Show Your Stripes
A dual purpose, collectively created, paint-by-numbers temperature dataset.
In the lead up to COP26, hubRen was invited to participate in a couple of creative workshops to make art for the global day of action on Nov 6th. They were organised by local artists Esther Nelson and Sam Griffiths of Griffics, who we met during the E17 Art Trail.
Show Your Stripes is a website and tool created by Professor Ed Hawkins and the University of Reading. It creates a visual representation of the change in temperature of a country, city or region using data going back 100+ years. Each stripe is one year, showing the average temperature for that year, the colour indicating the deviation from the mean temperature over the whole period.
It's such a simple, effective way of representing data in visually striking and understandable way. I had been seeing this splay of blues to red move from twitter bio's out into the real world, at school drop off I spotted it on a face mask, and have admired the crafting diligence of knitters on instagram to turn it into scarves.
It occured to me that it wouldn't be too difficult to transfer it into a paint-by-numbers project, creating a calm and contemplative collective activity while also producing an object that is both visually striking and conversation starting.
WARNING: BIG DETAIL ALERT! The following is a highly detailed account of the process, purely for the benefit of anyone who decides that they too would like to create their own paint-by-numbers Warming Stripes project.
The finished picture in my head was of a long flag or smallish banner, something that could be hoisted up above a crowd or hung from the cargo bike somehow. Thought also had to go into ensuring that the work in progress was easy to transport between the two different sessions and also not too messy for the workshop venues.
I dropped into the amazing Forest Recycling Project, just behind the Hornbeam Community Cafe on Hoe Street, E17, in search of the right fabric, but it turned out I already had it in my stash from a previous trip to FRP. The Forest Recycling Project is so great, it's the place to go for recycled house paints, fabrics diverted from landfill (lots of upholstery) and they also have a warehouse full of wood for construction.
Fabric chosen (a light poly-cotton, white with a subtle pattern that disappeared beneath the paint), I went paint shopping, going with acrylics from CASS in black, blue, red & white, with a small amount of yellow for the salmony vibe, without the yellow it was just too PINK. I also bought some fabric medium but I wonder if this was actually needed. It was quite expensive and I don't think it really made that much of a difference. Fabric medium is probably only worth it if you are going to wear something painted with acrylics, but it's an unnecessary expense for a banner where the priority is bold and solid colours.
I decided to go with the warming stripes for England (I had wanted London but England was the nearest dataset), which went from 1884 to 2020.
137 years, 137 stripes.
I figured that if each stripe was half an inch wide it would make up a piece that was 68.5 inches or 174cm tall/long, which could then split comfortably over 3 pieces of A2 sized fabric which I'd then sew together after the painting was finished. The A2 fabric pieces (with extra for taping and seam allowance) were taped down onto cardboard and some old vinyl (an old piece we had in the house for messy kids craft, used to stop the paint soaking into the cardboard and drying onto it). The now slightly bigger than A2 pieces were manageable to handle and move about while also fitting comfortably inside the cargo bikes' box.
Now came the really fiddly and eye-crossing part, transferring the data onto the fabric. I mocked up the warming stripes into the proposed proportions in photoshop, then ran the graphic through an online paint-by-numbers generator - this one. It was fiddly and mistakes were made, if you decide to do this, don't use a basic hb pencil like I did, it comes up through the paint even after a few coats. I'd also recommend marking out each 10th line on both the fabric and the printout (10th, 20th, 30th etc), it helps with seeing where you have gone wrong.
Mixing up the paints was way more fun, my daughter got REALLY into it, taking over the fine colour adjustments with serious focus. I'd recommend mixing and testing in bright daylight or using a bright white light bulb for your light source. And a little bit of black goes a LONG way, so go easy on it, especially when adding it to blue. And with 16 different colours, you don't need to fill each jar to the top, each jar had a couple of tablespoons of paint in it at most, and no mixed paint ran out.
With that, we were ready for our first session up at the Higham Hill Hub, joining Esther as she transformed little people into a forest of rambunctious trees.
The painting went really well, with a range of ages and approaches to precision getting involved. I had to let go of my internal perfectionism as some of the younger participants went a bit more freestyle, but it was nothing a few touch-ups couldn't sort out later and actually the variation of textures within the finished piece shows the sweet story of the many hands that got involved.
This session was just a couple of hours, in that time just under half was painted. I was glad I took a hair dryer along to help the drying, I didn't want any of the hard work to smudge while transporting it.
A few days later I loaded up the cargo bike again and took everything over to the Greenleaf Road Baptist Church for the second session, joining Sam with his Play workshop and Ingbar as she created a big red dragon head. This was a quieter, longer and more contemplative session.
It's definitely an effective conversation starter and communication tool. When curious participants had it explained to them you could see the light come on, a big "Oh" of understanding. The process itself of painting was also quite meditative, the simplicity and calm pacing allowing space for thought and conversation.
One thing I wish I could have told people is how much England has warmed since 1884 and exactly how much each differently coloured increment represents. I know globally it's 1.2ºC (some put it at 1.1ºC), but there is variation between regions, with Arctic already experiencing warming of more than 3ºC.
We finished the painting that day, I was able to take it all home and sew the pieces together. The back on its own was pretty ugly, I had in mind that it would be good to have something on the back to give it more structure and have something to look at if it was in use as a tall flag style banner. Fortunately I had the perfect fabric left over from making curtains for my daughter's room, the Earth bringing to mind Carl Sagan and a graffiti piece in Walthamstow Marshes by Angry Dan, and with a few bright quilting scraps, it all came together.
I then sewed the two finished pieces together leaving the bottoms hemmed but open (like a pillow case) and the tops together but with a gap on each side wide enough to slip a dowel through. The finished piece is 42 cm wide, in keeping with the A2 posters of the hub.
Something I'd like to do is to build a lightweight internal frame with a handle or post lower down so it can be used as a very tall, double sided banner for a protest.
One last hot tip for sewing it together. Don't use a small stitch on the sewing machine, as a line of very small and tightly punched together holes through the dried acrylic is very apt to tearing. And in hindsight, using a heavier fabric to paint onto would also be better and more robust. We'll see how this holds up with use and being outdoors.
I'm pleased with the end result, and also happy that all I need to buy was the paints and a couple of extra paint brushes, everything else was stuff we had at home. I still have quite a bit of paint left and I'd be happy to help another group create their own banner or flag, and I'd recommend setting it up yourself if you are looking for a quietly powerful activity to do with a group of people. If you plan to do so, or have done so already, reach and let me know, I'd love to see it!