Cataloguing for life

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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  

“Sailboats at Dusk”
watercolour painting
by Brigitte Bowyer Carey

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.   ArtTracker by Bernadine Fox, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“I can see clearly now”
original painting
by Bernadine Fox

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  

“Voor die houtdeur”
oil painting
by Marlien van Heerden

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.     There is 1 comment for Talking with pictures by Marlien van Heerden
From: Jim Oberst — Jul 03, 2012

By now, all artists must realize that not backing up your computer files is negligence of the first degree. If anyone out there is not doing backups, I urge you to get going on them!

  Photo board by Peggy Kerwan, Novi, MI, USA  

removable thumbnails board

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. There are 2 comments for Photo board by Peggy Kerwan
From: Jim Oberst — Jul 03, 2012
From: misspeggyartist — Jul 06, 2012

@JimOberst – Well Thanks !!! I didn’t realize I could add thumbnails to excel. I’ll try it !

  No hope for a catalogue by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada  

“Mudsharks Coffee Garden, Courtenay”
original painting
by Bill Kerr

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. There is 1 comment for No hope for a catalogue by Bill Kerr
From: Tatjana — Jul 03, 2012

When I modified an old painting, I used to remove it’s jpeg from the old year’s folder, and add an updated image to the latest year folder. Since I’ve been to the San Diego zoo and watched hamsters move wood shavings from one compartment in the maze to another, I have abandoned that process.

  Maintaining a ‘bible’ by Madeleine Wood, Fanny Bay, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Madeleine Wood

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. There is 1 comment for Maintaining a ‘bible’ by Madeleine Wood
From: Marie Louise Tesch — Jul 03, 2012

Lovely painting. Watercolour or acrylic?

  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  

“Carolyn’s crow”
oil painting, 24 x 36 inches
by David Sharpe

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. There are 2 comments for Catalogue potential for follow-up by David Sharpe
From: Patricia Warren — Jul 03, 2012

I have long admired crows—-and I think your painting is exquisite!

From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill, B.C. — Aug 06, 2012

David Sharpe, I LOVE the little black-clad rascals. Your painting illustrates this crow’s intensity, focus and quickness superbly. Excellent! (I keep computer files of the hundreds of shots of crows I’ve taken while enjoying lunch at my town’s dock.) Great work!

  Reliable system includes dates by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA  

“Nature Morte Gnat Trap”
watercolor painting
by Warren Criswell

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!

studio catalog

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  

“The Steenhoek’s”
oil painting, 12 x 19 inches
by Phil Chadwick

“#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!   Bento software by Beth Kurtz, Manhattan, NY, USA  

“Gramercy Park”
oil painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Beth Kurtz

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! There is 1 comment for Bento software by Beth Kurtz
From: Annie Merrill — Jul 03, 2012

Bento is great, very easy to use and you can customize your template as to the information you want for each painting. It’s very easy to drop in the image of your painting plus other images such as a reference photo or the piece hung in a show. It sorts in many, many ways. Bento automatically links to your address book so email invites are easy.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Cataloguing for life

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jun 28, 2012

I tried cataloguing for a couple of months, but honestly forgot about it. Maybe being that organized is antithetical to the machinations of unorthodox grey matter.

From: Gail — Jun 28, 2012
From: Larry Achtemichuk — Jun 28, 2012

Some artists have used journals and a numbering system for a long time. The main limitation is that the only pathway to information about their works is via that sequential number. In the 21st century, IF one wants to keep records for one’s work, one can exploit a relational data base instead of a sequential file. Relational means that you can “get at” or query the data base in a number of ways. A painting’s name will normally suffice and is much more natural for others than a serial number. The record in the data base can optionally include (or not) other information depending on your interest or tolerance – year, a digital image, subject, medium, buyer, “broken leg” comments, provenance, free form notes, and if you had begun a numbering system it could include that. Any of these parameters can be used for other sorts of queries to answer other questions you may want to be able to answer or pursue. This technology is hidden from the artist by having access to the data base provided through an application written for and accessed online via a web browser. Some artist websites do this sort of thing inherently. And, don’t lose your journal !!

From: samuel pearson — Jun 28, 2012

No one is going to hand you an organizational chart. You have to hand it to yourself. (Robert Genn)

From: janet sellers — Jun 29, 2012

I did try to document my artworks. I didn’t last too long, though. I think if I understood if the documenting had significance for me beyond a first sale – such as secondary art market with some money in it for me, I’d take another look at it. Or, the Smithsonian could help me out and do it for me as they collect my work!

From: Doug Mays — Jun 29, 2012

I find it difficult to title my paintings let alone catalogue them. I think I’d rather hire someone who uses their left brain a lot do that task for me while I stay in the ‘creative dark’ zone with my right brain.

From: ReneW — Jun 29, 2012

My memory fails me as I age. I not only forget when I did a painting, I don’t even remember doing it! That is sad but true.

From: Marie Louise Tesch — Jun 29, 2012

Just before my first exhibit a good friend recommended that I take a photo of each work and number them chronologically. I bought a photo album with room for two 4 x 6 photos…in the top slot I put the photo of the painting, in the bottom an index card with title, date created,medium used, size. When a work sells, I slide the card out and write that information on the bottom. That is what shows to anyone flipping through. On the back of the card I jot notes about the cost of supplies and framing to help me determine price. The file is very concise up to #77, then there’s a drop off of photos, but I’ve kept up the card file running. From this I have made a master list for inventory. (Waiting for a good blizzard to update the photos.) Sounds like a lot of work as I write it, but actually it’s been pretty simple to keep up. I am so grateful that she made that recommendation 10 years ago.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Jun 29, 2012

I am with Doug Mays, it all sounds like a left brain activity which I try to avoid. When I was a young artist and I was popping out paintings selling or painting over them I never thought about worrying about cataloguing them. If they taught that in the business of being an artist course in college, I must have skipped that day. I do photograph my work now but that was more for being able to make prints or post on my website not because I wanted to record it for posterity. Oh well, next life!

From: Susan Avishai — Jun 29, 2012

Your letter today had me smiling all the way through. If we were the types to catalogue our work really well, we probably wouldn’t be artists, we’d be curators or accountants.

From: Suzette Fram — Jun 29, 2012

I like to keep track of where my paintings are, where they’ve been shown, and their eventual disposition, as in sold to…. or given to… or painted over, or destroyed. I tried a commercial software application (way too time consuming and awkward); I tried a spreadsheet (but always had to rely on the computer for any information). Finally I went to an index card system (cards, a box and a few dividers). So simple. I don’t use numbers, just titles. Each painting gets a card on which I write the basic details. Every time I show that painting, I write it on the card. If the painting is at a show, the card is in a separate section; when it sells, it goes into the ‘sold’ section. It is so simple and has been absolutely invaluable in keeping track. The only other thing that I could add to that system would be to attach a photo of the work to the card. The index card box could be divided into different media, or into different years, if I wanted to. It’s a totally flexible system. Works for me.

From: Louisa Lavelle — Jun 29, 2012

I take a photo of each painting and the date it’s done, so they’re in chronological order – and let it go at that. Minimal, but I can see what I did and when- it’s all in one file on my computer.

From: Andre Satie — Jun 29, 2012

AAaaargh! I think of my paintings as my kids … when they’re grown up, they’re on their own. I have no idea where the 60 million Satie paintings are now; I’m busy making more …. Probably not an acceptable attitude ….. ?

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 29, 2012

There are a couple of very interesting things here, for me, since I just stated that I do date my work. (Where’d you like to go to dinner, honey?) The date alone is all the catalog number I need- as there are only a handful from any given year. But don’t do what I do if you want to be a financial success. Robert comments that he’s almost to 24,000. I’m not yet to 240- I think- after 35 years. And I’m working in a medium few even recognize as a medium. (May I have the medium- please?) (Maybe I should consult a medium?) (Oh- that’s right- I am a medium!) We’re screwed…

From: Debbie — Jun 29, 2012

I always did a photo album of all my paintings,along with a few notes, Now I put digital photos and notes using my computers wordpad program,and save them safely on a usb flash drive, small and neat. I would never be able to keep up an organized catalog system, I would rather paint and be creative, this is the easiest for me,,

From: Kate Beetle — Jun 29, 2012

I had to code my commercial work so that my agent could keep track of what she was sending, and to avoid confusion when someone requested “those roses”. Simplest system: CH 300 (Christmas image number 300, sequentially). This is the number the image is filed under in my computer. Every image has a file, with PSD’s, jpegs for shows and so on in the file. I plan to use something similar for my paintings. (Note that word “Plan”.) Depending on whether you use different mediums, do still life, portrait etc. it would be easy enough to create something with your initials, say RGAS number 10,000 would be Robert Genn Acrylic Seascape number 10000. Even if I start with my latest stuff, it will still be useful. I’m terrible at titling and tend to work in series anyway. Put the number on the back of the board or canvas and on a tag attached to the back of the piece. I can keep the dates, price, size, where shown, and purchase notes under “get Info” in the computer file header, but I’m on a Mac and have Photoshop. Others’ systems must have a similar setup.

From: Russell Mang — Jun 29, 2012

I think that maintaining SOME sort of documentation process is essential for a professional artist. I’ve been working professionally since 1982 but didn’t start keeping a catalogue of works until 1988. My ‘system’ consists of an accountants 8 column ledger book (about 10″ x 12″) and on each line I have the date the painting was finished, title, medium, etc etc. In 2002, I started using a simple catalogue numbering system…as an example, looking at #02-015 I know immediately that this was the fifteenth painting done in 2002. If I need to know more, I go to my ledger book & look up that number to find out details about that particular work. Unfortunately my photo documentation process hasn’t been as consistent…some of my earlier works are on slides and/or print whereas most now are in digital files. And they are NOT cross referenced to the catalogue. But at least they are there…somewhere! Prior to 1988, documentation was very spotty & I consider those works to be my ‘lost paintings’! Lost to me, that is – I hope they are still providing enjoyment somewhere.

From: Julliette Carignan — Jun 29, 2012

I’ve been using an Excel spreadsheet to catalog my work and record key info. By keeping up with the cataloging as I’ve painted, it hasn’t been hard to keep track of 1000+ artworks. If not finished right away, I catalog works I’ve started in an “Unfinished” section, move the record to a “Finished” section when its ready to exhibit, and to a SOLD section later (so I can provide sales histories to galleries and keep track of who owns them). (There are also sections for destroyed works and non-saleable ones that I wouldn’t exhibit). A primary value of the catalog is that when I have to print out a price list to consign or exhibit many works, I don’t have to re-type any of the data, I just use the Word merge feature and have a price list in just 15 minutes, no typing! The catalog also helps me see what works I can choose among for shows without having to view inaccessible paintings that are carefully tucked away in covered boxes and on high shelves. And if I need to buy frames, I can confirm the size of the painting without having to find it. I also document all my frames this way (on a separate worksheet) and write each frame’s code number on the back so that I can track it as I move it around on various paintings and know how to price it and where I can buy another like it. I set up these systems after confronting troubles from NOT having them, and they save me a lot of trouble. Hope this gives you some ideas. (I’m both left-brained AND right-brained, which is why I’ve juggled careers in both art and technology).

From: Dwight — Jun 29, 2012

I decided long ago to let whoever is interested in my work (after I’m in the great studio in the sky) sift through old slides and newer digitals and decide when, what, why and where each piece was done. On the other hand I wonder if anyone will be interested for very long after my demise. Meanwhile, at 80, I paint!

From: Janet Carpenter — Jun 29, 2012

The best way for me to keep up with the paintings I have done is to take a photograph of each one and then keep them in a photo album. It may not be very “professional” but it works for me because I cannot remember a painting by its title. Ex. “Sunset Marsh” when I painted several that could have used that name. I keep the years together, putting the size and any other info on the back.Yes, I have several albums full, but they are dated. These have been a help numerous times to show a collector the type of art I do and they may see something that they want a similar view painted.

From: Jutta — Jun 29, 2012

Did you really paint that many? Or did you include every little sketch in the count? I am using Excel for a very basic list, but now that I started sketching in addition to painting (I know – wrong order) it might get more difficult.

From: Carmen Beecher — Jun 29, 2012

Oh, how familiar this all sounds. I too have tried and failed to catalog. However, since I have been posting all paintings to my blog, I now have a record of paintings, thoughts about them, and dates. It helps somewhat.

From: Bev Rodin — Jun 29, 2012

I started a cataloging system a couple of years ago under the direction of my husband Jim who had a physics degree. He insisted that I start at number 1000 and go from there. He had a long explanation of why I should start with a large number rather than single digits..which I have forgotten. Essentially I note the size, possibly the title and where I sent the painting. I am not convinced my cataloge is accurate as I struggle to make sure I have entered paintings before they are shipped. My journal is a far more inspirational source of productivity as I write notes on works in progress and the journal is sequential. Anyway, I think was was also absent when sequential systems were taught as my photography is arranged in subject groups rather than sequential and my filing folders are arranged in topic areas rather than alphabetically.

From: Jackii Molsick — Jun 29, 2012

Thanks so much for a big chuckle with today’s letter. It was a needed anecdote for a Friday!!! There are some valid reasons for cataloging, but it’s hard for a lot of us right brainers to go there!

From: oliver — Jun 29, 2012

There is a lot of space on the verso as it were. I like putting catalog numbers, and other information there (references back to my archive for digital images of my work) so if some one calls they can say exactly which image inspired them to call. Also put other contact info there as well. Sometimes I have been know to start a “provenance”. Happy Birthday to xxx or A gift to XYZ hospital or …….. I do sign all my backs and put a date there too.

From: BJ Bjork — Jun 29, 2012

While cataloging sounds sooooooooooooooo very creative and interesting, I’d rather have root canal work done on me. Where are your creative and artistic priorities??????????????? If you are so prolific, hire a librarian to catalog for you, that’s their job and they can do it better than any artist I know! What an Ego! I don’t have time enough as it is to try to create meaningful and strong art as it is. I spend my time learning and challenging myself to NOT fall into the trap of ‘another pretty picture copied from a photo’ or adding to all the bad art that has flooded the art world. Get your priorities in proper alignment and spend your time ‘creating’, our time is too short as it is. If you have time to worry about all this pettiness, apply as a volunteer to your local library. The alternative is to stay home and be the best artist you can be. THAT should take-up most of your time. Bob, how did this BS ever get your attention to even consider writing this. MY only guess is that you and Joe B. had an all night-er with a good bottle of scotch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! In that case I forgive and understand. I have been a long-time fan and admirer of the many, many, letters you write, but this is pure crap! I might not be the greatest artist, or close to it, but I know pettiness and wasting valuable time!

From: Flora Baumann — Jun 29, 2012

Re: cataloguing. I have a simple system: the year and number of the painting that year. 12-34, in the upper right corner of back of painting. It is the 34th painting I have done in the year 2012. Sure, someone might figure it out, but it doesn’t scream out the year. You can make the numbers very small so they are even less obvious. I also keep a small book in which I write the title, size, support type, medium, date, and above-mentioned number. When it sells, I add the seller’s information and price for which it sold.

From: Sue Clancy — Jun 29, 2012

After having used several computer cataloguing systems to create detailed files that were lost in computer mother-board disasters and other similar tragedies I got smart. Upon completing a painting I photograph it and, using Word, place that photo on a sheet of paper along with the paintings title, date created, medium, dimensions and etc. details leaving space on the page to fill in the name of the person who buys it and/or the gallery who sold it. I print out that sheet of paper, 3 -hole punch it, and put it in a 3-ring notebook – my “inventory” notebook – the most recent work in the back. (this it is automatically in chronological order) As the painting is delivered to exhibits I open my notebook and jot in the white space where the painting is exhibited. When I pick up the painting I note that too. If the painting is sold I write the details and move that sheet of paper into another notebook labeled my “sold” notebook. I began this system in 2004 and it works the best for me! Additionally when I feel “the artist blues” all I have to do is look at my “sold” notebook, which is now 3 inches thick, to get a dose of the “I can do it” self-encouragement! The best predictor of future behavior is the past! And this cataloguing system makes my successful past concretely visible!

From: Karla Pearce — Jun 29, 2012

I have always put the title, date,location and my name on the back of all my paintings then I take an image of it as soon as it’s finished. I sort things by year. It sort of keeps a logical progression to the work.

From: Mitch — Jun 29, 2012

Does it really matter? I have the year hidden, but nothing else. when and if it does matter, you are creating jobs for art historians. let them piece the sequence together.

From: Jill Charuk — Jun 29, 2012

Working Artist is a software system, created by an artist. Easy to use. About $100. Keeps the name, size, date created, price grids and where the painting is. I recommend as a soft, easy fix.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jun 29, 2012

In this case I am just like you, and it has nothing to do with sequential tendencies. I think that the real reason I don’t catalogue is the selfish side of my ego – I can’t bear to organize my art playground just for the purpose of some future researcher getting a hard on. I am so sequential and organized in my day job, that some people find it scary. But that stuff belongs to the company, it’s important to them and I am paid to do it in orderly fashion. As a side effect of all that orderliness, the idea of cataloguing my art, materials, clients, etc. has crossed my mind many times. There are a few (empty) art cataloguing applications installed on my computer. There have been several cataloguing books with the first 3 pages filled in and torn out months later to make a better use of the book. I recently had a thought of adding a “provenance” page on my web site to list all sold pieces, which gallery sold them and my best knowledge of where they went. It feels very self indulging thinking about this project, but at this time I cannot predict if it will ever happen. I can predict that I will make many paintings before that happens though, and that’s important to me, and hopefully to the people who enjoy my art. I suspect that there just ain’t gonna be any art cataloguing here. My record keeping consists of throwing all electronic files in one folder, papers into a cabinet, doing taxes in April and herding client’s contacts in December to send out a newsletter. That’s all I can bear to do. I am hoping that all galleries will keep their records of sold stuff, and if they don’t, too bad. And as you say, in this age there should be less reason to worry than at any time in the past, it’s much more difficult to protect privacy than to establish a record of any piece of art that has left the studio. While reading Van Gogh’s letters I was stunned to read that a researcher has identified exactly which person was being buried in a funeral that Vincent noticed and casually mentioned in his letter during one of his travels in a remove Dutch village. On one side there is this great care to dig out meaningless details from his life, and on the other side tremendous rejection of him as a person while he was alive. I find that heartbreaking.

From: Scotti Ruhlman — Jun 29, 2012

I don’t catalog but I take photos of my finished paintings, which are in Lightroom, but a less expensive product is Photoshop Elements. Dates are automatically added to the photos. It’s not exactly the date I finished the painting, but would be within days or weeks, so that’s good enough for me!!

From: Lynda Lynn — Jun 29, 2012

It is a fairly simple procedure to set up a system in Excel. You can label the columns however you like. You can also search and add photos of the work.

From: Bayberry L. Shah — Jun 29, 2012
From: Leslie Moody — Jun 29, 2012

Interesting and timely topic, as I recently came under the influence of Jason Horejs of Xanadu Gallery. In his seminar, he advocated a number system. In fact, he had program to buy. Yes, I bought and hopefully, I will install it over the next few days. My left brain strongly wants organization! Up to this point, my cataloguing has been haphazard and it makes me squirm.

From: Nyla Witmore — Jun 29, 2012

I use the last two digits of the current calendar year to start with,in this case 12 since it is 2012. The next number that follows is what number painting it is for this year….thus, 1214 means it is the fourteenth painting in the year 2012 . That is what I put on the back of each painting and even on my website in case I paint the same subject more than once. Then I know which “majestic mountain” it was. Note: for my personal records I add the month if I want to be really specific I might abbreviate the month so I have a clue what part of the year I did it….for example I use JA (January) or JU (July). Actually that final derivation can be quite useful.

From: Jean Kiegerl — Jun 29, 2012

I found the program “ArtTracker” easy and very useful, maybe even worth cataloging some old works (not all 23,865). It is available from the Xanadu Gallery ( and is only about $50. It was developed by the Jason Horejs, the owner/artist of Xanadu Gallery in Phoenix. It takes about 3 minutes to add a painting to the database, which includes photo, size, media, price, location, sales info, consignment history, etc. Printouts are very practical, including consignment lists by gallery/location with photo – very useful for the gallery or show to have, especially if the title is not descriptive or the show is staffed by volunteers. The Xanadu Gallery website has a section “For Artists” which has other practical information items created by this gallery and most of it is free or at low cost, often of a kind not available elsewhere, like ArtTracker. It is very interesting to see an art gallery use its website to educate artists about the business side of art in such an artist-friendly and respectful way. The low prices on the items for artists seem to only recover the costs, which is a nice change from the ones making money from the artists rather than from the artwork.

From: Marilyn Smith — Jun 30, 2012

I still have a notebook started in 1969 with each painting numbered and the year. I still use it. Plus I get a new sketchbook every Jan and fill it with drawings and notations-usually pencil only. It is a diary and art journal combined. Some years are full, others are blank. I love the drawings.

From: Jenny Linn Loveland — Jul 01, 2012

Everyone’s comments entertaining and helpful. I’m somewhat computer literate, still machines come, go, crash. Think I’m going to try to photo/scan/printed record method plus the notebook/sketchbook approach. I’m weary of computers and data. A pencil and paper keeps it feeling real and I still enjoy turning pages.

From: Coni Grant — Jul 02, 2012

“Bookkeeping” can be one more way to avoid the easel – sort of like counting you chickens. I do not date paintings or number them, just keep a running list by title when they leave my studio, either to a gallery or to a buyer. However, I do photograph all work and because I am primarily a plein air painter, I usually document the site where I painted with a photo. As digital photos, they get filed in my photo files (on the computer) and they have a date and time already on them; another perk of digital photography. No more wondering what day I painted out or when said painting was finished.

From: Kay M. Paget Wellington, New Zealand — Jul 02, 2012

My immediate thoughts are that the artists who catalogue in such a way are too left-brain oriented to be artists! I came from an office management background, and filing/cataloguing/ et al was a way of life. However on becoming an artist, painting and tutoring, and being involved in community arts projects, I was more than happy to become the right-brain oriented person that I recognize I always was meant to be. So, what’s wrong with just using a catalogue card (6×4″) – one for each finished artwork – with the name of the painting, materials, and any brief reference details, and date of execution. I do this and note on the appropriate card, the places where it may have been shown, displayed, or exhibited. And who purchased it; when; and the price. A simple wooden box contains these cards which are in alphabetical order so I can find what I want, easily. As Kiwis would say “Easy as…”

From: Tony Westerveld — Jul 02, 2012

This site is so totally brilliant. Thank you everyone.

From: Tamara Temple — Jul 02, 2012

I have only been painting (watercolour) for a couple of years, but already I can see the advantage of keeping some sort of journal for my thoughts, notes about the painting, and so on. I don’t know if this could be considered cataloguing, per se, but it is some sort of record. As still a beginner/intermediate, I think it’s important to me to keep a record of such things as I go along to show what I’ve learned and still very much need to learn. Being one of those computer whizes from an early age, naturally I turn to the digital form to keep my journal. I don’t bother scanning the paintings, merely taking a photograph and then putting that in the digital journal. I don’t use any specific software for cataloging, I just write my notes and the visual record into a wiki of my own.

From: Aline Hoffart — Jul 03, 2012
From: Hester Mallonee — Jul 03, 2012

I have been cataloguing for 25 years. About the time I started painting, I happened to read that Claude Lorrain had kept a lifetime index of his work and that scholars have been blessing him ever since. I decided to similarly benefit anyone gracious enough to take an interest in my own lifetime of work. A manual system is mandatory because computers can be stolen. When my place was broken into and my tech gear got taken, all my art information remained, because it was in a binder, not the computer. If you want to run both sorts of systems in parallel, and you’ve got the patience to keep up with it, even better, because you can key the computer part of it to images of your work, but the core of it should always be manual. All systems are vulnerable to fire, so no matter what you use, add some sort of off-site backup. I also keep a small note book with me dedicated to art topics, and if I sell a brand-new piece whilst still on the road, I index into this temporary book, along with the buyer information of course, and then transfer that data into my main book on my return home.

From: Becky English — Jul 04, 2012

Robert, I don’t think you approve much of reproduced art. But a high-resolution photo of a given work, along with claiming the copyright, leaves artists the option to make prints including giclees, posters, postcards, books, etc. I’m mentioning this in this comment string, since it’s all part of the nonartistic, business-leveraging-side, cataloging group of activities. Of course, you wouldn’t want to use the storage-intensive high-rez image for reference in a spreadsheet or other database (that’s where a low-rez thumbnail suffices).

From: Oro Leon Azul — Jul 05, 2012

Evidently, you are unwilling to admit or not aware that all serious art in the world is expected to have a chronological reference. No serious artist shies away from this reality. So to advise anyone against dating their work is to encourage amateurism. And why, for the sake of being able to pass off your work as current when it was done years ago?

     Featured Workshop: Catherine Stock
070312_robert-genn Catherine Stock workshops Held in Southwest France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

Cross Roads

mixed media, 30 x 70 inches by Roberta Pyx Sutherland , BC, Canada

  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.”

When name and title are on the canvas they tend to go with the painting through most dispensations. Stretcher titling can be lost in the event of re-stretching.

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.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.