The nature of serial process


Dear Artist,

We’re all familiar with the problems associated with Sunday Painters. Cranking up the old machine once a week may be okay in the vintage car hobby — but it’s bad news in the creativity game. The steady worker who applies his craft daily is more likely to make creative gains than an intermittent one. Even when tired, or even because of it, the rolling creator can generally squeeze further.


“Awakening” 1979
oil painting by René Sera (1895-1992)

While the “tolerance for duds” is part of the serial game — and a valuable lesson in the non-preciousness of art — the effervescence that flows has to be among the truly great feelings. Curiously, it’s best if the artist doesn’t have much to say about the process. Spilling the beans interferes with series work. “I do not explain, I explore,” said Marshall McLuhan.

Developing an initial idea into an extended series is basic to the art spirit. In the natural progression from the obvious to the esoteric, it’s often in the esoteric that the better work is realized. Along the way there are stages that can help a creator get a bigger bang for her buck:


“UFO” 1978
oil painting by René Cera

— Initial attraction and recognition of potential.
— Commitment to virgin understanding and first rendition.
— Secondary attraction to nuance and sleeper elements.
— Further “aha” recognition that the thing has legs.
— Re-dedication to specific exploration and variation.
— Development of personal touches and sensitivities.
— Progression through excited highs to creative climax.

As the serial process unfolds, the challenges presented by earlier sorties become more and more easily retaken. While a project’s history becomes necessary to its future, previously covered ground is glossed over in favour of other concerns and attractions. Facility and speed, while they may not be ends in themselves, are byproducts of the process. If uniform sizes and means are maintained, the last often takes less time than the first. And the mind, caught up in the seductive business of exploration, stays hot and snappy like an electric swatter in a cloud of mosquitoes.

Then there was the guy who was inventing and testing soft drinks. He developed One-up, Two-up, Three-up, Four-up, Five-up, and Six-up. None of these were quite perfect, so he quit right there.


“Seen from Above” 1979
oil painting by René Cera

Best regards,


PS: “Plunge deep enough in order to see something that is hidden and glimmering.” (Matsuo Basho)

Esoterica: In series thinking I have the irresistible conceit that I may be making something of lasting value. I rationalize that to do so I must go where others may not have been — where I myself have not yet been. Often, while lingering at the delightful outer reaches of series, I have that warm feeling that I’m getting nearer to the best I can be.

Rest not! Life is sweeping by;
Go dare before you die.
Something mighty and sublime,
Leave behind to conquer time. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

This letter was originally published as “The nature of serial process” on June 30, 2006.


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“Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)



  1. Wonderful post, as usual! This brought to mind a project I’ve just completed which required painting the very same view 12 at different times of year in the context of creating a 2018 calendar. I found increased depth of connection with, and of the subject through repeated engagements. And with that … greater freedom. A very enriching process.

  2. I create a new series whenever I travel somewhere. The locations I seek out bring inspiration and the series takes wing. This trip to Colorado I have been painting trees I have never painted before, Aspen Trees in the high mountains and Cottonwoods in the low valleys along the Yampa River basin. The wind in the Rocky Mountains gave me quite a shake at the top while I painted in my rental car. Oh, what a trip this has been with discovery after discovery. Please join me on my next exciting adventure to paint and explore in and Italian village and countryside this September. There are still openings for artists and their friends!

  3. Again I applaud the wisdom that Robert has shared as well as the dedication that Sara has pursued.
    I have worked in one series after another for the last 25 years. It was harder and more satisfying in the later years. Now I find myself a dedicated realist. Wow, I didn’t see that coming after all the weird and interesting paintings. But to be true to my path I follow my muse not knowing where she leads. Is this another series? I don’t think so, it might have been my desire to study and celebrate nature that was my fuel. So many variations and nuances to explore. Over the years I worked on many bad ideas and I got a pretty thick skin so the failures were only stepping stones. This taught me to be courageous and I lost my fear. Now at 53, I feel like I just woke up and the gift of art making has brought me back to myself. My old art school saying that “It is the process not the product that counts “resonates every day. Bless them for opening my eyes and then getting out of the way….

  4. Anita Williams on

    Love this. I’ve been on sabbatical from public school art teaching since January to finish my MFA. I went to my studio every day! What an opportunity to explore and be creative! I have a lot of experimental “series”. So many discoveries! Today I worked on four paintings without touching a brush! I used squeegee, spatula and putty knife! What fun! Some paintings look fab and others are “not quite there”. I realized a squeegee can be an amazing thing when something isn’t working. I hope I can sustain this when I go back to teaching.

  5. I wrote a whole series of lyric essays about “cracks.” I explored all kinds of them from the very literal to the very figurative. I used photos, paintings, You Tubes and even songs to make a potpourri of CRACKS. I actually tore up the text into cracked pieces and scanned them at random into the text. Am I crazy? Probably, but it was certainly a hell of a lot of fun!

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