Thursday, September 24, 2015

Manage Museum Overload

I became an art curator today on my visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. My British Modernism literature course went on a field trip in the morning to view some of the art movements which we have been discussing in class. We wanted to see the Surrealists, Symbolists, Futurists and the Cubists in particular. I decided to do a kind of sketching or note-taking which I began to perfect while I was in at the British Museum in the Enlightenment exhibit

This is a brief break-down of my method:
  1. I use a plain, black felt-tip pen, a clipboard and some sheets of plain white paper to draw  squares and rectangles in an arbitrary configuration over the whole page. 
  2. As soon as I see a painting that moves me or that falls into the topics we have been studying I choose a cell on the page that roughly fits the shape of the actual canvas. For instance if the painting I like is a square shaped Mondrian then I choose one of the sqaure-ish cells I have already drawn on the page. 
  3. Then I do a very quick sketch of it. The lines are very simple and childish. The goal is an “impression” not a detailed replica. I vary the amount of time I spend doing my sketches. Some will be a thirty-second doodle. Or I may spend up to two or three minutes on it. 
  4. At the bottom of each miniature painting I will scrawl the name of the artist, the painting and the year it was painted. 
  5. When I get home I use my black pen to make adjustments to the sketches. I fill in some lines and flesh out some of the shapes with cross-hatching. 
  6. I decided to colour this set of images with watercolour used over the pen lines. I decided to do this because I was representing paintings and I didn’t feel like I could get a similar enough effect to the original paintings with just black. 
Why do I like this technique? I like it for several reasons. The first is that I come away from the museum experience with something tangible to remind me of the things that moved me while I was there. So often I leave the building of the museum tired, dehydrated and overwhelmed. That leads me to my next reason: It helps me to give myself a very clear time-limit on being in the museum. I don’t leave until all the cells on my page are done. I allow myself more time to linger if I am dying to see something else, but it feels good to be able to allow myself to leave. 

Museums can be so time-consuming and one feels as though one has to see everything. You start to think that you will never have another opportunity like this again! But the reality is that when it comes to art museums (and most other types of museum) quality time is more desirable than quantity of viewed images. If you do the exhausting, full-blown gamut of every painting in the museum, then you will come away having forgotten most of what you have seen. But if you spend your time in a couple special places of interest you will be inspired and refreshed, rather than drained. 

Another reason that I like this method is that it helps me to become an art curator of sorts. I get to create my own mini-museum on a single page. My "museum" consists of the paintings that I personally like. It is a similar concept to Pinterest. The draw of something like Pinterest is that it allows you to make sense of the chaos and waterfall of images and words that is the internet. Pinterest allows is a tool to help you have a handle on that stream and that you can somehow keep make sense of it through categorising and choosing--like an art curator. That is what I like to think I am doing with this exercise  There is so much to see, but I can feel a little less lost if I have the goal of taking visual notes like this. 

The last reason is the ability to share my art museum experience with people who did not get to go with me. This evening around the dinner table in Sheldon’s apartment I passed my drawings around to Sheldon and his roommates so they got a sense of my journey through the museum. It was nice because Sheldon loves that museum and I can’t go there without missing him a lot if he is not with me. He was able to feel a little more involved on account of my sketches. 

But what if you “can’t draw”? What about those people who are too slow? I have a few things to say to you. I can’t solve your problems, but I may have some hints to help a little:

Your drawings will be very imperfect. That is OK. Remember that you are doing a form of note-taking, not forging the great masters to sell on the black market. Wobbly lines and random splotches are fine. 

Simplify a lot. Don’t get every single detail of the painting. I usually focus on one or tow main object in the painting instead of doing every little detail. This saves time. 

Remember that you can go over this stuff later. Do it in pencil if you are that worried. Because you have written down the name of the painting you drew you can always google it and do a neater version when you get home. 


  1. This is great! Also, I'm so glad you got to go to the Art Institute yet again. What a magical place it is! :)

    1. Thanks, Claire! It is so good to be there. It always makes me glad to be in the States.