Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Taking notes at the museum

I am one of these people who carry around a notebook with them most of the time. I have dozens of them in various sizes that I filled with notes over the years. My current notebook is a Moleskine (Moleskine Books - Large Plain Notebook) with plain paper so I can write or draw in it.

When visiting the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, I took some notes as I was planning to write an article on my visit. This made me appreciate the benefits of taking notes while visiting an art exhibition:

  • Your notes act as a memory trigger: By looking at your notes, you can revisit the exhibition.

  • What was this painting? There is nothing more frustrating than being unable to find a painting you liked. I want to have the title of the painting and the name of the artist to be able to search for it on the Internet. If I am lucky, I can find a good reproduction online.

  • Focussing your attention: Taking notes focuses your attention because you can only take notes if you look carefully at the paintings. You have to take the time. In a way, it works very much in the same way drawing a landscape will engrave it into your mind. You look at the painting, see something interesting, pose and write about it in your notebook. When you write, you look away from the painting and when you return to it you do so with a fresh look.

  • What to look for? When I visit a museum or an art exhibition, I pay a particular attention to details that cannot be seen the same way on a reproduction: the thickness of the paint; different textures; glazes and brushwork. I generally go from the general to the particular. I watch the painting from close, then far, then close again, as the painter would have done while painting it.

  • What do I note? I don’t try to be exhaustive. I jolt down my impressions, what jumped at me when looking at a particular painting. I try to capture what I liked and what I found clever or moving. I go for single words if words will do. This is not a literary exercise but a way to capture emotions. Many times, I will sketch the composition of the painting and write my comments around. Having a visual records works better for me. I take colour notes; in particular if I see an effect I like and want to try to emulate it in my own paintings.

Related articles
I would recommend two articles on note taking.

  • How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison : an excellent article by Tatsuya Nakagawa on note taking and fascinating account on how Edison used it to his advantage.

  • How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek by Tim Ferris, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. I am now using the indexing system he suggested in this article and it saved me precious time. I am not going to copy the content of the article here, so make sure you go and read it on Tim’s website. The only point I would mention is that it does not matter that your key words are not in alphabetical order, just create the index as you go. Also, one thing I have been doing is to put a red dot in front of the names of artists in the index. This way, I can easily find the art quotes I am collecting. You could use the same idea to quickly create some broad categories in your index.

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