Projects versus Series?

August 3, 2018
Dr. Petiot, serial killer, poisoner. Fountain pen with Platinum Carbon Black ink and watercolor portrait on Nideggen in a handmade journal. (There is some color pencil used on various places in this sketch, like red pencil on the jacket.) 


Sometimes in classes I have students ask me what the difference is between a project and a series.

I believe the difference is basically slim to none depending on how the user of these words understands and defines them. defines “project” as

  1. something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; plan; scheme.
  2. a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.
  3. a specific task of investigation, especially in scholarship.

It defines “series” as

  1. a group or a number of related or similar things, events, etc., arranged or occurring in temporal, spatial,or other order or succession; sequence.
Detail of the previous image.


Both words by definition carry aspects of the other. If you are going to execute a series it can be said that you are creating a project—a plan or a scheme, to execute that series.

I wanted to wrap up my week discussing projects with a mention of series because I think sometimes artists let words have too much weight, and allow words to stop them from enjoying the process.

To me projects are an undertaking that typically has a timed element to it. I have a beginning and end date, and then the project is over. What is created during that time period is the project, no more, no less.

Pen and watercolor sketch of an early 20th century criminal (on the left) in a 6 x 8 inch journal containing Arches Text Wove. I used the Tombow Calligraphy pen. (“Calligraphy” is written on the barrel of this pen, but in Japanese, which I don’t read, it is called the Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen. It comes in a blue body which has a hard tip and a black body with a softer tip.)

A travel journal for instance is a project that I create from the morning I wake up and get ready to leave the house on my departure date (because sometimes I do a warm up sketch in my travel journal to get myself ready for the trip) until the evening of the day I come home, sit down, and make a final entry in my travel journal about the trip. I never work in that journal again. The project is over for me. I don’t paint any unpainted images, I don’t even stick in any more photos. If I have to print out photos to insert into the journal I do that the evening that I return and insert them before I make my final entry.

That’s just one way I define a project.

In my two previous posts you can understand that I also look at art projects usually as “daily.” That’s probably my number one way to do a project.

Pen and watercolor portrait on Nideggen paper (which is tan in color).

In my work I typically define work tasks as projects because I’m hired to work on to the production of a certain book. A textbook on physics would be a project with a collection of folders for all aspects of production (if I were handling them) and also for illustration and design (again if I were handling them). The project occurs over a period of time (the schedule set for the task I was hired for in the production of that book) but it may not be a daily effort as I juggle multiple work projects at one time.

In my personal projects time also can have a non-daily aspect. I have for two decades worked on an on-going project of painting rock portraits. Before this time I often drew rocks and I would think of that as a series in my journal or in the framed art I created for shows. Those paintings I considered a series. 

Then in 2001 I started painting a specific series of rock portraits. These were all stand-alone art pieces. All have been painted on the same paper and in the same fashion—isolated on a blank surface, as if floating; rendered realistically in gouache. I consider these paintings an on-going project even though I’ve made a series of rock paintings in my life. For me the difference is the limits and criteria I’ve applied to the project. (You can see one of the paintings from this project here.) I don’t work on this project on a daily basis. I might not paint a rock portrait for several months. Then I’ll paint one after the other for two weeks in a row. It’s something I love; it’s something that I love returning to. I feel no pressure to keep on it; I always enjoy returning to it. I always feel great when I take what I learn from it and apply it to other work I’m involved in.

Since the 1970s I have been drawing and painting portraits of criminals. I’m particularly interested in 19th century British crime. This interest grew out of my childhood when I began reading Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Trollope, George Elliot, and Thomas Hardy. Besides reading the works of those authors I read histories and newspapers from the times. Modern crime reporting was essentially invented during the 1800s in Britain. Methods of detection we take for commonplace, and the logical application of these methods also began to emerge in the 1800s.

Detail of the previous image. Some white Derwent Drawing pencil was added to portions of this sketch, as seen on the ear, eyebrow, eye lid, nose, and lip.

Because of reading Dickens I also read Wilkie Collins (considered by many to be the father of the modern mystery novel). Because I read Mark Twain I was interested in the science of detection (Pudd’nhead Wilson). One can draw a straight line from all of that childhood reading to other adult interests related to search and rescue and the training of my dogs.

Sometimes things spark our attention and imagination in some way that causes us to delve into it. My parents never thought my interest in poisons was very useful, but for me it was an interesting way to understand the plant world around me. Some interests simply can’t be picked apart because the roots have become intertwined with ancillary interests which grow larger than the original seed of interest. 

So would I call the 40 some years of sketching criminals from the 19th century to current times a project? Or is it a series?

Pentel Pocket Brush pen sketch from a early 20th century mugshot, as part of my on-going series of portraits of criminals.

To me it’s a series. I never started it out as a project with any clearly defined goals or set up requirements as to size and materials. Each time I drew one it was just something I wanted to do. And it was just another in a “series” as far as I was concerned.

Why even think about defining projects and series? What does it matter what you call something?

Well, names do matter. They tell us how to think of the named. Names imply and add judgment. In 1976 you would have to have been a bit silly, a bit goth, or had a real sense of dark humor to have called your child Damien. (Because of the release of the movie “The Omen.”) These days I seem to bump into a lot of Damiens. I admit that each time it gives me pause. I wonder about the reasons his parents had. The name Adolf dropped off the census rolls after World War II for obvious reasons.

Names do influence how we think about something. Words carry baggage.

So my point today is that you need to think about how you use the words “project” and “series.” Get clear on whether those words have specific meaning to you or mean the same thing.

Be precise in your thinking so that if you are planning a project or a series you treat it with the respect it deserves. Ultimately you are giving it your time and that is your most important resource, a limited resource.

And also I want you to think about these two words so that you can consciously remove any myths or baggage that your upbringing and experience has imbued them with. 

Use words which support your efforts. Use words which help you articulate your intentions and clarify your process so that you can keep it growing in a healthy way that works for how you create.

Understanding how you are using language will help you build a space for the creative work you want to do. 

Use your understanding of language to help you juggle creative activities. For instance, if your definition is similar to mine then you don’t need to worry you have too many projects to do. Think of them as series and you remove the time/schedule element. Language can create breathing space. 

If you are setting up projects and series and you are clear on which is which for you, it won’t matter to you if you use different media for today’s installment. 

If you’re having trouble with your internal critic bringing judgment and negativity into your creative life, sitting down and defining your terms and organizing your life under healthy definitions will help you take creative actions and expand your sense of what is possible.

Language matters. But don’t let it trip you up before you even get started.

Think of this, what is the journal after all but a series of papers you fill up daily; and it is also a lifelong project. For me the journal is’s definition number 3—a task of investigation. A very fun investigation.

  1. Reply

    Roz – great stuff as always and I decided to take on my own project because I really believe what you also say is to DO THE WORK!! So I keep a daily sketchbook journal with thoughts and musings. Do you recommend using a special notebook just for your ‘projects’ when you take on one similar to the one you did for Dotie?

    1. Reply

      Susan I’m glad you enjoyed this post. As to using a special notebook or not I think that’s a really personal thing.

      I like to use a special journal for sketching projects (or a series of dedicated journals like I did for the Daily Dots) because then when I look over the project and turn each page it is just the project and no other interjections from my regular journaling.

      But other people might really enjoy seeing their project pieces in amongst their regular journaling???

      Another reason I select a special journal for a project is that I often put my journals into art shows. Special journals are easier for me to send off for that purpose as they don’t have other in-progress notes that I might need to refer to as I go along in life while the book is in a show and not accessible. (I just my journals as my workbooks for all my work.)

      Additionally, when I do a project I like to have it contained in a special volume, portfolio, or box, because I think that helps to celebrate it as special.

      See examples of past loose sheet State Fair Journals here and here or a trip journal I did here

      Here is a photo with several special journal projects

      So I think if you are making a special project you need to ask yourself if you want it as a stand-alone item, or mixed into the rest of your journaling, and why, as I’ve outlined above.

      Series are either artworks that are framable or are spattered through my journals.

      When I’m devising a plan for a project or a series I will work out particulars in my regular journal. I will draw diagrams of any book structure or box structure I might make, and do tear diagrams for the paper I’m going to use and make lists of materials I’m going to use. That falls in my regular journal because that’s how I organize my life. And so those notes are in the stream of my life.

      Think about what will be easiest also for you to do. If you are going to simply commit to sketching daily for a month I recommend that you select a new journal with paper you love for the media you’re going to use, and start in it and carry it around with you so it’s handy. Then you don’t have to carry two journals around.

      If, however, it’s not just daily drawing and you’ll mostly work at home or in the studio then making it a special book you carry only when you go to the zoo or the Fair for instance might be the way to go.

      But think about all the ramifications of your choices (as much as you can) and how you think you’ll be most encouraged to go forward.

      There is one other reason to separate a project so it is stand alone. I’ve kept a journal all my life. I have boxes and shelves of journals (it’s over 1,200 journals).

      They are all important to me at the time as I work through them. But for me there is something very special about closing the book (or box) on a project. Saying this is all contained in here. Looking at that grouping, those pages, those sheets. That has a satisfaction that I don’t get in the same way from simply putting another completed journal up on the shelf.

      Think about it, decide what you want to do, try it out. The great thing is that you will learn whether or not you like your choice. And if you don’t you can change your mind the next time you do a project. That’s how we learn and develop working methods that feed our creativity. You won’t know until you jump in and try. One way isn’t right or wrong. But you will find a way that YOU prefer to keep your projects.

      Have fun experimenting.

    • Gina
    • August 4, 2018

    I love how you used the white in that portrait!

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Gina. It’s fun to go in and play with some dry media sometimes.

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