How I Start A Series
I'm in the midst of a new series of works and I'm in what is known as the "flow" stage. The flow stage is where my idea has come together, solidified, I've made several test pieces and am now in full creation mode. For those scientists among us, it's sort of like a bell curve...I started slowly, worked my way up to creation, got really excited about the possibilities and now I'm at the pinnacle of the curve, turning out piece after piece and finding myself becoming more joyful with each new rendering and more grouchy when things prevent me from getting back to the studio.
While I'm here, at this point, I thought it may be helpful for artists and art appreciators alike to better understand how I start and develop a series. It's not always the same process, definitely not the same subject matter, but interesting enough (I think) to hold your attention.
So, here we go...
I grew up in Southwest Oklahoma, where, despite one of the oldest mountain ranges in the United States (that have been worn down over time by relentless winds to mere hills), the ground is flat and you can see for what seems like forever. The sunsets are truly unlike any I've ever seen anywhere else. The awesomeness of nature is on display daily, but like so many things like this, when you're in it every single day, you tend to take it for granted; or at least I did.
Looking back, after living more than 30 years in the Washington, DC, area, with its bustling neighborhoods, careening traffic and monuments to capture your imagination, it's hard to understand how this could've happened. How could I have ever taken those skies for granted?
Nonetheless, this was the seed that got me thinking...
I wanted to find a way to express my love for the landscape, but from my unique perspective.
And while I cannot and would never argue about the beauty of this rugged land, as an artist, I've done color before. I've done sunsets before. So, how could I communicate the enormity of Mother Nature's power in a way that is new to me? Those last few words - "new to me" - became really important because I knew if my experience was not new and somehow different, I wouldn't be able to sustain my interest over the time it would take to create 20 paintings or so (what's generally needed to create a broad, well-rounded series).
I started to think more broadly - first, what other ways did Mother Nature impact my experience growing up in Oklahoma? Secondly, was it really just Oklahoma that impacted me, or was that crystallized in me early so that any extremes of nature - anywhere - affect me deeply?
In the end, I came to the conclusion that it is the feeling of something bigger than me and the wildness and seeming randomness of that energy that was imprinted upon me. The excitement I witness whenever and wherever I see those sights is what is important to get across in this collection.
If I had created sunsets and sunrises before, what about nature was it that I wanted to explore?
It didn't take me long to acknowledge that I am energized by the unpredictability of storms and the way they can both nourish and ravage the Earth. Growing up where I did, it was not unusual to spend my summer below ground - in a cellar - hoping and praying a storm would pass us by and leave as little damage as possible in its wake. Being able to see and experience the vastness of an approaching storm - the depth and breadth of a squall, its beginning and ending within my view and the edges where mist turns to sprinkles that morph into downpours - was exhilerating.
And so began the next step in my series creation: communicating the churning, thrilling, scary, yet beautiful, side of nature. The other side of the coin from my memories of home. Less the destruction and damage; more the beauty of the unrestrained awe created by something that is bigger than we are.
Of course, I could paint this type of photograph, make it realistic and leave it at that. But I prefer to challenge myself to abstract it - by allowing the feeling of a scene like this to take precedent over the actual scene. And speaking of challenges, I decided to limit myself in terms of not only color (which I love), but also tools I could use to create such a scene.
That's when I made a significant decision. What about putting my brushes away and using anything but a brush when creating this series? Now that's a challenge worth exploring...
So, armed with the idea of communicating the concept of nature's awesomeness using a limited palette and no brushes, my idea was formed enough to begin experimenting!
I first began my explorations on paper, many of which are captured in my sketch books. I wanted to try different approaches to see what may work best and what techniques could be extended beyond paper to wood panels, my ultimate choice of substrate for this series. My goal wasn't to create finished pieces, but experimental ones, to see what might work and what definitely did not. I didn't have a set end for this stage, like, after 12 paintings on paper, I'll graduate to panels, but eventually, after I had reached a stage with which I felt more confident, I did move to panels.
The panels were first small and square - mainly because I wanted to see if I could replicate on wood the techniques that worked on paper, making fewer mistakes on the more expensive surface.
Then another realization hit me. With the use of technology (ie, my iPhone), I realized my pieces could become even more compelling if I were to paint them in a "panoramic" format.
I immediately had a deep, positive connection to this unusual size, but I quickly realized that to make these pieces, I'd have to start from the beginning. You see, I haven't come across a commercial manufacturer who actually makes panels in a long, narrow format!
This is where good friends come in handy!
I happen to know a furniture maker who was willing to help teach me how to make my own wood panels. This was an enormous help, and I'm forever grateful. For just a couple of dinners and lots of wine, I purchased the supplies and we constructed 18 panoramic panels ready for gessoing and painting, using more clamps and wooden biscuits than I've ever seen! Sizes ranged from 10" x 30" up to 12" x 48", and I've since also purchased large, 36" x 36" squares to function as foils for the long, narrow pieces.
This is truly the beauty of series work. In my mind, it's far better to have a working idea to begin with, but be open to changes and idea modifications as you go.
I'm not finished with the series yet, but I am at the point where I would like to show others where I am in process. So, without further adieu, here are the pieces I have completed thus far.
I'm hoping to have negotiated a showing at a venue by the time I complete the last piece - another piece of the series puzzle that has yet to fall into place. But I'm taking the "leap, and the net will appear" approach and feel confident someone will want to show these together at some point.
I would love to hear your thoughts on these - to see if they are demonstrating the power of a force bigger than we are. So far, the levels of abstractness are moving between impressionistic and near-non-representational. I have made that choice as I've developed them, knowing some viewers are more comfortable with a "toe-in-the-water" abstract while others prefer something almost unrecognizable.
Do they communicate?
If so, what do they say?
Are they evocative of the land, of the sea, of the power of the weather and our place in it?
One of the last elements still not decided yet - what to call this series.
Sometimes, when I create a series, the name just calls out to me - it's obvious. At other times, it's not until each piece is done and sitting next to the others that they whisper a title to me.
I've chosen to name each work based on passages from books I've read or poetry or quotations that resonate with me, so I'm sure at some point I'll come across just the right series title, but for now if you have ideas, I'd love to hear them in the comments below.
How do you create a series of work? Does it differ from mine? I'm intrigued to know...