Paint Life: Kanban for Art Production

What? Use a project management system for art production? Isn't art a mysterious, organic process?

Art may look mystical and as if it just appeared overnight, but often the most captivating art emerges from unglamorous practice, routine, and development. 

Before applying Kanban to the stream of oil painting commissions, Photoshop projects, and other art projects that cross my desk, my art project management system was bad. I would email myself with checklists and timelines. I wrote down projects on a calendar in order to keep a frail, frail sense of progress. "Do this thing!" I wrote on the calendar, yelling at my future, just-as-overwhelmed self. 

The solution to this art project management problem was Kanban. 

So, what is Kanban? It's a project management system used by all kinds of companies. Usually a Kanban board helps teams of engineers keep track of timelines, workloads, and the statuses of projects. A simple Kanban board looks like this: 

photo from wikipedia

photo from wikipedia


In Kanban, a new project, represented by a 'dedicated sticky note', starts on the left side of the Kanban board. 

As the project gets built and developed, the dedicated sticky note moves slowly to the right side of the board. It's a bit like Chess. You're trying to get to the other side. 

After using Kanban processes at software companies, I thought: Why don't I take Kanban and use it to manage art production, instead of killing myself over these untethered checklists and calendars?

So, I came up with a six-stage Kanban Board for art production: 

1. Idea - Just a formulation, nothing concrete exists

2. New - The canvas is ready.

3. Started - Paint is on the canvas. 

4. Mid-Stage - A decent amount of paint is on the canvas. 

5. Almost Done - Only a few final brushstrokes are needed. 

6. Done - This painting is drying. 


As Kanban goes, this is a dead simple board. In most Kanban or Scrum situations, each of the six column headers would have a few sub-processes. For instance, Almost Done might have subprocesses of "Needs finishing touches" or "Needs shipping address".  But for all it's simplicity, this six column board gets the job done.

While working with a Kanban board for about two months, I finished more projects and treasured each project's completion more deeply. As silly as it sounds, there was something intensely satisfying about moving a sticky note forward, and eventually moving the note to the 'Done' stage.

Being done with projects is sexy!

Being done with projects is sexy!


Sentimentally, I keep a book of finished dedicated stickynotes. My main problem as an artist is that I constantly struggle with the feeling of never making enough art. The stickynote booklet helps remind me of the reality.

What surprised me most about using Kanban for art was how crucial it became for offloading mental stress. I realized this when a painting's dedicated sticky note was accidentally blown off of the Kanban board. The sticky note fell to the ground behind my desk, unseen for several weeks. 

Without being able to visualize the painting's location on the board, my brain assumed the workload of constantly thinking about the painting. These weren't productive thoughts, either - thoughts such as "Oh yeah that project exists and I haven't done it ..."  crossed my bleary mind, followed by the vague guilt of "I should try to work on that one painting but I'm not sure when."  This mental noise slowed down the painting actually getting done. Once I replaced the fallen sticky note, I moved forward on the painting successfully. 

I could see the Kanban approach totally not working for art directive problems, such as 'this person's face doesn't look sad enough - make it more sad.' And, paint life wouldn't be paint life without chaotic freedom -  it's good to constantly make art that isn't on the board. But, for artists who juggle tons of commissions or intend on keeping personal production goals, I would definitely recommend giving Kanban a try. 


Paint Life Recap: 

1. The spatial and tactile aspects of the Kanban board appeals to visual, creative minds.

2. The left to right progression of a project's movement on a board is the key clarifying element of Kanban. 

3. Kanban boards should be as simple or as complex as you need them to be. 

4. Kanban boards work best at a high level for artists managing a large amount of projects.