Week 1: How to Find Your Artistic Style

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My first set of assignments for DIY Art School Orientation all revolve around thinking about my artistic style. “Style” is one of those things that everyone talks about, but it can be hard to define. It’s a sort of “know it when you see it” concept.

If someone has a well-defined style, you can identify their work without even seeing a signature or a byline. We often think of style in connection to fashion– a person with a “sense of style” combines different pieces of clothing in unique ways. Style can be found in literally anything people produce– I can recognize certain photographers’ styles based on composition, subject matter, and the way they edit in post-processing. Or different academics’ styles of writing based on sentence structure, word choice (ugh, jargon), and conceptual model. Cooks develop styles of making food, whether it’s in-line with a well-established tradition (eg. French cuisine) or simply a set of go-to home cooked meals. Style naturally develops when you do any activity over and over and over again.

I watched several videos and completed a couple of reading assignments about finding my artistic style, including:

I think the main takeaways from this week’s explorations can be summed up in three central ideas.

1. Borrow, Steal, Get “Inspired”

Art isn’t created in a vacuum. I think when a lot of would-be artists are young, they have a romanticized notion of being a lone wolf, holed up in her/ his (okay, usually his) attic studio, agonizing over paintings or typewritten pages, all alone day-in, day-out.

There seems to be this idea that, to create truly original art, you have to separate yourself from societal influences.

Yeah, that’s silly.

One of the most useful foundational concepts held in my previous profession (anthropologist) is that people are always already a part of a social group. We need other people (besides our mother) just to be born! It’s actually physically very difficult and dangerous (but not impossible) for humans to give birth alone, unlike many other animals. People are social creatures, we especially don’t do well being alone for extended periods of time. We eventually become mentally unstable, which is why extreme isolation can be so dangerous.

(Side note: any other fans of the Nine-nine? Occasionally bringing attention to serious issues, and always with humor! That’s Jake Peralta in solitary confinement, FYI)

My point is, we’re surrounded by people with their own ideas, making their own stuff. And we can’t help but see it and think about it before going out and making our own stuff. We’re constantly borrowing, stealing, and being “inspired” by other people, whether consciously or not. We’re social creatures. It’s just part of what we’re hardwired to do.

Both Lila Rogers’s class, as well as Christine Nishiyama’s classes, suggest looking at what you really like– stuff around you that makes your heart beat a little faster– to figure out where the roots of your style lie. In other words, make your inspiration a conscious activity. In addition, make it mindful! You don’t want to literally steal someone else’s work and claim it as your own, even “accidentally” :-/

I started this exercise by adding work by my favorite illustrators to a Pinterest board. I’ll admit, I was kind of bad at this. I think I just like a LOT of stuff. I was only supposed to collect 5- 10 things that I REALLY like, and I ended up with several dozen. Oops. I limited myself to artwork, even though style grows out of so much more– music, movies, physical objects, even food or travel experiences. I think as I go on, I’ll continue to add non-art items to this board to flesh it out (and whittle the existing selections down a bit).

In one of Christine’s classes, she reviews several periods in art history and analyzes different characteristics of the work, such as color, subject matter, technique, etc. This is a great exercise to do not just with the “masters”, but with any contemporary artist or illustrator as well– and with your own work! My next blog post will explore a few of my pins in closer detail, analyzing what it is about them that draws me in so much, whether the line work, color, subject, composition, or something else.

So, identifying your inspiration– or sources, or references, or influences, or however you want to think about them– is just the first step in borrowing/ stealing/ being inspired. Jerry Saltz pointed out in his “33 Rules For Being An Artist” that everyone starts out as copycats. But it’s not enough to simply reproduce what you like (as if that were even so simple!).

You have to synthesize it, assimilate it into your own psyche and muscle memory, so that what you create is an amalgam of many different sources of inspiration and thus, uniquely yours!

You should definitely read this book. I found myself saying “yes!” and “of course!” and also giggling (because humor) at many points. It’s one I keep going back to, and I don’t do that with many books.

Austin Kleon talks about this in his book Steal Like An Artist— it’s his first “rule”, in fact! Your work must be greater than the sum of its parts. Or, if not greater (maybe that’s the ideal situation ;)) at least wholly different from the sum of its parts.

I love his example of genetics to illustrate this: you have genes from both your mom and your dad, but you are not just mom + dad. Your mashed-up genetics make you entirely unique. Maybe someone who doesn’t know you well would confuse you for one of your parents, but certainly none of your friends would. Likewise, maybe someone who doesn’t know your artistic work well might confuse it for one of your sources, but it should be mostly identifiable as yours and only yours.

2. Make What You Want to Make More of

aka: like attracts like

One of my goals with my DIY Art School is to put together a portfolio that I could start circulating to potential clients. The goal with a portfolio is to demonstrate what kinds of work I can do… but also what kinds of work I want to do.

In her Creativebug class, Lila Rogers says “What you show is what you get.” You won’t be hired to do editorial illustrations, for example, if all you show are repeat patterns. In your portfolio, like attracts like. If you show lots of one type of work, or have a very well-defined style, you will be hired for that work or that style, and so you’ll produce more of that kind of work/ style.

This isn’t a difficult concept, but it is a little tricky, especially if you’re already working and/ or have an established portfolio, but it doesn’t quite look like the sort of thing you want to be making. The key, then, is making time for personal projects that reflect where you want your style and work to head. 

In my case, starting out on my own from scratch (without even professors telling me what I should/ shouldn’t be doing!) is kind of a benefit. All of my projects are personal projects, and I can focus on wherever my interests lie. Of course, the drawback here is that I have many, many interests, and a rather short attention span, which can lead to a scattered and unfocused portfo— ooh look! Something shiny! 😉 

Another way to approach this idea is, as Kleon says, to “write the book you want to read.”  By making what you like, you’re guaranteed to have at least an audience of one (yourself). And if you like something, there’s a good chance that other people like it, too. Even if they don’t like it, you’ve made something that makes you happy, which is something even if it doesn’t pay the bills (he also suggests you keep a non-art day job, which is very sound advice, IMO).

3. Keep Making Stuff

Style isn’t fixed, just as you-the-person aren’t some static, never-changing thing. Your interests change, your goals change, your personality even changes as you mature (hopefully… goodness knows it would be awful to be a 70-year-old with the personality of a 3-year-old… ahem).

But, if you freeze up and refuse to challenge yourself– or even refuse to make things that you’ve always made– your style will stagnate as well. In order to mature as artists (and as people!) we’ve got to put in the work.

That’s right. Two Nine-nine references in one post! Nerd alert.

So keep making things! Make the same stuff you’ve always made, that’s fine. The thing is, human beings terrible at reproducing things exactly as we see them, whether it’s our own work or someone else’s. So even by drawing the same flower (or chair, or whatever) over and over again, you won’t be able to help but change it a little each time. And those incremental changes, over time lead to stylistic evolution. Imagine if you applied incremental changes to multiple drawings or paintings each day! Just think of how much you’d grow and develop as an artist!

Now, the challenge is to find the time… 🙂

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