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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

How Does a Visual Artist Create a Series of Artworks?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“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 of artworks to be effective, 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 artwork 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 need 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 with the same group of people, 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.

Francisco GoyaDisasters of War
series of etchings, 1810-1820

I find that it’s helpful to establish a list of “rules” for your series that provide a structure that you can consistently follow and sustain for a long period of time.   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, you’ll need to do some extensive brainstorming first.  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.  The chronic issue I see with brainstorming is that too many artists try to brainstorm within their head.  They don’t bother to put the ideas on paper, thinking that they can work it out inside their heads.  You’ll miss out on so many ideas if you do this; I’ve had some ideas that sounded amazing in my head, but were terrible on paper, and others that sounded just plain stupid, but later showed tremendous potential once they were on paper.  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.

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. Concentrating on one image keeps things simple, and will inspire you to work harder to find ideas. Look at other artists who who focused on a single subject, and then created many variations on that subject.    Monet painted numerous paintings of water lilies, haystacks, and Rouen cathedral.  Degas drew pastel drawings of ballet dancers, bathers, and jockeys. Rembrandt painted self-portraits consistently throughout his entire career, creating an extraordinary documentation of his aging process and artistic development over many decades. Andrew Wyeth created the Helga pictures.  Analyze these series of artworks by these artists, and ask yourself:  what were their rules for their series?  Analyzing these series of artworks can provide inspiration as well as a departure point for your own work.

Claude Monet, Haystack series
oil on canvas, 1890-1891

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