Artists have always been labeled, but we’re more flexible, and unfortunately more amenable to accepting others’ opinions of what kind of art we’re doing than we should be. When we start out as artists, we create art that is so natural to us that we mistakenly think we have no particular style. I remember trying to let figures emerge from dark backgrounds like Rembrandt. It was a style I was trying on for size.
A neighboring young artist’s walls were filled with vivid, striking images that he outlined in black. When I talked to him about his dramatic style, he looked puzzled. He said, “… but that’s the way I see the world – it’s not a style.” Another artist I worked with used soft colored images that were tonally similar. Again, this is the way he saw things. It was his reality.
Many of us have had the experience of leaving fine art for a long time before we rededicate ourselves to it. Raising a family or holding a job can take all our creative energy. I was both lucky and unlucky to have a “day” job that both fulfilled my artistic urges and denied them.
- I was a commercial artist who started out learning how to do the psychedelic Peter Max style illustrations, then followed the trend into Art Nouveaux Redux, and rather prided myself on being able to imitate any artist’s style for advertising and publishing purposes. That was my day job, and I won awards for it. It fed me, clothed me, and put a roof over my head.
- At home I was a fine artist who did portrait commissions and painted my own dreams. I joined art groups and painted from models; entered shows and sometimes came away with awards and cash.
But, even working at home, I still thought of myself as an artist with no particular style, because of my ability to imitate the styles of others. I had no identity as a fine artist that I could recognize.
Now that I’m doing fine art exclusively, I’m thinking. Really thinking hard. You have to think about what you’re doing, or it’s only irrational excess. Animal reflexes. And the thoughts are: what way do I paint when I am painting exactly what I want to paint? Are there particular strokes or color mixtures that are part of my identity? Is there a particular “twiddle” that is mine and recognizable as mine? Look at the masters and see if you do something similar to one or two of them. Look away from your works and quickly glance at them, with a cold eye, as if you’re a stranger. That cold eye can also be encouraged if you hold a mirror to the artwork and look at its mirror image.
And ask yourself the crucial question: given that I can paint/draw/sculpt any subject that I want, what subjects identify my art and my style the most?
Now that we’re beginning to recognize our style, our quirks and our particular genius, do we want to trim away the subject matter that does not reflect our style well? Hard decisions have to be made, because each of us is allotted only so much time in the world.I’m still in the middle of trimming my inventory to my most beloved subjects; the ones where I apply every brush-stroke with dedication, but you’ll see my website cluttered with many things that I haven’t been able to abandon. It’s an ongoing process, and I work on it. As long as you create, you’ll always keep honing the effort to refine and nourish your own style.