Your style is the way you talk in paint’. So said Robert Henri (1865–1929), the American painter and teacher. Certainly it’s desirable to have a recognisable style if we want to sell work through galleries – the owner wants to know that your existing buyers will observe the same qualities in your fresh work that led them to purchase your previous work. The more unique your style, the more collectible you may potentially be.
Posted on Fri 01 Feb 2013
You shouldn’t try to find a style too soon. If you’re relatively new to painting you will probably need to explore lots of subjects and media. It’s important that you become proficient in the skills of picture making – drawing from life, composition, colour and tonal values. It helps to keep a sketchbook and draw from life regularly, attend workshops and with artists whose work you admire, see a wide range of artwork in books, magazines, galleries and online. In short, always be open to learning more.
Ice Cream Shed
, oil, (30x30cm)
A style isn’t fixed, but evolves and changes over time, so remain flexible and pursue your passions
Think about what inspires you. Write down in a notebook what it is that you like: artists, subjects, themes, media and techniques.
Collect images of paintings that inspire you most –greetings cards, postcards, and clippings from The Artist magazine and fine art calendars. Stick them in your notebook as you come across them. Note the website and blog addresses of artists you admire. At the same time, build up a fine library of art books and magazines for future reference – you might receive fresh inspiration from paintings that you may have once overlooked.
When you are standing in front of a painting that attracts you, spend a few minutes trying to work out what it is specifically that speaks to you in that painting. When I read a few lines or a paragraph about another artist’s approach that chimes a chord with me I jot that down, too.
Get to know all about your own interests and passions. Write down what styles of artwork or movements you relate to: realist, impressionist, abstract, tonal, classical, figurative, decorative, naïve, whimsical, expressionist, graphic and so on. Learn from other artists but don’t fixate on, and try to emulate, one in particular. Your aim is to speak your own visual language and make the best of your natural attributes.
To this end, I think it’s beneficial to take influences from a wide range of artwork. It’s fine to copy techniques and paintings you admire for personal research and learning, as long as you are not planning to exhibit or sell these studies. Choose examples of works that inspire you and write down in your notebook a list of five traits about each that you particularly like.
Cattle in Mill Field
, oil, (23x28cm)
Simplifying shapes into larger elements is a key part of my plein-air landscape work
Identify your strengths and weaknesses
What are your existing skills? What do you want to say in your paintings? Be as specific as you can and write it all down. What type of artwork feels risky to you? What kinds of work do you try to avoid? What types of painting situations/subjects/themes/media feel scary to you? I believe it’s really important to define your own comfort zone so that you can face your fears and work your way out of them. Often, the very things we are afraid to tackle are likely to be of most benefit in improving our technique. Painting en plein air, sketching figures from life, abstracts, write down whatever it is that makes you break out in a sweat. Then consider how you could start on a project that tackles those very fears.
What mistakes do you repeatedly make in your paintings? Weaknesses may become strengths rather than drawbacks if you start to see them as personal quirks. Some may leave you in time as your skills develop, but those that don’t can be turned to your advantage in creating work that is undeniably yours. The French novelist Jean Cocteau put it so well: ‘What others criticise you for, cultivate. It is you’.
Ask the opinions of others, preferably those who are used to looking at paintings, such as other members of your art group, rather than your nearest and dearest. Get feedback where you can. It is often difficult for us to see traits in our own work because we are so close to it.
Ask questions such as ‘What kind of paintings do I do?’ ‘How would you describe my work?’ ‘What are my strengths?’ Jot down whatever they say.
Last Snow in the Lane
, oil, (24x30cm)
This was painted en plein air in the snow
: Directional and lively brushwork is key to my style, I think
After all this rooting around you may start to see a gap between the work you’re doing now and the type of work you’d like to be doing, but don’t be disheartened.
Naming this gap is half the battle. Write down what you need to work on or improve in order to move in the right direction. You can then think of ways to do this.
Gallery Hill Allotments
, oil, (30x30cm)
Look for common themes or ideas that you’ve been exploring.
I’ve been looking to allotments for inspiration for 20 years
At a recent workshop on this topic several participants wanted to move away from overly detailed paintings and some of the suggestions with this aim in mind were to stand up at an easel to paint, and only to use large brushes. Another artist wanted to explore glazing techniques to bring about enhanced atmospheric effects in her future paintings. Others identified problems with composition, colour mixing or drawing. All you need to get started on closing the gap are a few simple ideas such as these.
I suggest you formulate a plan for a series of eight paintings, on a theme that you have identified within your work through these exercises. People often feel disappointed and find it hard to see progress when they are flitting from one subject to another. The discipline and focus involved in creating a series will help you to proceed towards your best ever work.
After each painting in the series spend some time considering where it went well and where it could be improved in the next painting. Jot down any other ideas that don’t relate closely to the series for future projects. The main thing is you need to show up and get the work done, keep an open and explorative mind, and push yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time.
A style isn’t fixed, but evolves and changes over time, so remain flexible but pursue your passions.
In my opinion, once you have a large number of painting hours behind you, it doesn’t hurt to take a critical look at where you have been and where you are heading. You can seek out your own personal direction to move towards, hone your skills, and work on being the best version of your painting self.
I’d like to let Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British poet, have the last word on style: ‘People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style’.
Towards Bohemia Promenade, Sutton on Sea
, oil, (25.5x30.5cm)
Get to know about your own interests and passions
This feature by Haidee-Jo Summers is taken from the March 2013 issue of The Artist