From the cosmic consciousness of our artist-subscribers came three letters in the same day, all asking about style. How important is style? How do I find my style? How do I avoid getting locked into a style? This means something, I thought.
Here’s my experience. Early on, while I admired styles in other artists, I think whatever style (or styles) I may have developed came automatically. Style essentially appeared out of what I liked to do. Some characteristics caught my attention, and I found myself repeating mannerisms because they gave me a feeling not only of satisfaction but of my own uniqueness. Also, I have to say that I was conscious from the beginning of wanting to make something that was different from the work of others. I wanted to be my own man. I’ve always noticed perfectly competent work that loses our interest because it is so frightfully “standard.” I didn’t want to be standard. I made up my mind to produce work that was unique, even at the expense of academic norms. I was consciously looking for deviation.
I’ve gained insight from my friend Bert Oudendag, who used to say, “Style is what you’re doing wrong.” And Robert Henri, who wrote, “Style is the way we talk in paint.” We all talk differently and it’s good to remember that at the beginning we didn’t talk at all. Our vocabulary, inflection, thought-forming, are like our DNA — unique. I think it’s a matter of being open to this uniqueness and not fighting it. Mary Carol Nelson said, “Every artist who evolves a style does so from elusive elements that inhabit his or her visual storehouse.” Who knows where this comes from — it may even be based on images dimly remembered in a child’s book or a magazine. Who cares? When your work has a distinctive style, you’re a happy camper. With regard to getting locked into a style, I don’t give that a second thought. From my experience, style is always changing and metamorphosing into something else, anyway. Just watching it change is cause enough to feel the joy.
PS: “Style is something that comes in spite of itself. Because you’ve worked, you’ve looked.” (Mark Adams)
Esoterica: Another way of looking at style is that it is itself a key to your ideal world and your values. Subject matter often comes out of style and your style shines light on your exploration. Long ago an anonymous Chinese painter said: “Ideas are developed in accordance with style.”
This letter was originally published as “Style in art” on February 15, 2002.
Self-portrait with canvas
oil on canvas by
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