Zettelkasten Forum


Literature notes about literature notes?

Back in December 2020 I was just beginning my attempt to use Zettelkasten concepts to help me with my art history research. In the 5 months since, I have made a lot of notes, but I'm getting a little confused and could use some suggestions...

I am considering an artwork as an atomic unit. For example, let's use Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. I have a "biography" note with the image, the dates, the medium, and where it's currently housed, as well as the label information that the museum provides for it. So far, so good. I consider this a literature note.

then I start to read about this painting. I read about Van Gogh, about St. Remy where it was painted, about the use of thick oil paint/impasto technique. I read about about the Post-Impressionist art movement, as well as what influences it had. These are all literature notes as well.

Now it comes time for me to present this painting on a tour. I have MANY notes on this painting, starting with the basic "biography" note, but I also need to find information that's scattered across perhaps dozens of other notes in order to pull together interesting facts and stories, as well as to tie this painting to other works on my tour.

This is where I'm getting lost. It's a LOT to keep track of, and I worry that I may miss something. I get that I can have a structure note that lists links to all of these other notes in one place, but I'm curious about how I actually use all of these notes to build a cohesive presentation. Clearly I am missing something here.

thank you for your patience in reading, and any opinions/help you can offer!

Comments

  • It is both very easy and very difficult. You merely write a script for your tour. You will use some of the information in your notes, but not all of it. As you move from picture to picture you may emphasise some things and leave out others. Certain works may exemplify some things better than others. Then again, it may depend on the story you want to tell. One tour might have a certain thread (technique) while another tour might tell a different story (different treatments of similar subjects). You can write the script on paper, or have it on a phone or iPad. Plenty of choice.

  • @MartinBB said:
    It is both very easy and very difficult. You merely write a script for your tour. You will use some of the information in your notes, but not all of it. As you move from picture to picture you may emphasise some things and leave out others. Certain works may exemplify some things better than others. Then again, it may depend on the story you want to tell. One tour might have a certain thread (technique) while another tour might tell a different story (different treatments of similar subjects). You can write the script on paper, or have it on a phone or iPad. Plenty of choice.

    Thanks MartinBB. I get how that process works - I have been writing tours for years. The question was more about how to surface and organize the notes so that I am able to find everything when I am doing the writing of the tour.

    Does that make more sense?

  • edited May 3

    @ArtyNerd

    Are you making links directly between your zettels? You don't say so in your description, but kind of imply that you don't (very much).

    Consider this part of your description:

    I read about Van Gogh, about St. Remy where it was painted, about the use of thick oil paint/impasto technique. I read about about the Post-Impressionist art movement, as well as what influences it had. These are all literature notes as well.

    I wouldn't call any of these items "literature notes". They are just "notes" - what I call "zettels" if they are actually in my Zettelkasten. For example, you could have a zettel about Van Gogh's age when he created that painting and where he lived (in fact, you might have a few zettels, talking about different aspects of his life at that time). You might have a couple of zettels about St. Remy. You might have a zettel on thick oil painting and the impasto technique. You might have a few zettels about Post-Impressionist art. By the time you are done, you may have 15 or 20 zettels (remember, each only has one idea). In addition, you have the zettel you wrote about the painting itself.

    Once the zettels are written, what are the next steps?

    1. The first step I take is to assign a tag to all of these notes - say "#Starry_Night". That will let you easily find all of these notes when you want to write a script for your talk (to do this, you have to be planning ahead and anticipate general topics under which each zettel should be placed).

    So, to prepare the script for your talk, you only have to click on the "#Starry_Night" tag, select which of the notes with this tag that you want to include in your talk, in what order you want to place them, and then write whatever extra text you need to complete the script.

    Some of these zettels might also have a tag like "#Van_Gogh".

    So, tagging is one way to access groups of zettels. Some people don't like tags or don't use them much. I use tagging a fair amount, in the way described above.

    1. Another very important step (the most important step) is to connect these zettels that you just created with links. Each zettel won't necessarily link to every other zettel in the group - that wouldn't make sense. But maybe the zettel describing the impasto technique would link to the zettel about the Starry Night painting (if that's the technique Van Gogh used on that painting). It's up to you to connect the zettels in ways that make sense to you.

    When you are creating these links, you will likely also make connections to other zettels in your Zettelkasten (outside of this Starry_Night group). For example, the zettel for St. Remy might also connect to another painter who worked in that area. There are almost endless possibilities. That is one of the challenges of good Zettelkasten management - making a reasonable number of good connections, but not overdoing it.

    1. You might also have structure notes in your Zettelkasten (this is one note distinction I do make - between "normal" zettels and "structure notes"). For instance, you might have a structure note on Painting Techniques; on it, you would reference your zettel on the impasto technique. To me, structure notes are just notes that have a lot of connections to other zettels, based on some topic of interest. In a way, structure notes perform a similar task to tags. After some experience with this, I think of them as complementary tools, and I use them both. But I tend to do more tagging and only have a few structure notes.

    2. Now, if you want to find these notes about Van Gogh and his painting of Starry Night, you have multiple ways of accessing this information in your Zettelkasten.

    • You could of course do a general search for the term "Van Gogh".
    • You could click on (or search for) the tag "#Starry_Night".
    • You might have a structure note that takes you to zettels on all of Van Gogh's paintings, in which case you would go to that structure note.
    • Or you might remember that Starry Night was painted using the impasto technique, go to your structure note for Painting Techniques and click on the link to the impasto technique. Directly from that zettel, you might click on the link to Starry Night or to Van Gogh.
    1. Working with a Zettelkasten is all about making connections between zettels (which I think of as an internal, organic structure) and about imposing sufficient external structure that you can find things. Some people, rather than using structure notes, create one note which is like an index. Each entry in the index references one zettel, perhaps the key one on that topic. You click on that link, find the zettel, and then you are off and running, hopping from zettel to zettel using the network of connections you have made. This approach is a great one for discovering new insights in your own Zettelkasten.

    On thing I do suggest is not getting hung up with the idea that a note has to be a literature note or a reference note or a hub note or a structure note or....whatever else. You will see different thoughts about the topic "kinds of notes" in this forum. Some people find it useful to define many different types of notes but then seem to trip over themselves trying to figure out how they relate to one another and which ones should go in their Zettelkasten. Other people (I'm one of them) don't really make distinctions between types of notes - I started out just writing zettels and only recently recognized, from other people's posts, that I already had some structure notes - these turned out to be zettels that sort of introduced a topic and then had a long list of connections to other related zettels. OK - I'm willing to admit that they are structure notes and call them by that name because it is useful when talking to others.

    The point is, if you get too obsessive about "types of notes" when you are first starting out, you will get really confused. Just write zettels and explore ways of connecting and tagging them. With experience and perhaps also as your number of notes increases, you will find the topic of "note types" to be more meaningful or useful.

  • edited May 3

    @ArtyNerd said:

    This is where I'm getting lost. It's a LOT to keep track of, and I worry that I may miss something. I get that I can have a structure note that lists links to all of these other notes in one place, but I'm curious about how I actually use all of these notes to build a cohesive presentation. Clearly I am missing something here.

    I suggest you to, instead of trying to capture all relevant information that you have, focus on your tour. The tour is 30 minutes long, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Start with a draft, then add details. As you proceed you can focus on one topic at a time. Instead of keeping track of all those nested connections, you'll find them as you make progress. You can not keep track of all your notes and plan all of your work ahead. The draft is your guideline for a cohesive presentation, but keep it flexible so you can move things around.

    Post edited by zk_1000 on

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • @ArtyNerd said:
    The question was more about how to surface and organize the notes so that I am able to find everything when I am doing the writing of the tour.

    Does that make more sense?

    Well, in a sense it makes more sense. But I wouldn't expect to "find everything" when I am doing some writing. For me it is incremental. I use Scrivener for writing, and it is particularly good for the kind of "assemble it bit-by-bit" method of working. And @GeoEng51 is right, in my view, in that there are no "literature notes", there are just notes; and tags are a good way of connecting things. I use them liberally for exactly that purpose.

    In my method of using The Archive for notes, it is for recording, storage, retrieval, and connecting things together. But I don't exactly use it for organising, because I only organise material when I am writing. And I do that in another application.

  • @ArtyNerd

    I can second what @MartinBB said about Scrivener - I use it in the same way as he describes. It is my main writing tool.

  • First off: An art tour is an interesting product, please keep us posted about your findings, @ArtyNerd!

    Since my "products" are mostly text, I'd probably approach the art tour in a similar vein. When making the notes, I have increased my knowledge, too. So I'd sit down for a quarter hour or so to come up with a rough outline. Back in the early days, @sfast encouraged me to just start with an idea and outline it as far as I can with my current knowledge, adhering to the structure of the essay/article/... I wanted to produce. I remember how surprised I was that I could get anywhere at all. So that's a good start.

    Then there'll be gaps. Things I don't remember, but I know I do have. I'd search the Zettelkasten for pointers and leave links from the outline to the relevant notes. In the process I might find that the angle of the tour brings up an idea to pull together different ideas into something new, so I'd create these "structures" on the fly. Maybe the town where Van Gogh painted has an interesting history tidbit, so I'd look for the town name. -- This is my intervention, my idea, my hunch, it's not something that the notes do automatically for me. I stress this point because some folk on the web seem to over-emphasize the magic of the Zettelkasten. But in the end, even if you buy into the metaphor of having a conversation with your Zettelkasten, it's not a monologue; you have to ask questions, make inquiries, come up with an idea where to bring the conversation next. In other words, you have to be an active participant.

    It's at least a Choose your own adventure style progression, if you will, but actually more like old text-adventures where you had to figure out the phrases to type into the PC.

    A: "So, Zettelkasten, what can you tell me about Starry Night?"
    Z: "Van Gogh painted it. The town of Remy is related. Notable, it's a thick impasto technique, very rare back in his days."

    -- now from here, you can look up Van Gogh, Impasto, Remy, and popular arts at the time of the painting to find out more about the contrast.

    A: "I don't remember much about Remy ..."
    Z: "It's a small rural town. Van Gogh liked it for its madeleines and the cheap coffee."
    A: "Uh, that's an unexpected anecdote, thanks, but why did he go there in the first place?"
    Z: "I don't know yet!"

    -- a research on the web ensues, bringing up spicy notes about love that was never pursued, or whatever --

    A: "So impasto. You said it was very thick. Why is that important?"
    Z: "Van Gogh was poor as you could be, and it's a very bold statement to use that much expensive pigment at once. It's almost a vulgar move for his time. But did you know that paint got way cheaper already because of painting tubes becoming popular? Mixing your own colors was still important, but not very portable. Impressionist plein-air painters made use of portable color in tubes, and thus inspired a larger market. So the public perception of cost-per-millimeter of paint was actually misguided, and ..." (I made this part up obviously :))

    -- The last piece is meant to illustrate jumping between topics by following links, or going back and forth from Impasto to Tube paint to Impressionists back to Impasto, to a note about Cost of paint, back to Van Gogh and his few funds, etc.

    If the traversal isn't possible, if there are no connections, no paths to follow, searching for info you know exists is a first step to bring the stuff up and make connections as you make use of the information. If you didn't create connections earlier, maybe because they didn't come to mind, at least now you have an angle from which the connections can make sense.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • edited May 4

    @ArtyNerd said:
    I am considering an artwork as an atomic unit.

    Considering an artwork as an atomic unit means that you are using very rough frames of analysis. I have the suspicion that this is where the issue stems from. I never encountered any great artwork that so simple that its whole complexity could grasped as one unit of anything.

    I suspect there is a missmatch between how you set up your system and the depth of your thinking.

    I am a Zettler

  • Speaking as someone who did their first degree in the history and theory of art (loooong time ago - University of Sussex, 1974-78) the pertinent comment by @sfast suddenly makes me wonder if a Zettelkasten is a good fit with studying the history of art. Perhaps it is - I am just pondering out loud. But the study of art is inevitably closely tied to individual objects, which is not quite like studying books and extracting ideas from them. I eagerly await having this observation shot to pieces! :)

  • @MartinBB said:
    I eagerly await having this observation shot to pieces! :)

    I am using my Zettelkasten to analyse individual pieces of art.. ;) It works fine. History of art is even one of the subjects that is especially easy (physics and math would be on the opposite side of the spectrum).

    You just need to set up a structure that actually matches with the tool you are trying to use. That is not an issue related to the Zettelkasten Method. The Method is just about general rules and practical guidelines on how to deal with knowledge. The specifics need to be provided by the discipline.

    I think most of the problem class "How to apply the ZKM to XY?" are solved by asking how you'd solve it without a Zettelkasten and then just put it in your Zettelkasten.

    I am a Zettler

  • Wow, this has been very helpful!

    Thank you @GeoEng51 for that really detailed step-by-step process - I am pouring over it now and I know I will come away with some great ideas.

    @ctietze, thank you for that back-and-forth demonstration of how to think about what I want to find and how.

    And @sfast and @MartinBB, I am loving this discussion about using Zettelkasten for researching art history.

    You have all been a great resource!

  • @sfast said:
    I am using my Zettelkasten to analyse individual pieces of art.. ;) It works fine.

    I find this reassuring!

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