I’m an independent artist making an income from my art in general. It’s messy, and it’s difficult to label. I basically do everything.
But regardless of the logistics, one of the most common questions I get during my live art streams is “how did you find your style?” -And indeed this is a question that most artists hear at least a few times a year.
My answer is always this:
I didn’t find my style. I make things, and other people see me in it.
What you do is inherently you.
So what is this obsession with defining your STYLE of art?
When it comes to narrative illustrations vs. fine art, I do both and I can see the differences:
Narrative illustrations are based on a story, and use visual clues to tell that story. The narrative is usually represented with characters or some sort of action within the artwork.
Fine art is an umbrella term for almost any type of art form ranging from abstract to sculpture to hyper realistic portraiture - the common denominator is that it typically stems from a personal place within the artist.
These two art forms live in different worlds, illustration usually being considered more “commercial” and fine art usually being considered more personal (but as any gallery enthusiast would point out, the entire fine art world is it’s own commercial adventure). The lines can be blurred between the two and in the end, it’s all just semantics to help communicate something.
So instead of obsessing over the question “What is your style?” let’s look at it more productively.
Why do you create art and why do you choose a certain way of creation?
My personal reasons for creating art is what drives the form it takes. I always set out in pursuit of an idea that excites me. Often times I want to communicate a state of being, such as tranquility or harmony with nature. Sometimes this requires a more abstract or expressionism method.
Other times it requires a character of some kind to immediately let the viewer know this is a story about a thing.
My choices are a byproduct of how much I want to control the viewer’s imagination.
I can either fill in all the details and leave very little for the viewer to interpret, or I can leave it more open in order to engage the viewer more deeply.
The less visual clues I give, the higher the chances of misinterpretation, so it’s a fine line to walk. But that is part of the fun.
If you want to see your true style emerge, I recommend that you make 50 paintings before you think about style at all. It might sound like a lot but it’s actually quite conservative. Just paint stuff that makes you happy.
If you think about it, your first 10 or so paintings are usually all about getting a handle on the medium you are using (whether it’s digital or traditional). Figuring out how to use the medium never ends, but the first chunk of work is all about the initial discovery. That doesn’t mean your first paintings will be bad, it just means it’s difficult to express yourself accurately when you’re figuring out how to mix paint or worrying about your supplies. You might be frustrated, but keep going!
During your next 10 paintings you start to feel like you have your “sea legs” and that you can be a little more free, but you’ll still be in a highly experimental phase while you learn the medium. So now you’re 20 paintings in…
In your next 10-20 paintings you might feel more confident, and you’ll be making bold choices. But that experimentation only increases as you get more bold, and you find yourself pushing the limits of your medium. It feels good at this point and you might feel like you’re really getting past those growing pains.
Finally, the next 10 paintings (that makes 50), you know how to mix the paint, how the brush feels on the paper, how to format your pixels - or whatever other hurdles you previously jumped over. Those initial bumps in the road seem like a distant nightmare and you now have a collection of work to reflect on (good or bad).
But your journey is just beginning.
In your first few years of creating art, your skills are growing at such a rapid pace that you will notice the overall quality of your art changing more than your style. Again, your style is inherently you, so it will always be there, but sometimes it is overshadowed by your skill and understanding.
How medium drives style
One thing to consider is how using a certain medium (and the limitations of your skill level within that medium) might drive the “style” that emerges.
While the overall style will still reflect you, the artist, your choice of medium and subject will be labeled a certain way within the greater art world.
It can be hard to cope with the fact that your skill doesn’t meet your expectations - that’s a struggle every artist faces. But keep going, and you’ll be rewarded. Along the way you’ll find your niche and what you really love. It has taken me almost 4 years to find mine (and I’m sure it will continue to evolve).
If I sit down and create something purely from a personal place, these are my results:
Both of these were created within the past week.
Each of these are unique, but they both represent my inner aesthetic. They will each appeal to different clients and be used in different ways, but it’s all me, revealed on the page.
So how does this effect the artist? Your success will come down to what audience you market your work towards. If you love to do a certain thing, find the audience that loves that thing and share with them. Find artists with a similar “style” and see who they market to.
If you love doing many things, you have your work cut out for you! I have multiple social media accounts in order to share my work with multiple audiences. That adds extra work into my schedule, but it also brings enjoyment when I am able to communicate with like-minded people who are passionate about the thing we share.
It’s more difficult to market more than one “style” or type of art. So consider how much you love doing a certain thing before you stretch yourself thin.
I REALLY love both traditional art and digital for different reasons, and get joy from creating both. I love both fine art and narrative illustration, so I’m willing to put extra effort into marketing to different audiences.
That might change in a few years (or I might just get exhausted by the efforts!) but for now it works and I’m happy.
A faster way to find out what you love to make:
In early 2015 I made up my mind to get good at painting. “Good” of course is relative, but I had a vision in my mind of where I wanted to be by the end of the year. I created over 300 paintings that first year, and I’ve done the same every year since.
I do not share every single painting with the world, because a lot of it is exploration and practice that helps me level up.
In doing this, I have seen my own style evolve rapidly in a few short years. But it wasn’t obvious at first. It took me almost that whole year to notice a style emerging from the chaos.
One thing that helped me level up faster and figure out what I love to make was to try as many styles and subjects as I possibly could in a short amount of time. By doing this I quickly learned what I like and what I don’t like.
I was surprised. I thought I would love to paint animals, because I love animals. It turns out I don’t love to paint animals. But it took several animal paintings for that realization to happen.
A selection of paintings from my first year:
As you can see the subject matter was all over the map. But it led me to two very important conclusions:
I love nature. So painting nature is my Nirvana.
I love fantasy. So including a fantastical element or magic in my art is fun and fulfilling.
These two core concepts drive my entire creation process now.
I had to do the work to get to that point. People want to be good at art, but only a few are willing to put in the hours. One shared attribute I see in successful artists is their love of the journey. I know it can be frustrating in the early stages of learning, but you have to love the chase.
The chase of your personal best.
Honestly I don’t think that chase will ever end. It’s a moving target. So I might as well focus on the thrill of the journey rather than a destination.
I’d love to hear other artists’ take on this topic. It’s one of my favorite things to discuss during the live streams! Comment below or stop by during a stream :)