In 1947, the eclectic French author and theorist Raymond Queneau wrote a small classic called Exercises in Style. It tells a simple fictional story over and over in 99 literary styles. Introducing writers to an almost mathematical formula for creating style, journalism and authorship hasn’t been the same since. Queneau’s demonstrated styles are loaded with fun. The concept may have benefits for visual artists.
I’ve always felt that style ought not to be forced, that it needs to evolve naturally, often simply by keeping an eye out for those pictorial elements and idiosyncratic touches that pop up in their own sweet time. Style, in my book, is the result of intuitive evolution or a byproduct of error, ignorance or handicap.
Queneau’s implication is that one might simply adopt style, if only for the purpose of trying it out. Theoretically, if it feels good, one might run off with it. Here’s how:
Take one of your standard works and try repeating it in a different style. Perhaps more than one style. You might have to look around a bit to see which styles appeal to you or are a challenging or logical transfer from yours.
You might consider impressionism, realism, vorticism, conservative formalism, obscurantism, primitivism, or any other -ism that turns your crank.
You’d also need to give some thought to softening, hardening, obfuscating, lining up, decoupling, going high key, low key, looser, tighter, into distorting, correcting, fiddling or wobbling off in all directions.
Advanced artists may find their own well-honed styles make the exercise a difficult, troublesome one. On the other hand, a less advanced artist may find the exercise a shortcut to progress and a possible route to personal truth. If you think of style as a series of factoids that eventually conjure up your personal reality, then maybe those factoids can simply be tried on, like somebody’s second-hand collection of hats. Leaning on someone else’s effort is not exactly a new idea.
PS: “Learning to learn is to know how to navigate in a forest of facts, ideas and theories, a proliferation of constantly changing items. Learning to learn is to know what to ignore but at the same time not rejecting innovation and research.” (Raymond Queneau)
Esoterica: Exercises in Style tells the same story in a variety of forms, including slang, poetry, rhetoric, narrative, word game, repartee, mathematics, abuse, mystery, epenthesis, haiku, logical analysis, sonnet and tactility. Each variation is also dependent on the differences between what is observed, spoken and omitted. One feels the presence of a known author in each rewrite. Transposing to visual art, one might ask what could be wrong with trying to contrive the world through the lenses of Cezanne, Picasso, Sorolla, Brangwyn, Sargent, Rockwell, Pollock or the young painter down the street. Would they mind?
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
In one of my first drawing classes the professor told us, “Le style est l’homme.” The style is the man. Art is a constant process of self-definition. When you go inside and express from a deep level your person vision, the result will be “your style.” As a learning tool, imitation is often useful. Copying others can help artists find their own path; which style, abstract, figurative, tight, loose, etc. resonates most with a particular individual. If you copy a style, it will always be a pose, superficial and someone else’s. One can play with different styles but it will remain a game or an exercise.
Finding and expressing yourself is a lifelong challenge, fun and exciting.
by Leslie Tejada, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
Many years ago I did just the exercise you suggest in the Esoterica. I was painting and drawing the figure at the time, and an extended trip to New York City to see art resulted in a lot of stylistic confusion upon my return. I would look at the model and see her as a Picasso, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Redon, etc. So I decided to paint these influences out of me by doing a series of self-portraits in the styles of historically influential painters. What I discovered was that my own emerging style was more akin to the painters whose styles I could most easily emulate. (Yes Cezanne, no Goya!) And I have some interesting paintings upon which to look back at my personal evolution.
by Sheila Psaledas, ME, USA
I agree that a more experienced artist may have difficulty working through a style change. I have painted in a certain way for several years and sold works, but over the past few years I have had an emotional “pull” to change elements in my works. I’ve posted a few of my newer ones on Facebook.com and asked a few friends to compare works on my website with the new ones. I’ve had wonderfully supportive comments! These new-styled works are also selling and I am encouraged to go this way — it satisfies the artist in me.
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
This is one of the best exercises an artist can do, particularly since most artists learn by doing, not by reading about it. For those who are new on the artist’s road, it’s a great way to try on some new “hats” and see which approaches and techniques ring true for you, and which ones don’t. It’s also a great way to learn what made the masters so great. If you want to understand Cezanne, copy a Cezanne and then go paint your own picture using his approach. For those of us who are further along, it’s a good way to stretch yourself and maybe add a new tool to your toolbox. It all comes back to just painting, doesn’t it?
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
When I was at school, back when the earth was cooling, I had an instructor we called “Dead Ted.” He was a tall dry man with a German accent who smokes thin cigars and wore the exact same thing every single day. He tried to teach us in the style he knew from his strict European training, all the while telling us that none of us would ever be “true artists.” In class, we would stare for hours at blank pieces of paper on the floor, “Stalking zee Internal Dialog.” Then the paper would be whisked away and you could miraculously still see the paper in your mind. He would then read from books like Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance with his thick accent and I felt like I was having the life sucked out of me. I spent a great deal of time meticulously planning his dismemberment.
I can honestly say, decades later, I have not and never will draw on his teachings. I must say this new exercise in futility of yours is on the same level. It would be about the same as putting a painting in a blender and hitting “Frappe”! You might get a gem… chances are, you’ll get a shredded mess. Artists need to listen to their voice and let it come through. “Style” is just a gallery catch phrase that hopefully will move some work. Working beyond what you already know is crucial to being an artist. Taking a painting and redoing it just for the stake of “Style Pursuit” is nothing short of art torture.
Finding the voice
by Russ Henshall, Pulham Market, Norfolk, UK
You say, “Take your standard works and try repeating in different styles and ways.” Been there, got the T shirt, many developed artists and authors might comment! Surely in finding a comfort in one’s expressionism takes time. Whether writer, artist or worker in sculpture we all have sometimes spent years trying to find our own ‘voice.’ It is this ‘voice’ that eventually says who and what we are creatively.
For example, one’s work is one’s signature; that would not recognize the works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Picasso, Mozart or the sound of Larry Adler playing his harmonica. They all started with their clean palettes!
It has taken me years to find my writing voice. I am 73 now. I am quite sure my work will probably not be remembered except by my grandchildren — I wrote a short book for them and read the story to them on tape. Now I write mostly short stories for young people. But one thing is certain; my style is my ‘developed’ way of written expression. I have been through many different types of approach to storytelling and writing (or in the case of a painter, the ways of pictorial representation) and it has only been through time and perseverance that ‘I’ emerged. A poor reflection of my favourite author’s quality, but when I write I am easily recognizable so my partner says!
It’s the methodical pursuit of style over years that leads to that pot of gold; the finding of oneself in the creative world. Never mind the quality, feel the truth of who you are in your particular medium.
Only then, with one’s signature voice, can it become possible to find true style and self-satisfaction in my humble opinion. The best advice I ever received was from my old English teacher who said to me once, “Be true to yourself, lad, and let the words flow.”
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
I’ve found the search for style always a load of dead crabs. Like you say, style is something that comes from doing the work, with, in the mind’s eye, an idea of where the artist wants to arrive. Shortcuts in getting there are rare. True, style arrives all by itself, sometimes the consequence of error or ignorance. I have a good friend, a prolific illustrator, who has switched styles the way we would switch coats: he’s done paintings in e.g. the style of Van Gogh or another artist that caught his fancy. I’ve always found that his watercolours in his own loose, straightforward ‘style’ are his best yet.
For a student, I’d say it’s a good exercise; for an artist it would be nonsense to consciously take on another artist’s style. I mean the “free” artist, not the illustrator, who may need to be able to hop from one style into another according to the magazines he is working for. I honestly cannot conceive of Cézanne, Sorolla, Brangwyn, Degas or Lucian Freud trying on another artist’s style. I believe they’d not welcome it either, unless as an exercise within the classroom.
What you sum up in your letter sounds like a classroom exercise and that’s fine. I know and have worked or exhibited with some 200 artists worldwide, with artists like George Mclean, Robert Bateman, David Barker, John Busby, Sir Peter Scott, Rien Poortvliet, Henk Helmantel to name a few, and I cannot remember one instance in which style was discussed. In my experience it’s not an issue among artists. Queneau’s surrealistic idea is interesting, but mainly for a reading public; it hardly feels viable in pictorial art.
Evolving style takes time
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
My father had a theory about labor. He said that if you performed a repetitive task, your body would automatically move towards efficiency. I think this theory works well and would be applicable toward acquiring a painting style. Merely by painting more and more, your tendencies and interests will mould your style like a block of wood spinning on a lathe. I find my paintings fall into the Impressionist camp but there remains lots of wiggle room for exploration depending on the subject. I might use more broken color in Monet mode, or keep my color more tonal like Inness or Whistler or the American Impressionists. I could really push the color and move into a more Fauvist vein or keep it more subtle like Sisley, a personal favorite of mine. If I moved into more foreign territory, like Symbolism a la Redon, or abstraction a la DeKooning, eventually I would return like a rubber band to my actual style. Style needs to evolve. People are impatient nowadays but you simply need to spend the time. It can’t be avoided.
Your environment affects style
by Scott Jennings, Sedona, AZ, USA
Thirty years ago when I was just beginning a professional career in fine art, I knew an artist that could adopt most any artist’s style that he chose. I was amazed, because I found it very difficult to change my inherent style. Then, about 23 years later, I had become frustrated with my own work and began looking for ways to change what I was doing to suit the mental image of what I wanted to see in my own work. What I discovered in my pursuit of a new way to express myself was that everything about my painting environment affects the way I paint. It is obvious that changing from sable brushes to bristle brushes or palette knives changes the look of your painting. But there are a myriad of choices that an artist has to affect his style. The painting surface you use, whether or not you use mediums, the lighting in your studio all affects the outcome of your painting.
One of the major choices to make is exactly how you physically paint; whether you stand to paint or sit makes a huge difference.
There are three basic painting techniques that have a great impact on your style. Do you paint while mainly moving your fingers, your hand or your arm? Most commercial artists, as I was, are trained to paint with their fingers giving the tightest control to your application. Using your hand and wrist loosens up this technique, but painting with your arm gives your application the most expression and intensity. Whether I listen to classical music, new age or rock and roll has an obvious impact on my style. So step back and take a look at every aspect of your painting habits and materials and decide if that particular aspect is helping or hurting your ability to express what is in your mind’s eye. If it isn’t right, make a change and decide whether it is a positive or negative effect. You will be surprised how much creative latitude you will have without actually having to change your mental approach to your work.
Curiosity about styles evident
by Steve Sumner, Evergreen, CO, USA
Alexandre Hogue was an American Regionalist artist who painted primarily in the plains states, especially Texas and Oklahoma. After the war he became Chair of the Art Department of the University of Tulsa. After Alexandre died, I got a call from the Curator at the University of Tulsa’s Library. He wanted to show me a large collection of Alexandre’s paintings that were in storage and wondered if we wanted them. Knowing Alexandre’s work, I was anxious to see what was there. To my surprise, instead of seeing paintings of the oil fields, or landscape paintings, I was greeted by two dozen paintings of abstract expressionism, constructivism, neo-realism and every “ism” from 1950 until the late ’80s. Not one of them resembled a Hogue. Sometimes, as I was told, Alexandre would try to engage some of the younger faculty in conversations about the new -isms and styles as they became popular.
Although Alexandre had his own very distinct style and was part of the American Regionalist movement, he had a nagging curiosity about styles and artistic evolution. Alexandre wondered how styles and -isms came about and why artists painted that way and what their motivation was to evolve into a new style or to change a style. Alexandre was curious to try it all, not only for himself, but so he could better understand his students and his faculty. So as each new -ism came along, Alexandre would try it; he splattered paint like Jackson Pollock, did giant cartoons, painted eye bending psychedelic lines, as well as stark canvases of the minimalist movement.
Alexandre did attest to the fact that a style is not a thing you put on like a suit coat, but rather it was something that was part of his soul, and although style could change through a normal evolution of one’s esthetic (as we have seen over and over again in the study of art history), his style for the most part was his brand and his “raison d’être.”
Little Rose Strap
acrylic painting, 48 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Russ Williams of Austin, TX, USA, who wrote, “Comics artist Matt Madden did a comics experiment of Exercises in Style, telling the same 1-page story in a great diversity of styles and techniques, which is well worth checking out.”
And also B.J. Adams of Washington, DC, USA, who wrote, “Without even trying, an individual style seems to develop itself within the many artworks one person creates. If an artist is unhappy with what seems to have developed without their even seeing their style, then your exercises could give them a welcome innovative approach to their future work.”
Enjoy the past comments below for A methodical pursuit of style…