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.
Dictionary.com defines “project” as
- something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; plan; scheme.
- a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.
- a specific task of investigation, especially in scholarship.
It defines “series” as
- a group or a number of related or similar things, events, etc., arranged or occurring in temporal, spatial,or other order or succession; sequence.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 Dictionary.com’s definition number 3—a task of investigation. A very fun investigation.