Reflecting on ‘Painting By Numbers – A Portrait of Stroud’

I’d like to thank the 350+ people who took the time to contribute to the Painting By Numbers project at Unit 56 as part of the SVA Site Contemporary Art Festival in Stroud, Gloucestershire in May 2013.

I am finally getting round to writing a few notes about what I learnt from this, my first public participation art project.

What was ‘Painting By Numbers’?

Painting By Numbers: Everyone a Rembrandt?

Everyone a Rembrandt?

The idea of Painting by Numbers was invented in 50’s America. Alexander Chancellor wrote in Guardian on this topic:

“In the prosperous postwar America of the 1950s, painting by numbers was promoted as an educative use of the “new leisure”. It also claimed to represent the American democratic ideal that anyone should be able to do anything, including paint. Hence the slogan ‘Every Man a Rembrandt’.”

The desire to test, cross and dissolve boundaries is a theme, indeed an ever-recurring fact, of my life. So it is naturally a central driver in my art practice.

When I first had the idea for this public art project, I wanted to create a tension, in bringing the aesthetic of this famous but oft-despised art form into an arena of High Art.

It would also allow the crossing of the boundary between artist and audience, to be thrown into question.

If the audience make the art, does that devalue the art? Who owns it? What is the point of the artist? Can’t everyone be an artist?

The Process

At the beginning

At the beginning, numbered spaces on a board, and some numbered paint pots.

I presented a large board (approx 2.4 x 1.2 m) decorated with an outline pattern, in which each space had a number between 1- 100 in it.

As people entered they were offered a numbered paint pot and invited to add to the artwork. If pressed I avoided directly answering questions about what they are meant to do and would only ask them to add or contribute, without specifying in what way.

However, most people recognise what one visitor called ‘the ritual’ of this practice and they quickly proceed to participating in the established framework.

The Results

Titled ‘A Portrait of Stroud‘ the image was based on a design built from a satellite image of the Stroud Valleys. While many people guessed it represented some kind of map or terrain, only one person had guessed precisely what the image was based on.

A wide range of people participated

A wide range of people participated

With so many people of all ages participating in bringing the artwork to life, there was a lot of evolution through the process. Several contributors added creative touches, deliberately or by accident, from ghosts to sheep, Pollock-style sprays, text, polka dots, and determined yet chaotic toddler’s splashes.

The 100 numbered paint colours were hand-mixed for each session using natural paint pigments and a clay paint base, donated by The Greenshop and served up in compostable Vegware pots. Support from Stroud Arts Festival covered other expenses and a workshop with myself and illustrator Rebecca Ashdown on traditional painting techniques.

The local papers covered it and the fabulous Mould TV gang shot a YouTube interview with the artist.
I am delighted that the Equine Eye Clinic in Wotton-Under-Edge bought the painting in a silent auction, for TomatoJack Arts in Berkeley, so contributors will be able to view the painting in the gallery there. 30% of the sale price was donated to the nominated charity, which is the Julian Trust Night Shelter in Bristol.

Now What?

I have learnt a great deal, the main thing being that most people appear to view life, and art, through a narrow lens of their own construction, and they rarely step outside it, even to the point of being frustrated and unhappy because of the confining set of rules they have unwittingly created for themselves.

I will be adding a series of short blog pieces here to cover in more depth what I have discovered from the project. There are also updates at https://www.facebook.com/arachnez

As well as an art project I would regard this as an interesting psycho-social experiment. Science collaborators, get in touch!

The finished artwork

The finished artwork

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Painting By Numbers – A Portrait of Stroud

Painting By Numbers - A Portrait of Stroud

350+ contributors, 100 paint numbers, 20 pigments, 3 media, all ages, three newspaper articles, one Mould TV interview, one workshop, one sponsor, one festival, one grant and one sale by auction. A Portrait of Stroud.

I’d like to thank the 350+ people who took the time to contribute to the Painting By Numbers project at Unit 56 as part of the SVA Site Festival in May.

This collaborative artwork was based on a design that used a satellite image of the Stroud Valleys. While many people guessed it represented some kind of map or terrain, only one person had guessed precisely what the image was based on.

With so many people of all ages participating in bringing the artwork to life, there was a lot of evolution from the original design and it looked much more like an abstract painting at the end. Several contributors added creative touches, deliberately or by accident, from ghosts to sheep, Pollock-style sprays, text, polka dots, and determined yet chaotic toddler’s splashes.

The 100 numbered paint colours were hand-mixed for each session using natural paint pigments and a clay paint base, donated by The Greenshop and served up in compostable Vegware pots. Support from Stroud Arts Festival covered other expenses and a workshop with myself and Rebecca Ashdown on traditional painting techniques.

The local papers took an interest and the fabulous Mould TV gang shot a YouTube interview with the artist.

I am delighted that the Equine Eye Clinic in Wotton-Under-Edge bought the painting in a silent auction, for TomatoJack Arts in Berkeley, so contributors will be able to view the painting in the gallery there. 30% of the sale price was donated to the nominated charity, which is the Julian Trust Night Shelter in Bristol.

This was a truly collaborative art project and with so much support from the people and organisations in the area I reckon it warrants the title ‘A Portrait of Stroud‘.

Articles, photos and film about this project are on the way. In the meantime here’s a little gallery:

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Painting By Numbers: A Work in Progress

Painting By Numbers in action at the Site Festival

Painting By Numbers in action

Painting By Numbers is underway at Unit 56 on the Stroud High Street, as part of the Site Festival.

Some stats:

  • about 100 people have taken part so far
  • there are 100 numbers
  • there are probably about 400 spaces with numbers in on the pattern
  • its about half painted
  • estimated age range of participants is 18 months – 80 yrs old
  • I’m using 20 La Tienda pigments donated by The Greenshop in mediums of Auro emulsion or Earthborn Wall glaze, to create more colours.

As well as the painting itself being open for action on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I am running a free workshop with Rebecca Ashdown – sponsored by the Stroud Arts Festival, on 20th May. There will also be a closing party, when we see how the painting looks when it is finished.

Most people are responding very positively and even the woman who said I had been ‘unfriendly…didn’t smile’ had seemed to enjoy the actual painting process. Lots of people have enjoyed it and said ‘I haven’t done this for years’ – ‘Great idea’ – ‘Can my two year old do it?’ (the answer is Yes, by the way) – and a few have stayed to discuss the deeper layers of this project. One man gave me a delicious punnet of strawberries which came in very nicely as it is thirsty work sitting in the gallery all day. Quite a few wonder ‘what it is of’ and most guess ‘some kind of map’.

I was also interviewed by Mould TV and photographed for the Citizen newspapers. The interview is online:

Painting By Numbers

Painting By Numbers coming soon to a town near you.

Painting By Numbers – coming soon to a town near you.

The SVA (Stroud Valleys Artspace) run an art festival in Stroud every year, in May, called ‘Site Festival‘.

It is a magical time for an artist when the whole town seems to transform itself on the opening night (this year, on 4th May) into an art Paradise: people dressed up trotting from one art preview in an empty shop to another, enjoying performance pieces and peculiar displays of all kinds in the normally rather depressing little unused high street vacant lots. It’s like the artists took over town and its Good. That is the world I’d like to live in, and not the one we’ve got. But at least we get a chance to taste it for a night.

Anyway this year I was very excited that SVA responded to my Painting By Numbers proposal which had been sitting in a notebook sulking for three years, so I will be in the ex-Curry’s shop hosting this project in May. Here is the Official Blurb for the project:

Love it or hate it, Painting by Numbers – those little Art kits that allow you to safely create your own masterpiece are universally recognised if not always celebrated.

In the prosperous postwar America of the 1950s, painting by numbers was promoted as an educative use of the “new leisure”. It also claimed to represent the American democratic ideal that anyone should be able to do anything, including paint. Hence the slogan ‘Every Man a Rembrandt’.
– Alexander Chancellor, Guardian 2003

Come and see what happens when Stroud is presented with Painting By Numbers. With grateful thanks to the lovely people at The Greenshop and on Freecycle for natural paint supplies.

While I have been donated the paint supplies the project still requires lots more materials including paint pots, brushes, cleaning materials and some large boards so if you are feeling generous or have some stuff you can offer do get in touch!