Often I hear students say “I want to paint like this or that artist”. I understand the mindset; I’ve been there. An artist inspires you, the brushwork, colours, painting technique and subject resonate deeply, and you want to make it “look like that”. Pictured above is one of my favourite paintings for expressive stye, El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent.
Have you considered that your unique painterly vision could be just as beautiful as the artists you admire? How would you feel if you finished a painting and saw that it not only looked good, but also expressed what you want? How would it feel to know, deep down inside “this work is mine, and it’s good”?
Many painters struggle with the question, as well as the practical application of finding their style as a painter. I’m not against in any way, being inspired by others, or even using their work as a starting point or learning some of their techniques to incorporate into your own work. The deeper question is, how do you find your signature painting style?
To begin to answer this question, we need to fully understand the issue. I’d like to use an analogy from a Facebook post I read this morning that has to do with having a voice taken away and quite literally, not being able to express yourself authentically.
As many of you know, this summer I adopted a new dog, a Maremma (they are kind of like Great Pyrenees). This is a breed that is not for everyone; they make lousy “house pets”. But in the right environment, they thrive, and the relationship you have with them is nothing short of incredible.
Some people in Austrailia adopted a Maremma. The owners live in a quiet suburban community and the barking was an issue with the neighbors. Maremmas bark, you simply can’t change that. They are livestock guardian dogs and will fiercely defend their flock from predators. Their primary means of protection is through their bark, which is substantial. Usually, that’s enough to ward off wolves, coyotes and foxes, even bears. These dogs have been bred specifically, for hundreds of years to protect livestock and they bark, that’s what they do. To ask them to stay in a house or apartment all day, and not bark is like asking a bird not to fly.
Sadly, the dog was surgically de-barked (a horrible procedure) and the owners eventually surrendered the dog because she started having behavior problems. She was frustrated and not able to do what she is in her very nature. The owners took away her reason for being – in short, they tried to squash her authenticity, literally took away her voice and tried to make her something she is not.
So what does all of this have to do with art? The similarity is this: if you are trying to do something that is not authentic to you, if you are not speaking with your own voice or it is silenced, it’s going to turn out badly - for everyone.
When I began painting seriously in 2001, I was also looking for inspiration, a style and technique that I could emulate. It worked for about a year. I was creating technically beautiful still life paintings, and it felt really good when I got positive accolades. But my paintings looked like everyone else’s and one day I thought, “geez, I feel like a trained monkey, not an artist”. I wanted to find my style and express things my way. This was frowned upon, so I left that atelier and began the journey of trying to find my artistic style and teachers who would help me.
I never found “that teacher” and began the journey into landscape painting pretty much on my own. At first, I created a lot of landscapes that were simply awful (and ironically I could paint “perfect” still life paintings). There was this incredible frustration and sometimes I just wanted to give up. But there were glimpses of something that I recognized, something that I really liked and really was an authentic expression of where I wanted to go as an artist.
What I didn’t have during this process was someone to tell me “hey, it’s OK that you turned out a stinker, everyone does. Let me point out what is working, here are the technical problems and what you can learn from this ”. I also didn’t have someone to help me focus on the things that would help me get to my own painting style. Eventually what I discovered was that as I solved the technical problems and increased my skill level, I began to have enough emotional “space” to work on my style . It was a very, very long process doing it on my own.
And one day a friend, a Buddhist monk, really helped me with finding my painting style. It came at a time when my technical skills were sound enough to execute it. It was truly the beginning of finding my voice.
So what’s the solution? On the philosophical side, it’s patience, perseverance, and holding on to the belief that yes, you are going to find your painting style. You cannot, under any circumstances put a timeline on this process or rush it. There is no “end point”. However, there is a real beginning point where you say “YES, I’ve found it” and then as time goes on, you continue to develop, grow and refine.
On the practical side, developing your “hard skills” is critical: gain mastery of values and value structure in a painting. Learn about composition, practice colour mixing and colour theories. Understand your materials and what they can and cannot do for you. Experiment with various brushwork techniques, glazing and scumbling. And especially if you are a realist artist – please - learn to draw! Learn perspective, placement and proportion, line quality and edges.
Mastering the “hard” skills of painting is simply a matter of time and practice. These are very learnable skills. Finding your voice and painting style as an artist will be far, far easier when you know how to use your materials and have a firm grasp of draftsmanship etc. In short, it’s really, really hard to try and do something when you don’t have a firm grasp on the basic technical skills.
Think about your favourite artists; painters, sculptors, musicians, writers and actors. The best of the best have mastered the technical skills necessary for their craft. But the “secret sauce” is that they are authentic. There is nobody else like them, and that’s why we love them so.
Next week, I'll talk more about some processes and ideas you can use to help you find your artistic voice.
If finding your voice is something that’s important to you, please keep an eye on my blog and/or social media accounts. Coming in the next few month I will be offering a coaching program for painters who are on the path of finding their authentic, artistic vision.
Let your voice sing loud and clear!