Yesterday, Dennis R. of Aspen, Colorado wrote, “I read with interest your letter on why you shouldn’t put dates on paintings. What are your thoughts about catalog numbers on paintings? Assuming an artist uses some sort of sequential system, an astute observer may be able to guesstimate the date. Or is this taking things too far?”
Thanks, Dennis. Several times in my life I’ve started cataloguing and failed. I once got as high as 75 before zoning-out. If I had to do it all over again I’d have had an early lobotomy and given #1 to my first parent-noted drawing at age four and carried through to this morning’s effort at #23,865 (just guessing). Fact is, I was absent from class the day they covered sequential systems. You may have better luck.
In my studio at least, an insider-accessible, comprehensive cataloguing system would be worth a boxcar of gold bricks. I can see an entry now:
#1678, Whistler Mountain, Oil/C, 16″x 20″, Jan 17, 1978, “It was a dark and stormy night and the ski-hill was a ribbon of ice. Sara hit a mogul and broke her leg.”
But alas, unpleasant associations like this will forever be difficult to pinpoint. Recently, an old painting came in for cleaning and I noted #43 in my writing on the back. I would have loved to tell the owner something about it, but I’ve lost the catalogue.
Personally, I like the idea of an old fashioned journal — a sort of Pepys’ Diary with cryptic tweetlets and insider asides. (“Particularly bad day for bears,” kind of thing.) Just out of interest, I’d also like to know the time I started and the time I finished. Oh, and the amount of paint I used. I guess the main argument against keeping track is the possibility it may turn perfectly lovely chaos into bookkeeping.
I took a chance and asked Joan Morris who works with Mark Zuckerberg if they might come up with an app just for us, but they were all too busy watching the stock.
Dennis, don’t do what I did, do what I say. Get yourself a big handsome book and start cataloguing and notating everything you do. It’s too late for me. I’d look even more stupid starting at #23,866.
PS: “Chaos breeds life when order breeds habit.” (Henry Brooks Adams)
Esoterica: There are 7,650,000 Google destinations when you type in “computerized cataloguing systems.” I’ve heard of artists using commercial and library applications like “Catalog Builder” and “E-catalog.” A long-time standard is “GallerySoft,” designed specifically for art galleries to keep track of inventory, but in use by a few artists. Some catalogue systems have search capabilities. Type in “broken leg” and in my case I would have been whisked to the unfortunate memories associated with #1678. We’re now in the 21st Century, folks. Ya gotta love this stuff.
Husband and wife team
by Brigitte Bowyer Carey, Hope Town, Abacos, Bahamas
Most artists are notorious for not being able to do anything constructive with numbers, so ask your mate or a good friend to help. My husband started my catalog and maintains it. He uses loose 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheets of paper, on its own clip board. He pre-prints the sheets with Number, Title, Size, Price (after selling) Location, and Date Sold. I photograph every painting I think is worth keeping, and keep this visual record (with the catalog numbers) in its own folder on my computer. Visual is so much easier for us. It’s important to have some sort of record of your life’s work.
by Bernadine Fox, Vancouver, BC, Canada
My favourite system so far is ArtTracker from Xanadu Gallery. It has taken my multitude of binders, where I had to flip through every page looking for one piece of art, to a system where I can do a search and find the inventory sheet for exactly what I am looking for within seconds. On that sheet is every piece of information I need, including title, size, medium, an image, consignment history, sold history, along with current whereabouts. I can produce sales receipts/invoices and consignment sheets. It costs about $45 and is fairly intuitive. This program has saved me countless hours of searching for information to produce exhibition proposals, labels, etc.
(RG note) Thanks, Bernadine. Several artists wrote recommending ArtTracker.
Talking with pictures
by Marlien van Heerden, Pretoria, South Africa
Luckily we are in the digital era. Or is that part of my problem? I took photos of ‘almost’ every painting I did. In the old days that meant building an album, nowadays it means year 2009 is lost because of a stolen computer and no backup.
Still, I believe we talk with pictures. It was once said, “The artist whispers his message on the canvas and then the canvas whispers his own message back.” I believe giving names, or writing comments, confuses the secret message and takes away the subtle magic of a painting, ruining it for the viewer. Therefore I talk with pictures and try to keep my mouth shut thereafter.
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by Peggy Kerwan, Novi, MI, USA
I started painting six years ago, around the same time I learned to use a computer — and have kept files of my work ever since (photo of model/painting/date) (photo of still life/painting/date) (photo of whatever else I’ve painted-date) . . . also folders by year of exhibits showing the venue-date-what was entered/accepted/rejected) . . . also an excel list for tax purposes . . . and finally a removable thumbnails board (24″x 36″ with 1″x 1″ images of my art) so I can easily see what is on exhibit, and where it (hopefully) will be going in the next months. I’ve tried to do this on the computer, but hands on is so much better for me. Now that I’ve written this I’m wondering if I should call my therapist.
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No hope for a catalogue
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
I can’t imagine cataloguing. I too often re-work paintings which would lead to the need to add more info if there was room, otherwise stapling or gluing in notes. Cutting down work on panels would require further entry or a decimal numbering system. The erasure when I destroyed a painting would be a further embarrassment. My catalogue would be full of stapled in additions, torn out deletions and would look like the directory in a public phone booth. It would die. Considering that I barely maintain my web site and that I currently have a few paintings to put up I’d say there is no hope for a Kerr Katalaogue.
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Maintaining a ‘bible’
by Madeleine Wood, Fanny Bay, BC, Canada
During my seven years of art education, I kept sketchbooks, which held my history. In the 16 years since, my sketchbook has gradually morphed into a “catalogue” with its bindings slowly bursting into a big fan. I cherish the thing! It’s what I’d rescue out of a fire. I also kept binders of slides, but that ritual is long gone. When I heard that west coast painter Toni Onley kept a shoe box full of prints, with all pertinent information scrawled on the back, I was charmed, but that wasn’t my way either. Once I called myself a business, I tried the database route, but that eventually went flat. In the past year, I learned of software called “Art Tracker” which looks pretty good and costs only about $40. I may try it, but my guess is that I’ll buy another big black sketchbook… It suits me. Here’s what I put in it: a photo of the painting, or its reference photo, with title, dimensions, retail price, date started /finished (if I remember), and its journey. It’s not uniform at all; in between I have exhibition notes, etc. It has become an impressive and tactile record of my art; thereby my life. It’s my bible.
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Many user-friendly systems
by Chris Wachsmuth, San Francisco, CA, USA
There are many reasons why an artist would want to catalog his/her work to include gallery locations, commissions, use in workshops, articles, texts, pricing, dating, etc — and today’s databases for both PC and Mac are very user friendly. Alyson Stanfield’s art biz blog has a number of posts on this topic and many comments with user feedback on at least 10 of these programs which have either been designed for the artist or can be easily adapted. Using a proper inventory system that includes thumbnails of the piece and a description, piece title and yes perhaps a number or code would address Dennis’ numbering issue and won’t turn the artist into a book-keeper as you suggest — just a more organized artist who also happens to be running a small business keeping track of their precious inventory of art.
Catalogue potential for follow-up
by David Sharpe, Stratford, ON, Canada
A simple system I use is every January of a new year I start off with a numbering system. For example the first painting I did this year gets 12-1. The next painting gets 12-2 and so on. 2013 will start out 13-1 etc etc. I always, always write that number on the back of each painting. It reads CAT. No 12-1. No date ( I don’t want buyers to think they have ‘old’ work). I have a section in my daily art journal that is for this info alone. It makes its own ‘year’ section as the list goes on.
There is a little linear scribble beside the new number and a description of size and framing. Also the date painted. If it’s in my gallery I’ll write in the date delivered and if it sells, I try to get the buyers name so I can send a handwritten follow up thank you card. In that card I’ll put my email address and ask them if they would like to be on my email list to email me.
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Reliable system includes dates
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Back in 1978, when I started showing my work in galleries, I read something by some guru saying that every artist should keep a catalogue raisonne, a studio catalog. I started with a loose-leaf notebook, 3-hole 8 1/2 x 11 ruled sheets, with the details of works that survived to leave the studio, the price and a slide or Polaroid of the work stuck onto the page beside the entry (this was in the pre-digital age).
That became too cumbersome and paper-consuming, so I dropped the pics and just listed the works. I’ve kept it up out of habit and I’m glad I did. It’s really helped me to keep track of my work — where it is, whether it’s been sold, who bought it, etc. When a dealer or a collector calls me with some question about a piece, I can look it up immediately. The number is on the back of each work. The problem has been getting it into digital form for the computer. I’ve transcribed it back to 2010 so far and now enter each new work in text file — but I still use the handwritten notebook as well!
But I have a problem with your advice about dates. I feel dishonest and deceptive when I leave off the date. My work — I think all artists’ work to some extent — is autobiographical — As Pablo Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.
It seems like when I leave off the date I’m diminishing the truth and just telling a lie. Sometimes — maybe all the time — art and good sense just don’t go together.
OCD and the magical moment
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
“#1236… The temperature was 29 Celsius but the brisk wind off the lake kept the deer flies at bay and the conditions very comfortable … It was a 11×14 looking southwest across … With the Blackberry I now email myself the GPS coordinates as well.”
These little compositions about each and every painting — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, are usually about 2 to 4 paragraphs describing the location, the meteorology, the motivation and the inspiration to paint. The other sights and sounds of the natural world are also prime material for the record. The reasons for the names of the painting are also included as the title will “pop” into my brain sometime during the work. The details of the size, support and tint of the media are also noted along with the start time and date. I don’t include an end time as it is either embarrassingly short or agonizingly long.
This process started on recipe cards in 1965 but switched to computer files and html in the 1980’s. When I got a digital camera around 2004 I started taking images of the back of the painting as well, along with a few images as the work progressed. It is now a fully integrated, linked, internal website with images of most paintings during their evolution. If I had to try to start from scratch I wouldn’t.
I often think that the science side of my brain has hijacked the creative lobe with all of this record keeping and cataloguing. I wonder whether this is a form of obsessive compulsive behavior which I think afflicts most artists as they strive to make the next painting their new favourite — something I have been striving for since the magical moments of the Sunday afternoon in February of 2001 when #523 essentially painted itself. Life is good!
by Beth Kurtz, Manhattan, NY, USA
I have a database of my works using the Bento software. It’s easy to use, and I don’t attempt to put in a lot of information. “Broken leg” for me would constitute too much information.
I consider it crucial for each picture to have a title, so that I can list them in alphabetical order. (I often forget what the title was but can usually find a picture I’m looking for anyway, by the “sort” feature in the database.) I list with a photograph, the series (still life, landscape, figure, etc.), size, medium, support, date, sold, and given away, and can sort the work under any of those parameters.
I sign every piece on the front with initials only. To me it is essential to write my full name and date on every piece on the back, in large letters with permanent marker. Since I have no gallery and don’t sell much, I don’t consider that I will lose much by having some of the pieces appear to be “too old.” That’s a decision every artist must make, but I find it endlessly frustrating when looking at a deceased artist’s work, not being able to know its date. (A nod to my works’ entirely uncertain future!)
One drawback with Bento is that it is not transferable — i.e., I can have it on only one of my computers. I can get more flexibility by paying the premium, and I suppose I’ll have to one of these days, out of consideration for my executors — otherwise I don’t know how they’d get at it to settle the estate!
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mixed media 30 x 70 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Susan Avishai of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “If we were the types to catalogue our work really well, we probably wouldn’t be artists, we’d be curators or accountants.”
And also Nancy Essman of Littleton, CO, USA, who wrote, “I’m wondering, when you say you write on the back of a painting…. just where are you speaking of… on the canvas or the wood?”
(RG Note) Thanks, Nancy. I write on the canvas with a Sharpie “Permanent Marker.” So far no problem with “creep.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Cataloguing for life…