Working in a Series

A few weeks ago I ran a giveaway on instagram. The giveaway entry fee was for people to tell me things they’d love to learn from me. I’ll admit it was a sneaky way for me to gather ideas to blog about. One of the things someone asked about was about working in series and and how I prepare for that.

A Few Basics

A series can literally be anything you want it to be. Maybe you want to work a color series and you love teal and red together. Any red and teal piece you make from now until you reach that big craft table in the sky with Bob Ross and Frieda Kahlo can be a part of your Red and Teal series. Start with “Red and Teal #1” and just keep going. It really is as easy as that. Maybe “Red and Teal #14” has more yellow in it, but maybe by “Red and Teal #36” you are super into orange-red and some violets. As long as the majority of the work is red and teal, you’ve got your work in series.

Maybe you want to explore a particular shape or a particular pattern. Maybe you want to think deeply on a subject or event. Anything that your mind returns to again and again is fodder for a series. So anytime you start thinking again how you might draw or paint a raven, that’s the next work in your Raven series. Of course, series can be much more complex than that. Maybe you have a social or political issue you want to explore, like I did with my Conversational Sexism series.

Conversational Sexism: The Series

This series started with a question: what does a women hear that is discriminatory regarding her gender. When I asked my friends the question, I got SO MANY stories. I broke those stories down into the phrases of a conversation, the back and forth of a man talking to a women or society talking to a women and how the women responds. In the early days all I had was my story board:

I took these cards out on the regular and read through them, trying to decide how to tell this story. I quickly realized that I’d need to differentiate them by color. The women’s voice is teal, yellow, and red (see what I did there?) and the men’s/society’s words are black, gray, dark blue, yellow, and red (which I’m only just this very moment realizing are the colors of bruises).

Then I started thinking about patterns and paper choices. I wanted the women’s patterns to be really strong, so I landed on a honeycomb shape. The women’s pieces also have joss paper. Joss paper is used in Chinese mourning rituals to memorialize and celebrate family members. The ink in joss paper is supposed to run and bleed when it gets wet. There’s lots of deep symbolism to hang on to here. I also had yellow receipts for the women’s pieces to express the current cultural idea that there must be proof to hold the powerful accountable for their deeds.

For the men/society’s paper and pattern choices, I thought it would be more interesting to associate them with flowers. Since flowers are so often associated with women, I wanted to call attention to the hothouse nature of men who feel that women owe them their time and attention. Several of the men’s pieces also have units of measurement on them, bringing to mind the idea of “trying to measure up” in some way or to conform to society’s standards.


Getting Ready

While I was thinking about these things, I was also testing ideas out, putting things down on paper to see what I liked. I worked big and loose on 18×24″ sheets of mixed media paper. I was trying out color choices and images . I knew with 18 pieces that I would need to work smaller than 18×24″, so I worked on 18×12″ for a while and then finally settled down to working on 10×10″.

Another thing to do during the prep phase is gather reference photos if you are doing representational art. Maybe this means you need to go out into the world and take photos in person of the thing you will be working on or make preliminary sketches in person. These will figure prominently in your test work. You’ll be able to think about angles and composition here.

Think about your schedule as well. I knew in January 2017 that my show would need to be ready by mid-October 2017. Once I knew the number of pieces I was going to do, I also knew how quickly I needed to work. I’m a Nervous Nelly, so I tried to set my end point for mid-September so I would have some flex time if there was a disaster.

While this stage is important because it helps clarify your thinking about your work, don’t get stuck here. Once you have some idea of where you are headed, get on with it and don’t expend all your stored creative energy for your big idea in preparing. You need that energy to do the actual work. Sometimes I think this stage can flow directly into the actual work stage. You’ll have to figure your own process out. This was the first time I had attempted a project like this, and doing practice work let me to get started when I didn’t know what else to do.

This one was my favorite from those early pieces. It ended up being my submission to a group journal project to raise money for women’s charities.

Why Work in Series?

If you want to have your work shown in a professional venue, you will need consistency of product. They aren’t going to want 2 pieces that are hyper-realistic landscapes in colored pencils, 4 watercolor pieces of animals, and 3 acrylic abstracts. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t vary your work over time or practice with other mediums. Of course you should do those things! Variety is the spice of life and all of that. But working in series shows gallery managers that you can produce consistent work over time and that you can think on things and provide contextual commentary about the world you see.

I used to think working in series was a bit indulgent bordering on obsessive. Then a few years ago, I had this realization:

I know for me that practice element is there. Working on a thing multiple times in different ways lets me explore it deeply and contemplate the mysteries of it. I’m learning that there’s magic in that. An intimacy that isn’t like anything else I can compare it to. On this side of the project, I can say for sure that it’s worth it. Even as hard as this subject matter has been, it’s been worth it.