For Italian artist Federico Pietrella, time is paramount. For about two decades, with canvas as his backdrop, he has used ink and rubber date stamps to conjure artworks out of thousands of numbers representing days, months, years.

Gaze at his pieces from a distance, and you’d never guess the medium: a street scene, a portrait, a swath of nature all come across like fuzzy black-and-white photos. Is this digital art, you might wonder, the pixels part of the technique? Then you peer closer and realize that the Berlin-based artist uses the familiar office-supply object as his brush, deploying an everyday device to transform segments of space into a human form or an urban façade. The effect mimics pointillism while winking to the arc of time.

As he works, Pietrella uses the date of that particular day to progressively stamp his painting into existence. Seen up close, the layers and grids of dates overlap and construct beginnings, middles, and ends, much like the passage of life itself. Whether he takes two days or three months, his art becomes its own photorealistic chronometer, documenting the time elapsed in its creation. Time is a mysterious thing,” he once told an interviewer. “It’s the most important thing from which everything is derived — work, existence, life.