On Monday Adolfo McQue of Cape Town, South Africa 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?”
Thanks, Adolfo. 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 there’s lots of competent work that doesn’t show 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.
‘Glimmers’ an endangered species
by Robin Gianis, Bridgehampton, NY, USA
It is remarkable how challenging it is to have the confidence to go with that certain glimmer of insight you speak of. More remarkable still is how it eludes so very many young people in our culture. Creative thinking, though a prerequisite for maverick status in just about any field, is shied away from and really hardly, if at all, in my experience, taught in our public schools. The “glimmers” are often thought of as silly or frilly and not worth taking up. Rather, despite the research findings on how important critical and creative thinking are, we still seem to teach to the myriad of standardized tests, and encourage rote memorization and one-dimensional thinking. We artists must really move against the current to explore our glimmers of insight and realize our true voice.
The value of ‘One’ in a little world
by Beaman Cole, NH, USA
Most really famous artists paint with one medium on one kind of ground in one genre of Art using one kind of technique. They do this for long periods with little change. Artists need to develop these restrictions for themselves. I tell artists to think of one short sentence as a descriptive motto for their art. Mix this with a consistent technique for painting/sculpting and you have a “Style.” Make nothing that doesn’t fit your motto. Miraculously your work will say something consistent and concrete and you won’t be just shooting hoops in the backyard. Now use your mind to flourish within the self-imposed restrictions. Find your own muse within your little world.
The return of ‘different strokes’
by Jaleen Grove, Victoria, BC, Canada
In my recent research paper on illustrators I found a disproportionate number who are adept at many different styles and approaches, and who are really uncomfortable with art-world pressure to find a “unique vision.” For them it’s way more fun and exciting to keep trying new stuff. But the art market is still wrapped up in high-modern idealism that demands work in series that look more or less the same. This is taken as some kind of “maturity” as an artist but it’s really bogus in my opinion. This is starting to change. The latest “hot” artist, Gillian Carnegie, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize last year got attention because the committee thought it was so innovative that she was tackling traditional genres but with — gasp — a different style for each painting.
Timeless rather than timely
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Upon leaving Lasceaux after seeing the prehistoric cave paintings, Picasso said, “There is nothing new in art.” He was the master innovator and also the master copier. Yet everything he made had his distinctive personality, his “style.”
My first drawing teacher said, “Le style est l’homme” — The style is the man. All art is a process of self-definition and when we arrive at the heart of it our “style” emerges. So I am of the “don’t worry about it” opinion; paint away and your style will emerge. You cannot go looking for it outside because it is within.
I often hear that my work resembles the Fauves or the Post Impressionists and I suppose it does. But it is not my intention. I paint what I love and that is the way it comes out; what most reflects my inner self and my response to the world around me. People also say that once they have seen my work they will always recognize it. That is because though it resembles the Fauves in style it is unlike any single other painter. It has my own handwriting, energy, personality, character.
Almost all art fits into some category or historical context. The search for originality or something completely new can be fruitless. Also, work that is most notable for its newness grows old quickly. We are searching for something timeless rather than timely.
Style from the heart
by Barbara Steele Thibodeaux, OH, USA
Being self-taught, my “style” has surely grown and changed over time. I think anyone who paints finds that the more they paint, the more they learn. I have had gallery owners question whether my “style” was “on purpose,” as if I were trying to paint this way only for the sake of selling to a specific group of people. I always have to laugh at that question… my “style” is what it is, and it comes from my heart, and I always hope that is what shines through in my work.
by Collette Renee Fergus, New Zealand
Working in an art gallery has given me a different perspective on unique angles within the visual arts. I see a lot of work from artists and the similar threads that link them to one another. I have always had the belief that artists should develop their own style, staying away from the ‘art schools’ and ‘institutions’ where you learn to paint just like your tutor or, at the least, develop similar traits. Being self-taught has gained a lot of credence in recent years and I feel it is because the self-taught artist develops a ‘unique angle’ by this very practice. Yes, it is easy to be influenced and, being a self-taught artist myself, I am only too happy to say now that I have been influenced by some who have gone before me.
Change is the process
by Pam Coffman, Oviedo, FL, USA
Just as we grow and experience change as humans, our artwork also undergoes change. Some artists may consider this a process of evolving, others may see it as maturing. I think artists who do not accept this process are the ones whose work is static and imitative — even if the person they are imitating is their self. My advice to my students is to have confidence in their uniqueness. No one else sees the world through their eyes. Learn skills and techniques, trust your vision, create with honesty, and style will come.
Understand your approach
by Lisa Stewart, Raleigh, NC, USA
My successful, distinctive calligraphic style is based on a combination of tools inherited and honed; all revealed during an Aha! moment. However, there are some who still don’t get it and there are some who understand perfectly, but that’s typical of various audience reaction. I’ve learned not to take the unenlightened ones’ comments to heart and believe that they may understand in time – as long as I understand my approach and can succinctly repeat it throughout my series, I feel success. In many cases, it may be that the artist has not found the right audience and must continue to persevere to secure the right one.
Selected preferences develop style
by Scott Menaul, Clearwater, FL, USA
What makes one soloist different from another or one composer different from another? I realized that my favorite musicians played with a certain style of vibrato or played notes in a certain way. I looked at some artwork that had a very “linear” style, where everything was depicted as lines. Then it dawned on me that style is simply the adoption of an arbitrary set of creative rules that one chooses from to express oneself. These rules can include themes, the tool and technique for laying down paint, the vibrato one uses or doesn’t use, the selection of color palette, or any choices in the creative process. If one has made choices and sticks with those choices, then that is one’s style. One develops style as selected preferences for each creative choice.
by Judy Lenzin, Lausanne, Switzerland
A few years ago we treated ourselves to a trip to the Far West and were dazzled with the craft in the American Southwest and the Native American presence in this craft world. We fell upon a book, once we were in NYC, before coming back to Switzerland. The title is All Roads Are Good by W. Richard West and it’s a Smithsonian publication. It’s a collection of first-person narratives that are about being Native American and being part of the contemporary landscape as well. All the persons are artists and crafts people and a recurring idea is that personal creations come down through a culture or a tradition and it is right and good to share these traditions and to be a kind of vehicle of culture.
Martha Graham on Creativity
by Ron Ukrainetz, Great Falls, MT, USA
“There is a vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open… No artist is pleased…
There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching — and makes us more alive than the others.”
Be true to yourself
by Diane Arenberg, Mequon, WI, USA
Early in my art career, I also worried whether I would have a “recognizable style.” I attended every workshop I could afford and often came away with a sense that my art wasn’t good enough because it didn’t mimic the instructor’s. Still, I kept painting. Now, 20 years later, I have come to realize my personal style was there all along. I am so grateful I didn’t listen to the whims of others. I am a firm believer that if you paint what’s in your artist soul, your work will be way more interesting than the work cranked out by people who paint “what sells” or in a style of another artist. Being true to yourself is what feeds creativity, not self-doubt and criticism. If you paint what’s in someone else’s soul, you are selling yourself short.
by Cynthia Nelms-Byrne, Dubuque, IA, USA
I too have been a designer and illustrator. Because of that, I have a versatile way of thinking of doing a painting. Adolfo is right in painting as much as he can and not worrying about it. He should look at his versatility as an asset, not a liability. Some people start out with one medium, and while they may become more competent, they never really change their “angle” or painting surface or anything substantial. I could never do that. I would be too bored, and I’d feel like I had not grown at all. Maybe I just have a short attention span!
Versatility not appreciated
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Art is a versatile language. When you meet someone who speaks French, German, Italian, Farsi, and English, you believe that you have met a well-educated person. But when a critic or a dealer meets an artist that paints with more than one visual vocabulary they call it a hodge-podge. They assume that such a painter lacks conviction and focus. It is a sad misunderstanding and it has had dire consequences.
Look at the life’s work of many A-list artists. Clifford Still or Sam Francis, or Mark Rothko. These guys essentially painted the same idea over and over again for their entire lives. The colors may change, but the idea is exactly the same. What a boring way to spend one’s life.
The worst thing in the world is to base one’s next painting on the painting you just finished, yesterday. You may end up with a “body of work,” but you have also committed artistic suicide. One’s art dealer always wants a painting that is very similar to the last one he sold. Your art critic wants a bunch of paintings about a single idea. This all revolves around the art market.
by Dave Kellam Brown, Dallas, TX, USA
You, as well as several of your responding readers, comment about control of the Internet (note that capital “I”) not being in the hands of a power group. The basic concept of the Internet was to avoid such control, however, legislation in the US Congress is changing this freedom (like so many other freedoms) in that the big connectivity providers are waging war against Net Neutrality. I’ve even seen TV ads that decry Net Neutrality to be a great vulnerability and threat to the Internet.
Net Neutrality is as necessary to Internet freedom as checks and balances, one-person-one vote, habeas corpus and many other threatened institutions are to the political freedoms held dear in the US and Canada. Net Neutrality means that anyone who can access the Internet has as much right to bandwidth and to traverse the networks as anyone else — i.e., no “special treatment” for access — freedom of digital speech. Any control of content or received material can be exercised at a higher level in the protocol chain.
Working to make people aware of this threat is critical to our continued ability to benefit from the inherent and growing value of the Internet. However, this legislation, like so much being passed today, has little public visibility and, where visible, is being dangerously spun by special interests.
Five Mile River
oil painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Virginia Gardner of Earlysville, Virginia, USA who wrote, “Unique is good, unique is important. But I am stuck thinking about building a body of work that makes sense. I want someone to recognize my work as my work. I want someone to walk into someone’s home and say, ‘You own a Virginia Gardner.’ ”
And also Nancy Stewart Matin of North Canton, Ohio, USA who wrote, “Every time I sit down I’m a different artist and I have fought the critic’s urging to ‘find myself.’ I have decided my ‘self’ is all over the place and I like where it is!”
And also Jerrie Powell of Houston, TX, USA who wrote, “There’s no real secret. The answer is practice, practice, practice. A violinist plays every day, an opera singer does his scales every day, an athlete works out every day; so must we. Just paint, and it will come.”
And also Carol Beth Icard who wrote, “The world is full of art and artists, and each one is an individual evolving through observation and change.”
And also Tobin Eckian of Newton, MA, USA who wrote, “Just a level of boldness and my own style in the moment of this day. Every painting still is different.”
And also Carole Mayne of Encinitas, CA, USA who wrote, “We four California painters successfully flew to Italy and France with our Gamsol, Natural Turpenoid and oil paints in our checked baggage, by having the printed faqs about the flashpoint around the supplies. I’m writing from Paris, thrilled that we all arrived ready and able to paint.”