Time management for artists

The temptation to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way is strong, but it will wreck your focus.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, oil on linen, $1855 unframed.

This week, I cancelled my Cody, WY, workshop. There was nothing wrong with it in concept; it generated a lot of interest. The trouble started when students looked for rental cars. There weren’t any available, and in the nearby larger markets, rental rates were extortionate.

This is nobody’s ‘fault’; it’s an unforeseen result of COVID. However, that doesn’t give me a free pass to ignore the consequences. I still had a lot of clerical work to do to make the cancellation. That—along with the lost work and expense of setting up the workshop up in the first place—is part of the cost of doing business.

This is the time of year when I suddenly notice that I’m making lots of mistakes. That’s because I’m working myself too hard. That’s partly because of summer visitors, but it’s also because of my business model. I live and work in a tourist town, where we make hay while the sun shines.

Skylarking, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3985.

Every year at this time I reach a point where I can’t manage the clerical stuff on my own. There are only two solutions:

  • Scale back, or
  • Hire some of it out.

There are good arguments against either. Scaling back would reduce my income. Hiring is difficult in this market, and it would require raising prices.

To be self-employed without a secretary has only possible because of the remarkable improvement in business efficiency in the last few decades. Take paying bills, for example. It used to be a half-day affair that involved writing checks, addressing and mailing envelopes, and a quaint bookkeeping activity called “balancing the checkbook.” Now I can do it—including checking all accounts for fraudulent activity—in an hour every other week.

Belfast harbor, oil on canvasboard, $1594, framed.

Unfortunately, that has been replaced by other activities that are equally time-consuming. The biggest of these is social media, but it’s the best advertising at our disposal. When artists tell me, “I don’t have time for that,” they’re ignoring the first requirement of business, which is marketing.

Still, the reality for all self-employed people is that there are only 2000 working hours in the year. You have to be able to do all your tasks in that allotted time, or you’ll fail. Years ago, my friend and fellow painter Bobbi Heath taught me a simple time-managementsystem. The take-away lesson is that not everything will get done. Your job as a manager is to figure out which needs to be done most urgently, and to let the chaff fall.

Owls Head, 8X10, $652 framed.

Like most of us, I have a hard time saying no, but saying no doesn’t make me a failure or a bad person. It means I’ve prioritized other activities.

The temptation to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way is strong, especially when you’re just setting out. People will ask you to paint all kinds of things, in all kinds of places. “Your dog, at your wedding reception? What time should I be there?”

But many of these ‘opportunities’ are really just cul de sacs that will spread you too thin, and cost you your focus. If they can’t be done well, don’t do them at all.

The viewer wants to know

Which is more important, narrative or design? The answer is yes.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.

Thomaston, ME, is a community of lovely, large Victorian homes that somehow maintain a whiff of the 19th century. It’s a little off the beaten path and the streets are quiet. I try to teach there at least once a season, focusing on perspective and architecture.

Ann Clowe and Cassie Sano had elected to paint the same house on Knox Street, an 1851 Cape that’s dwarfed by its attached barn (in the Maine way). It’s a strange shade of red that looks warm in some places and cool in others. Ann had painted it unsuccessfully three times before. She refused my suggestion that she look at other houses on the street. She was making her stand; she was going to defeat those red walls.

Victoria Street, 14X18, oil on linen, $1275 unframed.

One of the most common questions students ask me about architecture is whether they should include that door, that window, or that bit of moulding. The answer depends on the design and focal point of the painting. If one is focused on the house, the details are important. If the house is an incidental part of the landscape, it’s possible to reduce it to a mere silhouette.

Every painting—even stark hyperrealism—has some extraneous detail edited out. One of the great virtues of painting over photography is that we can eliminate the telephone lines, gas grill and other impedimenta of modern life. We do this both for design reasons and to make the narrative stronger.

Fishing shacks, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $869 unframed.

Cassie, in asking me whether she should include a door, said, “but the viewer wants to know how these people get in to their house.” She’d answered her own question, and created a good test for whether to include something:

  • If it’s an important part of the narrative, leave it in.
  • If it’s not, make your choice based solely on design criteria.

In the 20th century, narrative became a bit player in painting; abstract design was key. Only the reactionary Wyeth family and a few others were still telling stories in their paintings. That impulse hasn’t totally died, but it’s a trend, not an eternal verity. Storytelling appeals to something so primary in our psyche that we’ll never eliminate it entirely from painting.

Three Chimneys, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 unframed.

Storytelling ought to include telling the unvarnished truth about our current reality. That sometimes includes gas grills, cars, and telephone poles. As Cassie joked, “the viewers might want to know how they get their mail.”

The red house has a handicapped-access ramp running to the side door. It made a brilliant diagonal slash of light in the painting, but it was hardly in keeping with the house’s original design. It also told a story that’s achingly familiar to many of us. If it had been my painting, I would have included the ramp, and even focused on it. It says something laudable about our moment in history: we want to keep the elderly in their own homes as long as possible.

Monday Morning Art School: Basic elements of design

The artist’s job is to invite the viewer into his world. That doesn’t happen by accident.

I and the Village, 1911, Marc Chagall, courtesy MOMA. In this painting, line is a dominant design element, articulating the relationship between man, beast and place. However, proportion (relative size of the objects) is playing a part as well.


In math, a line is straight, has no thickness and extends in both directions through space. Sometimes that’s what we mean by a line in art—for example, a horizon line.

More typically in art, a line is just a path through space. Wherever you have an edge, you also have a line. However, lines also refer to mark-making, so in that sense they can be fat, thin, punctuated, tapering, diffident, bold or whispering.

Diagonals and curves seem to keep us more engaged than unbroken verticals, as they’re more difficult for the eye to ‘solve.’

Interior of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam, 1664-66, Cornelis de Man, courtesy Mauritshuis. The illusion of three-dimensional form is created with perspective and value.

Shape and form

Shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions–height and width–and are bounded by lines. Forms are three-dimensional. The artist’s dilemma is to give the illusion of three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional painting.

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Rosa Bonheur, courtesy Musée d’Orsay. The vast sky and field create as much narrative as do the team of oxen.


Space in the real world is three-dimensional. In art, the term refers to a sense of depth, or the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The illusion of three-dimensional space is created with perspective drawing, atmospherics, relative proportion (size), positioning, and defining volume through modeling.

Sometimes we refer to negative and positive space, which means the division between the primary object(s) and what we perceive as the background. Positive and negative space were a very big deal in much twentieth-century design, which often used the vast emptiness of the page as a counterweight to the primary object.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601, Caravaggio, courtesy Cerasi Chapel. Chiaroscuro relies primarily on value to drive the eye.


Color has three essential characteristics:

  • Hue—where it falls on the color wheel (red, blue, etc.),
  • Chroma—how brilliant or dull it is,
  • Value—how light or dark it is.

Color is also described as ‘warm’ or ‘cool,’ but these are useful artistic conventions and not measurable as fact.

Historically, value did much of the heavy lifting in painting, and it remains the most important characteristic in your painting. The Impressionists began using hue and chroma to define volume, and that is essentially how most alla prima painters work today.

Portrait of the Baronness James de Rothschild, 1848, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, private collection. We see satin, lace, tulle, feathers and jewels primarily due to Ingres’ exquisite control of reflected light.


Texture refers to the surface quality of an object. Paintings have implied texture, conveyed by color, line and brushwork. They also have real texture in the form of smooth or impasto surfaces.

Ejiri in Suruga Province, 1830, Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Great winds have blown away the clouds on Mount Fuji, and they’re also blowing the travelers and their packs around. This movement is echoed and amplified by the brushstrokes.


Movement can be either suggested or depicted—as in the wind in the painting above—or implied by brushwork. Most paintings have a major thrust of energy, which I call its motive line.

Your assignment is to take one of your own paintings and subject it to formal analysis. Consider each of these elements of design in turn. How are you using them? How could you use them better?

(This post originally appeared in July, 2020.)