‘Body of work.’ Whenever I heard that term, it seemed to represent a mysterious cohesion of vision that I would never be capable of.
It took me forever to understand what a body of work really is and why I might need to create one.
Why we’re told we need a body of work
We constantly hear that if we want gallery representation, our work must be recognisably ‘ours’. This is the fundamental premise for needing a body of work from a commercial point of view.
But there is another, very important reason for creating a body of work: To help you refine your voice, and the direction of your practice, so you can keep going over the long haul.
Constantly exploring different ways of working is exciting. But it’s also exhausting - and that makes it difficult to maintain over the long term.
This is one of the reasons why, before we find our ‘creative direction’, making art regularly often feels like an uphill struggle. We get charged up to begin; then, after a while, our enthusiasm peters out and we dry up, eventually to restart in a different direction.
Repeating a process over and over has some important lessons to teach us about subtle variation and refinement. But when we charge all over the map like this, we don’t get to learn these lessons.
Of course, this kind of exploration is natural in the early stages of discovering who we are as artists. It’s just that for a lot of us, it can go on too long, resulting in extreme frustration that we haven’t ‘found our voice’.
So just what is a body of work?
Body of work simplified
If you Google ‘Body of work in art’ you’ll come up with quite of an array of parameters that artists and galleries use to define this elusive concept, as well as the ideal number of works needed to make up said body!
But to simplify it to its basics, a body of work is a cohesive series of pieces of art that share consistent elements.
As I’ve mentioned before, getting to grips with this idea has had the counter-intuitive effect of stopping me getting bored with my work.
And, as I also mentioned, it was the simple resume of the elements used by Jason Horejs of Red Dot Blog to choose artists for his gallery, that finally helped me understand what a body of work really meant.
Here’s Jason’s list again:
How I developed my current body of work
It wasn't until I transitioned into making artist's books that I truly began to understand what a body of work really is.
I would like to tell you I achieved this by good management but in fact serendipity played a large part.
Because I was planning to move around for a while, I needed to make art with a small footprint. So I challenged myself with making art that would fold out - either three dimensionally or into a bigger size.
My first stop was Portugal where I fell in love with the silvery mist that covered the pine forest in the winter early mornings and the fuchsia magnolia flowers that were blooming everywhere.
As I worked with the ideas for the book at my tiny work table overlooking the valley, the idea of a textured, silver cover gradually emerged. It formed the perfect contrast to the brightly coloured flower inside.
In that piece, the seeds of a coherent body of work were sown.
From then on, as well as the fold-out aspect, I tried to get a similar juxtaposition into every book I made. Metallic, textured covers - whether mono or polychromatic - have become my signature style. The inside is always a surprising contrast to the cover. Where the cover has colour, the inside is monochrome and vice-versa.
How many pieces in a body of work
There seems to be a general internet consensus on the number of 12 as a minimum number to make up a body of work, but I suggest that it depends very much on your medium.
If you work small and quickly, you might knock out 24 pieces in no time.
If you cast giant sculptures out of bronze, it might take quite a while before you have 12.
It takes me a very long time to make an artist’s book. So far I have made five and I’m on my sixth. But I have also made other small works that are related to my main body of work, such as my moveable postcard series. These all had the same metallic colours and contained a surprise. So they weren’t totally at the centre of my body of work concept but they weren’t unrelated either.
So you can do ancillary works that will add to your body of work without being its mainstay.
Instead of monumental bronze sculptures you could make small bronze sculptures with the same style and subject matter as your large scale works.
So try not to worry about numbers. The crucial thing is to keep revolving your focus around a central axis representing the core components of your work.
How to narrow down likely elements for your body of work
Here’s a little exercise you can do to help you narrow your focus so that you can develop a cohesive body of work.
Select a piece of work you made previously and set it up in front of you. (If you no longer have it, then use a photograph of the work.)
In a notebook or journal, jot the answers to the following questions:
Be honest with this process. There’s no point in choosing or rejecting anything just because you think you ‘should’! The only way you’ll be able to sustain repeating a process, theme or subject is if you truly feel excited about doing it.
By the end of this exercise you should have a list of elements or parameters to use as a framework for a body of work.
If the list doesn’t feel complete or, conversely, it feels too complex, you can repeat this process with other past pieces and look for where the overlaps are between the pieces. These are clues to your already existing preferences.
As you begin to explore these parameters in your work, don’t worry if you don’t stick to them to the letter. Just because we like doing something once, doesn’t mean we want to repeat it infinitely. Your list will likely go through further refinement over time.
(You can also use this exercise if you feel like you need a change of direction from a recent body of work but aren't sure what form it should take.)
What about your body of work?
Has it been natural for you to develop a cohesive body of work? Or are you struggling?
Whatever your creative medium, I can help you develop a strong and recognisable creative voice to better get your work seen/heard in the ultra-competitive world we live in. Let's work together to build a body of work that you LOVE! Check out this tailor-made coaching package.