A hundred generations


Dear Artist,

The subject came up again during an impromptu visit with an artist friend in Melbourne: “I’m having trouble finding my style,” she said. “I don’t want to force it — I want to be myself — but how do I make my work stand out as mine?”


“Mill Houses”
oil painting by
A. J. Casson (1898-1992)

With the understanding that style mustn’t be contrived but instead evolve organically as part of a developing voice, like a signature, yours might simply be honed by keeping a lookout for your own unique pictorial penchants. If you’re low on penchants, then consider what I call “idiosyncrasies of brush.” “Your style,” Dutch-Canadian painter Bert Oudendag said, “is what you’re doing technically wrong.” Here’s an idea that might speed up your evolution:


“Hillside Village”
painting by A.J. Casson



Begin with a subject of personal meaning — A. J. Casson painted villages because he loved them, and when urban sprawl made them rare, they shouldered even greater meaning. Perhaps yours is a nearby wood, domestic object, studio friend or your own face. For the time being, avoid the overly cerebral or epic in scale with the knowledge that you’ll get your brush around your thing with some pizzazz. Now, paint automatically, while paying attention to accuracy — this is your chance to get it more or less right, and it’s the last time you’ll look at your original reference material. This painting is called your “first generation.”

Next, distance yourself from the thing and study your new reference: your painting. From here, you’ve set up a playground for future offspring:


“Housetops on the Ward” 1927
watercolour over red conte graphite
painting by A.J. Casson

With each new pass, try borrowing the movements of a few notorious style-monsters, be they cubist, realist, Fauvist, automatiste, Barbazon. You’re doing this for the purpose of trying on — to see how they feel and with the understanding that they don’t have to be “you.”

Now scratch all that and speed up. Do a painting in thirty strokes. Do one in fewer than ten. Slow down, omit a crucial detail, tighten, be loose, be neat, go for surface quality or characteristic line, colour play, softening, hardening or distorting. Make a caricature of your painting’s character. Leave your strokes alone. Isolate and capture in them the “ness” of your thing — that soul-polishing quality that made you choose it as a subject in the first place — as in, its “village-ness,” “forest-ness,” or “Beagle-ness.”


“Village Houses”
oil painting by A.J. Casson

I’m not saying these paintings should be your oeuvre but rather, like a guru’s practice of chanting a mantra, over time your generations may refine, smoothen, run out of breath, gain character, fall over or crack open a personal truth. Know that you are slipping elegantly into a bell-like timbre. “Style,” said Jean Cocteau, “is an easy way of saying complicated things.”




“End of Day”
oil on board 20 x 24 inches
by A.J. Casson

PS: “I had to develop my own style. I began to dig out places of my own… I loved to paint villages, and I’m glad, because they’re pretty much gone now. They’ve all changed, fallen down or been destroyed.” (A. J. Casson)

Esoterica: At the tip of the St. Kilda pier near Melbourne, a colony of 1200 Fairy Penguins carry on with their loving and egg laying, anchovy fishing, moulting and moon gazing, all amidst a near-trampling crowd of eco-tourists. Season to season, the downy grey nestlings emerge hopeful, incrementally better designed to co-exist with their seaside playground’s encroachers. “One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness.” (Gustave Flaubert)


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“To achieve style, begin by affecting none.” (E. B. White)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email