On Painting: Working in a Series
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
As I write, my current painting in progress is the eleventh in a series of similar paintings. This is the first time I intentionally created artwork in a series. Working on a series of paintings with strong similarities enables me to explore ideas deeply, from multiple angles.
My current series is an exploration of two themes that are important to me and how the two themes intersect. Flowers are a big part of my art. The more I look at the flowers I paint, the more I recognize something in them that seems almost human and distinctly feminine. This is the first important theme in my series. The second theme is about influences from literature that helped to shape me into a distinctly feminine human. My ideas of what it means to be a woman and to struggle as a woman were shaped by the many characters I encountered in my life as a reader. With each painting in this series, I dive a little deeper into these two themes.
The paintings in my series carry the thread of the themes, or to use musical terminology, they carry the same melody. This is possible by using similar conventions in each painting. For instance, every painting uses the same medium: watercolor. Similarities in my use of color, composition, detail and choice of subject provide a visual backbone for the series. Each painting is a portrait of a flower that represents one of the characters from literature that made me who I am. This backbone serves as a guide for viewers. It tells what to expect from painting to painting. It also provides me, as an artist, a constraint or boundary. Such a boundary gives me direction from one piece to the next.
Variations on a Theme
Borrowing another musical term, creating a series is like composing variations on a theme. Composers use subtle changes in tempo, harmony and key to create endless iterations on a single melody. The same process of variation is available to visual artists. With a solid theme, there may be endless representations. Each painting stands alone as a separate variation while also sitting harmoniously with the others. In my series, I vary the type of flower used as a subject, the lighting, the mood and the background. These variations allow the painting to have its own personality while relating to the series. As an artist, the differences in the paintings keep me creatively energized.
One of the most satisfying things about working in a series is the familiarity of the process. For each separate piece, the materials and process remain the same. I know exactly how to begin and the steps toward the finished painting are usually similar to previous work. This might sound robotic or boring, but really it’s a much needed structure. Without routine and structure, it’s possible to create work that lacks consistency and a sense of purpose. I work on only one painting at a time. Some artists who work in a series enjoy working on multiple paintings at once, sharing the same palette between them. This creates an amazing sense of cohesion between the pieces. For me, working with a familiar process is a way to keep from getting painter’s block. I always know how to start and I always know the melody.
If you’re an artist who would like to start a series, first consider what your strong theme might be. Then it might be a good idea to work out your visual constraints using thumbnail sketches. If you’re a collector who would like to build an art collection based on a series, consider a theme that you would like as a guide. You might consider collecting based on a subject, a color scheme or something more personal like images that remind you of your childhood. From there, you can set constraints on size, medium or other factors that tie the work together. To learn more about my series in progress, visit The Women at jengillenart.com. I publish each painting as it is finished and write about its inspiration.