“I recently went to an visual arts retreat and was told I need to make a series of artworks. I have never done this before and I keep struggling with a topic. My question is how can I take a topic , like “transformation” and make it into an art series? I have always been a “paint what I see” painter and I use images for reference. I have such a hard time with concept painting. How can you take an idea and translate it into a two-dimensional surface?”
For a series to work, you need to find a subject you are passionate about that is both open to variation and yet specific at the same time. A successful series should allow each individual work to be able to stand on its own, yet simultaneously relate to the rest of the other works in some manner.
In my opinion, a strong series of artworks is like a really good television show. You want to have details that make the show distinctive, but the fundamental premise has to be open enough that many contrasting episodes can be generated. If you think about the television show “Cheers,” the premise was remarkably simple: people working and hanging out in a bar. Even though the vast majority of the show was filmed in one location, the writers were able to play out many seasons of distinctive episodes. There was a balance between the simplicity of the situation, yet there was tons of flexibility for diverse story lines.
I find that it’s helpful to establish a list of “rules” for your series that you can consistently follow. This could be done in terms of the format, the size of the artworks, the materials, the subject matter, etc. Write down what the list of rules are and make sure that you stick to them from the beginning to the end of the series. Not only do the rules help keep you on track, but they can create both conceptual and visual cohesion for the series overall.
Even if you have moments where you want to stray from the rules, get yourself to adhere to the rules. If you bow to the temptation to pursue every single tangential interest as you work on the series, you’ll likely quickly find yourself with a body of artwork that looks as fragmented as a patchwork quilt. That ability to focus and stay on track is critical to making a series of artworks that work together. Your mindset is just as important in developing a series as your physical actions to create the artwork.
If you are starting with the word like “transformation” which is quite abstract, do some extensive brainstorming first. This article I wrote provides concrete strategies and actions you can take to initiate the brainstorming process. The primary objective of brainstorming is the creation of as many ideas and images as possible, with an emphasis on quantity over quality. One of the key elements of this process is that brainstorming is inclusive of everything that emerges, regardless of how odd or unappetizing an idea or image may seem at first. Write everything down on paper, and play “word association“. Give every idea and image a voice and a place on the page, just thinking things through in your head is not enough, you have to see the ideas on paper.
Below is a video tutorial on how to brainstorm, sketch, and create a drawing from beginning to end based on our October Art Dare.
Once you are done brainstorming, you should have have enormous amounts of pure, unedited content to select from. This content is the raw material from which you can create thumbnail sketches. This article I wrote talks more in depth about how to bridge the gap from idea to sketch to final work.
An example of a mind map from a brainstorming session.
Since you are used to observational painting, it is probably a good idea to select one image from your brainstorming session that you can then create variations from. Look at other artists who worked serially and see what kind of subjects they chose. Monet painted water lilies, haystacks, and Rouen cathedral.
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral
Degas drew ballet dancers and jockeys. Rembrandt painted self-portraits consistently throughout his entire career. Andrew Wyeth had his Helga pictures. Analyze their works and ask yourself what their rules were for their series. This can provide inspiration as well as a departure point for your own work.
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist: How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist: Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks
“How can I tell if I’m skilled enough?”
“How do you find your own individual style?”
“How do artists manage to get their soul out into images?”
“How do you develop an idea from a sketch to a finished work?”
“How do you make an art piece more rich with details that will catch the eye?”
“How do you learn the basics?”
“Is it bad to start another piece of art before finishing another one?”
“When and how should you use photo references to draw?”
“How do you know when to stop working?”