How to develop your own artistic style
Updated: Sep 30
There are two paintings hung next to each other on the wall. They are by different artists, but otherwise are the same size, of a similar colour palette and both in an abstract style.
Checking with the gallery owner, you find they are also the same price.
You are in the market to buy art, but only have the budget and space on your wall for a single piece. You like them both, but one of them stands out.
The painting that appeals most is by a successful artist, but one who has a varied portfolio of works and this particular piece is unlike anything else he has done before. The other is by an artist who is celebrated for his recognisable style — and this artwork is a good example of that approach.
Which do you buy?
Well, this is not a lateral thinking puzzle and the simple, obvious answer is the one that you enjoy looking at the most.
If there is a pause for thought, then it is because another factor has entered the equation — investment value.
And here is where thinking goes on a long hike and ends up in a place where the assumption is that the artist known for a particular style will be the most collectible.
But why should that be? Should it affect how you view these paintings? They are presumably as accomplished as each other and are created with knowledge of design, value, colour theory and materials.
Should having your own style matter?
And this is the nub of the scenario. As creative people, it feels as if it does.
When we’re starting out we may look at other artists who appeal to us. We admire their art and perhaps wish our own was as good.
Before we know it we’ve bought their T-shirt and our work starts to become a bit of a tribute act. At this stage, it shouldn’t be regarded as a bad thing.
After all there is a long history of those who we now consider artistic greats with a distinctive style having done exactly the same at the beginning of their careers. Think Picasso and Van Gogh.
The truth is this is how we learn, and how we develop our unique voice. The real mistake we might then make is to try too consciously to be different.
The search for individuality in an effort to stand out from the crowd is a huge misstep — and one we might expend a lot of energy trying to achieve.
Being different should never be an aim in itself. It doesn’t express anything other than a sense of exhibitionism.
It’s inauthentic and takes us away from what really interests us, what fires us up with creativity.
What should artists be doing?
It starts with you. Going back to the artists you admire, there will be reasons why their work draws you in.
Maybe some parts of it can be used as inspiration for your own explorations. Picasso is widely quoted as saying ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’, by which I’m assuming he’s not exhorting anyone to go out and commit full-scale copyright infringement but to take the things you like best and make them your own.
The American painter Brian Rutenberg says there is no such thing as style, just interest. What you are interested in.
He explains: ’It’s about expressing that to someone else. It’s important to copy (as a student) copy everything you can and everything you get wrong becomes your style.
'The key is not to be aware of a style at all, just to celebrate your interests because that is who you are. That’s what makes you, you.’
So there it is, artists should immerse themselves in the history and techniques of art-making in the broadest terms possible with particular attention paid to what they like.
I’ve discovered, in following this process, that looking for my own ‘thing’, as it were, was not just a bad idea but a wholly wrong one too.
This should be an exploration of how you enjoy working. If you don’t do the thing you like most, the work will never be good.
So, will it be large bold acrylic abstracts or small detailed pencil drawings? There is only one way to find out and that is to experiment with all of them, incorporating different elements into your work.
Curiosity is the key to everything
Once you identify what really interests you that can become a springboard to keep asking questions which necessitate visual solutions.
And here’s the thing, there are no fixed answers, there is no ultimate destination and so no point of arrival — the process is ongoing and never ending.
Throw into that mix the accumulated knowledge over time about such things as composition, value and colour.
Add to that your own experiments: what materials create which effects and what happens when you do such and such, and being aware of what you find the most pleasing.
And then something amazing happens.
Without looking for it, your work develops a unique voice, it becomes like you because it is you. Your interests, preoccupations, preferences and idiosyncrasies.
In fact, your style was there all along, you probably just didn’t know it.
I’m also familiar with the dilemma of feeling trapped into producing the same type of work because it’s what you have produced before and anything else would just not be ‘you’. Do not let that happen.
By way of example, this article features two of my paintings completed on a theme. The earlier one higher above and the latter below.
Both are a form of abstract landscape based on the same location and, although not separated by a great deal of time, my thinking changed following the completion of the first.
They are not part of the same series, but mark the end of one and the move into another. The difference was based simply on me wondering ‘what if’ and heading in that direction of thought.
I don’t know if they look like the same artist created them. I’m tempted to believe they do because I’m convinced that if we resort to our default settings whatever we do will always look like ‘us’.
And, in any case, why fight the constraints of keeping to a formatted style just because it is recognisably ‘you’?
This type of thinking is hugely limiting and therefore hugely uncreative. And it’s not something that would have bothered ‘real’ artists in the slightest.
Picasso (yes, him again) had a number of separate artistic phases during the course of his life, each quite different from the last.
Amazingly, nobody has ever had an issue pinpointing his artistic genius. We can look at each of the periods of his work – the blue, the rose, African art and primitivism, analytic cubism, synthetic cubism, neoclassicism and surrealism – and still hear his voice in all of them.
The modern master Gerhard Richter, similarly, covers a huge range of subjects. And in vastly polarised styles.
Perhaps best known now for his massive abstract works, a visit to his website reveals a dizzying alphabet of categories – including aeroplanes, animals, apples, death, flowers, families, snowscapes and so on – all executed in a stunning photorealist style.
Obviously, he has never felt the need to limit himself to the one thing.
To sum up
The message is clear — be yourself, pursue your interests and don’t worry about style. The result is something that is authentically you. That which we enjoy doing is naturally more pleasurable and our work then reflects this — in turn, we then like our work more. Rinse. Repeat.