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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

How Do You Find Your Own Individual Art Style?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

Style is important as a visual artist, it’s essentially what distinguishes you from everyone else, and what keeps your work looking professional, cohesive, and focused.  The greatest artists throughout history each had a style that was incredibly distinctive and unique.  The 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch is easily recognized with his surrealistic scenes densely packed with human figures and fantastical creatures engaged in all sorts of bizarre acts. Once you’ve seen one Bosch painting, you can spot another a mile away.

Heironymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Consider an artist like Giotto, whose fresco paintings at the Scrovegni Chapel revolutionized the way that human emotions were articulated through his expressive facial expressions of the human figures. Many times, the cultural context and time period has a lot to do the artist’s style being distinctive. The figures in Giotto’s fresco paintings may not seem so unusual to the contemporary viewer. You have to take under consideration when viewing Giotto’s paintings that within the context of the late Middle Ages in Italy, Giotto was creating artwork that was revolutionary compared to the other artists of his time. Most of the artists during that time were painting very stoic and flat, whereas Giotto’s paintings expressed such an intense, outward pouring out of emotion through his convincing rendering of three-dimensional form.  In this way, Giotto’s fresco paintings distinguished themselves from all of the other artwork being created in that time.

Giotto, The Lamentation, Scrovegni Chapel fresco

GiottoScrovegni Chapel, The Lamentation
Padua, Veneto, Italy, 1305

In an artist’s style, there are usually defined visual characteristics, a specific means of handling a media, or repeated visual strategies in that are consistently visible in throughout their work.  When I think about the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, I immediately imagine his signature visual features seen in his work:  whimsical, black and white caricatures drawn with flowing, organic lines. Once you’ve seen a few Al Hirschfeld drawings, you’ll learn to quickly recognize his work anywhere you see it.

Al Hirschfeld portrait illustration pen drawing

Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was known for his startlingly realistic oil paintings which used chiaroscuro lighting and bold gestures in his figures to create intense, dramatic scenes based on religious themes. Compared to the idealized versions of figurative oil paintings that were popular during that time period, Caravaggio’s oil paintings emphasized a much grittier, flawed representation of these stories.

Caravaggio portrayed Christ as an ordinary man in his 1606 painting The Supper at EmmausThis representation of Chris was in direct opposition to previous depictions of Christ, where Christ was usually painted to appear as an otherworldly figure who did not look like an real person. Caravaggio depicted the more brutal, ugly side of real life,  He took the time to paint the dirt on someone’s foot in The Crucifixtion of St. Peter, emphasized unflattering wrinkles in someone’s forehead in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and painted the Madonna to look bloated and corpse-like in The Death of the Virgin. Caravaggio’s approach to religious stories were in stark contrast to the sanitized images the other artists of his time period were creating. If you think about any notable artist from history or contemporary art, it’s usually fairly easy to sum up their style with some key adjectives.

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, oil on canvasv

This seems like a contradiction, but I strongly believe that the best way to find your own individual style is to try out as many different ways of working as possible.  When I’ve taught foundation drawing classes, I encourage my students to explore and try out different identities for themselves.  Many students arrive at art school with very little experience working in a wide range of drawing media and have been limited to one approach to drawing, so exploring as many options as possible is critical towards laying a premise for eventually finding their personal artistic style.

I push my students to dramatically shift their approaches to drawing within one semester. One week they’re learning how to make highly detailed, rendered drawings with charcoal.  The next week they’re working in a loose, painterly style with ink wash. If you were to hang up all of the drawings by a single student onto one wall at the end of the semester, you would swear that you were looking at drawings by ten different people. For a foundation drawing student, that’s a wonderful accomplishment.  By being willing to experiment with so many contrasting approaches to drawing, they have essentially developed a broad visual vocabulary that they will have access to for the rest of their lives.

I want my students to achieve a versatility that will empower them to become any kind of artist they want to be.  By directly experiencing all of these different visual languages, they can build an overall understanding of all of the endless possibilities that are out there. Only by exploring the range of stylistic options can you then narrow your focus onto your own unique style.

Drawing a Portrait with Charcoal

Frequently, the most common mistake that I see is artists forcing style on themselves prematurely. I went to art school with a peer who was remarkably talented; he seemed capable of doing just about anything. Throughout his time in art school, he experimented with many different media, everything from detailed pen drawings to puppetry, wood sculpture, and much more. I had never seen someone who worked so fluidly in so many contrasting visual styles. Every artwork he created was original, inventive, and beautifully crafted.  However, when he graduated and started working professionally, all of that changed immediately. He started working with this very commercial style,  and consequently did some of the worst artwork that I had ever seen him do. His new work lacked the his initial enthusiastic spirit, and the illustrations he produced looked generic and derivative.

Style doesn’t develop overnight, it’s a gradual process that can take many years to emerge.  The process of finding your style is very slow, and you need to have serious patience. Allow your style to naturally evolve.  Attempts to force a style on yourself will end up looking contrived and dishonest.

Keep in mind that style is not just about the way your artwork looks. The subject matter that you represent in your artwork is just as important, if not more. Artists are known throughout history for the interaction of their technique and the ideas they wanted to communicate.  The visual appearance of an artwork is meaningless if there is no innovative concept, motivation, or purpose. While you experiment and hone a diverse range of skills, it’s hugely important to push your ability to brainstorm, develop, and ultimately execute a finished artwork that has a solid and intriguing subject.

Once you get to the point where you feel that your style has matured and feels fairly stable, it doesn’t mean that the creative process needs to end there.  I’ve seen artists who find one style that works, and they never innovate beyond that one style.  In my opinion, if you take that approach, you may as well be a trained monkey who can only do one trick. Some artists certainly are content to take that approach, and there are definitely artist out there who are very successful doing that one trick.

To me, the most compelling artists throughout history have been the ones who continually reinvented and transformed themselves throughout their entire lifetime. Look at Picasso, even after the smashing success Picasso had with Cubism, he kept pushing, experimenting, and creating new ideas.  Later in his career, Picasso created new artworks  that were vastly different from Cubism, like his bull’s head sculpture, which was made from a reconfigured bike seat. Matisse work on oil paintings for most of his career, only to switch to paper cut outs at the end of his life. Degas, who had a rich career working on figurative pastel drawings and oil paintings was forced to switch to figure sculpture when he started to lose his eye sight towards the end of his life. These artists weren’t satisfied to be limited to one way of working for their entire lives. Despite their success with a recognized style, they were still willing to take major risks with their artwork to explore unknown territory.

Edgar Degas, Pastel Drawings of Ballet Dancers

Edgar Degas, Dancers binding their shoes
1893-1898

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2 responses on "Finding Your Style"

  1. Interesting and great advice!

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