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Anna Kuen // Art and Creativity

On Clarity of Line

Anna Kuen is a visual artist, model and DJ. A life without notebooks is unimaginable for her. She needs pen and paper to process her ideas – and to rid herself of some thoughts

Anna Kuen, you’re an artist and you keep a striking number of notebooks. What do you record in them?

I have one notebook and one sketchbook always lying open on my desk in the studio. Before I start painting, I write something in the notebook. It’s a ritual to clear my head. It might be a single word, a description of my mood, something that’s currently preoccupying me or something I don’t want to forget. 

As for the sketchbook, I draw in it – to prepare for my work on canvas, and I note down ideas for the title of the series. Sometimes I write down passages I’ve read elsewhere that resonate with the work for me. If I get stuck while working on something, I flick back through my workbooks and try to pick up dropped threads like that.

How do you order your thoughts? Lists or mind maps?

Usually mind maps. I observe how my notes develop a rhythm. For example, I always structure a page in the same way, using a kind of template, not that I’ve ever thought about it. Because my notebooks are often unruled, it can also happen that a note scoots up to the top and gets fitted with arrows. That can also take on a life of its own between the head and the hand. It’s my way of arranging my thoughts.

As a painter, do you tend to think more in words or in images?

In images – and in colours. Even though I always put my sketches and notes on paper using a black fineliner, I’m still thinking in colour.

Do you have rituals for writing?

Besides the mental hygiene ritual in the studio as just described, I also use notebooks at home for noting what I want to get done. I always need handwritten notes like that. As soon as I’ve put my thoughts on paper, I have them out of my head and I feel less stressed. There’s more room for creativity. This is way beyond to-do lists, and it’s also different from classic diary-keeping. If I’m not clear about something, I try to capture it in words. Sometimes I sit down and reflect on my status quo. What do I like right now? What don’t I like? What would I like to change? It’s an exciting process. Rendering thoughts visible by putting them on paper handwritten brings so much clarity. Sometimes, while I’m doing it, I realise, oh... actually this thing is nowhere near as important or big as I thought. But the opposite is also possible: maybe this thing is even bigger than I imagined.

Rendering thoughts visible by putting them on paper handwritten brings so much clarity”

You studied painting with Daniel Richter in Vienna. Do your writing rituals stem from your time as a student?

I think everyone creates their own rituals. I also use the sketchbooks to keep my artistic work separate from the rest of my life, and I did actually start doing that when I was a student. For example, at the life drawing classes I attended regularly, every evening. In another course about creative drawing, we students worked on books together in groups. So books like this have been my companions for a long time.

Do you also work on a laptop?

I use the laptop as little as possible, certainly when I’m doing my artistic work. I do make notes on my smartphone, but I tend to forget them – I just don’t have the same connection with those notes as I do with the handwritten ones. The only digital lists I make are shopping lists.

How do writing and drawing by hand affect your creativity? Are you more intuitive with pen and paper?

Definitely. I can focus better when I write by hand. Creativity is about focus for me, and about blocking out the outside world. What gets on to the paper in the artistic process is often unexpected – that’s true of sketches and words alike. I usually develop the title for a group of works when I’m already in the midst of working on it, and there too I rely on what gets written down intuitively.

Do you hold on to your notebooks?

Yes, the books are on the bookshelf.

Do you use particular pens?

Yes, usually fineliners from Muji. But I sometimes also buy a few from Lidl at the start of the school year (laughs). I get through quite a lot, because I’m always leaving them somewhere.

As soon as I’ve put my thoughts on paper, I have them out of my head and I feel less stressed. There’s more room for creativity.”

Do you take your notebooks with you when you travel?

Yes, I feel totally naked when I travel without a notebook. But surprisingly I write a lot more in them when I’m at home.

Are you thrifty or wasteful?

Wasteful. I always like to start a new page.

Are there notes that are close to your heart, so you guard them like treasure?

Everyday notes that my husband Johannes writes and puts in my bag. Or that he leaves for me when he travels away. And a handwritten bill from our favourite Italian, which has sadly closed down. That’s stuck on our fridge at home, to remind us of happy times there.

Anna Kuen

The German artist Anna Kuen studied painting with Daniel Richter at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Her abstract paintings, large-format series with highly contrasting colour compositions, bring together angular and organic structures, and many refer back to the natural world of her home country. Kuen grew up in Burghausen in the rural district of Altötting, Bavaria, where the nearby Alpine panorama and lakes were a formative influence on her. Aside from her work as an artist, Kuen travels the world as a model and DJ – but at present, she spends most of her time in Berlin, which has been her home of choice since 2019.


Author Ilona Marx

Ilona Marx is a freelance writer. She is the co-founder of the fashion trade magazine J'N'C, which she oversaw as editor-in-chief for two decades. For the past three years, she has been a contributing editor on the team of Konfekt magazine from Monocle, based in London and Zurich. Her main topics are design, architecture, fashion, gastronomy, art and travel. Her other clients include Wallpaper, The Weekender, Vogue, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Salon and Architektur & Wohnen. Ilona Marx lives in Düsseldorf with her husband.