‘Body of work.’ Whenever I heard that term, I wanted to hide.
It seemed to represent a mysterious, cohesive 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 one.
Why we’re told we need a body of work
Galleries want work that people can easily attribute to a particular artist. So to get gallery representation, our art 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 it can feel like an uphill struggle to make art regularly. When we don't have a clear direction, it's easy to get charged up to begin. But after a while, our enthusiasm peters out and we dry up. Eventually we restart in a different direction.
Repeating a process can teach us important lessons 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. But 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
Google ‘Body of work in art’ and you’ll come up with a vast array of parameters 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, the meaning of 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 had a counter-intuitive effect. It stopped me getting bored with my work!
And, as I also mentioned, it was Jason Horejs of Red Dot Blog who solved the mystery for me. He uses a simple resume of elements to choose artists for his gallery. It was this that finally helped me understand what a body of work really means.
Here’s Jason’s list again:
An artist’s body of work must consistently keep at least four of these the same.
How I developed my current body of work
It was when I transitioned into making artist's books, I began to truly understand what a body of work 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 to make art that would fold out - either three-dimensionally or into a bigger size.
My first stop was Portugal. There 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 at my tiny work table overlooking the valley, the ideas for the book emerged. A textured, silver cover gradually emerged. It formed the perfect contrast to the brightly-coloured flower inside.
In that piece, the seeds of a cohesive 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
The number 12 is bandied around a lot on the internet as the minimum number of pieces in a body of work. But 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. At the time of writing, I have made five and I’m on my sixth. But I have also made other small works that relate to my main body of work, such as my moveable postcard series. These all had the same metallic colours and contained a surprise. They aren’t at the centre of my body of work concept, but they aren’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. This axis represents the core components of your work.
How to figure out the elements of 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.
Or download the exercise in a printable workbook
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.
Part 3 (optional)
If the first list doesn’t feel complete or - conversely - it feels too complex, repeat the process.
This time choose other past pieces and look for where the overlaps are between the pieces.
These are clues to your existing preferences.
(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.)
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.
What about creating your Body of Work?
Has it been natural for you to develop a cohesive Body of Work?
Or are you struggling to make sure enough elements remain consistent throughout your work?
And how do you make sure that these aspects of your art are ones you’ll be excited about working with for a long time to come?
The exercises in this workbook will show you how to do just that!