One of the things that many of my clients seem to struggle with is defining their personal artistic “style” or “voice”. Frequently this is with newer Artists but it is certainly not limited to those with less experience. It is also often a source of frustration with artists who have been working on their art for years and have begun to question if what they have been doing is really representative of who they uniquely are or who have shifted spaces in their life so that their old style no longer resonates with them.
Certainly, if an Artist is trying to sell their work and stand out among the tons of other Artists, a personal style can become a very important key in that process. In that case, our style as an artist allows us to project the professional, consistent image we want and is one of the things that has the world recognize our work as uniquely ours. It is the effect of: “Of course, that is Picasso (or Martha Graham or Fellini or Bjork or Donatello or Arbus or fill in you name).”
It doesn’t, by the way, mean something you are stuck with!!! A review of the complete works of great artists will show that their style changed and evolved over time. Often we can distinguish an early style of an artist and then later styles of the same artist. Many times there was still some thread that still ran through those styles and sometimes there wasn’t.
I can almost the feel the eyebrows beginning to rise for those of you who may think that having a particular style is counter-intuitive to the creation process, limiting or boring. Worse yet for some of you that might equate having a style with pandering to the masses.
Notice that I did not say that it had to be completely “repetitive” or suggest that every work looks, feels or sounds identical. Many artists throughout history (and long before there was the competitive art market we have today) have had wildly creative lives while still having a style or styles. And having a style may NOT be your thing. All is good … there are no have-tos in art. However if you are interested in exploring style keep reading J
What is style anyhow? How does an Artist (painter, sculptor, photographer, musician, writer, graphic designer, any artist) develop a style? Usually style is defined as some consistent, coherent, recurring form or element of expression that has you recognize a work as belonging to a particular artist before you see the signature, name or label of the artist. It can be expressed in one medium or many for a particular artist.
Funny enough, style is one of those things most artists want but no one can quite define. I think that is because it is welllllll … personal. It is that sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle mark that comes from inside you. Not to be confused with genre … style is distinct from genre. You can take any form of genre in performing arts, visual arts, writing, etc. and find many artists who utilize that same genre but many have their own unique style.
In visual arts such as painting it may involve brush strokes, texture, technique, handling of the paint and a particular range of colors. In writing it may be the way the author uses words, word choices, sentences, structures and sentence arrangement. For a photographer it may involve approach, lighting and composition. In music it may be heard in the beats, timbre or rhythm. No matter what the medium, style is a form of the artist’s unique self-expression present in the work.
Where does style come from? It may be completely designed or come from the quirks, strengths or personality of the artist (how they like to hold the brush, that color of blue that they love that is always present, a sensual quality, a darkness or lightness, etc.). You may choose a style but often a style chooses you.
Personal style, in my view, arises from being curious (about ourselves, art and life), passionate, participating in many styles and genres of our art and on-going creation. It is a mixture of doing what we love and being ourselves. I think of style as a journey vs. a destination.
That said, then what is the journey composed of? How do we find our style or voice as an artist? For those of you who are looking for your unique style or a new style for the here are several suggestions I can make:
Discover. Discover. Discover. Discover what? YOU! Ask: “Who am I?” Who are you as a person? What do you think about? What are you passionate about? What brings you pleasure? What emotions are inside that you want to bring outside as part of your artistic expression? Why? Who and what have affected or influenced you? Why? Is your art for others or only for you?
What story or message do you want to share? What gave you your earliest artistic pleasure and made your heart sing? I think this is the most important step in finding your style … without digging deep to know YOU then you run the risk of taking on some trend or surface style that you will end up disenchanted with later on.
Study. Study. Study. Study what? ALL kinds of other art and artists such as: artists from the past, Masters, current artists, artists in different art forms and mediums, artists in your own art form and medium. This may mean studying traditional art history and it may mean going to museums, concerts, galleries or reading books.
Dig into those that inspire you and those you don’t also. Keep in mind the “you”, that is uniquely you, that you are discovering as you study other work to see what resonates with you. Let yourself experience emotions, visual, auditory or written inspiration that jumps out at you.
Explore. Explore. Explore. Explore what? At first everything you can! Play with and engage in different art forms, different genres, different mediums and different techniques in the same art form. Find what really speaks to the real you. Find what makes your soul light up!
Try things on like you would a jacket, and then you can take it off if it doesn’t fit you. This is when you begin to realize what is most “yours” at this stage of your life. It may even be multiple ones that you can integrate.
Learn. Learn. Learn. Learn what? Learn the tools, techniques, methodologies, materials and perhaps technologies of that art form that does speak to you the most. Recreate the Masters from that art form. Take classes on or off-line. Find a teacher. Do whatever you need to do in order to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to begin to become comfortable creating what you want to create. NOTE: Learning never stops it just takes different forms throughout our development.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice what? Practice the art form/s and/or medium/s you are most attracted to like crazy. Consistently. Create wildly. Fill canvases, sketchbooks, play piece after piece, dance non-stop, sing as much as possible, write poems constantly, take your camera everywhere you go.
This is where you slowly let go of copying the masters and imitating your teachers and let yourself take risks. Be willing to go beyond what you simply can produce fast or skills you know. Use your skills, but don’t keep yourself stuck because of them. Be willing to “fail”. This is where what you want to express starts to become much more important than what you do well.
It is at this point of on-going creation and working on your art that your style will have the opportunity to arise. There is no need to rush or force it. Our style is in us, not waiting for us on the outside. We are actually unique. There is little that has not been thought or tried in most art forms but each of us is actually unique because of our exact combination of thoughts, feelings, passions, visions, expressions and characteristics. In the on-going work it gets to show up.
We don’t need to actually change anything about ourselves in order to have our own style. We do not need to push it. We get to discover it. And it is in that discovery of who we are, what we love, what our heart has to say, where our passion lies and through practicing our art that we can discover and develop our style. It will show up and develop and become natural if we allow for it. Play, Dig Deeper, Develop, Grow, Mature and Repeat.
The game is to develop our inner artistic voice, through knowing ourselves, so we can successfully express it. This may be a lifetime adventure. Continue to follow your heart and as you do your style may change. It is OK. We change. We evolve. If you studied the Masters, in any art form, you will see that they evolved over time and often their style changed in the process.
That is why so many artists who have been creating for years may find themselves frustrated with what once seemed like “their style”. All that has happened is that they either did not really have a style that resonated with them in the first place or they have evolved and it is time to let a new evolved style emerge.
Know that if something really new shows up that it might be a little uncomfortable at first. Let it be. Allow for the discomfort. Don’t throw your hands up in the air. Breakthroughs are sometimes messy in the middle. Integrate it with what you have been doing, if you need to for a while, until you become comfortable. There are no rules to style. It is your own self-discovery.
One fear of artists, who have been successful with a particular style, is that if they change their style it may damage their reputation or even their income. It might momentarily as your audience shifts with you. But trying to force yourself to work with a style that no longer serves you will damage you much more over time. Be compassionate with you. There is no wrong or right. Being true to you is the secret.
Not interested in creating one style? Consider that limiting or boring? Great! There is much to be said for both a more free-spirited eclectic approach and for a dedicated artistic style or voice. There are no truths in this game of being an artist except for what is true for you.
Are there any downsides to not having a specific artistic style? From a business perspective it may make it more challenging for you to gain recognition. Also, it will mean that you will probably need to market differently for each style you have. From the perspective of artistic development it could mean you are missing out on the development that comes from a dedication to a specific style. That said now, toss it out if you need to and do what speaks to you.
I think it is always important, at any step along the way in your journey, to remember that it is YOU moving through these various spaces, and no matter what you choose … a particular style or no style … you are always there at the source of it all. You and you alone can be YOU. Please let yourself celebrate the amazing gift you are to this universe!
Do you have a specific artistic style or voice?
How did you discover and then develop your unique style if you have?
As always I would love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to share them with me/us. It is only through our interactions with each other that we get to learn from and contribute to one another.
Loved your ideas!
Thank YOU, Wendy!
Many styles I have had in the past. Like my Alechinsky style. You can read all about it: Alehttp://www.jacquelinevandervenne.nl/my-alechinsky-period/
Great Blog article, Jacqueline … It is so important for us to acknowledge our influences! Thank you for sharing with us!
Maybe we never get to fully express a style. I sometimes feel that I should be more ‘painterly’ and less illustrative. I am currently into Van Gogh and Cezanne big time but there is ME in there without doubt.
Richard – Thank you for taking the time to comment! Perhaps it is a question of: are you fully expressing your style for you? If not then maybe if you look back you find that you are closer than before – if not then what would get you closer? I just have it that it is a lifetime adventure. Certainly, after coming out of 40 years of graphic design you have made a big leap and my bet is that it will keep developing as you work.
I think that place where we say “should” about anything is where we get into trouble … :-). Why is there a should? Richard is Richard. Thank goodness! WHOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOO! Your work is fabulous & I am sure it has an audience that thinks so & if someone wants someone more “painterly” then they will go find it (and for everyone who wants that there is someone who will want your work instead). The best news is that there is YOU in your work & it pleases you!
Beautifully said. I have been struggling with this for a month now. I love art, I am just ready to connect with my drawings and put in my emotions to better them.
Megan – I think that is the perfect plan (connecting to your drawings & putting your emotions in) – that is exactly what there is to do, in my opinion. Everything else is contrived and at some point leaves most of us so disenchanted. As I sometimes tell my clients,”The struggle is optional” … allowing you to flow as you flow is where the pleasure is & where I ultimately think our style arises from. Thank you so much for walking the walk! What an exciting journey this all is!
Great article, very insightful. I have one style for my landscapes, a flat decorative art nouveau flavor a la Arthur Matthews. I have a more traditional approach to my still lifes, often likened to the old masters. And my portraits are evolving, something like painterly realism.. I consider them separate collections, but people tell me they all show well together, so there must be a common thread.
Marilyn – I had to go look at your work 🙂 I can see the different styles for each of the collections AND the thread of Marilyn … for me it is in the colors, the light and the serene/peaceful “mood” in each. It was as if I could just breathe slowly, deeply & calmly as I looked at them. Beautiful body of work! There is nothing I enjoy more than artists who are willing to share about their work and their own inquiries … Thank you for sharing with us your different styles and how you see them!!!
By the way … I love your Project P.A.inT.
Very interesting article. Thanks!
I have strange “problem” in this regard. I may be lucky in the way that I don’t feel the need to look at others to find inspiration. I get it from within and try to give certain the most important parts of me a “visual voice”.
But I find it difficult to have one, unique voice. I have put it down to three “voices” or styles that a very, very different. But they are all me! I think people who know me deeply would agree. But it just seems unprofessional or wrong to have such different styles. I fear that others see my work as undecited, or as if I can’t find my style.
Understand my problem? I just find it hard to skip a style/voice to look more professional, when I feel I would loose something personal. So I just don’t know…
Steffen – I think that for some artists, they are fortunate to tap inside themselves and find their “voice” or “voices” .. for others they may have a hard enough time to find one voice.
I would consider you very fortunate … you tap inside and have found multiple voices!! I see each of your voices in your work .. they are very distinct. Clearly each of them are yours … I don’t know that you have to strip any of your voices away from you – I can understand that it would be like losing a part of you.
My suggestion for the sake of your “professional” image is that you simply market them in different ways & to difference audiences. The bonus is that you become “known” in multiple ways for multiple markets. It may take you more effort but it is so worth it not to have to decide to let go of a style that is truly yous.
Thank you so much, Steffen, for bringing up your “strange problem”. It is not so strange … I do know many artists who are dealing with a similar thing … so you sharing gives them knowledge that they are not alone.
Very insightful article thank you for the enlightenment. I struggle with listening to my own voice and trying to makie more commercially acceptable art. Exploring and expanding my knowledge base to stay true to my inner unique voice, your article has encouraged me to stay right on track. Gratitude Kym
Yeahhhhhhhhhh, Ciara … staying right on track is a great thing! I know it is so easy to think we need go looking for something more “commercially acceptable” but if we have to negate our deepest inner voice in the process then I don’t think we are ever content with ourselves. How about you follow that voice AND it is commercially accepted? Now that is a much more fun game and worthwhile to play I think (I imagine your giraffe’s being worried about the fact that perhaps they should become dogs since it is much more commercially acceptable … I think not … smile) I so enjoyed viewing your art … it so seems to come from your heart … all of it .. from Hello Baby to All Woman. Thank YOU!