Okay, so this is me writing about something I ought to be doing right about now (indeed, something I should’ve been doing late last year)—and God willing, I will be. But having done this more than a dozen times before, hopefully gives me enough to share on the subject of how to go about planning a set or a series of works, or for a show.
Again, I can really only speak from my own experience because I’m well aware that what works for one artist may not necessarily work for another. There’s no single, correct way when it comes to creation, I think (although red + yellow will never be green, I think, no matter how much of either you mix in).
Some people are averse to planning, and would much rather just ‘let it flow’. Me being the control freak I am, I tend to plan, not just because I’m a control freak but also because I have limited resources—time and energy being the most limited of all. So, I just like to try and make the most of them.
I do like to ‘figure things out when I get there’ while I’m working (because that’s… the fun part) and there are some things, I think, you really can’t pre-figure out, otherwise. But for me I do that sort of ‘on the fly’ stuff within a prepared structure. (Control freak, remember?) And also, there are other things you can’t plan, because, well, life happens.
That said, here are five things to consider when planning for an exhibit or creating a series of works—at least, the things I’ve had to consider, in general.
1. What to paint
My last post pretty much covers the how-to-come-up part of this, and like I said in the post before last, whatever it is you decide to paint in the end, make sure it’s something you love. Something you truly believe in.
When working on a series of paintings (or sculptures or prints or mixed media pieces or installations or so on), you expend so much of yourself, you give so much of yourself. So you better make sure (or at least be sure enough) that what you’re about to kill yourself for is something you really truly want to bring into this world and share with other people.
Having exhausted the ideal, as Dumas put it, you must now come to terms with the actual. Consider the gallery, or the venue where your exhibit is to take place—or, where your work will ultimately call home. How many pieces are you making? How big are they? How much space will you need?
This works both ways, in that, you either find a gallery and then plan how many and how big, or you plan the number and the size first and then find a venue to suit your plans. Some people will tell you the latter is ideal, and how you shouldn’t let your resources interfere with your conceptualisation and planning process.
I totally agree with that, and I see the value of that line of thinking against the backdrop of how artists (should) have complete control over their ‘babies’. Personally, I think it’s quite natural to use and be ‘limited’ by the resources you have on hand, just like it’s natural for Philippine indigenous artists to use things like abaca and pandan.
As much as I’d very much like to work sky’s-the-limit style, I’ve often found I’ve had to work with what I had and to just do my best to, again, make the most of whatever that was, and that included the exhibition space.
And then again, it’s not just the space, but what the gallery will (for lack of a better word) allow you to do, or might ask you to do. Say, for instance, the gallery only takes oil paintings, or photographs, or tends to favour photo-realism or more ‘adventurous’ pieces.
So you can do one of two things: you can either find another gallery where you can totally do what you want, or try to work within the gallery’s parameters. It’s all about how far you’re willing to (didn’t want to have to use this word) compromise and what you can live with or whether you’ll be able to live with yourself as an artist, afterwards.
In any case, these are things you might have to consider when planning your series. You know me, I’m all for planning—but I’m also for being flexible when necessary.
2. How you’re painting
Medium and technique pretty much go hand-in-hand with figuring out what to paint—not necessarily, but it does happen pretty often, for me, anyway. Although it has happened where I’ll decide what I want to paint—a fish, let’s say (jillashorthand for ‘mermaid’), and then I’ll decide afterwards whether I want to do it in watercolour or something else.
But other things you might want to figure out before you get to the down and dirty includes things like how were you planning on working on your giant painting, say, in a tiny studio space? Don’t laugh, this was something I had to negotiate when I worked on this—
—at my desk—
—which measures a little over two feet by a little less than four feet. Seriously, you save valuable time and effort figuring this out before you actually begin the work, instead of only figuring it out when you get there, you know?
Think about how you’ll keep your things handy, where and how you’ll store finished pieces prior to having them framed, let’s say, or at least before your ingress. Where you’re going to buy your things or get the materials or implements you need, or how you’re going to prepare your things for working on, and whether you’ll need help. Things like that.
Me, I like making lists; I often make thumbs, and sometimes studies. A lot of the time I ‘mentally rehearse’ how I’m going to, you know, do the deed—at least, as far as I am able.
Mainly because I’m often short on time and I don’t have the luxury of ripping up my I-had-to-have-it-delivered-from-the-paper-importer paper and starting over if I didn’t like how it turned out. (Although I admit I have started certain things over if I hadn’t been satisfied with them even if I had been on the clock at the time.)
3. How much time you have
Aaand speaking of time, one major consideration for me, at least, when planning a series is how much time I have to make everything.
I was once told that six months is ‘standard’ for preparing for a show. I was also asked once how come I was always so stressed ‘cramming’ for a show—the person who asked thought that you basically just made stuff whenever you felt like it, and then when you had enough, went and had a show.
Well one thing I will say—if I had a show after I made stuff ‘whenever I felt like it’ I probably never would’ve had any, lol. And like I always say, Michelangelo didn’t do the Sistine Chapel ceiling in six months.
If you’ll allow me to digress, a little, I guess one ‘bad habit’ I picked up back at art school was learning to be driven by a deadline. That’s not to say I can’t make anything if I don’t have one, but boy is the going slow. And even before I went to art school I’d noticed that anything that was taking me too long to finish made me fidgety, somehow.
So as much as I hate to admit it, having deadlines does help.
In any case, however much time you have between the blessed day you were able to book your show (or decided to work on your series) and opening day (or the reasonable deadline you set yourself), it helps to plan.
Personally, what I do is count how many months, weeks, days I have, and how many hours I have in the day I can work on my stuff. When I’m in full-on ‘factory mode’ I need to paint about eight hours a day on top of my day job. If you ‘live a double life’ like I do, I do suggest you do your best to, you know. Plan to sleep sometimes. And eat, lol.
But knowing how much time you have to work will help you to plan what you’re going to do, too. Like if you only have so much time, you might want to think about the amount of detail you’re going to put, type thing. Or if you must have fine detail, try and see how you can give yourself as much time as possible.
Like if you were doing 15 pieces, let’s say, you could maybe prime all your canvases or stretch all your paper beforehand. I know some people who work on multiple pieces at once, like maybe they do layering, and work on another piece while the first piece was drying, and then go back to the first one to add another layer. That kind of thing.
4. How much you’ll need to spend
Let’s face it: paint doesn’t grow on trees, and not all of us have a Medici in our corner to foot the bills. So obviously, if you’re a Mulligan without a Milo, you might want to find another way to gild your work (if you wanted to) if the literal method proves a tad steep.
But as steep as the expenses for materials are, they are unfortunately not the only things you’ll have to consider as you plan. There’s also framing (which for me usually costs significantly more than the cost of the paint), or the preparation (if you need it) of say, your pedestals or your monitors or whatever you might need to present your work.
That includes exhibit notes, captions, signage, posters, and so on that some galleries take care of for you and others expect you to take care of, yourself. By the way, be advised that some galleries or venues charge hanging fees and other fees such as those for use of the space.
Some galleries also require you to produce invitations, while some artists just like going the extra mile beyond digital to print hard-copy invites. So there are those, plus whatever else you might spend on promotions or publicity for your show.
There’s also logistics: will you need a van or a truck to transport your work to and from your studio or the framer’s to the venue and back again? And finally, there’s whatever you might spend for your opening, if you have one, such as cocktails, documentation and entertainment.
5. What you’ll do during your opening
That is, if you have one. You don’t have to have one but it’s generally expected, or done, so it’s a good idea to plan this, too. I mentioned promotions and cocktails, so, think about how you’re going to tell people about your show, and figure out what you’re going to do when they get there.
You’ll have to factor in the SOP of the gallery or the venue, e.g. some of them like to have ribbon-cutting and all that sort of thing. Some people like to have speeches and live musicians—me, I like to keep things very simple and just feed my guests (that way, if they didn’t like the paintings, they at least had something to eat, eheheh).
So, it might be nice if you did something during the opening that kind of ties in with the concept of your series, that is, if it’s at all possible. (Or even necessary—after all, we don’t want it to be overkill or anything.) Some artists do this; I guess for me there were a couple of times I’ve tried to prepare playlists to suit the mood of what was going on in the paintings.
But this is a nice-to-have, not a must-have, and is only a suggestion. What is not a suggestion and is probably one of the most important things to plan for most people is how much you’re going to sell your work for, if you plan on selling it at all. You gotta admit it's a good idea to plan this instead of coming up with a number on the spot if somebody should ask.
Indeed, most galleries or venues require you to have a price list. So one thing I didn’t mention in the things to consider in the ‘how much you’ll need to spend’ department is how much you might have to pay, say, an agent…the percentage that goes to the gallery varies between, well, galleries. In any case, it’s a good idea to plan for this, as well.
So much planning, desho? The thought has crossed my mind that exhibiting artists (exhibitionists? LOL) might make great event planners or coordinators. Unless, of course, they’re the lucky ones who have people to do the planning for them (or at least, everything that doesn’t have anything directly to do with the actual creation of the works).
In any case, if you happen to be reading this out of curiosity or don’t really plan on working on a series any time soon, I hope this has enabled you to appreciate, even a little, just how much work goes into putting on a show. It’s a lot more than just ‘getting inspired’ and ‘letting it flow’—at least, for me, it is.
So if there’s anything I can ever do (short of getting you a little Eiffel tower paperweight) in my humble capacity to help you plan for your own series, I’m here for you.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.