How to Plan a Series of Paintings for a Gallery Exhibit or Solo Show

Published on Mar. 8th 2007


One quality that separates professional artists from art hobbyists is the willingness to create several works of art around a single theme or idea.

In the picture above, London-based artist Andy Wicks has done just that. Click the following link to see the full series, Hell and High Water, at his website.

It’s not so much a matter of skill, really, just that successful artists know gallery owners are much more receptive to representing an artist with ten related works, rather than artist with fifty pieces in all different mediums, styles, and subject matter.

If you’ve never thought about creating a large series before, that’s all right—any artist can learn. I’ll admit that it might not be as fun as just sitting down and painting whatever comes to mind, but the outcome is more than worth it.

Here’s what you’ll need to do.

1. Pick your subject or theme

This can be anything—a certain place near your home, an idea or emotion, a person. . . Anything at all. The important thing is that you be inspired or interested when you think about the subject.

Take your time if you have to. Try to find something personal to you, or something that you feel a lot of emotion about. Those things that set you apart as a person are what will make your art interesting and appealing.

2. Do some research

No matter how much you know about the subject already, the fact that you need to create at least ten works from one idea means you’ll need to understand your subject from every possible angle.

Art is about seeing and showing something in a different way than normal, so start reading about your subject. Study it, if it’s a place or object. Talk to people who know more about it than you do, and just find out everything you can about the theme you’ve chosen. That knowledge of your subject will be visible in your art, when you complete the series.

3. Assemble reference materials

The goal in this step is to get enough photos, sketches, and compositional ideas to create at least ten complete paintings. To do that, you might have to do some things which will put you outside of your comfort zone. But don’t let that stop you.

There’s always a way to get photos, video, or real life reference for your paintings—most of it just comes down to being bold. So if you need to hire a model, go for it. If you need to walk up to complete strangers and ask them to pose, do it.

Just say you’re an artist. What more explanation will they need?

And keep in mind that the quality of your reference materials will ultimately be the limiting factor in your art. You want to get more reference than you could ever use; later on while you’re painting you’ll be happy you did.

You won’t want to use images straight from the internet for this either. It’s always best to create your own reference material by staging or finding the scenes that perfectly match your vision.

4. Narrow down to the best images

The last series of paintings I did (a group of firefighting paintings from a local fire station) I took over 300 reference photos in one afternoon. Not all of those were usable, and of course some were just better than others, but at least I gave myself a lot of options to choose from.

Since I usually create each painting from a single photograph, I had to try out different ways to crop, rotate, and compose each of those 300 photographs. Occasionally I combined two or three photographs as well. Look at every option available to make sure your final compositions are as good as they can be.

And trust me, this takes time.

But as you do, you’ll cut down those reference images into a manageable number—around thirty, perhaps. Each of those thirty photos should be a potential painting, or will guide you in setting up your model or still life to paint from. That’s if you decide to work directly from life while painting.

With those thirty in hand, after reminding yourself once more of all your research and original artistic vision, pick the final ten to fifteen paintings that you’ll actually create.

5. Give yourself a painting schedule

When you’re finally ready to start painting, take a moment to figure out how much time you can devote to this particular series each day. Look at the commitments you already have lined up, job hours, family, etc. If you can’t paint every day, at least set up a consistent schedule.

Some of you might find it helpful to set an end date; I usually need something to push me a bit, and a deadline seems to help.

6. Commit to it

Do you want to see this series through? Then make a sincere commitment to it, right from the start.

Go out and buy all ten (or whatever number) of canvases at the beginning. Better yet, make your own stretched canvas. Stock up on paint too; you’re going to need it.

The more you do to lock yourself into the process the more likely you’ll want to finish.

I do all of the above, and I also try to never let myself get settled. I begin with two or three paintings at once, and as I finish one, I add a new painting into the mix to keep the momentum going.

You know yourself best, however, so whatever it takes to keep you motivated, do it. And when you finish, you’ll see just how much your hard work has paid off.

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