Artwork Storage

How do illustrators store their artwork? It's an issue we all come up against, and it never gets any easier. The more we create, the more 'stuff' accumulates that we need to deal with. Never shy to face up to the less glamorous side of illustration, this week we take a look at what happens when the job is over and everything wrapped up.

Sooner or later we all have to face up to the conundrum - what to do with the artwork? Whether professional or student, the moment a book or project is completed the tidying up begins. For some people it's more of a problem than others. Some of us work entirely digitally, so only have to consider data storage. Most of us however have at least some physical artwork involved, whether sketchbooks, pre-scan layers or 100% hand created art. Many of us throw away sketches, tracings and other development material, but that still leaves final artwork.

I know illustrators who earn a good living by selling all the original artwork spreads of their books as soon as they get them back from the printers - which can alarm their publishers! However selling artwork does depend very much on your style of work and the type of book - not all illustration sits easily in a frame on a wall, and once it's gone, it's gone - selling artwork for a price that reflects the work put in depends on your 'gallery standing'. Also, with the rise of small presses and affordable printing it's becoming more feasible for illustrators to regain the publishing rights to their out-of-print titles. If you want to re-release your book, you may need to rework or re-scan the artwork. You can try to keep tabs on the new owners of the art for sure, but when you've a lot of artwork and a lot of different buyers, people move, lose touch...

So a lot of us hold onto our artwork. I asked members of the Illustrator's Committee what their storage solutions are and, as I currently don't have much of a solution, I'll start with me...

John Shelley

I don't sell my children's book artwork for reasons mentioned above. I always think of the spreads to a book being analogous to a row of teeth - if you just sell one or two "showcase" images from a book you're left with up to 20 others that you can't sell, and the set is missing it's key images (however if someone wanted to buy the entire set of images from a book I might consider!).

When I left Japan I ruthlessly threw away all my advertising artwork and limited my luggage to children's book and exhibition art only. In Yokohama I had a good storage system in a separate studio - a plan chest, boxes of files and an unused bathroom I used to store picture book art. All in the past now... In the UK I've moved house 5 times in 8 years, so at the moment I have no system! As I work at home now, artwork is separated into old marked envelopes and plastic bags, and fills boxes wherever I can - in my studio room, in a cupboard under stairs.... 

... or in a chest in the lounge...

 Sorting my artwork into a coherent system is a work in progress.

Loretta Schauer

I store the hand drawn and hand painted elements of my artwork in A3 plastic bags or folders and stack them up wherever I can find space. I'm quite ruthless at throwing stuff out, but even so, it's surprising what a massive pile of paper you end up with after each book.  I don't have much room to store things and the cost of and floor space requirement of an artist's plan chest is out of the question.

From the start this constraint influenced how I work and is one of the reasons why my final artwork is always created digitally and is stored digitally. I've never had the physical space to be able to paint big spreads or to store them afterwards - but I have an almost infinite amount of space to store stuff digitally, and for very little cost :)

Paul Morton

It's lucky that I do have plenty of space as I'm an inveterate collector and save everything. I have sketchbooks dating back to school days and boxes of (moulding) airbrushed artwork out in a large plan chest in an outside workshop.
In my studio I have other plan chests and cabinets. Artwork preliminaries are stored here in folders, labelled.
I have also started to photograph, digitise and thus preserve old artwork so that I can actually throw away pieces that I'm never going to need (but you never know!)
As for recent digital work, I have 3 or 4 back-ups of everything I produce.

Having once lost 2 months' work on a failed Mac, without extra back-ups, I no longer take any chances.

Bridget Strevens Marzo

For my revamped  home studio I designed and had made (by a very cheap but brilliant carpenter-builder)   drawers almost as big as a plan chest below a bookcase which I love, and I found cheap iron handles with labels on them on ebay. They pull out very smoothly and divided between several ongoing projects like Tiz and Ott, recent book projects and unpublished stuff. I have to chuck out a lot. I  keep most originals and bin most of the print out. The drawers are now filling -  so I will have to throw out more commercial projects and only keep the sketches and originals I really like -  or things that may be useful for future work.  Like Loretta I store - but on hard drives - not entirely online as it takes so long to upload everything.  And there are the websites - my now 'archive' site shows all my old books but probably less than one per cent of all the illustrations I've done in the past...and I'm showing even less of my work online now - I guess because I'm writing more.

The drawers I designed to be slightly bigger than A2 on the left and A3 on the right.  Very lucky to have found such a reasonable Romanian carpenter to make these drawers / shelves for my home studio - though they are permanent fittings - so would have to stay if I ever moved. Materials were cheap MDF plus Ikea kitchen top wood for the table surface which extends around the room as a U shaped desk area.

Forgot to add before that as you'll see in the open drawer - I separate finished projects inside the drawers with A2 and A3  Mapac plastic project bags with handles and snap tops.  I'd prefer if they were zip up rather than 'snap top' with handles but they were the cheapest  I could find at the time when bought in bulk.  I've just looked up packs of 5 here but I think mine were even cheaper!

Anne-Marie Perks 

A habit I got into way back as an art director/designer was storing everything to do with a project in a large envelope, box or no longer used portfolio case. In fact, my portfolio cases have turned into holders of one to three projects, depending on the size, as not all my work has been in books. I also do commercial work, and sometimes that’s just a large envelope. I also have almost three shelves in my bookcase dedicated to sketchbooks that I date and note roughly what ideas, sketches, projects or notes on classes are inside on the front cover. The last two wordless books I finished had so much developmental material in the form of a couple hundred drawings and lots of good watercolour paper and ink, it ended filling one of those large box zip bags you can get at markets and shops on the high street. 

My studio isn’t a bad size, but it’s true that about a third of it is covered by various boxes holding sketchbooks, stored work from books and commercial projects and personal projects. I also have an area for oils, easel and canvas. So not a huge amount of walking around space. Digitally I store over two large hard drives. Digital storage has changed over the years, anyone still remember the floppy disk or the zip? External hard drives seem constant at the moment, but I also practise the back up once, back up twice rule from publishing.

Heather Kilgour 

I store images in card backed paper envelopes or in my A1 folio if they're too big. I have a very boring set of Ikea shelves. My digital stuff is backed up to Livedrive on a daily basis.

Trish Phillips  

I like to use clear A3 zip up bags because you can see what is inside so no need to label. They are great for keeping any cut out bits of artwork safe and also have the benefit of being pretty waterproof in case of any dampness in the air (especially useful when I had a shed studio in the garden!). I also use similar zip or button A4 wallets  for smaller work.  Stored in a box they make a fool-proof filing system. How I would love the space for a plan chest….

Many thanks to the contributors for sharing their experiences. 


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures and Central East Network co-coordinator. 
He's illustrated over 50 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years. His latest picture book Crinkle, Crackle, Crack - It's Spring! is published by Holiday House (USA). His next book, Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Shaped the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge, USA) is released on 22nd March and will be widely distributed in the UK.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not an illustator but I found this really interesting! Thanks for sharing.


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