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 there were styles I admired in other artists, I think that 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 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 fight it. Mary Caroll 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 it’s 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.”
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
Not taken seriously without a style
by Yvette Muise
Thank you for addressing my style question so quickly. My question now is why are artists not taken seriously until they develop a style? I was told by an art teacher not to even think about approaching galleries until I had a distinctive, recognizable style. What is a painter to do if after many years of painting, there doesn’t seem to be any prominent style arising? Does it really mean that one is still struggling and cannot be considered a “real” artist?
(RG note) It’s possible that many artists may never develop a distinctive style, but still be quite happy and continue to enjoy their art. They may even be taken seriously in some circles. With regard to feeling yourself to be a real artist, I don’t believe you need anyone’s endorsement, commercial or critical, to call yourself real. In searching for a style, something to watch out for is premature style acquisition, particularly by the cloning of the style of another. This activity can interfere with self-esteem and actually delay an artist’s progress toward his or her own style. The idea is to have style arrive naturally. The idea is also to be clever enough to recognize it when it comes.
Style finds you
by Don Getz, Peninsula, Ohio, USA
An artist friend once told me he was going to develop a new style. I mentioned to him that a style ‘finds you’. In other words, you happen onto or into a style, as you develop your capabilities as an artist. I’m constantly going from ‘style’ to ‘style,’ always looking for that magical solution to greater painting. Sometimes I retrace my steps, to an earlier style which I liked, as a change of pace. Those familiar with my landscape & seascape art and my automotive art, are aware of the differences in styles of those subjects.
Style and confidence
by Jim Rowe
What influenced my style was the feeling that I was a lousy artist, my work was inferior in comparison with others. For some reason, back then, I felt inferior in about every aspect of my life. I avoided any further art education past highschool and as kind of an emotional defense mechanism, I evolved into a style that couldn’t be compared to anyone else. I was like the ugly duckling, not knowing what I was, style wise, and thinking I was all on my own. But just lately I have discovered that I am really a beautiful outsider artist. As far as my style changing, it hasn’t budged. The only thing that’s changed is that I’m finally learning how to paint.
Changing my style
by Mina-Singh, New Delhi, India
When I began writing my first novel I noticed that I had a ‘style’ that emanated naturally on the screen (I never wrote on paper) like silk must excrete from silkworms. I was aghast, even three years down the line — was I going to be locked in this “style” forever, much as I valued it? Today you have given me the answer: style, in my case, shows me what I could possibly be doing wrong, in the quest, of course, for the perfect paragraph, story, painting.
How I speak
For me, years have gone by where I was trying to “find my style.” I think the way I was going about it was to find a style to please others who I feel a need to put a label on what and how a painter works. In most cases I’ve found it is someone who does not paint who really stresses the fact that they need to know what your style is and “have you got there yet?” Once I’ve reached a plateau where I can easily recognize the creation as my own, I become aggressive in finding a way to change what I’m doing to make it not more like what I’ve just done. When I’ve heard comments like “You should settle on a style so we know what to market you as” makes me want to scream! To paint for “marketing art for the sake of style,” and not for the portrayal of the artist’s thoughts and inspirations would be to demoralize the artist. It is still done though. Or other comments as; “Have you found your style yet?” or “Oh, you’ve changed your style from the last show you had.” I think to myself… “Thank God!” I’m glad that I find ways to change. Through learning new techniques, and sometimes changing my life in some small way for the better, style can be a great way to more clearly portray your thoughts and emotions in a painting. Each painting for me is a creation in itself. Getting ready for shows also has its problems, because the need to produce fights with the creative inspiration I normally use to get started on a painting. Each creation starts out as a thought or inspiration and the need to do it. Granted sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way my thought would have liked, but I am learning not to hang on to those ones. (Trashing 25+ years of ‘duds’ on the schedule for today.) I’ve kept them so I’d remind myself not to do it that way again and that when ‘that day’ does come along where creativity flows out, there is no longer the need for planning. My style is “how I speak” as your quote from Robert Henri, and sometimes I don’t say exactly what I want it to.
I will ride my style
by Margreth Fry
My paintings look like the way I talk, with a very big Heidi accent, full of feelings and passion for colors and paint, passion to put down on canvas the joy I have for life. If I sound like a born-again Christian it’s because I feel an addiction has taken over and I have no control over it. Yes, and I will ride my style, wherever it will take me.
Looking for “me”
by William Dudley Gilhooley, New Zealand
I’m about to hopefully start on an extramural art and creativity degree and one of the things I am looking for at the end of it is “me.” It would be nice at the end of the day for someone to look at a piece of work and say: “That’s a Billyg.”
Style a visual translation of a person
by Loreena Lee
When I started painting, I emulated my teacher’s styles because that was part of the teaching method. Then, I’d see someone’s work that I admired I’d get all excited and try their style to see if it would work for me. Eventually, it sunk in that no matter how I painted or whose style inspired me, my own brush strokes prevailed. At last, I was able to be comfortable with the way I painted because it was me. Some of my students’ styles are apparent from the beginning, so strong they are. Others are tentative, but if you look closely, one can see it peeking out in the brushstrokes. I think ones’ style of painting is as unique as that individual, much like their handwriting, a visual translation.
Isolation as a way to find yourself
by Joy Taylor
I just finished reading your book The Painter’s Keys. I was very interested in the part that you isolated yourself as a young man and just painted and did not see anyone. Sometimes that is how I feel, that I would love to go away somewhere and become a hermit and just create. However at this stage of the game that is not possible with family and trying to make a living. I know that I have ability, even though I just started, because whenever I try to ignore it, it rises to the surface and demands to be heard. I feel the Universe is pushing me to accomplish things despite my hesitancy, because every time I think that there are too many artists and who am I to think that I am any good, then something happens to make me work again. I guess it is something that I will always do now because I have discovered it and it won’t go away.
Misconception on Keirsey test
by David Keirsey
There is a common misconception of the “names” of the Keirsey Temperaments as mentioned in your last letter. The “Artisan” temperament is the only “occupation” name of the four (the other being Rational, Idealist, Guardian). Its use is not meant to mean the occupation; it is being used in a much more general sense here. Just because the “name” Artisan is being used, this does not mean that all artists are “Artisans” nor that all “Artisans” should be or are artists. One’s vocation can be varied as much as anything. The Arts can attract all temperaments, just as “Artisans” can be attracted to all kinds of vocations outside of the Arts. It is true, I can find many instances of famous Artisans in the field of painting, such as Picasso and Gauguin. But Vincient Van Gogh was an Idealist, and Escher is might have been a Rational. If I was more familiar with the Arts I might be able to come up with a more varied list. But alas, my passion is science. Not surprising for a Rational.
Massage your genius
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
Last Friday I was having a particularly bad day, feeling overlooked by a jury of my peers when, quite by accident, I came across Rudyard Kipling’s advice to his son: “If you can look success and failure in the eye and see these two imposters for what they are.” This quote struck a chord. It made me realize that it is all up to me. It is MY energy. Nothing someone says or does or does not say or do, no group, can hold me down unless I permit them/it to. Of course we can all use some praise and encouragement as we go about our lives, but if we only look for that which we desire and do not accept that it will not always be as we imagined, we do ourselves a disservice. So a little worse for wear and feeling a bruise on my ego, up I go to paint again today. My geni, the genius inside, needs to be massaged to come out. I am the masseuse.
Great debate about genius
by Marti Glinski, New York, NY, USA
It is interesting that Freud’s auntie hovered over his crib and projected “genius” upon him; my parents had a running debate (before I was two, family legend has it), about whether I was a genius or an idiot. Laying about, Gertrude Stein-style so much that my landlord should be renting ME, yet passionately throwing myself into bursts of work, year after year, I suppose the jury is still out on the Great Debate.
(RG note) Thank you to everyone who responded to the questionnaire that came with the last letter. We were happy to read that 99% of the subscribers who responded are getting the twice-weekly letters regularly and on time. It appears that international email has become almost perfectly reliable. We also received many suggestions about the letter and some tremendous appreciation for these clickbacks. The frequent input of many artists is eagerly awaited and appreciated. We were complimented on the quality of the letters in these clickbacks — even when they were angry ones. Each correspondent has a unique presentation and there is always the flavor of the individual that makes for valuable reading.
Many writers requested that we make a regular feature of various artists’ work. One that was particularly mentioned was “Me and My Art” where we publish a photo (perhaps an unusual or amusing one) of yourself, and one or two of your recent works. This could be in the same photo or in separate jpegs. If you have something along these lines please consider sending it in.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.