Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Create a Series of Artworks?

Tone project

“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.

Accordion Bookbinding Project

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.

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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.

Andrew Wyeth , The Helga pictures


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
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


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Ask the Art Prof: How Can a Visual Artist Balance their Life?

Final Crit

“How can an artist balance their life?”

There are so many aspects and responsibilities to being an artist, and balancing them is often times a logistical nightmare.  Know that finding that balance is a constant work in progress which you will always have to work at. I don’t know anyone in the field who isn’t constantly troubleshooting how to make things work for them.

The ultimate challenge for most artists is how to get is those periods of solitary, uninterrupted time to work. Life is full of distractions, and finding pockets of time to work is the most difficult. Then when you finally make it to the studio, there’s the pressure to actually accomplish something with that precious time.

Making the artwork is just one facet of being an artist.  Unless you’re independently wealthy or you’re an internationally renowned artist, there is a very long laundry list for artists. You essentially have to be your own accountant, publicist, agent, installer, webmaster, etc.  I’m always filling out applications year-round for artist grants, artist residencies, and jobs. Documenting my work with high quality images is always ongoing. Storage is a constant issue for many artists. Writing is important: writing cover letters, grant applications, and artist statements. Finances are a concern, in terms of doing taxes, purchasing materials and being able to rent studio space. Networking, both in person (attending events, artist lectures, openings) and online (social media) is absolutely critical to securing exhibitions, jobs, and other opportunities.  Maintaining a website and/or blog is also becoming increasingly necessary to survive now as an artist.

These tasks can be just as time consuming as making the work itself, and all of them are ongoing.  I have times where I’m so overloaded with these tasks that I don’t have time to get to the studio. You have to figure out what works for you. I try to isolate my studio work to when I’m physically in the studio. When I’m in the studio, I get rid of all potential distractions (I turn off my phone) and focus exclusively on making the work.  I keep the other tasks (marketing, promotion, documentation, etc.) to when I have down time at home, which is generally late at night after the dishes are done and the laundry is folded.

At times it can be very, very hard to find this balance.  I’ve certainly had my share of frustrating, unproductive sessions in the studio where I accomplished nothing with that precious time. Usually my strategy for figuring out what to do next is to ask myself “Where is the emergency?” What is the task that I’ve been neglecting? That’s usually the best way for me to figure out what needs to be addressed next. If you constantly ask yourself this question, it will lead the way.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
“What do you do for art storage?”
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“How do you balance a full-time job, kids and your own art?”
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“How do you explain to potential clients that artists need to be paid?”

Ask the Art Professor: What is the Purpose of a Degree in Fine Art?

Final Crit

“For fine artists who do not plan on teaching later in life, what is the purpose of a degree in fine art? How do art academies and residencies compare?”

In my opinion, a degree in fine art is a truly unique, immersive experience that cannot be replicated in any other way. The most critical part  boils down to the people and the long term relationships that you cultivate during that time. Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how impressive the facilities/resources/administration are at a school is if you don’t have a vital creative community to inhabit it.  Your experience is very much defined by the people who you are surrounded by. In art school, you have this incredible range and concentration of creative personalities within an arm’s reach, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  I don’t know any other context that exists where this is the case.

One could argue that a small art academy or an artist residency would in theory provide the same kind of access to a creative community, but it’s just not the same thing. With a degree program, students sign on for a four year commitment that they are expected to complete, while many teachers dedicate their entire lives to the school. Doing a four week artist residency pales in comparison in terms of the kinds of lifelong relationships that you will be able to foster in a degree program.

Composition Project

The most important things that you can take away from a degree in fine art is that which you will carry with you for the rest of your life.  It’s not about the physical work itself.  By the time I had finished my fine arts degree, I had created literally hundreds and hundreds of pieces of physical art.  Where are those works now?  A few are buried in a portfolio at the back of a closet that I never open, and the rest made their way to the recycle bin or garbage many years ago.  So if it’s not about the physical works, what is it really about? To me  it’s about the critical thinking, process, and creative strategies that you gain. Those skills will stay with you forever and will be applied to every artistic initiative that you take.

The other aspect that is vital to a degree in fine art is the high productivity and incredible volume of work that you’ll produce while working on the degree.  In school, you have relatively few distractions, (ex.: your meals and house keeping are taken care of) and you’re given this huge chunk of precious time to devote entirely to your studio practice and development. I have never produced so much work, in such a short, concentrated period of time as I did when I was pursuing my degree.  One week in school is nearly equivalent to three months in the “real” world in terms of the prodigious level of production and progress that can occur.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
“What should you include in an art portfolio for art school or college?”
“When you have a fine arts degree, what do you do for the rest of your life?”
“How are European MFA degrees viewed in the United States?”
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