A series of artworks can be defined as a group of pieces that are somehow linked to present a cohesive whole. It is usually desirable for an artist to accumulate a body of works on a theme to be presented in exhibitions and be taken seriously on a professional level. Even if an art-maker is not professional, or not interested in showing their artworks, there are, nonetheless, still many advantages to working in series.
What are the benefits - and sometimes drawbacks - of creating series of artworks? How can I maintain a happy balance between painting what is required by the art market and painting what I want to paint? How should I choose what subjects to paint? These questions occupy much of my planning as a fine art professional.
This blog is divided into two parts. Part 2 will be posted in my next blog.
Benefits vs Drawbacks of Working in Series
One of the main benefits of making series of artworks is the practical devlopment of concepts into themes. It could be a theme as a visual narrative in the sense of storytelling, or apparently random scenes of everyday life (genre painting) that exhibited together convey the sense of lifestyle patterns or routines. It could simply be images of things that belong to a broad category, such as botanical or travel, or a small category, such as a certain flower or a particular group of people.
Just a few of the many famous examples of themed series that spring to mind are Claude Monet’s water lilies, Mary Cassatt’s mother-and-child portraits, Edgar Degas’ ballerinas, Pablo Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods, Margaret Preston’s florals, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Southwest landscapes, and Katsushika Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mt Fuji.
An idea that begins a themed series is usually significant to the art-maker in some way, something that has affected their life past or present, or captured their interest. It could be social issues that resonate in disturbing ways, it could be the artist’s personal indoor or outdoor environment, it could be simply objects, scenes, shapes and colours that express the artist’s moods. The artist should feel motivated by the initial idea, even if they don’t yet know whether it will develop into a series. More about inspired ideas shortly.
The exploration of a theme is another major benefit. To really ‘get into’ a subject, it helps to paint/draw it more than once or twice. Interesting, unexpected things may happen when the subject is rendered several or many times. An artist might find her/himself drawn (no pun intended) in a different direction than that planned or envisaged. For instance, a particular landscape might inspire an artist to initially paint it as a general vista, but getting to know that scene through producing more artworks of it might lead to closer artistic studies of the parts that make it up, such as individual trees, or to depictions of it in various lights or seasons. Extending beyond our comfort zone to explore a theme or subject can be challenging at first, but exploration is worth the effort to satisfy artistic desires while breaking new ground and ‘perfecting’ skills.
Sunlit Gumleaves series
Sunlit Gumleaves 17, Fiona Craig, oils, 18” x 24”. Private collection.
That brings me to the benefits that go hand-in-hand with the exploration of a subject: the honing of skills and the building of personal style (the latter now known as ‘branding’, a term that sounds rather painful to me). You have probably heard the adage ‘Practice makes perfect’ more times than you can count. Why, then, I wonder, in regard to artistic abilities, do many people say that they can’t draw, as if it’s a truth set in cement? At various stages of life, most of us had to learn by repetition of instructions, thought processes, observation, and practice. Like handwriting, art expressions often develop personal styles. If there are several series in an artist’s portfolio (thinking of Picasso and Matisse here), the artworks are still likely to have something recognisable, even if that something is somewhat confined to each individual series.
Sunlit Gumleaves series
Sunlit Gumleaves, Fiona Craig, oils, 30” x 42”.
While it is important to mention some of the drawbacks of working in themed series, I will spend little time on them because I believe the benefits outweigh them, and there are remedies to the drawbacks that I’ll mention shortly. One of those drawbacks is boredom. It can occur when an artist is constantly chanelled into a limited portfolio by a gallery that represents them, by the need or market demand to keep selling the same or similar successful images. Repeatedly producing the same thing can feel stifling and creativity-deadening.
Another of those drawbacks is lack of creative endeavour due to various causes, including limiting circumstances or self-doubt stemming from negative rather than constructive criticisms by others or by her/himself. Staying in the same mode too long can defeat the very purpose of working in series according to the benefits mentioned above. It can take patience and endurance to conquer those conditions and move forward. So…
How Can I Maintain a Happy Balance?
It is vitally inportant to an art-maker’s wellbeing to aim at and attempt to maintain a reasonably happy balance in work practice. Some remedies to the drawbacks of working in series that I have found personally successful are: working in different media, colour palettes, and compositions; making smaller, quicker works; starting a new series or extending a previous series; and trying something completely different. I like to include a few new-series artworks in my solo exhibitions and on social media to introduce them to the clients’/ potential clients’ view.
Sunlit Roses series
Sunlit Rose 2, F. Craig, oils on wood panel, 12” x 12” x 7/8”.
Working in a different media, colour schemes and compositions on a series can achieve new results and combat boredom. It stretches the abilities and perceptions, and portrays the subject in new ways. For instance, if an artist is used to working in oils, it can be refreshing to tackle the same subject in watercolours, mixed media, or collage.
Making smaller, quicker artworks can free up an artist’s style, increase the number of works in a series and main portfolio, add interest to that series, and make lower price points available for purchase. The small pieces can be diverse, from preliminary sketches to complete works executed at any stage of a series.
Sunlit Roses series
Love and Peace Roses, F. Craig, mixed media, 12” x 16”.
Starting a new series or extending a previous series enables an artist to take a break from the current series. Perhaps every art-maker has experienced the sense of not being able to ‘see’ adequately to continue with an artwork when she/he has been working on it for some hours. It may be that the piece has become frustrating due to not working out as planned. That’s time time to take a coffee break, or a much longer break to ‘regroup the troups’ (i.e., energy). It may be even more beneficial to put the work/s out of sight for a period of time, take a day or two off, and return to the easel to proceed with something different. Returning to the temporarily abandoned artwork, we see it ‘with fresh eyes’ and can resolve it or at least learn from it.
Trying something completely different in order to temporarily get out of the usual routine can be a wonderful remedy for boredom, fatigue, or stagnation. As they say, ‘A change is as good as a holiday’. Since I don’t get many holidays, I must amuse myself. My personal preferences and criteria for something completely different that is relaxing and therapeutic is painting that 1) involves water or very fluid paint, and 2) does not involve much thinking. Water has such calming qualities, and I highly recommend art-making that does not take much concentration. For me, the criteria are happily met by such arts as marbling (painting on water) and paint pours. That is not to say that marbling does not require intense thought and concentration, but that the way I apply it - in free-form, abstract ways - does not require the degree of focus and skill that experts apply. The preparations for a fun excercise may have to be scientific to reach work-readiness, but the processes in the painting should be enjoyable and relaxing. For a something-completely-different that is exciting, I recommend taking an art course in a medium or subject that you have not tackled before. This is something that I used to frequently participate in (willingly or unwillingly) during my childhood, my years at art schools, and on occasion throughout my professional life (the latter, willingly). I have found it very enriching, even though I don’t work in all the media I have learned.
As a side note, I will mention that I often include a few new-series artworks and small pieces in my solo exhibitions and on social media to introduce them to the clients’/ potential clients’ view.
Deciding Which Subjects to Choose will be in PART 2, my next blog.
What are your thoughts and experiences on creating series of artworks?