Around the turn of the year several artists wrote asking about the numbering of works. While you can start doing it any day you choose, January the first seems to be the day of choice. Questions arise: Should you numerate when you start the work, at signature, or when delivered? Also, is it necessary to maintain a separate list?
There are some numerically-inclined artists who maintain progressive lists that include date, elapsed time, title, size, media, location, destination, weather conditions, how they were feeling, etc. I’ve occasionally tried this sort of hyper-listing but soon found myself adrift. In my case, the act of painting has always trumped accountancy. Also, all my life I’ve fought the sense of preciousness that accountancy promotes, and have been suspect of those who have succumbed to it.
There is, however, considerable value in keeping a simple system. If you believe that volume breeds quality, then numbering can be of service. Numbering can build the golden habit of persistence. Particularly when dates are included, numbering also flags fallow periods, dream bouts, distraction, and wanderlust. There may be psychological and qualitative pitfalls in numbering, especially when it’s done compulsively, but, by and large, guilt-free numbering is a root of progression and joy. Numbering brings modest order to chaos and is a reasonable, unobtrusive way of keeping track.
If you believe in not dating your paintings, as I do, and yet you want to number your work, you might do it cryptically so that only an inner circle will be privy to your game. “13-1” is okay, front or back, but it really lets the world know that this was the first born of 2013. “5026-1” utilizes the currently disgraced Mayan calendar and is a little more esoteric. The artist’s current age followed by a number is a popular system. Bar codes are currently undergoing consideration.
Whatever you do, don’t let your system run you. That would be like having a CGA watch you paint. The main thing about art is joy, and maybe life’s too beautiful for some forms of keeping track.
PS: “Order is a necessary condition for making a structure function.” (Rudolf Arnheim) “Chaos breeds life; order breeds habit.” (Henry Brooks Adams) “One needs to have chaos in order to give birth to a dancing star.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Esoterica: Apart from occasional really bad paintings, my biggest regret is that I didn’t number my paintings on the works themselves. My Neanderthal file-card system, as well as occasional periods where I kept track, is all folks have to go on. At this point in my creative journey, an exhaustive photographic record would be worth its weight in lapis lazuli. Alas, it didn’t happen. It’s too late for me–but perhaps not for you. Incidentally, you might choose to numerate once in a while, just for fun. Below is a painting with cryptically embedded info. If you can find it I’ll recommend you for a top job at the CIA.
Facing West, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 40 inches, by Robert Genn
Book winners announced
(RG note) The correct answer was January 3, 2013. Only about 30 got it right so it was indeed cryptic. The book winners (the first ten who got it right) were Julie Jarvis, Alec Blair, Titania Michniew, Andy Giger, Shirley Peters, Helga Gravitt, Linda Spence, Bruce Argue, Gary Norrish and Catherine Constable (in that order, Catherine’s correct answer coming in at 4.35 AM PST Friday morning). We’ve written to all of you to confirm your mailing address and in most cases your free book is already in the mail. Thanks so much to everyone who participated. It was really fun reading all the answers.While a few folks didn’t notice the numbers in the shadows or thought the encryption was in the totem or in the number of trees, pretty well everyone noticed the word “ACATL” in the shadows on the left. If you Googled those letters you would have read: “Day Acatl (Reed) is governed by Tezcatlipoca as its provider of tonalli (Shadow Soul) life energy. Acatl is the scepter of authority which is, paradoxically, hollow. It is a day when the arrows of fate fall from the sky like lightning bolts. A good day to seek justice, a bad day to act against others.”
This insight led folks to think I might be using the Aztec calendar. Another check would have identified the numbers in the shadows on the right of the painting 13. 0. 0. 0. 13 as Mayan for January 3, 2013 (last Thursday). Further investigation of this number would have led you to: “The thirteen-day period (trecena) that starts with day 1-Itzcuintli (Dog) is ruled by Xipe Totec, Lord of Shedding, God of Seedtime. These are 13 days of devotion, companionship, self-sacrifice and love. This trecena points to the eternal conflict that tears at every human being: suspended between two great communions, love and mysticism, each of us strives to survive being swallowed whole by either. On the one hand, the painful shedding of illusions, and on the other, the pleasurable creation of illusions. Whatever your decision during this time, you will find favour and advancement. These are good days for commemorating the dead; bad days for clinging to the living.” I’m not sure whether Dorothy (the Airedale) did any shedding that day, but I did see her shaking a bit. Also, my assistant Sarah looked around this messy studio and said something like, “We’ve got to shed this place of some of its junk.”
The sixth world of consciousness
by Gary Smith
What is it about the current fear among so-called artists like yourself with regard to dating your work or “consecutive numbering,” whatever you want to call it. The legitimate world of art has held the chronology of work as an integral part of an artist’s legacy. To somehow dismiss it as irrelevant and arbitrary is tantamount to rendering yourself insignificant. You have also topped yourself in arrogance to refer to the “current disgraced Mayan calendar.” You would do well to study the real meaning of 12/21/12 — the coming of the sixth world of consciousness. And when it comes to consciousness, we could all use more of that! Don’t you think?
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by Martha Dillard, VA, USA
Fairly early I began keeping an inventory list with consecutive inventory numbers. This has morphed onto the computer using a searchable data base that lists title, year of completion, size, price, a column with a $ if it has sold, inventory number, brief description, plus a column for owner (name and address), current location, and a column to indicate who (what gallery) sold it. While I don’t bother much with listing the current location or the “who sold” bit, the rest of it has proven valuable over and over again. I cannot imagine not having this searchable reference, and try to be diligent about keeping it accurate. By the way, I do not date my paintings but put a cryptic code on the back that tells me the year in which they were completed.
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Revealing the hidden artist
by Terri Horricks, Belleville, ON, Canada
I always look forward to reading your twice weekly. It is very comforting (and often quite hilarious) when you bring to the surface thoughts that, as a painter, are subconscious. Your letters give me a peek at a part of myself that usually remains hidden. Sometimes it’s like hitting my funny bone! Being part of the ‘hood’ makes the creative life that much more bearable! Thanks for the inclusion.
On another note, I recently read several Canadian gallery advertisements in the Arabella Magazine that used samples of your work in their ads. With that kind of representation you must have a lot of business to take care of that takes you away from your painting. Do you dress as a painter wherever you go, or is there a suit and polished shoes stuffed away in that trunk of yours as well? Just curious.
(RG note) Thanks, Terri. In 2012, by choice, I had only one show. The jacket and polished shoes came out for only three hours.
Numbering and magic
by Carole Smale, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
I never thought of numbering or even signing or dating my paintings so maybe that is a new year’s resolution. I think true artists pluck the feeling of the age out of the air and foretell the future. I would like to be an outsider artist, but perhaps I’m not mad or obsessive enough, so I just paint what I love. I am crazy about baobao trees at the moment, the place of the ancestors in local lore. We went to Zimbabwe many years ago and I still remember a man that could call lizards by making a curious clicking noise, so that has been incorporated in my work. I have just read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murahami, so the entrance stone is also there. I found Zimbabwe a really magical land of curious rocks and ruins from the ancient people. Deep holes in mountains with bottomless pits of water. I want my painting to be as magical as Kafka on the Shore.
The well-rounded brain
by Jim Oberst, Hot Springs Village, AR, USA
Having been an engineer in a previous life, I enjoy the technical aspects surrounding my art. I have an image of every non-throwaway painting I’ve ever painted (I’ve been painting since 2004), and a simply-encrypted numbering system to track each painting. I’ve found this system very useful, especially when I paint similar but slightly different paintings of the same subject. It simplifies tracking sales (which are mostly from the internet and direct interaction with students and clients), sales taxes due, expenses related to individual paintings, and posting paintings on Facebook, websites, blogs, etc. When I paint, my right brain gets a workout. When I do the associated accounting and marketing, my left brain is exercised. I believe this keeps my brain well-rounded.
The convention of signature/date
by Janet Kerchner, Arnold, MD, USA
I don’t number my paintings, but do date them below my signature, plus I photograph them and keep a binder record of completed works. This is especially important for keeping track of my commissioned portraits and as a receipt of my sales for tax purposes. In your painting I like the mood set by the cool palette and the direction of the totem’s faces staring off into the wilderness. Interesting band of orange set above the mountain ridge. I’m assuming that was not actually there, but an accent to balance out the few snippets of warm color found in the foreground. I tend to get hung up in painting only what is actually in a scene and fail to make use of creative ways to add excitement to make a painting become even better than reality. Thanks for writing your letters, I really look forward to them.
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Don’t let anyone run you
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
Hamlet and I think that the answer might lie in why we number our art. If record keeping is for you and family so that you can leave a legacy for those that truly matter, then by all means, number and sign away! I can bring up an image of my art from 1967 in an instant. It immediately brings back a flood of memories and makes me smile whether the art is good, bad or even ugly. Numbering allows me to keep track of memories and to enjoy and share them again. Making art is for making memories. In the early 1980’s I used a cryptic numbering system but I forgot how to decipher it — sadly I am not making that up.
If you number or don’t number because it might turn off buyers or galleries or someone else you might accidently empower with controlling your life then that might not be a good enough reason. As I have matured… even gotten older maybe… I have become more resistant to others telling me what I should do. I may be just as immature as I was when I was 16, but now I have the years and freedom it brings to do what I want. This being said, I couldn’t agree more with Bob — “Don’t let your numbering system run you. “In fact don’t let anyone run you or your art. You have earned the right to paint what and how you want. Empower yourself.
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Joy of a cryptic system
by Michael Molick, Kansas City, MO, USA
I had a less than productive year in 2011 due to my studio building closing down and a health issue I was tending to. So for the few works in 2011 and the body of work created in 2012, nothing was dated. I started with an arbitrary number — 836 — and started numbering each newer piece up from there, and each older piece down from there, all my work back to the year 2007. Then, I put a decimal point and the year the work was created. Hence, the next works created in 2012 become 837.12, 838.12, etc. I’ll be using this inventory number on my new website that is being created, in a binder with images of my work, on inventory sheets, and sales receipts, etc. Just so that no one picks up the pattern, my work is in alphabetical order on the website and in the binder. I’m creating a computer-generated table for my inventory so if someone knows the painting name but not the number, I can quickly re-sort the columns by painting name to get the number, then pull the painting off the shelf, which is arranged numerically.
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Looking for the ‘heart’
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I love the thought of using my age – that way, it is a record of the stages of my life. I do think, however, I would rather place my number on the back of the painting. Of course I suppose one could always make a marketing spin of hiding numbers. I read at one time that Thomas Kinkade hid a heart or something like that on each of his paintings. The trouble with that is I think it cheapens the work. I was at a large social gathering one time of a couple who owned several large sized Kinkade reproductions. To my knowledge most of the people there who were looking at the Kinkade prints were not really looking at the art itself; they were much more intrigued with searching for the hidden heart in each piece.
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A biographer’s dream
by Barbara Boldt, Glen Valley, BC, Canada
I started painting in 1975, have kept track of my works by an easy method that lets me see when and what I painted. For instance: O-1 = oil # and date, P-1 = pastel # and date. W-1 =watercolour # and date. It’s very simple book keeping. I number my paintings on the back with the title and year, also sign my work on the front with date. In the beginning of my painting life, gifts and donations, Christmas greetings, etc, were not necessarily marked down. But to date I know that I have painted and numbered 882 oils (am working on 2 right now), 392 pastels (several unfinished, not numbered) and 353 watercolours (not counting hundreds of greeting cards over the years). This simple book keeping, which really started seriously in 1980, when I was forced to earn my living with my paintings and teaching, has come in very handy. When K. Jane Watt wrote my biography, Places of Her Heart, the art and life of Barbara Boldt, I realized that I had kept track of my work and various collectors over the years and found that it was easy for her to list my pieces in the appendix.
Enjoy the past comments below for Consecutive numbering…
acrylic painting, 30 x 40 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 Daphne Nicholls of Kitchener, ON, Canada, who wrote, “You’re fostering a neat sense of artistic community while encouraging us to continue our artistic pursuits! I credit Peter Gzowski for bringing Canada into my kitchen. Now you’re bringing the artistic world to me in a new way. Thank you! (For a new sense of Canada, as a country of lakes, I highly recommend Lakeland by Alan Casey, a GG’s award winner in 2010.)”