Monday, September 29, 2008

What are your reasons for working in a series?

I was very pleased to find out from a number of readers who responded to A Making A Mark Project - Working in a series that you're already 'working in a series' or are about too. Today I'd like to ask you a question!

I like to start all my art projects by thinking through a way of structuring an approach to what can be a big theme. That's just me - I like to try and see the big picture first in outline before beginning to work on the details. It's pretty much the same way I work when I create an artwork!

In this post I'm beginning to explore some of the reasons why artists work may work in a series as that might be one way to approach structure my exploration of working in a series.

On 1st October I've going to start a new poll about the reasons why people work in a series. This will hopefully provide some feedback for all of us about what you find are the greatest benefits to working in a series. Again I'm using this post today to think about some of the alternative options which could be offered in that poll. Your feedback is welcomed!

To kick off the poll I'm listing below some of the reasons I can think of for why artists work in a series - and I'm inviting you to comment about any important reasons that I've omitted or ways in which what I've said might be omissions or maybe a different slant or emphasis on the reasons listed.

I've come to the conclusion there are probably four main categories of reasons why artists work in a series. Within each category there are more specific reasons.
  • investigate and explore - subject
  • investigate and explore - technique
  • emotional response
  • business motive
Investigate and explore - subject

Subject matter is probably where most people start if they's thinking about doing a series.
  • Explore an object as subject - The subject is tangible and in front of you. Developing your knowledge of an object as subject might be about helping you to develop your artwork generally or it might be the reason behind the series you're developing. Knowing how something works is one step nearer to knowing how it can be represented in a more shorthand way if you work in a more abstracted way. Once you know your subject then it's possible to develop more imaginary treatments of the same subject. The range and size of your series is only limited by the limits of your subject. For example:
    • Tina Mammoser (The Cycling Artist) is working on a series of paintings about the coastline of the UK!
    • I've loved trees for a long time but, sad to say, I don't know as much about them as I would like. I then feel less confident developing landscapes because I don't know how to represent their different characteristics in a shorthand way. My current aim is to find out more about trees andSunday afternoon walks now involve us going out with my tree guidebook! I hope I may also get a series of developed works about trees out of this.
  • Explore an idea as concept - The subject is in your head, it's an idea and it may be philosophical and/or conceptual. What the artist has to say may be represented in any number of different ways - detailed and realistic or abstract and metaphorical - but if the paintings are 'on message' then they all form part of a series. Having them all in the same style may help to convey the idea of a 'series'. Developing a series based on a concept is akin to 'working through a problem' - and outcomes from developing a conceptual series can range from very positive and very negative.
  • Explore a story - The subject is known to you and may be tangible but can be an imaginary story or a story which has to be visually imagined. Well known ways of using a series of artworks to tell a story range from
    • history paintings associated with a particular place, event or person
    • portraits of an individual during their lifetime eg Velaquez's paintings of Philip II and his family
    • visual depictions of the stations of the cross
    • illustrations for a book or a comic
Investigate and explore - technique

I think this is a bit akin to a controlled scientific approach. In order to explore the impact of changes in one variable in an experiment you keep other variables the same throughout. Keeping the subject matter the same allows you to test changes in the variable which is being studied.

Series present a vast scope for exploring both design and colour. So, for example, in order for Monet to explore the colour of light at different times of say he painted the same subject over and over again - changing canvases as he worked through the day to the one appropriate for that time and that type of light. Using a series approach you can
  • Explore the impact of change on design by
    • arranging different multiples of the same objects in different sizes and positions or
    • using different values for the same design of shapes and lines.
  • Explore the impact on adjacent colour of combining colours in different ways. Josef Albers didn't paint squares - he painted different colours combinations which he always portrayed within squares.
The approach here is to work on developing an understanding about some aspect of technique - and to use one topic or motif to help you understand
  • Explore one motif - In exploring a motif, identify all the different ways you can portray a single subject or type of subject. Repetition within an artwork and across a series of designs lends unity to the whole. Single motifs are often associated with particular artists - while others can crop up in the work of a number of artists
    • Paisley patterns are one example of a pattern repeated within a cloth and also repeated in cloths in many different colours.
    • Islamic patterns often take one or two motifs and then repeats them throughout
    • Architecture often has motifs associated with particular periods of building or particular types of building
    • This is a list of visual motifs often used in patterns.
a motif is a repeated idea, pattern, image, or theme.
  • Explore colour - you can take one subject and explore its colour at then try different colour combinations (think Warhol and Marilyn) or you do as Monet did and explore light at different times of day and in different seasons. In my series on trees, I'm aiming to explore how their shape and colour changes through the seasons. I'm not expecting this series is going to be finished any time soon!
  • Explore design - explore the impact of different arrangements of values relating to one subject to asses the best design for a painting. This can be a technique which is adopted prior to starting any painting rather than an end in itself. For example, developing several thumbnails of different value patterns for the arrangement of big shapes within the subject matter. See Composition - why tonal values and contrast are important.
Emotional response

I think that to be able to get out of bed day after day and paint, one needs to have a feeling for a subject. It's really great if the subject continuously feeds your emotions and makes you feel good. Painting what you like best can then provide a jolly good reason for painting - period!
By way of contrast, some artists have to paint about the emotions which absorb them - and these can be obsessions. Whether they are good or bad obsessions rather depends on why they started in the first place.
  • Painting what you like best - you never get bored with a subject if you always paint what you like best. There is only one difficulty - deciding what you like best!
  • Feed an obsession - you're unable to paint anything else. You have to paint whatever is your obsession and that's the beginning and the end of it.
Business motive

Business motive might be a crude way of characterising this category - any suggestions for a better way of describing it?

This one is is essentially about achieving status, doing something which helps to make your work a more marketable commodity and creating a reason why people want to buy. These reasons might be subsidiary to the reason why you create the work - but they very definitely a legitimate part of the business life of any artist.
  • Achieve artistic credentials - working on a series can enable some artists to achieve a status which has value to them as artists and in terms of marketing their work. For example, the RHS only awards Gold Medals to Botanical Artists who develop a series of paintings about a specific species or collection
  • Develop an artistic identity - it's much easier to sell yourself to a gallery or a client if they know what you're about. It's just easier to describe and easier to market to clients who have a defined interest in your sort of work.
Exhibition of work by Tracy Hegelson (July 07)
her individual works are really great....
but the impact is multiplied when placed together
Exhibitions by Tracy Helgeson
  • Create an exhibition - exhibitions which have a big impact are ones which have themes for the work displayed. Works which are linked often work extremely well together when displayed. Combining paintings from a series in one exhibition often creates a very powerful visual impact.
  • Create a collectible - people like collecting art and a jolly good reason for creating a series is it makes it easier for people to collect your art. People like the subject and the way the artist treats it and may seek to make repeated purchases of anything they produce. There is a downside. Artists often cannot afford to stop producing such paintings - even if they now hate the subject matter - because of the financial benefits attached.
I was once given some very sound advice by a professional artist who was giving a marketing seminar to artists starting out. His biggest tip was never ever to start painting a series about a subject which did not absorb you. If it became popular and was linked to your name and became financially worthwhile you might have to paint it for a very long time to come!

Some questions for you
  • Why do you work in a series?
  • Are there any reasons which I've omitted or failed to explain properly?
  • How much does your style and way of working contribute to what sort of series you choose?
  • How much do series contribute to your style and identity as an artist?

Note: I've started my research to find hyperlinks to material about working in series. However, I can see that "working in series" is going to be a bit like "composition and design" - there simply isn't a lot of material out there on the Internet. Consequently, if anybody knows about good reference sites could you please flag them up by using the comments function - and thanks in advance if you do!


  1. Katherine, I am enjoying the working in a series investigation you are doing! I had originally set out with roosters to explore the collage technique and how it could work with colorful feathers. Once my roosters got some attention from galleries, I was asked to do an exhibition of six roosters. At first I thought that this was not a very good way to showcase my collage talent and technique, limiting me to one subject matter, however I have been advised that this gallery owner is quite savvy and that she knows what sells. After reading your entry today about creating an exhibition and that those with a big impact are ones which have themes for the work displayed... "Works which are linked often work extremely well together when displayed. Combining paintings from a series in one exhibition often creates a very powerful visual impact." Your words are ringing very true to me right now! and your visual on the blog is a perfect way to illustrate it. Right now I am also very glad I am framing them all the same! Thanks for shedding some light!

  2. While planning for an upcoming series this summer I wrote this post: The eventual results are here (including the first two of four 'medley' drawings, combining/reworking some of the ideas):

  3. Elizabeth - in relation to exhibitions think of it like this

    If you were sitting down to write the entry in the catalogue which explains what your work is all about, how much does it help if there are some themes underpinning your work (style / colour palette/ subject matter) or the exhibition is about a series of paintings around a common theme.

    At some point somebody has to write words about your work - how much easier is it to say who you are as an artist in a coherent way if your work speaks visually in a coherent way?

    I wish I'd got that bit into the main post!!!

  4. Andrea - gorgeous drawings and I love the way the frames complement rather than compete with the work.

    Thanks for referencing both it and the blog post about your approach

    The latter is now officially a recommended reada

  5. I've done long series on several themes, the largest being about the coast in all its weathers and moods, seasons. times and tides. I love the changing light and mood. to see lots of them or for my website

    There is also some work on trees on my blog - 25 posts

  6. Hi Katherine
    Series occur naturally for me. Most often subject driven..I fall in love with things( candy, seashells, flowers )and pursue the subject until it bores me or something else comes along and captures my imagination. I'm currently involved with doing a series of sunrise paintings. My primary motivation for these works is to improve my technique at painting skies and rapidly changing light. And well yes, I'm also in love with the subject.

    All of the reasons you listed under business motives also come into play as well. I was recently given a long term exhibit in the lobby of our local hospital because the curator loved my candy paintings. I was so happy that I had twelve similar paintings to put together as a cohesive show. ...and as you mentioned it received a well written article in the paper.
    Lastly I would like to mention an interesting series of note. Georgia O'keefe's "Shell and Old Shingle" paintings. She took the subject from realism to abstract in six paintings. A facinating way to see into the artists mind.

  7. What an interesting topic! I began working in series quite a number of years ago, and often wonder why I do it! If I had to honestly answer this question I might say that it is because I'm wordy...I can't seem to say it all in one painting. I am drawn to themes; Feelings/Emotions, as in the Feeling Series ( series.html and
    the Genesis series, about seeds, series.htm. I am working on Music(some abstract paintings on various aspects of music)and I have done a series of pastels about the city of Tampa, Florida, and a small series of landscapes called the Dawn Series. And so on...wordy, yes! But I can't help it. The themes are vast and there is so much much about each that I need to say.
    I will be following your blog with great interest in the coming months to see what others say about this topic.

  8. I do some work in series, and especially experimental 'play and see' work. I spent approx a year doing a series using the same photo of shadows on concrete as a base, then painting or marking lines on top of it (using acrylic paint or oil pastels). The marks echoes or adjusted the shadow lines. I have perhaps 100 plus of these photos. I have only exhibited them once, but I learnt so much from that extended period of concentration on one thing.

  9. Well, since you hold me up as an example I felt compelled to answer your questions. :)

    So I've blogged in reply with my answers.

  10. I probably should have said earlier that I'm going to create a post of links to artists who talk about their series work on their blogs (if you supply the link)

    Plus links will also be made to your blogs and websites where appropriate from my information site about "working in series"

  11. This is SUCH a rich topic, Katherine! I'm thrilled that you're focusing on it now and will continue to do so. I'm in the midst of working on one of my rocks and water paintings, and I will be thinking all day about my particular answers to your questions. I will come back and add my responses. I've got lots of ideas whirling in my brain even as we speak!

  12. WOW!! THIS IS GREAT! I have been working in a series for a while but this article is just like a DEEPER INSIGHT into possibilities. GREAT AS EVER! Thanks for this Katherine!

  13. Katherine, this is such a n interesting subject!

    For me I believe that working in a series is a recurring thing. As an artist I am drawn to atmosphere, the English landscape (I grew up walking and sketching the landscape of Berkshire) and the tropical vistas of South Florida where I had the good fortune to live and paint for seven years. Atmosphere is always on my mind regardless if I am working in watercolour, pastel or even oil. I believe, therefore that most of my work over the years has been based on a theme.

    Working in a series can take many forms, in some cases it may be as simple as working a beautiful wet in wet blended background wash on a full sheet of watercolour paper…and then cropping the paper to create eight or more (later over painted) paintings. In this way the artist already has the unity of a base wash and if the over paintings are all tropical palms or seascapes…..a series has been created from one initial blended wash. I used to work like this a lot when I painted many palms and tropical scenes in Key West. Smaller paintings can look wonderful matted in a wide contemporary mount, which also extends the painting size (which in turn if all the paintings are matted and framed in the same way this also creates unity and a 'theme')

    I think one-man shows look very unified when the body of work is based on a theme and it does show some fore thought and intellectual planning by the artist. My mantra however is: paint what you love and ‘know’ and it will show in your work’…if you are struggling with your subject matter or materials, the struggle will also show in your work……to this end I think whatever you paint becomes a series in itself.

  14. I've actually posted about this exact topic. Here's a link to it:

  15. therine,
    I love this topic and can't wait to read entries from your readers and your exploration of the topic. I manage 3-4 pieces on a given topic, or exploring a new technique and then get bored - so I need to learn how others stay more focused.

  16. Interesting topic Katherine! I have been doing commissions for quite a few years so it feels like I have been working on a series for ages, but in reality I have only recently put things together to create a non-commissioned series of dog paintings...quite a big step for someone who has always worked on a commissioned basis.

    For me personally, all four of the reasons are relevant, although emotional response would be my first priority, followed by subject and technique.

    The business side of this stage I can only guess if there is a market for canine art that is not commissioned, it would be nice to have my series become collectors items, but the reality is that I would create this series even if the artwork sat in my studio forever.

    On the other hand, I would like to create a 'collectible' series so that I can raise money to help dog rescues that I am partnering with, so the financial side of things is still relevant in that respect.

    Personal and artistic development is also an important reason for me, while it does include those four reasons, creating some structure, direction and focus in my 'own' work is another reason for the series (this might only be important to me because of the expectations that go along with commission work).

    I look forward to reading what other artists have to say on the subject.

  17. "a business reason might be a crude way of characterizing this"
    There's nothing unholy about making a living. We are told from the cradle that "good work habits" and "making a good living" are responsible and respectable virtues. There's no reason that working in art shouldn't be part (or all) of that.

    [Forgive the bristle, please, now moving on...]

    I'm very new to artmaking, and the very idea of "subject" is sometimes confounding. I have a series underway that is a conversation with the novel Moby Dick. I find that when I'm stuck for 'something to do' I can always go to the novel, find something provocative almost at random, and then have one or more (usually more) things to do. It's very reassuring to my beginner's mind.


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