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The Migration Series
His Painting Method

His Painting Method

Throughout his career, and particularly during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Jacob Lawrence used a series format to convey narrative content. Lawrence’s fascination with movies during the Depression years inspired his approach to storytelling.

For Lawrence, creating a visual narrative involved a process similar to the storyboards used to plan the sequence of a film. Lawrence told his story in the alternating rhythms of hardboard panels, employing every aspect, edge, and angle for its physical, social, historical, and economic significance.

Lawrence devised a system to create each cycle. He laid out the panels on the floor of his studio, designing rhythms of vertical and horizontal hardboard panels, each the same size. In this way, the thirty to sixty panels of a series could be seen together and painted at the same time.

For his early narrative series, Lawrence first wrote captions and completed sketches for each scene. Later he drew directly onto gessoed hardboard panels. Then he systematically applied one color at a time to each panel, beginning with black and moving on to lighter colors.

Lawrence often used his colors unmixed so that they would not vary from one panel to the next. He added white to make lighter shades of a color. His selection of colors–black and burnt umber to cadmium orange and yellow–created an overall unity and consistency.

Lawrence repeated motifs, shapes, and words throughout his narrative series. In The Migration Series, the repetition of an enlarged single spike or nail, chain links or lattice, hands, and the hammer act as refrains in the lives, experiences, and struggles of African Americans.

Jacob Lawrence, 1941. Photograph by Kenneth F. Space. National Archives, Harmon Foundation, College Park, Maryland

©2002 Whitney Museum of American Art