A question I seem to have come across a lot recently is how to develop your style as an artist – both as questions from others and as I think about my own art work. I have a slight issue with the word ‘style’ when it comes to creating art of any description: it seems too formulaic to me. Emulating the style of other artists can be a great way to learn and to understand, but there seems to be rather to much of it about… maybe that’s the downside of art on this wonderful wide open web… (Save the rant for another day)
Instead I prefer to think about developing your approach.
If you begin a painting with a fixed idea of how the end result will look, that feels to me rather like painting by numbers. Each painting is an exploration that leads to an end result. It becomes a visual representation of the looking and thought that has gone into it along the way.
When I first started painting again, I used oil paints as I felt they would give me time to think.
I had an idea that painting had to be pure paint in order to count as a ‘proper’ painting. These days I’m a lot looser in my interpretation. This is partly as a result of learning different ways to start a painting (acrylic underpainting is fine, even if you are following up with oils) and discovering many artists use charcoal or other materials to mark up their composition. This can be fixed, or painted over and allowed to blend with the upper layers of paint, or left uncovered so that flashes of the drawing are revealed.
Oil paints lend themselves to easier colour blending, but the slow process, while contemplative, didn’t really suit the way I wished to explore, and I found waiting days for layers to dry was frustrating. With oils I felt I had to plan ahead according to a system and I wanted a freer, more reactive way of painting.
Switching to acrylic allowed me to create in a different way and over time I have found ways to incorporate different dry drawing materials too – I find the contrast between marks keeps things lively and keeps me on my toes! As each layer dries I can react to what is on the surface and this builds a more complex image as sections are revealed or hidden away with further layers.
Sections of the painting will go through many stages. When I’m beginning a painting I may consider where the main areas of light and dark will be but often I work exactly opposite and start by laying down random marks just to get some energy onto the painting surface; something to work from. For this I can use charcoal, but this can get grey and muddy pretty quickly so I prefer to use light washes of acrylic and use water based Neocolour sticks which will run and bleed. Having this element of … chaos is too strong… unpredictability has become an essential part of building up the character of a painting. Even if it becomes obscured, the history of it is there.
Next I bring more colour to the party and there can sometimes be a phase where it looks too garish. Usually at this point I feel I’ve lost the plot, let go of the reins and it has become a bit of a mess. Time to take a break…
I have always enjoyed using the scrafitto technique where you draw or mark through the wet paint. It gives a beautiful contrast – a sharp line against the softer mixing of the paint colours. Depending on what is underneath you can have a surprising change in colour or a subtler texture. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to work on wood, especially for smaller pieces – it gives a precision that you can’t get on canvas where the texture of the material can interrupt the smooth flow of the mark you are making.
I like a surprise when I’m painting and it’s nice to have a little surprise as a viewer too; a reward for getting closer.
At some point it needs bringing into shape. Without any control it really can just become chaos. It’s that mix between the loose energy and some kind of structure that I find exciting but this stage is about bringing some unity back.
Things I’m thinking about? Areas of busy-ness and areas of calm, what draws your attention, is there something a little unusual to catch your interest, is it too obvious or is there some intrigue about how it has been made or what you are looking at?
I’m not developing my style, I’m developing my approach: the style comes about almost as a side result.
Style is something that evolves from what you bring to your work; the colours you select, your subject matter perhaps. Most of all I think it comes from how you develop your process. It’s more than technique which can be taught, it’s way of doing something that’s personal to you. It may be the way your hand moves as you draw or how you decide what to include and what you leave out. Often it’s out of your own control – you just do things the way you do them!
That’s your job as an artist: Discover your own unique.
This is a fascinating subject for many people. If you are an artist, please share how your own style developed – and how much direct influence you had over it. You can add to the discussion in the comments below: