Monday, June 15, 2009

Working in a Series: stages in development

Some years ago I was part of a group jurying artists and one of the main reasons that people were rejected was because their work was very scattered: One realistic piece about cows, one improv piece with random rectangles, one arashi shibori squares, one digital image etc.
There is a time for learning new techniques and exploring different types of work but sooner or later as an artist if you want to develop your skills, you have to focus in on one theme and one technique/format. You can't be an expert in growing dahlias if you have a garden with a flowering shrub, a rock plant, some annuals, a rose bush, 2 tomato plants and a row of potatoes - plus one dahlia! Nor will you become a rock and roll icon if you spend your 2 hours of practice per day on 15 different kinds of music! (well, that didn't work for me at least!).

To improve one's skills: you could practice the same thing over and over again - like the old Chinese story of a man who commissioned a scroll from a master painter.
Having paid over his money he went back the following week for the piece:
"oh", said the master, "it's not done yet".
A month later: "no, sir, sorry, not ready";
6 months went by: "not yet".
Finally, after a year, he marched into the artist's studio: "I'm not leaving till I have it!".
The master sighed, pulled out paper, ink and brush and with a flourish painted the scroll beautifully with a few elegant strokes.
|"But that took you no time! why did you not do it before?"
The master opened thedoor of the cupboard behind him, and out fell several hundred attempts at the same piece.

Though this is the way that an aria or lieder singer, or any classical musician would work, I know I, for one, don't have that kind of discipline!! Also, it does rather presuppose that one has the elegant whole completely in mind and that it's the execution alone that is important. However, it underscores the need for constant frequent practice. And there are definitely artists who have made the same work over and over again and become very good at it!! But there are two aspects to a piece: composition and execution.

So, I think working in a series gives one the practice with both execution and composition. Pedefining the parameters - particularly those involving the theme and, to some extent, the format will help you to stay on task. Decide what visual image really fascinates you. It could be shoes, skies, grids, puzzles, arrangements of triangles, photographs of old ladies, haystacks, icons like Marilyn Monroe, graffiti, pixelated portraits - look to the great artists and observe their themes. Look and see how they worked within a strict thematic focus and developed it but were able to examine different aspects of it at the same time. Monet's haystacks were observed in many different kinds of light, Warhol's Marilyn Monroe screenprints were in many different combinations of colours. Chuck Close's close up portraits were of different people....Thiebaud painted different kinds of cakes! Picasso and Mondrian rearranged similar elements.

Considered repetition will lead to improvement, and working in a series rather than repeating the exact same thing over and over is much more interesting!! I'll be exploring the possibilities of making better work by serializing at Quilting by the Lake in July -come join us!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!! Elizabeth


Nina Marie said...

Out of all the challenges that lie before me, I find working in series nearly the hardest to conquer. I joke that I'm an ADD quilter and I'm not sure how to discipline myself to one or two series. I'm coming to the s-l-o-w realization that the only thing that is going to do it is living by the slogan - "just say no". I guess once I learn to manipulate the chosen topic enough, it will satisfy ADD in me :)

Rayna said...

The whole topic of working in a series is food for endless discussion: what constitutes a series?
Does it have to be planned and deliberate, as in "I'm going to do a series on X"? Or does a series emerge over a period of time when an artist finds him/herself returning to the same elements/themes in between other work? Does the style of a series have to be the same each time? Etc. etc. I've had this conversation on my blog several times over the last few years and everybody's answer is different.

Elizabeth, I wish I could take that class with you at QBL but we'll have to make time to sit and talk after/between classes.

Linda B. said...

You've published details of this class just as I've come to realise that I cannot continue with my butterfly state of mind and need help on focussing on a direction, which in turn will set the parameters for me to begin working in series.

Unfortunately there's the issue of the 3,500 miles between us!

I appreciate that this will be a very visual class, with a great deal of dialogue - but do you do anything equivalent in book form or on-line?

Deb Lacativa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb Lacativa said...

These days I do find myself willing and able to come at a design stance working with the same set of techniques three to four outings in a row, beyond that, I have to switch to a new mindset....I've given up worrying about what judges are thinking but I have tried to submit three pieces made in at least time order.

Barbara Strobel Lardon said...

You may not be an expert at growing dahlias but you can become a great gardener learning about more than one plant and have an interesting variety in your garden.

Must you have a series sticking to one subject? Can you instead try different techniques, styles, subjects in search your signature style and once found, does it matter what that the subject remain static?

*karendianne. said...

Hi Elizabeth. I'm here via

It's early morning, I'm sipping my coffee and taking in (unclouded) your post. This one will stick. I always learn things from Kay's Blog but whoa, my brain is really stimulated.

A pleasure to meet you. Thank you. *karendianne.