Reasons for Artists to Make Art in Series
Advantages to Bodies of Work Over Single Pieces
If you make art for yourself and no one else, then make whatever you want. If your art is also for the rest of us and you want us to appreciate and understand what you're up to, you better make and present it in ways that give us a fighting chance. You know your art perfectly because you're the one making it, and you know yourself and your inspirations and motivations equally well. The rest of us, on the other hand, either don't know you that well or don't know you at all, which means we need help figuring out what you're doing. So help us.
Now the easiest way to do this is to work in series-- to create unified, cohesive, coherent, related bodies of work. Many artists aren't fully aware of the advantages to creating multiple works of art around the same idea, theme, philosophy, concept, topic, composition, or subject matter. Instead they produce what I call "onesies" or "whatever strikes my fancy." Their typical approach is more or less random and goes something like this-- "First I'll make one of these, then I'll make one of these, I'll follow that by making one of these," and so on and so forth, resulting in a largely unrelated, disjointed, or incoherent hodgepodge of work (that the artist may understand perfectly well, but unfortunately not the viewers). To make matters worse, they often show everything together and in no particular order other than perhaps chronologically on social media, their websites, image pages, or at their studios. With little or no organization or explanation, they're basically putting all the responsibility on viewers to figure it out. Unfortunately, they don't like having to do all the work. They expect the artist to do it for them.
The problem with the "I make whatever I feel like making whenever I feel like making it" approach to art is that when everything is different and there's no common thread. It's difficult for us to get a grip on where you're going, what you stand for, what your art is about. People try their best to sift through everything and make sense of it, but if no clear order, pattern or intent is evident, they often give up. The start-stop-start-stop-start-stop process of having to decipher every artwork from scratch is not only time consuming and labor intensive, but it's also difficult, confusing and in many cases, ultimately exhausting.
When I ask artists why they create art this way, they often say they want to make sure they have something for everyone. This strategy may make sense them but unfortunately, way more often than not, they end up with nothing for anyone. People are either overwhelmed by the assortment, or they don't the have time and energy to look at and analyze every single piece, or try and figure out if or how they fit together. To make matters worse, they can't get a handle on the artists' overall identities or purposes. Or they're so inundated with options that they can't make up their minds what they like most or why they like it. Way too many choices. Far more often than not in situations like this, they end up frustrated and buy nothing.
Another common excuse artists give for not working in series is that they don't want to get repetitive, bored, or locked into particular compositions or categories and end up in a rut. It's all about their artistic freedom, they say. But is this approach really a rut or a loss of freedom? Not necessarily. The idea of working in series or in distinct purposeful directions can actually be the opposite of condemning oneself to a life of sameness or repetition.
If you think about it, this method is not about repetition at all, but rather about being able to explore, investigate, or examine particular ideas, themes, issues, or topics in progressively deeper and more meaningful ways, and from a greater variety of perspectives than is possible by making just one or two. In a way, working in series is like looking at something under a microscope as opposed to giving it a casual passing glance. The closer you look, the more you see, and the more you see, the more fascinating your explorations get. Ask any experienced artist and they'll tell you this; the deeper they go, the more involved and committed they become. And the more possibilities they see in differentiating one work from the next even though they're all fundamentally related.
If you only create one or two similar pieces and then move on to whatever you feel like making next, how much can you possibly learn or benefit from such minimal experience? How much in-depth wisdom can you gain? How much can you use that limited wisdom to benefit and inform us, the viewers? What do you ultimately have to share or communicate? Not much more than superficial encounters with random unrelated works.
If however you produce a unified series or body of themed related works, you in a sense become the expert or authority on whatever thoughts, inspirations, or ideas are embodied within the art. The knowledge and experience you gain from working within a well-defined set of parameters, while expressing yourself from a range of different perspectives within those parameters, allows you to nuance your compositions more subtly, purposefully and in greater depth and detail, and most importantly, to communicate the results of your observations and explorations in impactful, compelling, profound, and consequential ways. In other words, you're able to more convincingly get your point across and connect with your audience. The simple truth is that people have an easier time being moved by what you're up to when the individual works combine to convey a singular experience.
Also at play is the phenomenon of strength in numbers, of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In a good compelling series, there's a cumulative effect above and beyond each individual work being considered solely on its own merits. The combined effect results in a more enhanced and intensified experience. Simply put, a good strong series or body of work gangs up on you. Many people can't fully comprehend where you're coming from simply by seeing one or two works of art. The need more. When it comes to art, redundancy works-- not in terms of seeing the same exact thing done over and over again, but rather stated and restated in different yet interconnected ways. Your job is not done until viewers can say, "I get it; I see your point; I know exactly what you're thinking, where you're coming from, why this is important to you, and why it's worth me taking my time to reflect on and appreciate."
In a way, you can compare making art in series to writing a novel or play. Very few ideas can be adequately expressed in single chapters or scenes as compared to how thoroughly they can be treated in complete entire works. The same holds true for art. A single painting has no beginning, middle or end. It has no theme, no plot, no context or direction. It's a one-off and not much more. We can only guess at its greater significance, purpose, story line or the meta-message it's intended to convey (assuming it even has any of that). And in the overwhelming majority of cases, those shortcomings are decidedly unsatisfying for viewers, especially experienced ones. They need more-- a fuller context, understanding or build-out as to where the art comes from, what it's about, why it exists, or where it's going. They want an experience, not a moment or an instance; they want to feel like the art is taking them on a journey, an adventure, and immersing them in something bigger and more meaningful, and progressively enlightening or elucidating them along the way.
Think about how galleries show art. Pretty much any established gallery showing current, recent, or new work by any established artist presents a unified selection or body of work. It's almost like they're saying, "For this show, we are presenting one product or idea or concept or commentary or philosophy or whatever in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors." Do you know why galleries do this? For the exact same reasons stated above. They are fully aware that people need help understanding what they're looking at, and that an unclear, disorganized or disjointed show will confuse audiences really easily.
They know that nobody buys anything they don't understand. They know that advancing someone to the point where they're ready to whip out the Venmo or credit card and buy something takes a complete, compelling, and convincing presentation. As for you artists, who want to approach galleries for shows or representation, coming to them with anything short of that will net you instant rejections in the overwhelming majority of cases. Galleries want artists who are capable of producing exactly what they show-- cohesive, coherent, unified wholes.
Coming at this concept from yet another angle, the way our minds work is that we have a constant need to organize, order and make sense of our surroundings no matter where we are or what we're doing. If anything is unclear, we instinctively do whatever we can to resolve it, to eliminate confusion and gain some sense of control. We don't like uncertainty; we don't like not knowing what's going on. The same holds true for art. We dearly want to feel connected to it. We want to understand. And this is why a well-scripted series or body of work is far more compelling and effective than onesies. The individual interrelations between pieces when experienced as a whole help viewers get to where they want to go and rewards them along the way with the satisfaction that they've been somewhere and have witnessed something worth seeing.
Last but not least, a well thought out and executed body of work demonstrates to all those razor-tongued critics, five-star gallery owners, and finicky hardcore collectors that you're on the path, you know what you're doing, where you're going, what you have to do to get there, and most importantly, that you have the ability to think matters all the way through to the exquisitely satisfying climax. The pros understand what it takes for artists to distinguish themselves above and beyond the vast morass of mediocrity out there, and that's the kind of art they're constantly on the lookout for.
If an artist makes only one or two of something, no matter how good they are, the pros often wonder. "Well, did they just get lucky?" "Is this the beginning of a great story or just another dead end?" "Can they do it again... and again... and again?" It's the "again and again and again" part that counts-- the depth, the seriousness, the complexity, the dedication, commitment, and ability to manifest a superbly conceived and executed group of related works. People who know art assess by numbers; onesies tell them nothing. So if you're going to start something, you'd better be prepared to finish it.
Additional pointers for working in series:
* Decide what you want your body of work to be about, either early on in the series or even before you start. The sooner and more specifically you're able to define, quantify and outline your intentions, the more focused and directed you become, and the more unified the series will ultimately be. It's almost like you're writing a statement for yourself, a roadmap to keep you on the path, a set of conditions or guidelines you intend to completely follow through on.
* If you're not sure whether you want to go in a particular direction with multiple works, rather than producing finished pieces right from the start, maybe instead sketch out various ideas for compositions first. See whether they hold your interest and attention both individually and as a group, whether they're worth following though on or whether they're not quite as fascinating as you thought they would be, and that you need to rethink your approach.
* For those of you who prefer or insist on making different kinds of art, work on several series simultaneously. Or take a break from working on a particular series, make one or two of whatever you want to make, and then get back to work on the series.
* Once you finalize the ideas behind a series of body of work, stick with them. This isn't always easy, but forcing yourself to maintain a high level of focus and discipline without getting distracted keeps you totally invested in the outcome. An unwavering intensity of engagement is always evident in a successful body of work, and is a skill that will serve you exceptionally well as you advance in your career.
(art by Paul Kos)
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