etc. eat up a lot of time. Plus, I still have to work temp jobs from time to time to try and make ends meet.

I'll go listen to my Earl Nightengale CDs again!

Tim said...

Excellent post Stape, I too will fire up my Nightingales again!

Dates of important things ALWAYS have a tendency to sneak up on some of us, and before you know it, its 2 weeks away instead of 3 months, and again, caught off guard!

Once a year I usually go down to the book store and buy myself two of those calendars, one for the pocket and one for the studio. I then jot down ALL important dates I can think of, keep check of all expenses and make little day plans. This goes on for about 2 or 3 weeks, then I forget about it, and pick it up 2 months later, tear out all the little corners so I'm up to date, keep it up for another week or so, only to forget it again for 3 months. This has repeated itself since my 20s... I never really liked those calendars as It wouldn't really give me an instant overview of the months, only one week at a time. Turn the pages you say? Nah...

What I started doing when I opened the gallery was I got a spiral bound 4x6 inch notepad with a hard back, and every night I would write down what needed to get done the next morning, and possibly the next few days. Anything not crossed off the list got transferred the following night. I like this system, and combined with the following it works pretty well. I print out letter sized pages with 31 numbered squares on them, one for each day of the month, then I glue these to an 18x24 inch piece of cardboard and stick it on my wall. I fill in all the important dates for the next 4 months that I can think of. These are shows, deadlines, the occasional birthday, when a big event with lots of people is happening so I know where to paint to get some commissions etc. I have a big red pen that I cross each day off with. This system gives me an overview of 4 months, and I can easily see just how much (or more often, little )time I have left until a certain event comes up. I also run a ledger, where I write down EVERYTHING I buy, including groceries so that I know just how much I'm spending on baked beans and fancy linen.

Thanks again Stape.

Tim said...

Oh a followup question that sounds simple enough but can be complicated: How do you decide what and where to paint? Do you have 10 or so places in your head at all times and just pick one at random, or maybe you just drive somewhere and walk for a bit and set up? (somehow I doubt that) Or go-to places? From my own experience this can eat up an entire day, if I have too many places to paint/things to do I get confused and somehow nothing really gets done.

Sergio Lopez said...

It's funny, I'm about to turn 28, and my life sounds pretty similar to yours... I have no life/hobbies outside of the studio, and I try to spend as much time as possible in there, and I wouldn't really have it any other way. Ok, a trip to Europe every now and again wouldn't hurt. I'm terrible at socializing and making friends, but the better I get at painting, the more people want to be friends with me. Go figure. I love Google Calendar. I set mine up so that I get enough email/text reminders every few days or so that I couldn't possibly forget certain deadlines that I used to always forget.

willek said...

The danger in being totally devoted to one thing, is that one can become "narrow". We have to do all you have said AND be in and of our world, too. (I don't think YOU have a problem with a lack of outside interests, you appear to have awareness of a broad spectrum of knowledge, though you may be lacking in some of the non Homeopathic pharmaceutical arts.)

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Sorry I can't find the exact quote, but it might have been Einstein who said "It's amazing what you can get done if you are always doing something" Changed my life by making me see the value in the "little minutes."

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,

I have found Google calendar a useful tool as well. I enjoy the fact that it emails me automatically for appointments.

What you said here goes for writers too. Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Faragher said...

Great post, this is one of my favorites of yours, ever. You really tell it like it is.

I too obsess about having to be somewhere at a certain time, for a purpose not related to painting. Depending on what it is, it can throw me off balance for days. Returning to painting after some big event (appointment, opening, holiday, whatever) is pure happiness.

For Christmas every year my husband buys me a spiral bound calendar illustrated with paintings by the Group of Seven. So at least when I am keeping track of the things I have to do besides paint, I can see some great images along the way.

Philip Koch said...

Great post Stape! To make anything really well it means pouring ones time, energy, love and devotion on it. It's amazing what endless attention can produce.

By the way, I'm like Sarah this year, happily using an illustrated Group of Seven bound calendar book. In fact, I find as I use it I'm starting to speak Canadian.

Meera Rao said...

Thanks for great advice --I do have to say that to do art I really have to defend and guard the 'art time' -especially since my 'studio' is kitchen table most of the time -the room over the garage gets too hot in summer even with the AC down here! My downfall is that I also love to read and 'collect' information :(

Antonin Passemard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
whopaints said...

It is very affirming to know others out there are living such a life as well... thank you. I am blessed in that I live in a town I need not leave to find something to paint and can go anywhere necessary on foot or by bike. Traveling to paint is time with out a brush in hand -- the car sits for weeks (unless son # 3 has a BB game.)Our life style of Quaker simplicity is a choice that enables me to do something with visual story telling (almost) every minute of the day!

Carole Buschmann said...

Thank you for this post. I needed this!

billspaintingmn said...

Good post Stape! I'm dealing with this very thing.
Some days are better than others, but at the end of each day I know I have made some progress.

Challenging times call for focus and action.
I like the statement,"ALWAYS THE ART COMES FIRST."
I'm guilty of not useing that perspective lately.

McKinneyArtist said...

Wonderful post! Hit me right between the eyes this time.

Never had a real studio. Each room I try to make into a working space has tons of flaws and bad ju ju.

Planning to handicap my home and make a handicapped studio. Have to sit in special chairs to paint. Any ideas from you or your army of followers would be greatly appreciated.

Chris Gillis said...

Nice post - another system you may want to take a look at is GTD - Getting Things Done - link to get started.

I use it extensively in my graphic design business but my painting also has a place in there.

alotter said...

What if I only watch TV at night? Is it OK then? I just don't think I can give it up. Love the movies from Netflix too.

Maineland said...

Something that works for me. I make all my appointments on Wednesdays. Dentist, hair cut, car repairs. I used to do this for environmental reasons now that and so I don't have to cut into studio time.

Ben Valentine said...

I too immediately felt the need to print this out and tape it around my face. There's not enough of this type of info and inspiration around for serious realist artists. I mean there IS "The Artist's Way" but I TRIED painting my toenails and french kissing a redwood but it didn't really have the effect I hoped for. I also second Tim's question. I relate to it word for word.

Unknown said...

And I'll just add thanks for taking the time away from the art to post this! Very helpful and practical.

Brady said...

I think you discovered a gold vein.

I've been getting a little worried lately that the only things I do anymore relate to art in some way.

Good to know you can do it for 40 years and still be considered healthy. said...

I paint. I cook. I do the work that being a painter requires.
No TV. It doesn't exist in my home either. OK time to get back to the studio.

Lucy said...

but it's doubly hard if you are the woman of the house. Let them order pizza while you are in the woods painting (with no cell phone). Tomato sauce is still a good food group.

Stapleton Kearns said...

James Gunter;
A good neck tattoo would be reversed so that it reads best in a mirror.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tim ;
Sure sounds complicated. particularly since it is all in Swedish.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Main Loop;
My life was the same at 28. I do the e-mail reminders too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Nonsense! I was a pharmacy major in high school!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jo-Ann Sanborn;
That's is a pretty good quote. It is my system.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Am I a writer? I know that you are.I never set out to be one. Maybe.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks there up in SS.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip Koch;
Soon you will be drinking Canadian I suppose.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is an important thing. You have to make sure your art time is sacred.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You don't think I live a life of Quaker simplicity. I smoke big cigars and drive a Lincoln. I am very expensive.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Carole Buschmann
Thanks Carole!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Do you have gilt then?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Some day I will see that home. Good luck with the conversion.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Chris Gillis;
I will check that out.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Can I sleep around only at night and still be chaste? Will that leave a ring?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Your comment went to the surface of this shimmering pond.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Ben Valentine;A neck tattoo is a good way to reaffirm a commitment.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you, oh unburned one!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am physically healthy. I don't know about my mental state. No one inb their right mind would have made the decisions I have. I have often chosen art above sound decisions.

Stapleton Kearns said... ;
TV what a time waster and maker of conformity!I used to think I could be Mannix!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think there is a post in that. Maybe call it "to the woman artist"

Brightdart Owner, Melissa Villegas said...

As a freelance writer, which is not too far from your world Stape, a key piece (or should I say peace) to being able to manage time, work my a** off, and have a good life is to TRACK my time -- this has definitely been easier since using an actual Time Tracker. I picked OfficeTime because it's VERY easy to use and really inexpensive. For me, effective time tracking means owning my UP time and, in turn, it means having a little down time.

But I have to admit, I'm on board with you Stape - NOTHING works better and keeps me revenue positive more than 15 hours of hard solid work every day does.

Mary Agnes Antonopoulos

PS: OfficeTime offers a cool 21-day trial available at

Restaurants Around Monroe, NY said...

As a freelance writer, which is not too far from your world Stape, a key piece (or should I say peace) to being able to manage time, work my a** off, and have a good life is to TRACK my time -- this has definitely been easier since using an actual Time Tracker. I picked OfficeTime because it's VERY easy to use and really inexpensive. For me, effective time tracking means owning my UP time and, in turn, it means having a little down time.

But I have to admit, I'm on board with you Stape - NOTHING works better and keeps me revenue positive more than 15 hours of hard solid work every day does.

Mary Agnes Antonopoulos

PS: OfficeTime offers a cool 21-day trial available at

Anonymous said...

Great article!

I am still in the infancy of my career, so I still work a day job, but I try to put aside at least 1-2 hours a day to work on my art. This article is a great kick in the pants to get me going!


Anonymous said...


I have a bad habit of wasting time on the internet "socializing". However, in the past few days, I've gotten busy with orders (yay!) and haven't really had the time to waste. ..and I love it! I'm feeling much more productive, am learning a lot more, and my little business is moving along. This statement,"DO IT ALL DAY", is so true! That's how you're gonna get the most done! Thanks!

Jacki Newell said...

Stape, this post has been so helpful for me. I started painting full-time just recently and have no friends that are doing it, so, it was good for me to see there are others out there that struggle with trying to protect their time to paint. If I have a dreaded appointment some time during the week, I try to make that the day that I do other errands and if possible make up the painting time that evening, but that cuts into my computer work time, then I get behind on everything.
I love to paint outdoors, but like one of the other comments here, I end up spending so much of the day driving and looking for just the right place to stop and park, etc, that it really cuts into the painting time, causing me to hesitate to do it as often as I would like. I probably need to be less picky and just paint. How do you and your readers decide where to paint?