Thursday, July 24, 2008

Working in a Series: More Thoughts

There's a lot to think about when we begin to develop a framework for the investigation and exploration that goes into a series. Most of what we need to consider are the ideas we wish to express and explore ways to communicate them visually. When we take a photograph of a bird, it is usually because we admire its beauty, the coloration of its feathers, the differences in this particular bird from other birds, its uniqueness. We can take thousands of beautiful photographs of birds because we love them and respond to them. However, when we decide to incorporate a bird or birds in our art, we enter into some additional considerations. We are not only looking at the structure and patterns and form of the bird, we are also considering what thoughts or ideas that bird may represent.

One of the first ways to approach the subject of "bird" would be to explore it scientifically. We could study the bone structure and physiology of birds, familiarize ourselves with their habits and history and record the similarities and differences in their infinite variety of sizes, shapes and colors. We could learn about their migratory patterns, their reproductive cycles, the challenges they face for survival as a species.

In addition, the artist could begin to research how images or birds have been incorporated into various human cultures. Native American pictographs and Egyptian hieroglyphs include bird images. Myths and legends involving birds abound in ancient cultures -- people turning into birds, birds that can take human form, birds that immolate and then are reborn from their own ashes are just a few examples.

An additional inquiry about birds might be how artists have used the bird as a visual symbol. Dead game birds were often included in 19th century still life paintings. Picasso's dove paintings are universally recognized. Poets and writers have often used the bird symbolically -- consider Poe's raven as an example. Then consider what the bird represents to you and how you might communicate that feeling as a visual image. Would it be a realistic or abstracted bird, the complete image or just the suggestion of "birdness" with a wing or feather?

As one gathers knowledge and information, the potential for exploring this subject becomes increasingly vast and complex and can seem overwhelming. But allow yourself to feel overwhelmed for a bit. Out of the Mt. Everest of information, some images and ideas will begin to fire your imagination and move to the forefront of your thoughts. Those are the ones you seize on and begin to flesh out in your sketch or notebook.

Just writing the above, my imagination is most charged by the idea of stripping away the colors and patterns of various birds and working with the tiny skeletal structures. To me, stripping away is an appealing concept at the moment because it seems to echo my desire to get beyond the surface and reveal the bones or structure within a subject.

So the process begins with gathering information, opening ourselves to a vast array of ideas from various directions and sources and then sifting and sorting though them to the ones that excite us the most. This enables us to begin to narrow our inquiry and select specific attributes of our subject that we wish to explore visually.

That also means our exploration and discovery are ongoing and we will begin to notice references to and information about birds everywhere. Our radar will be attuned to the subject and our reference base will continue to widen. We'll find ourselves noticing how birds appear in places like advertisements, in children's books and stories, in old movies, in novels, etc. etc.

Clearly "bird" is a vast subject, but as we explore it we will also sort and define, sort again and redefine. Eventually we will make a choice to start with certain elements of "bird" as a design theme and by making that choice, we will move quietly to a more inward investigation and move away from ceaseless research and references. The huge river will branch into more navigable streams. The first step is to place a toe in the water and begin creating. Ripples will move outward from that first action and attract a response; action initiates the process of expressing an artistic response to "bird" as a subject for artistic enquiry.

Note: I won't be posting for the next week; we're hosting a big family reunion. Close to 30 of my husband's Nebraska cousins and spouses are arriving tonight and we'll be taking them on a whirlwind tour of upstate New York, starting with Niagara Falls and ending up on the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands. But of course my mind will still be gathering impressions, sorting and sifting ideas -- so even when we are not actually MAKING art, we are in the process!


  1. Thanks for this succinct post about researching for a series. I am currently taking an online course about studio journals and these are some of the concepts that we are working on. I hope you don't mind but I'm going to share your blog with the rest of my class mates.

  2. You are so right about the mind continuing to gather impressions when we think we are not engaged in making art. A friend had invited me to visit, a 4 hour drive I wasn't crazy about making. "Oh," she said, "you can gather lots of inspiration on the trip down." "I don't NEED anymore inspiration," I retorted, feeling a bit burned out with all the absorbing I'd been doing. I couldn't imagine anything along that road I'd driven hundreds of times bringing any new inspiration to my work.

    But of course, it did. It was November and the fields in the hills of the Palouse had been plowed, stunning me with interesting undulations and tone on tone colorations, giving me new ideas and renewed excitement.

    Enjoy your touring!

  3. Jeanne, These posts are very timely for me as I am researching a topic I've been interested in for a long time and planning a series of pieces related to this. Your insight into how you research is really helpful, the depth you go to is very inspiring, and I hope you continue to share these thoughts with us. Thanks, Karen

  4. Well said, I almost always work in a series now, as you said there is always inspiration, and more to explore in a subject. Thanks for a good post