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.


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. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

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

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.

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Ask the Art Prof: What is the Best Way to Practice My Drawing Skills?

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills in traditional media? I draw with colored pencils and I also paint with acrylics and I am sort of okay at it , but I really want to become better.”

Drawing is a highly complex beast which involves so many different elements at the various skill levels. Rather than get into all of those details, I’m going to boil it down to four fundamental directives that will help improve your drawing skills across all skill levels and media.

1) Draw from direct observation.

This sounds so simple, and yet I’m appalled at that vast majority of art students and artists don’t work from direct observation when they are looking to improve their drawing skills. This problem is so prevalent today, that you’re actually defying the norm (drawing from photographs)  if you draw from life. The issue is compounded by the fact that photography is so crazy easy and fast to have access with smart phones and the Internet. Not only are people drawing from photographs 99% of the time, but they’re drawing from crappy, low resolution photographs that they find online.

Photographs may be appear to be convenient and easier to work from, but they’re a cheap shortcut that will lead to the development of all sorts of bad drawing habits.The amount of information that a photograph has pales in comparison to seeing a subject in real life.  This is not to say that one should never ever in their lifetime work from a photograph; I work from photographs all the time now. However, I know how to use a photograph as a visual reference well because I’ve developed skills based on many, many years of working from direct observation.

Below is a video tutorial on how to brainstorm, sketch, and create a drawing from direct observation based on our October Art Dare.

When you work from life, you experience your subject matter in way that a photograph could never allow you to:  you can touch your subject, smell it, walk around it, and see the subject within the context of its environment. This overall sensory experience is vital towards your understanding of your subject matter and will always translate into your drawing. Drawing is as much about learning how to see as it is about the marks that you put on the page.With a photograph, your understanding of your subject is inherently shallow and uninformed.

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

Nowadays, many people are learning a lot about each other online before even meeting in person.  Frequently, you’ll read a bit about that person, and see their photograph.  Think about how vastly different the experience of seeing their photograph online is to meeting them in person-it could not be more different. Nothing prepares you for what that person is actually like in real life. That’s the difference between drawing from a photograph and drawing from life. Experiencing your subject in real life will bring a profound level of understanding and connection with your subject that simply cannot exist with a photograph.

This charcoal drawing tutorial shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal from direct observation. (see below) Our Art Supply Encyclopedia provides videos with detailed explanations of the art supplies needed to make charcoal drawings.

As a professor, I’ve noted that people who can draw from life can practically draw from a photograph in their sleep, while people who only draw from photographs find themselves paralyzed when asked to draw from life.

One of my peers in art school flat out refused to draw from life.  She spent all of her time drawing from photo references from fashion magazines, which is an odd choice to begin with considering the over-the-top Photoshop treatment every model and celebrity gets when posing for a fashion magazine.   Her drawings always looked mismatched and strange because all of the people in her illustrations looked like they had just jumped off the cover of Vogue magazine.

Once, when she was traveling in Italy, she met a group of Italian guys she was flirting with, and she wanted to impress them.  Upon learning that she was an artist, the Italians’ first reaction was “Draw my portrait!”  She said she totally froze, and just couldn’t do it. She was mortified and completely embarrassed by her inability to draw from life.  By training herself to draw exclusively from photographs, she had limited herself to a very meager set of drawing skills.

The skills that you will gain from working from direct observation will tremendously inform and support your ability to work from all sorts of other references.  This article goes into greater depth about the importance of drawing from life.  I myself work from references all the time, and yet that skill set I have was honed from many years of drawing exclusively from direct observation.

2) Practice daily.

Drawing is very similar to athletics, and it really is just a matter of investing the time.  If you were an athlete, you would have a rigid schedule of training set up that you would adhere to. Drawing is the same way: it requires serious focus, rigorous training, and intense physical stamina. Every time you sit down to draw, it’s an opportunity to sharpen your eye, and become more proficient in coordinating your mind and eye with the physical movements of your arm and hand.

There is no artist I know working today, who can coast on their inherent drawing talent. One of my peers from art school was one of those people you just hate because he drew so incredibly well, with what appeared to be so little effort.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t match his efficiency and level of drawing.  On the other hand, this peer was also super lazy and scatter brained, and today, he hasn’t done much with his drawing talents. Talent goes nowhere if you’re not willing to train and work hard on a consistent basis.

Many people get impatient with drawing and expect results right away.    You have to be committed, and be able to recognize that improvement is a slow and gradual process. One would never expect to be an Olympic level skier after one week of training, the same way you can’t expect to be a master of drawing after working for a few days. For most artist, it takes years and years of rigorous time and commitment to achieve a certain level of mastery.

Drawing on a daily basis doesn’t have to be a huge commitment.  Get a small, portable sketchbook to carry around with you, and do very quick, casual pencil sketches any time you can.  You could do 5 minute sketches during your lunch break, when your friends are watching a movie, when you’re standing in line at the grocery store-drawing doesn’t have to be fancy or time consuming.

If you’re looking for ideas for drawing projects, check out our Project Ideas on, and our Monthly Art Dares, where we assign a prompt to create an artwork each month.  We give out prizes as well!

3) Practice gesture drawing.

If you can do strong gesture drawings, you’ve already won half the battle. Gesture drawings are the core of any drawing, they capture the essence of what a drawing is trying to say in just a few strokes, in just a few minutes. The first 2 minutes of a drawing are critical in that they lay the foundation for the rest of the drawing. It doesn’t matter how polished your drawing is if the initial gesture isn’t there to begin with.


Ideally, one should practice gesture drawing from a nude model, but if you don’t have access to a model, there are plenty of other options.  You can go to a local cafe and sketch people sitting in the cafe, or draw a bunch of friends who are sitting around.   One of my friends always liked going to the beach to draw  because people sit still and they’re practically naked anyway.  I had a peer in art school who used to go to college parties and draw all of the drunk people sitting around. Get creative and find as many contexts as possible where you can practice your gesture drawing.


Gesture drawing by Rembrandt

To create a strong gesture gesture, it’s important to keep your arm moving and circulating throughout the page, moving from top to bottom, side to side, very quickly. Start very, very light with marks that barely show on the page.  This allows you to make lots of mistakes that will not show later because they’ll be so light. Develop all of the parts of the drawing together so that you don’t neglect any area.   Try to aim for continuous movements and fluid lines rather than fragmenting your lines into choppy marks. Look at your subject more than you look at your drawing; your subject is where the information is. Keep your gesture drawings about 2-5 minutes in length, any longer than that it’s too easy to get lazy and fall back into bad habits. Read this article I wrote for a detailed explanation for what a gesture drawing entails.


Gesture drawings by Raphael

4) Look at historical drawings.

Go to the library and check out books that feature drawings by historical artists. Avoid the Internet: 1) the Internet is often times overwhelming if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for and 2) you won’t get nearly the range or selection of drawings that you’ll get if you just sit down in the art history section of the library for a few hours. Get acquainted with art history and really make the time and effort to see the extraordinary range of drawings created throughout centuries of history.

In this case, start by referencing art history and expand your knowledge from there. To get you started, some historical artists whose drawings I would recommend looking at are: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Kathe Kollwitz, John Singer Sargent, Raphael, Leonardo, Pontormo, Degas, Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, DurerGiacometti.


Gesture drawing by Michelangelo

The historical drawings that you’ll learn the most from are gesture drawings and quick sketches done in sketchbooks.  In these quick sketches you’ll get to see all of the visual evidence: you get to see all of the mistakes, all of the troubleshooting that happens in an artist’s drawing process. This is what is so unique about drawing that you won’t see in other media like painting and sculpture; the opportunity to see traces of an artist’s process in a drawing.   Investigate and analyze what kinds of strategies these artists take in their drawing process and try to use them in your own.


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

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Ask the Art Prof: Do Professional Artists Doubt Their Abilities?

RISD in Rome exhibition

“Do the professional artists still have the “oh-gosh-I-really-can’t-draw” feeling at the beginning of their work? Most amateur artists and hobbyist seem to suffer from it time to time.”

To work as an artist, you have to be mentally very strong.  Making art is like plunging yourself into the great unknown, where nothing is guaranteed, there are no correct answers, and nothing is predictable. It’s like being dropped in the middle of a foreign country with no resources.  Essentially, that’s what happens every time you sit down to make art.  It’s a pretty frightening process if you think about it in those terms.

Because art is a hands-on experience, there is a common myth that making art is all about what your hands can physically do.  I’ve seen students make incredible progress with their work in a span of 15 minutes.  It wasn’t because somehow their hands magically gained an ability to physically handle their material within those 15 minutes, rather it was because they changed their mental approach to their work.  It doesn’t matter how skillful your hands are if you don’t have a strong mindset.

How you think about your process and work affects everything.  What all of the great artists have in common is they all firmly believed in their vision, and their work exuded a sense of confidence. They could stand behind every action in their artwork with certainty. One of my all-time favorite drawings is this ink drawing below by Rembrandt. Ink can be a scary medium to use: you can’t erase it, so every stroke you put down is permanent. In this Rembrandt drawing below, there is an undeniable assertiveness in every mark. His intense sense of confidence shows throughout the drawing through the boldness of his strokes.


Ink Drawing by Rembrandt

To work professionally as an artist means having to confront these issues on a daily basis.  For this reason, professionals have to figure out ways to cope with this challenge.  If they didn’t, there’s no way they would survive long term. The fear and doubt in the creative process never goes away professionals, rather they come up with concrete strategies to deal with it.

I’m a professional artist, and I worry all the time about final results and I doubt whether I can rise to my own expectations. I want so much to do well with my work that I end up exerting a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Oddly enough, one of the best strategies that I’ve found to deal with that fear and doubt is to just not think about it.  If I over scrutinize the situation I end up actually heightening my worries, so I turn my brain off and “jump off the cliff”.

Studio View

I focus intensely on the task at hand, thinking about formal elements that I want to stress in the work.  It sounds silly, but I tell myself that I kick ass and that I totally know what I’m doing. (even if that’s the complete opposite of what I am actually feeling) I also never critique myself when I’m in the trenches of working, rather I work continuously until I’ve reached a good stopping point. Then I put the work away where I can’t see it, so that I’m not tempted to judge it prematurely and worry myself more.

It can be mentally straining to handle these concerns on a daily basis, and I know that I still struggle every time I sit down to work. However, with time and experience, these strategies eventually become routines that kick in naturally.

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

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

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

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.

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Wading Figures: Millais, Kentridge, Copley, and Rembrandt

I started thinking today about images from art history that featured figures wading in water. Previously, I had explored images from art history that related to my work in terms of the visual execution, and I decided that it was time for me to start considering works that have the same subject matter in common. As much as I can, I’m always trying to find new images that relate to the work I’m doing while also revisiting familiar pieces as a means to providing inspirational support to the work I’m doing. Not only does this give me the opportunity to create a context for the work I’m doing, but it keeps me motivated and continually excited about the work I’m doing. Simultaneously, this is also another way to make sure that the work I’m doing doesn’t become derivative of someone else’s work, something I’m very conscious of. People are very quick to make associations with images that they see. I’ve found that for the most part, very strong associations with other images can really prevent a viewer from looking at a piece of artwork on its own. In that situation, the association with another image dominates any sense of self the piece of artwork ever had. The best scenario is when a piece of artwork can imply or allude to a relationship with a past image and yet simultaneously be undeniably in its own category. I’ve always believed that its my responsibility as an artist to have an awareness of images that are related to what I’m going both in terms of technical execution and subject matter. I think nothing bothers me more than artists who make their work in a vacuum due to ignorance or out of sheer laziness.

The image that came to my mind most quickly was John Millais’ classic Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia. I have to say that for the most part, I don’t particularly like most of the Pre-Raphaelite works. I find most of the work to be very stiff and isolated from the contemporary viewer, and that I’m more interested in pieces that are able to maintain a more timeless quality, regardless of their specificity to their time period. Millais’ painting of Ophelia I think is definitely an exception to my general distaste for the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s a haunting quality and atmosphere to this work which I find quite terrifying but beautiful at the same time. Speaking of derivative works, I remember very clearly someone I went to school with who did a blatant ripoff of this painting, and that they tried to pass it off as a “self-portrait about renewal and rejuvenation”. Yeah, right.

Another image I considered was John Singleton Copley’s giant oil painting “Brook Watson and the Shark”. This painting is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so not only have I had the chance to view it multiple times, but I have memories of seeing it when I was much younger, as well as my more recent experiences with this painting. Stylistically, this painting could not be more different than my own work, but I think the rendering of the water is incredible, especially how Copley chooses where to submerge the figure in the water and where he allows the figure to escape it. The water itself is quite stunning as well, as representational as it looks, upon further inspection it’s amazing how abstract it becomes.

I discovered the contemporary artist William Kentridge just a few years ago at an exhibition at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. When I saw his work I couldn’t believe that he had been around for so long without my knowledge of his work. I think he’s one of the most exciting artists out there today, particularly for his incredible drawing facility and how he’s been able to translate it so fluidly into animation. I love his work because it’s symbolic, iconic, and yet so genuine and real at the same time.

And of course, there’s always Rembrandt’s oil painting of Hendrickje bathing in water. Interestingly enough, although this is an image of a figure wading in water, what’s also fascinated me about this painting is not the water itself but rather the extraordinary painting facility that he demonstrates on her clothing. There’s a sense of luminosity and form that for me is just incomparable.