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Concept Origin

Lesson 7 from: The Art and Business of Conceptual Portraiture

Jennifer Thoreson

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Lesson Info

7. Concept Origin

Next Lesson: Thinking in Layers

Lesson Info

Concept Origin

When we very first started this whole thing this morning, we talked about these two questions what do you want to make work about? Hey, what do you want to make work about that's a huge question? It comes from a lot of places and it wasn't going to look like, ok, those two things, so that what do you want to make work about thing again? We're boiling that down to a single thread if you look at a big weaving, if you look at this rug and I go over there and pull one piece of yarn out of it, that's the body of work so you are the rug and you're just pulling one thing, and I think a lot of people feel like they've got to make work about their whole life, about everything. They are about all these things that are happening at the same time, a big, big, big, heavy concept, and you could do that, but you can also just pull the thread out and say, I'm going to make work about my grandmother's dying and that's it's that simple once you figure that out, that little piece of yarn all right, what'...

s it going to look like, how am I gonna do this thing? So what do you interested in? So if you get out a piece of paper right now and just randomly write somewhere it's down, they don't have to think too hard about it. Just grab a piece of paper, a piece of scrap paper. What do you interested in? This? Could be a lot of things it could be like I said earlier, you're neater or it's a television programme don't don't think it has to be some high, you know, polluting, conceptual, romantic idea, it could be a television show, it could be a lot of things. I recently fell in love with queen the band because we went to switzerland and I saw their recording studio, and I got really interested in freddie mercury's life and started researching him, and I've watched every video known to man on freddie mercury now and then I had to figure out what the heck is so interesting about that to me, why am I so interested in him? And I think there there's a tragedy in that hole because he died so young, and he was so talented, he was like a mozart sort of figure, and I know about myself. I love stuff like that, and that stuff shows up in my work, so it could be all kinds of things, but what are you interested in? Just write down a few things, a few things, five things, what is your belief system? Do you have? On overarching belief system that that governs the way you think so for me it is having been raised southern baptist it's kind of overarching christianity so I see that I see the world through that filter and man it really changes the way I make work and I use things from it all the time as symbols in my work. So do you have a belief system? May not be a religion may be something completely different but what is it about you that is unique in that way? What are your convictions? So I mean facebook is full of after the decision the other day right all the cool like rainbow icon for a false pictures and stuff it's full of it that so many people are convicted about that it's a big thing there's what do yu convicted about? You know, if you could make a list of three or four things for me it's a big one is gender equality. I think about that all the time. I think about it every day and it influences might work if you look at the way I use models, how I use women and how I use men and my photographs that all boils back too that that thing that's in me, that gender equality thing that bugs me all the time so do you have that? Do you have three or four convictions? Write those down what current issues interest you maybe it's mean there's a lot going on with race right now to write a lot a lot of heavy stuff maybe that's a current issue ah lot of artists make work just about a current event they react to something like the shooting that happened in the church and make work about that about that event it could be that you could make work about something that's happened recently it could be a political thing it could be all kinds of stuff but is there something is there a current issue in this world that interests you that you think about a lot write that down how do I do by yourself so think about okay I'm a wife about to be a mother I'm a daughter I'm a pedestrian I have a lot of things right and you could make a long list of all the things you are how do you identify yourself? I'm a white woman and so what does that mean in my work? Well gosh, it's pretty heavy stuff means a lot of stuff being a white woman um I see the world in a different way than and then a lot of other people do because of that because of something I can't change but how do you identify yourself and how does that make you see the world differently? Write that down if there's something about you that's unique what is a life changing event or memory that has altered your directory so of course I think immediately about my divorce that's a big one my loss of faith and my reemergence of that faith big event in my life that completely I'm going one way and ban and it could be a car accident or something like that when I became ill a few years ago that alter my trajectory so is there something that's happened in your life that's altered that path write that down there's good stuff in there that's stuff you can like milk and get your stuff out of what is something you think about all the time you find yourself thinking about all the time that maybe your own children your family it could be a current of enter issue it could be a lot of things but it's just something you find yourself worrying about a lot and it might be something really silly but don't dismiss it let it let it live for a minute and see if it has something to do with everything else that you're dealing with artistically what do your roles in life and where do you fit so what do you do on a daily basis do you stay at home with your kids do you volunteer at your church do you what do you do? Do you work in an office? What is your role how do you fit into that role if you promise you if you put this into words, I sit at a desk all day for that into words and look at it along with all this other stuff, and something might happen. We look, oh, my gosh, I could make a whole body of work about that about one thing, and then what trades our life experiences have formed your perspective on life, so this could be marines could be little memories. I remember standing in that house that I made work about the my childhood home, we would stand where the kitchen had a little line of carpet that went to tile or laminate flooring, in fact, and I put my toes on the line and watch the clock into my mouth wash at night. I don't know why I remember that, but I remember the way that bubblegum mouthwash smelled. I remember the way the floor look that there were stains on the kitchen table over here and mom in the kitchen over here, and that image is what I was after in the whole body of work and testament, so you'd be amazed what kind of stuff if you just write down some memories, they don't have to be super significant, they don't have to be the life changing ones, just stuff that you can literally smell and taste and remember and, like, viscerally feel in your body that stuff can show up in your work, and you can use that I could have made a whole body of work about that. So I promise you, if you will answer those questions and really answer them, something will come of it, something will come out, but you can start to figure out what what I'm wanna make work about. So if I look at this is my list, the very first question, just the first question, what do you interested in faith? Love, relationships, gender roles, human trace, dna and physical body, temporary nous and fragility, death, resurrection, renewal, preciousness of objects and freighted objects, domestic spaces and memories, and it took me hours to figure out that list it's not something that just came up with, but when I come up with that list, everything I've ever made fits into that list, so I'm not necessarily looking back in my work and saying, I see this in my work, I'm just saying these are the things I'm interested in, okay, and they show up in the work, what do you want to make work about, okay, so answer this question, write these things down and to these questions, that's, step one once you've done that then it's a matter of giving your ideas a fighting chance so ah lot ofyou you could probably actually tell me now if anybody wants to volunteer it could be kind of awesome what's been on your mind that you want to make work about that you think would be an interesting body of work or you think is a good theme in your work have been thinking a lot about how we work in our society and what that does r we are our identity in the midst of our work how people work work yeah things that we choose do we have a choice? Those kinds of things yeah but that's rich that's really rich so the thing is once you've got that a lot of you probably have that a lot of people out there already have an idea okay, I think I know what I want to make the work about that doesn't mean that's the end of the line either because you can use the questions we just looked at toe add layers to that work right because you're gonna fit in your own identity now and add deliciousness to the complexity of that idea so I found like when I was making medic in flora for instance I would do I would okay, I want to make work about my medical experience and about that process but I didn't allow myself to add in my faith base or my identity as a white woman or as a woman in general, I didn't allow any of those things teo influence, that I just got myself into that rut and made work about that thing. Does that make sense? So it could have put a lot more flavor into it? If I had allowed myself to think about other things and filter those in add flavor so it's boiling down what I'm interested in narrowing, narrowing, narrowing to that thread when I want to make the work about which way I know we talked about many times, but that's really what the process is, you've got a funnel throwing in the funnel, wait percolate and eventually something's gonna come out of there. So if I look at my own funnel for testament, it was love relationships at the top christian fat family bringing faith parent my own parents relationship that eyewitness all over my my life and I'm still watching, and it still amazes me the way that they love each other that's a big influence in my life, my childhood home, some throwing that in the mix symbolism, biblical symbolism of the vignettes of relationships I've known or experienced during my life, throwing that in the funnel, and then how those love relationships sustained burdens and that's, that very last line is what the work is about. Right? And if I had just let it be about that, it would have functioned a lot like medic in florida did, I could have done it, but I allowed myself to add in christian faces and not bringing in my parent's relationship in my childhood home, and suddenly it became a lot more interesting. You guys remember, I showed you the images that I did digitally with my sculptures and the people in the house, right? In the kind of random blank space that was a perfect example of me doing how those love relationships, very waiting, sustained burdens and that's it literally the person had weight on their body in some place, it didn't mean anything, you know, without anything else that had any significance, and so it was okay, and it sort of functioned, but it didn't have the deliciousness and the complexity that it does now that I allowed myself to put in the other other flavors, right? So I like to think of it. Is the cream rising to the top? Throw all that stuff in the pot? And for god's sake, wait a little while this is the part that I think people expect to make the most amazing, delicious sauce in five minutes, it doesn't happen, you have to let things marinate together, and you have to start playing in flavors hoping you guys ever watch like master chef or whatever right? And they've got this bizarre basket of stuff and they've got to put it all together and hope god that it works it's you doing the same thing? You get the mystery basket all your stuff that we just answered in that side before all that stuff that's your mystery basket put it on the pot do the best you can with the ingredients that you have and in the end you've got one little plate you're going to serve the judge that's your work the cream rises to the top eventually but it takes time it takes time and it takes a lot of thought it's not something is gonna happen casually you have to work at this so what's it gonna look like so we answered we started to answer kind of the first question right? What I don't want to make work about but secondly what's that we're gonna look like so I think this is probably the hardest part the translation into visual language we have verbal language so what I find is easiest for me and I think this helps a lot of people is to use the verbal language that you have we have that we know how to use verbal language we all do, so take your idea the one that you've been thread you pulled out from the rug and assign some verbal language to it I make lists like crazy my notebook is full of lists of words and they don't have to even work together again it's all the ingredients like I mentioned earlier at the big empathy word in my notebook lots of words that then I can't their cues to me to go back here's my mr angry ingredient empathy here's my mystery ingredient it wolf here's my another one clay okay how is this going to work together I don't know yet it takes time but once you figure that out so let's look at this kind of list of questions for a minute if you want to write just jot down some answers to these two what do you like to photograph okay this seems like a really simple question but if I've got this idea figured out okay I want to make work about love relationships and sustaining burdens and those relationships well I immediately feel like I'm going to use human subjects because that's what I like to photograph I like to photograph people so when you're working with your idea of how people work how is that what's going to look like are you going to photograph people are you going to photograph environments and just workspaces are you going to use still life items what you're going to dio what do you like to photograph when I buy two big answers that question our people and interior spaces so I married the two together and that's how I ended up with figuring out that I needed a house that looked like my parents house special interior space is what I like to photograph that simple how do you like to make images? Ok, so if I think about how I like to do that or how it's best for me to do that I'd like to make them slowly so it takes me a long time to craft a photograph I don't respond to something that's happening in front of me I craft the whole thing I literally will move a finger nail if I need teo to make the perfect picture right that's how I like to do things and it's not that I want to let myself get in a rough that way it's that I know that's what comes naturally to me so I'm going to use it along with now okay I'm gonna photograph people in an interior space okay that interior space is going to be my parents house or a replica of it okay? And now I'm gonna let myself do this in a very staged manner and that's what I did I like to stage photographs so think about for a minute how do you like to do things to you stage things? Would you rather be a photojournalist? What do you do? How do you like to create what is your color palette? So we talked about the black and white versus color thing earlier because I'd always seen everything in black and white, but when I started working in color and again, I did that because I wanted to bring things into more of a contemporary white I'm still using really calculated orchestrated color so it's there's harmony me throughout it there's not a lot of bold color there's not a lot of pattern there's not a lot of interest as far as the color is used it's using the very muted weii what is your palate? Are you going to work in black and white? Are you going to work in color? Is that color gonna be vivid isn't going to be what is that more muted visit powdery tones. What is your palate? Okay, so does your lighting have a signature or meaning? The reason I only used natural light in the house is because I thought of that light source as the one light source the god light sort of thing. So if I introduced another light source, it not only added kind of artificiality to it, so it looked lit studio it which changed the mood a lot, right? It also changed the meaning of the light because in each room there is one window and light pouring in that one window to me that was symbolic of the ultimate one light source so the light has meaning and it has a purpose both that's not going to be the answer for all of you and every single thing you do but think about for a minute can your light add another layer of meaning to the work the way you use light can it add another layer so it's not just pretty it's not just functional it has more to it than that can it mean something? Maybe you're going to use to light sources for a really specific reason think about that for a minute how do you compose an arranged photographs so when you look at your images that you've made so far and when you look at other people's images even movies what do you respond to the most you like things that are really busy and complex do you like things that have a lot of force you to move around a lot? Do you like things that are really centered? Do you find yourself putting your subject on the third all the time when you compose things do you find yourself balancing things or do you like things that feel a little waited to one side or haven't awkwardness to them? How do you compose things? Because that can have meaning too oh I find when I especially when I was making testament I wanted things to be really balanced and it's a physical thing because I like the way it looks yes, but it also has meaning that idea of balance in our household balance in a relationship. So if I put something heavy on the right I always put something on the left to balance that out and maybe this is a big object and this is a bright red object but there's always balance between the two so it's not just functional it's also meaningful so you can think about that the way you use composition can you use symbols in your work so depending on what you're photographing can I throw in there's a lot of images where there's books in the work and on the spine has a message on there? I use a lot of books that my dad had on his bookshelf and I was growing up that had titles that I remembered from growing up so little bitty things an alarm clock in the image with the cancer so I'm thinking about how this man is running out of time so just little signifiers that khun symbolize things apples that might identify with the fall and with adamany just stuff like that but I can throw in and use as very specific symbols can you do that? Can you use color as a symbol so all the different ways that you can kind of play with things what are your influences? Why did those things influence you I could go back to the frederick freddie mercury think why when the heck wasn't so interested in that? Why my influence by that melancholy think so I can dig way back and figure out where that kind of attitude comes from and see it in my work so if I look at medic and flora that melancholy is extremely evident when you look at it I think they're dark they're kind of morose looking right? Well, testament is kind of dark too but it's dark in a different way it's dark in a little bit of a more playful, humorous it's complex way than it is when I showed something in black and white with people wearing metal and hooked up to machines so it's still I find that melancholy showing up in my work again and again and again that's just a little nugget of what I'm influenced by but think of all the things that influence you and visually what those things look like and how that might affect the way your photographs look can you add meaning through location models, color objects, lighting, staging your camera work? Can you add meaning through any of those things? So why are you using I can ask myself why am I using white models who look like me so I have to boil that down and answer that question I am responsible for every single thing that's in that photograph and my answer to that question is I use them because they're like surrogates for me and my family they are me represented at different age stages in my life okay? And then I have maybe a a couple of that look like my parents very similar something like that so there's a there's a reason for it but why are you using the models you're using? Why are they wearing what they're wearing and that work? They're all wearing clothes that kind of reflect the early eighties period because I was tryingto make that life that I had when I was a child every little thing means something so can you add meaning that way and not alone figuring out what your ma who your model is and what they're gonna wear I can give you a big cute what the work's gonna look like so all these things you adam together and you start to get a visual picture of what this thing might actually look like a pretty amazing thing actually so the third thing we want to add to this process is considering your audience okay so that's a whole different animal but there's something you want to think about and I think early on while you're conceptualizing the work so I'm gonna go here so I can read this what do you have to go over here? Sorry what do you want your audience to see understand experience or perform when they look at your work yikes I mean that's a huge question it's a scary question and it's one that I didn't think about enough until I got to graduate school and start had three years to simmer on this stuff really the whole goal of today is me just sharing stuff that I I was humiliated through or embarrassed about or couldn't understand me ever to figure out and hoping you guys can take a little bit of it and jump ahead through all that stuff I had to struggle through and this was a big one because I didn't think about my audience very much do you want so like heidi's little tin boxes right? She wants her audience to hold them to connect with him physically she wants a physical act to happen when somebody looks at her work there's ah student who I went to school with who made interactive videos that people could answer a question you could ask the computer questions and it would answer back to them with his photography so there's an interactive experience happening that's what he wanted his audience to do. I want my audience my big word would be empathy I want them to empathize with my subjects but what do you want your audience to dio what do you want them to see? And then I'll also help you with your artist's statement too is it important that they understand the underlying layers that's someone sort of asked this question before we went to the break do they need to know all of this biblical sense symbolism that's in my work and my answer to that is no it's fine with me if people don't see that if they see maybe a little of it or they're going to pick it up on a different level that I put it down that's fine I'm okay with that but I know that it's in there okay? I know the flavors in there it's like having a great spaghetti sauce and you know what the ingredients are? You know it's it's got these twelve things but when someone tastes it they just know it's amazing they don't know why but you've infused it with all that good stuff, right? Are you using a specific narrative that you want people to pick up on when I did baptism, for instance, there was a step by step narrative I was trying to get out and I wanted people to see that do you want someone to see a narrative that's a big question? What are the three most important things you want your viewer to receive from the work? If you can answer that question you're you're pretty golden the three most important things when someone walked up to the picture of the first time they stand there and look at it one two three what do you care about that they get from it that will help you so much what do you think? Who do you think your view is that's a big question to and that goes back to a lot of who was your who do you identify yourself as so do you see your viewer as kind of another version of yourself? Are you trying to appeal to a younger audience? Are you trying to appeal to an older audience or an audience who's different than you in some way you know I'm a woman maybe I'm making work that I want men to see and understand it a different way lots of different things who was your audience? Do you want the viewer to interject her own experience or do you want to dictate to them this is kind of the apple onion thing too so how much of the viewer do you want to be active in your work or do you want to tell them everything? This is what I want you to see step, step, step, step, step or do you want the work to be more of like a mirror where they look at themselves and see their own self coming back that's a really different thing you being a dictator okay and then why is it important you important for you to make this statement? Why are you making the work in first place who do you think? Why do you think this is gonna be interesting to somebody? Why do you think somebody's going to get something out of this? Why would somebody interact with it? Why would somebody go home still thinking about it? Why are you making it? And what do you think is going to come from that act? So it's a hard list of questions, but again, it's something I didn't think about enough and now when I do, I find that a lot complexities my work so again we talked about this earlier just learned a new skill at and this is another way it's not only a way to get yourself out of a creative rut it's a way to add more layers to your work. So this is the first pottery firing that we did and we I mean we laid it out old school with the big metal case and all the pots are in there and we actually let this thing on fire and I tell you, watching that thing burn it's nothing to do with actually the pot or making it learning how to make the pot. Just watching that burn gave me the idea for all the ashes because all the ashes kept going up into the sky and then we would collect we collect those that volcanic ash and you can use it to make the pot stronger we're going to use it actually the photo shoot this this next segment so just that little observation that happened here change my work adds flavour so gathering cultivate lots of different ways to do this I like to do this I'd like to go on google and google image heavy burden and just see what images come up and the most amazing stuff if you screw all the way to the bottom and you see the most bizarre things and suddenly is akash that's it that's it that's what it's gonna look like? I mean, I did that so many times just googling random things just red sheep there are red sheep all over the internet all kinds of bizarre things so just letting myself collect images and letting a marinate in there I find that works better than anything else because I'm such a visual person so collecting collecting, collecting just thousands of images that eventually come together and look like something I do this all the time also like to go to pinterest and google or type in here touching bird and look what comes up like feeling like I am a being a and the children come up for burden lifted art carrying a pretty amazing stuff and I would click on those and see what images then come up and whoa whoa like it's a big influence and helps me start to add visual language to my verbal language okay also liked to watch our twenty one just pretty cool anybody watch that scene that yeah so it's on pbs and there's a whole bunch of different artists on their just hundreds of them, you can click on them and watch their whole process from start to finish and it's helped me probably more than anything else I've done honestly watching other people create and seeing how they form their ideas and how those ideas are then translated into visual work if I can watch somebody else do that, I'm not going to copy the process, but it it helps me to understand my own process better. I'd like to go toe photo festival if you goto lin scratch dot com slash resource is there's a list of all the photo festivals that happened every year? You can go but here's a list of some of the the biggest one, but go and walk around and look at visual cues just gather visual information specifically visual information also when I'm when I'm starting to narrow my idea down and think, okay, I want to use biblical senator symbolism in this work oh google that fish and the bible I don't get this little thing that says fish ever watchful of blinking eyes I remember all these things that tell me what fish meat in the bible and goats and sheep and wool and wax and and so it not only helps me add layers in meaning, but it helps me a sign visual cues that's the material I'm going to use, I'm going to use a wall because I know now it means this one thing, so whatever it is that's starting to show up in your head visually google it and find out what it means and see if that helps make lists and use keywords, I promise it will help it will help if you will assign visual language for I mean verbal language first and then translate that into visual language. This is kind of my list, okay, so you can see I've gone and they're like sound in the final installation, I had a sound piece of meat playing clarinet, actually, and then in the show you can see my empathy word in there narrowing my focus is it more human altars and see there? Just key words and they don't even make sense together. I've got a verse here come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest that's I just googled burden and the bible and that came up whoa! You know what kinds of cool things you can see, this is just kind of how I sketch I don't draw a lot of pictures, I sketch ideas in words, words help me so, interactive that's, a big word. I googled bed and what it means in the bible. You can see that at the top, just all kinds of things that show up, you know, sometimes first thing in the morning. Oh, my gosh, important, re write that down, and it did show up in the end. So this is some of the sketches I made for testament. Once I started identifying material than making sculptures. You, khun, see kind of what I was thinking of, kind of the thought process behind those objects and how they might work with people. And I didn't actually use many of them. I tried them all, but its zx experimentation.

Class Materials

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Book Proposal Sample.pdf
Critical Mass - Digital Book.pdf
Curriculum Vitae Example.pdf
Keynote PDF Segment 1.pdf
Keynote PDF Segment 2.pdf
Keynote PDF Segment 3.pdf

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

"Thinking about art is not making art." In this inspiring and informative workshop, Jennifer helps you put thought into action - through meaningful self-reflection, exploration and by taking her through her own processes. Through exercises and examples, she explains how to pull out a thread of an idea and develop it into a conceptual project that is informed and invigorated by personal experience, preference, interests, and so much more. Her workshop not only feeds the creative soul, but offers earnest information on taking first steps toward publishing and showing fine-art. Jen so beautifully shares her talent and her love of teaching - I first "met" her on Creative Live and have had the joy of being mentored by her in-person as well. This workshop is a very close second to spending time with her one-on-one. Thank you, CL, for bringing her back!

kalei harmon

I love Jennifer, she's one of my cL favorites! She is such a soulful photographer and her art just resonates with me in so many ways. While she was creating her conceptual piece with the mother and child, my eyes welled up because it was such a profound experience to witness. I appreciate that she has a graduate degree in art and is able to refer to others in the field who are leading the way. She is so genuine and I'm grateful for her willingness to bare her soul to us through her art and process. I've learned so much by watching how she interacts with models and communicates efficiently and gently to get AMAZING poses. Definitely worth the buy if you're looking for inspiration from an artist who creates images which evoke emotion and communicate a message, not just trying to make "great photos." I can't wait to learn about the business side of it all!


I am so grateful for this class; it is just what I have been looking for to help me go beyond my "photographic potty training". By leading us through her own creative process, Jennifer Thoreson invites us to think about why we do what we do and to make our work more meaningful and authentic, creating our unique visual vocabulary. Moreover, she provides detailed info on submitting work to galleries and publications, contests, printing editions, preparing an exhibition and pricing. In her calm, unpretentious manner, Jennifer demystified art without trivializing it and I finally saw light at the end of a rather long tunnel.

Student Work