This morning, Anne Pridmore of Mentone, Australia wrote, “I’m a painter of the Australian landscape. I no longer want to just “copy” what I see. Rather, I want to find a personal interpretation of the land. I’ve had some success but I find it extremely difficult to move away from the habits of twenty years of painting things the way they look. I just can’t seem to overcome the obstacles of my insidious mindset. I’m constantly reminding myself to ignore the left side of my brain, but it’s so hard to maintain the momentum. I’d appreciate your thoughts.”
Thanks, Anne. The good news is that when we make the move from things as they are to things as they need to be, we also move to a higher level of self-realization. Reality may be insidious and personal interpretations may be hard won, but it’s worth the journey. To stop being a slave you need to become a master. Your question is basic to the art spirit — it is the perennial quest for “style.” It’s the magic moxie that art must have to be art. Here are a few messages that have drifted down when I’ve been out and about on the yellow brick road:
Indulge and develop your own painterly eccentricities.
Note your happenstance aberrations and go there again.
Adopt fresher, perhaps speedier, ways of doing things.
Free up from reference material early in a work’s progress.
Invent from the imagination. Ask “What could be?”
Work in series so paintings come out of themselves.
Cruise your work-in-progress for new motifs or designs.
Name and claim your particular methods and touches.
Build confidence by giving full employment to your inner teacher.
Original styles start with the understanding that art is not necessarily what is seen — but what is to be seen. The following information is so valuable that I’d appreciate if you might just keep it between you and me: All works of art are made up of “passages” — areas of subject matter or process that require focused attention. Each time you come to a new passage you need to ask yourself a simple but disarming question: “How can I have fun with this passage?” Enacting this may mean going against your natural habits and learned procedures. Be daring. Be audacious. “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” (Katharine Hepburn)
PS: “When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.” (Joe Namath)
Esoterica: Style creeps up on you. It’s a combination of the inner workings of the subconscious mind and the adopted elements favoured and sponsored by an artist’s selective eye. This requires patience over time and the regular application of exploratory habits. Relax. “We don’t need to impose a style, we just have to show up and be present to catch its unfolding.” (Linda Saccoccio) “Style’s development,” said wood-block printer Walter J. Phillips, “is not hastened by outside instruction. It’s a personal thing that takes care of itself.”
Style is the art
by Clint Watson, San Antonio, TX, USA
I can tell you from a marketer’s point of view, developing one’s own style is essential to gaining the eye of collectors. Collectors often possess this sentiment: “If it looks just like reality, I’ll just take a photograph.” For many buyers, the artist’s personal artistic style is the “art” in the artwork. Without the style, it’s just “work.” While I never advocate painting “for the market,” it is worthwhile to keep this in mind.
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
This is where the fun is. Copying is not art, it is technique. Art is perception and you need to expand yours. Try painting after a half liter of wine, smoking a joint or dropping a bit of acid. What you produce then may well be junk but the expansion is great and it lasts. Try the DADA technique of letting yourself become an automated painter. “The human mind, once expanded to take in a new idea never goes back to its original size.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
Winning twice over
by Andrew Baker, West Sussex, UK
Cezanne answers the question of the vast divide between the integrity of expression of imaginative schemes and devices and the illusory search for the infinity of nature and its ever-changing guise. By placing brush marks over the canvas, based upon observations of shape and spatiality for themselves rather than what they describe, Cezanne achieved works which recreated nature at its source.
When you find the delight of being in tune with the subject’s source in the realization that you are an important part of nature’s dynamic principle, you win twice over. The work comes out of that experience. Your vision, rather than just your seeing, displays a thousand or more possible paintings in the simplest things.
Running freely through who we are
by Loree Harrell, Corbett, OR, USA
We are able to allow a chosen subject to run freely through who we are and become a part of us before we put brush to canvas or paper. When we have fulfilled that dynamic — when our subjects become truly ours — we will have found our unique style. There are moments when I wish with all my heart that I could paint that horse over there in a way that looks just exactly like that horse over there. However, blessing or curse, my art has its own ideas of outcome and, somehow along the way, that horse over there teaches me something more than just the beauty of it.
Change of media promotes change
by Karen Jacobs, Birmingham, AL, USA
I can document several major style changes during my career and they all involved a change in media to some extent. Realistic watercolors morphed into contemporary realism on large canvases, then texture was added and they became abstract. That’s had a nice long run and the addition of collage is steering the abstracts in yet a new direction. A renewed interest in drawing and sketching may (or may not) have a morphing effect on my work… will be fun to see. Without these changes over the years, making art would be such a bore. Adding a new element to the mix keeps it fun and fresh.
Abandonment to play
by Jane Kley, Hermann, MO, USA
I recently had an epiphany in regard to my artwork. It wasn’t verbal or concrete. It was a prolonged rush of deep joy that left a permanent “still” spot in my spirit — a place of stillness and peace — a place to which I know I will be propelled now again and again as I do my art. I have been an artist all my life. Graduated with honors from a notable university. I have a BA in illustration. Art was my profession (feast and famine). A friend of mine taught me how to play at art. I had always known intoxication in doing art. But I had never “found my bliss.” (One of my professors was always saying, “Find your bliss.”) I thought I understood what he meant but now I know I didn’t. Having found my bliss, it’s bigger than intoxication. It’s not some nebulous location you must continually strive for. Once experienced, it imbues velocity for travel that transcends space and time. It’s found through total abandonment to play.
Am I having fun?
by Tracey Gibson, Greensboro, NC, USA
I live in the world, but I know on some level I am not of the world. I hear that other drum. The ‘what if?’ bell goes off in my mind, a lot. Still — I have a style. I am very fond of it and thanks for the very inspiring words. What you say always rekindles my “higher self” as I aspire to create and push the envelope. Yet, I “design” furniture in a tirelessly commercial industry that mostly caters to the lowest common denominator and often good design is the last of the considerations, as the other issues (manufacturing, price, saleabilty) are the driving forces. I am reminded by your letters to always remember on some level that I march to the higher beat of my internal drum. What I “do” on this earth plane is not always perfect but it is part of the journey and is a passage of sorts and I regularly need to remind myself that I am having fun: Am I having fun? Oh, yeah… and, how can I have more fun? And, do I love what I do? Yes, and do I love the circumstances sometimes? No, but — so what. I am having fun.
by David Neri, San Francisco, CA, USA
I keep pushing myself to simplify by leaving out anything I deem superfluous. Series really help accomplish this end. Recently, to have some fun, I started a series of paintings in the style of Mark Rothko as an homage to him. It’s harder than it looks, but rewarding nonetheless. One question: Do you know of any book(s) that discuss his methods?
(RG note) Thanks Arthur. Rothko’s methods were pretty straightforward and can be gleaned by looking at his work. Following his use of substandard materials and his poor understanding of priming and other basics would be a mistake. The Artist’s Reality, Philosophy of Art edited by his son Christopher Rothko, is a compendium of Rothko’s various ideas and attitudes.
Win the battle first
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
My nature comes from within. I look at paintings, photographs and nature itself. One of my professors once told the class to learn all you can about art then forget it all. So I do the same with nature itself. Being at this time mostly an abstract painter, I do give the painting thought and then I go to work allowing my inner nature to take over. Thus I really by that time just execute the work until completion. Sir Paul McCartney has done some really good works, Great works! I have looked at his work and have been influenced to some degree. But then again what can Paul not do? Just relax, meditate or listen to music, sort of like a warrior before going into battle. Win the battle before you get there and then attack the canvas.
Rewards of not thinking
by Mary Lapos, Danville, PA, USA
I have recently stepped into that nether world, where visual reality starts to recede and some “other” inner reality begins to make itself known. For me, at this threshold level, it seems that if I can “allow” myself the luxury of not thinking, the information comes rather easily… which is still an amazing surprise. Doodling holds a lot of information that I am learning to revisit after the fact. It seems there is this other, more fluid part of the creative process that is fully operative but frequently detoured or even repressed by the “trained” part of me. Not to make it sound like a possession, but it seems that once your eye and hand are trained to the skills of your craft, then it becomes possible (like driving) to go on autopilot and leave the world behind. Travel to distant places in your mind, sure in the knowledge that the autopilot takes care of the “learned” part and you are free to go where you will. How many of us are familiar with arriving at a driving destination with no recollection of how we got there? Scary but true — this process falls into the same category I think.
Evolution of style
by Collette Renee Fergus, New Zealand
I’ve just been through another period of trying to find my own personal style and my studio is full of half-finished artwork as I’ve evolved onto something ‘more’ and something a little bit ‘better.’ When I first started painting, I did a lot of realism and learnt a lot from it. I did, however, find it boring and rather restricting and at the end of the day it simply didn’t spin my wheels enough for me to be passionate about it. In my early twenties, I moved onto different forms of abstract and spent years evolving with that, changing, and creating my own personal spin on things. I still like my work to be recognizable as something, rather than too abstract. Now in my thirties, I have felt this need to change again. I wanted my work to have more meaning and I wanted it to portray how I feel or have felt emotionally. It’s been a hard rocky road of many ‘nearly there’ and few successes, and now I’m happy with what I’m doing again. Not many of the new pieces have appeared on my site yet, but they will be soon. Thanks for letting me know that this is quite normal and that I’m simply heading for a higher level of self-realization. It makes it easier to know that I’m not the only one struggling with this need to evolve within my art.
Steps to universal expression
by Gail Mally-Mack, Detroit, MI, USA
This discussion is the difference between a dilettante who copies and an artist who expresses. There was a recent exhibition in New York of Cezanne and Pissaro. They painted the same plein air scenes together. Pisarro’s, although beautifully painted, illustrated the subject (object) or a “picture” “about” the church, road, or village. Cezanne painted the “experience.” Seeing it, you felt you were there. It was something “known” to you. His scenes felt universal. I teach a painting class to adults that I call Personal Visions. It is my intention and theirs to have them find their authentic “voice,” to articulate their own aesthetic, to have them claim themselves as an artist. There are a couple of steps:
1. Look at many artists’ work — the ones who inspire you and the ones who do not.
2. Look at pictures in newspapers and magazines. Cut out and save whatever you respond to, not by subject but by what compositionally appeals to you.
3. Do not copy these pictures but use them for inspiration.
4. You will eventually find what you love to paint and what you think is beautiful. You will find your own aesthetic.
5. Freely apply paint over the white canvas with enthusiasm and abandon, not thinking about the finished product.
6. Turn your full attention to the painted surface, releasing your original idea. Let the process of discovery take over. Let the painting tell you what to do. A great artist once said, “I push the brush until the painting starts to pull it.”
7. Ask yourself the question, “What if?” even if ridiculous and do it. If it doesn’t work, paint over it or change something else. Paint is forgivable.
8. Put it away for a while, and then put it out where you will see it out of context as if fresh or new.
9. Work on several canvases at a time.
Rhythm grounded in Yosemite
by Penny Otwell, El Portal, CA, USA
My work has developed into a unique style of painting a very well known area: Yosemite National Park. Having lived here for over 40 years, Yosemite has become part of me, and my interpretation of the beauty and wonder here reflect the times spent hiking and other outdoor experiences among rocks, water, and trees. I have been painting professionally for about ten years, but have always done sketches and drawings all over Yosemite. Through oil painting I am able to share a distinctive, colorful, response to the way I feel about the Sierra Nevada. I listen carefully to my muse and paint from my heart most of the time. That nagging doubt slips in at times and I think I should be doing more realistic work, but I always come back to the exciting energy-full thunder and roar of color and dancing trees around Yosemite Fall. Yosemite is so fantastic! I’m a plein air painter full of mosquito bites and sunburn, but my heart beats naturally with a solid and grounded rhythm. I trust who I am as a painter, honoring my unique style. Each year I become a better painter and each year I have more fun doing it!
Portsalon Beach, Ireland
oil painting on board
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 Lily Kerns who wrote, “I worked out this approach a number of years ago in a drawing class and it has served me well since then. I call it ‘intriguement.’ First I discover what intrigues me about the subject — that is what I need to work with for my painting.”
And also Gene Black of Anniston, AL, USA who wrote, “In Discovering the Inner Eye, Virginia Cobb instructs the reader to purposely break a rule and then try to overcome that obstacle in the painting. I found this to be a great creativity booster.”
And also Maggie Parker of Middlesbrough, UK who wrote, “Techniques to loosen up your drawing skills: Draw and paint with the other hand or draw standing up with a long bendy stick, e.g. bamboo, onto a sheet of paper taped to the floor.”
And also Alan Soffer of Wallingford, PA, USA who wrote, “It’s always hard to leave one’s comfort zone. Once we gain proficiency and approval, tackling the opportunity to raise the bar is daunting. It is what keeps most people in the middle ground.”
And also Melodye Murphy of Maitland, FL, USA who wrote, “Look at your palette and pick several of your favorite colors — not colors for landscapes, seascapes, portraits, etc., but just what colors really make you love the way they look on paper. Then just start putting those colors down and see where it leads you.”
And also Paul Massing of Amelia Island, Florida, USA who wrote, “I would like those ‘passages’ in the painting to be an ‘adventure.’ I always discuss the ‘adventure’ through a painting in critique and other discussions that I have with peer painters and students.”
And also Jean-Pierre Beeks of Montreal, QC, Canada who wrote, “Paul Cézanne approached landscape as simple shapes (cones, cylinders, cubes etc.). Another of my favorite Pauls, this one Klee, said, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”
And also Adan Lerma who wrote, “I finish what I can from the image source, usually one of my own photos, then put that photo away, though not too far away, and then begin looking at the painting for how I want to see it.”
And also Sue Partridge of United Kingdom who wrote, “You need to make sure that you have no rules — that’s the rule you need to obey!”
And also Libbie Soffer of Wallingford, PA, USA who wrote, “Artists need to liberate themselves to dig deeper for a more meaningful art. We are the voice for the unspoken.”