Thursday, November 22, 2018

Working in a series

Sue Bleiweiss

I’ve been working on building the body of work  that’s become my recognizable style for 7 years.  I’ve lost count of how many pieces I’ve made but they’re all tied together by the use of the same subject and color palette.  My body of work represents an education. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t and I’ve gained a mastery over the materials and techniques that I’ve used to create them.  I’ve discovered that there is no downside to working in a series but the rewards are plenty.

Focus & create momentum

A series is a great way to find and keep your focus.  It also helps you avoid those painful “what do I
do next” slumps that we all fall into at some point.  It’s like having a built in answer to the what’s next question.  I have a sketchbook filled with pages of ideas for quilts so whenever I am not sure what to do next I just flip through the pages and I’m inspired  and ready to start my next piece.

Master your techniques & build a body of work

If you rely on serendipity for your results and find yourself more often disappointed in them, it’s because you haven’t spent enough time fully exploring the techniques and materials that you’re using.  Serendipity is great and when it works it can produce some exciting results but it’s unreliable.  The result of jumping from one technique to another or dabbling with lots of different ones without any real focus is that you end up with a pile of unrelated artwork that looks like it was created by a lot of different people.  It also means that you don’t have a visual representation of your work that you can use to promote yourself with if you’re interested in teaching or lecturing.  It may also make it difficult to write an artist statement that makes it easy for the viewer to connect with your work.

The only way to master the techniques and materials your use in order to achieve consistent reliable results is to explore them fully and there’s no better way to do this than by working in a series. With each piece that you create in series you gain more experience about how to manipulate the materials and techniques you’re using to get the results that you want and you’ll find that you’re relying on serendipity less and less.

Get serious

One of the comments I hear most often about my work is that I have such a recognizable style. When you look at the work that you see on my website you’ll find that my style is pretty distinctive but interestingly enough I’ve only been working in this style since 2011!  I made a lot of work between 2002 and 2010 but I was dabbling and playing with lots of different techniques. Although none of the work that I did over those years is memorable or even relevant to the work I’m doing now it was time well spent because I learned which techniques, styles and materials that I like working with as well as the ones that I don’t.  But once I made the commitment to focus and get serious about my work and I started my tutti frutti series the pieces fell into place and my visual voice became loud and clear.

How to begin

The first step is to pick a theme to work with. But how do you decide on one?  I talked about choosing a theme in my last post.  There’s no right or wrong way to pick a theme but the most important thing when picking one is to choose one that speaks to you. If it’s not a theme that you feel passionate or excited by then it will be a struggle to work with and you won’t enjoy the process.

Ideas for a theme can come from anywhere and once you pick one spend some time exploring it on paper first with a mind map or a list to narrow it down.  Write your theme on a piece of paper and then make a list of all the different ways to explore that theme under it or use  Mindmeister.
Use whatever method works best for you but don’t skip this step! You might be so excited about your theme that you’re tempted to just jump in and start creating but I speak from experience when I say exploring it on paper first will save you a lot of wasted time, effort and materials.  It will give you a chance to make sure that you’re connected with the theme you’ve chosen.

Give yourself some parameters to work within.  You might find it helpful to give yourself a few parameters to work within so that you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed by too many possibilities.

Here are a few parameter ideas:
Size limits:  can be helpful if you want to be able to produce several pieces work in a shorter period of time. It will take you less time to create 12” x 12” pieces of work than it will if you are working with really large pieces.

Color palettes:  brights, darks, monochromatic, warm, cool, complimentary, prints, batiks, many colors or few,  etc…  There are a lot of options for setting color parameters to work within.

Techniques: will you use several techniques or just one or two? Will you dye your own fabric and use fusing as your construction method? will you paint your fabric, screen print and stamp it, will you create a whole cloth quilt or will you piece it?

Create, evaluate, create, repeat – in other words: Do the Work!

When you finish a piece take time to evaluate it before starting the next. Ask yourself what worked and what didn’t and use the answers to inform your next piece and keep repeating this process with each piece you make. Before you know it you’ll be well on your way to building a body of work and developing your own personal style.

Before you start the next piece in your series ask yourself: What if…

I changed the size
the technique

combined the technique with another one

change the focal point

added another shape
changed the balance

moved this element over here
added some texture
took out some texture

changed the material used

changed the value

added contrast

changed the scale

Use the answers to these questions to inform your next piece and keep repeating the process.

If you want to develop a cohesive body of work, develop your visual voice and style then you have to make quilts – and you have to make a lot of them and working in a series is a way to start that process.  Not all will be works of art and that’s good because you’ll learn more from the ones that you don’t like and the ones that just don’t work than you will from the ones that do.  Just don’t skip the evaluation step because it gives you an opportunity to consider what you’ve done and what changes you’d like to make in your next piece before you start it.   Consider keeping a notebook to record your evaluations about each piece you make so you can refer back to it.  Use the answers to inform your next piece and just keep repeating this create/evaluate/create process and before you know it, you’ll be well on you way to developing a body of work and your visual voice!

Need help with your studio practice?  Book a coaching session with me or take one of my online classes!


  1. Great advice, thanks so much! I've been thinking I should move on from the series I've been working with since 2016, and yet in my heart I don't feel I'm finished with it. So I'm encouraged by this post and will take it to heart!

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