One of the main sources of ‘inspiration’ (read my post about “inspiration is irrelevant” for more on this topic) for me is the work of other artists. Like any art lover, the thrill and connection I feel when I see an artwork that engages me is like a fire in the engine of a train fueling my artistic nature to create. Always, there will be a specific thing about the work that lingers with me after the physical viewing is over. That thing will crystallize in my head and heart as a feeling, a sensation, a blurry remembrance, and it might become a ‘hook’ into one of my own paintings.
Being an honest artist, I can say I’ve never tried to copy another’s work (if my forays into museums to copy statues and other works can be excused ~ these were never works that I aimed to market as my own), regardless of how successful or lauded I perceived this artist to be.
I am quietly (or not so quietly) set on walking my own path in art. My mode of expression, paint handling, subject, compositions are uniquely my own, and this is how I can get up every day and work so solidly on what I do. As an independent artist, I have no one driving me; sometimes I have galleries that expect work, or art lovers who commissioned works. Often, I am creating works with an eye to my own creative development, or a future exhibit. Fundamentally, unlike working in a co-dependent place like an office, or factory, no one really cares if I, the artist, shows up to work or not.
This drive and stubbornness (single-minded, much?) to do it anyway seems to me intertwined with the creative drive that keeps me searching for the core of my own artistic ‘voice’.
I pretty relentlessly look to refine my artworks, because I am also a ceaseless searcher for improvement, and improvement means seeking out criticism and listening when people with knowledge and skills tell us things. Frankly I appreciate being widely read about art and also the world, because I often am my own best and worst critic. Jean Cocteau advised those in the creative arts thusly: “What others criticize you for, cultivate: it is you”.
I forcefully agree with this. It’s the ‘cultivation’ part that involves the work. This is the crux of the issue of ‘finding your artistic style’.
Finding my own style involved about six years of full-on painting pretty blindly. I painted anything and everything that I saw, and I did so under the guidance of professors, or books, or other artists, but mainly under the guidance of myself. From the very first painting I did, I can see that I was working to put my own individual view of the world onto the surface. In retrospect I can view these works and see a thread running through them all, even the ones completed within a class, such as figure drawing. This thread is what grew into my current body of work.
The thread can best be expressed as comprising exactly what interested me about what I was viewing.
About five years into my artistic training period, I had a professor who told me that she could glance at a scene and instantly keep in her head what caught her attention. Then, she painted just that. Everything else that she put in what just to accent and draw attention to that part that caught her eye. This has rung true with my own experience. In fact, I use this when viewing others’ work too; I glance and instantly look away to see what impression remains in my mind’s eye. This is often the essence of the work.
This is not over simplistic, I feel; I must add on to that truism however that this professor had the necessary skills and experience to then present the same vision in her artwork as art, rather than as a slavish copy of what she saw in front of her. Robert Henri said many similar things; here’s one of them: “Concentrate on a single feature […and…] make all lines lead toward that eye.”
An artist can use this as a key in assessing their own work, I think, in discovering their personal ‘style’. Collect together all your works, virtually or in person, and glance at them. What impression remains? What are the one or two things that stick in your perception. Hopefully, the work has enough life in it that something does stick. If not, this can help the artist, too, in realizing they might be holding back too much.
Collate what is similar about your works, ask yourself about every aspect; such as, do you always favor a particular collection of tones or shades? Do you see a preponderance of a particular color, or kind of line? How do you divide the surface up, typically?
I mentioned at the beginning that other artists’ works are a motivating factor for me. The exercise above can be useful in understanding the kind of work from others that you like as a reflection of yourself as an artist. I keep a journal of clippings from magazines in which I compile those images that strike me. Whether I like them or not doesn’t matter so much as the fact that they stir me enough to cut them out. I will write next to each one what I saw that moved me. Over a few years, these journals are a pretty interesting diary of my mind!
My obsession of the last few years has been with unpicking my past through my Trees series, and my Disorder series. That my ‘story’ may not be very evident from viewing these works is a good thing; meaning in art should be lightly stitched, so that the viewer may also take part in the narrative. No one can enjoy a work of art that has no ambiguity, or mystery, which is in fact a tedious monologue instead of a dialogue.
In reality, many of my works have been a surprise to me, in that, although I knew firmly what the sensation and memory was that I was painting, I most assuredly did NOT know how I was going to paint it, until I did. It happened. And sometimes, it was a perfect expression of that place I was in, internally, in my mind’s eye. Sometimes, it wasn’t.
My new series (and I am not ready to show these yet) is more considered, and also a better synthesis of what I have learned about my own ‘artistic style’ and aesthetic. I have made huge strides this past year in understanding my art, and art in general, and I am working now from within a process and with clear plans for each piece I am to make. The ‘surprise’ part of this series has been in the creation and collation of the ideas for it. In this article, I have considered only one aspect of finding your style as an artist. Unpicking threads of the multiplicity that contribute to the overall fabric in writing can be as tricky and delicate a process as doing so in paint.
I do very firmly believe that an artist is not the best judge of their own work. However, an artist should be aware of the process of refining their own mode of expression, as best as they are able. In my personal experience, this has often been the factor that has kept that well-known studio companion at bay: disillusionment.
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