A subscriber wrote, “Some of my painter friends insist that I don’t have a unique angle in my work. I feel all I can do is carry on and paint as much as I can and not worry about it, and eventually it will come. To force it would be easy as I’m a professional designer and illustrator. It would also be shallow and dishonest, do you agree? Do you have some advice on this?”
When I was in my twenties I was painfully aware that my work was a mish-mash. It was without angle, without style. A newspaper critic wrote that it was a “pastiche.” I had to look up the word and I didn’t like what I read. I despaired at ever finding my angle, but continued in my belief that the gods of art would someday grant me one. I, too, didn’t want to be shallow and dishonest.
Then one evening at an early solo show, several collectors managed to blurt out that they loved my style. “It’s so different,” said one. It was only at that moment that I realized I had something I might call my own.
Analyzing my idealistic youth in reflective age, I realize that there’s more than one road to Rome. I now know that just because a style is appropriated — or forced — it doesn’t mean that an artist has to stay put. For many of my friends, the idea was to stand quickly on someone else’s shoulders and then jump off. As a designer and illustrator you are probably proud of the variety of approaches you can take to a project. Why not put this facility to work? What I learned from the Pastiche Guy was that I was being influenced anyway. I was subconsciously appropriating stuff. What he didn’t see was that I was already crossbreeding. These days I’m thinking that appropriation, within limits and not including outright cloning, is okay.
The idea is to have an efficient growth process so you get to the joyous part. Joy includes having something you can call your own. It doesn’t matter a fig what folks say in shows or what critics put into papers. Artists need to live in the present tense. It’s your daily studio function that counts. When someone says they love your style, you’ll find yourself mumbling something like, “It’s a funny thing, but I just do it this way right now.” Then you have your angle.
PS: “My different styles must not be seen as an evolution, or as steps towards an ideal. Everything I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it would always remain in the present.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: As a regular juror and habitual looky-loo, I notice that lots of competent work shows much that’s unique. While mere competence or proficiency will often attract attention, especially among other artists, it may not be enough. Artists need to have their wits about them and be aware that insights can arise from little errors as well as big bloopers. Insights, original or not, tend to pop up unbidden. Pause. When the faintest glimmer of an insight appears, the wise artist explores in that direction. To evolve, artists need to exploit their glimmers.
This letter was originally published as “A unique angle” on September 22, 2006.
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“What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing.” (Pablo Picasso)