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