Friday, December 16, 2016

'How do I keep from losing my style?'

Ernest Meissonier (1815 - 1891) 
Painter at the easel 1852. 
Oil on panel, 21.8 x 16 cm.
A reader wrote me with the following concern:

"I notice that my style and approach have been "contaminated" with what I see everywhere around me, and the many styles I admire all want to be drawn at the same time, while my own way of drawing gets lost in the meantime...."

"I am feeling like my own work is starting to escape me. I get fewer works done and keep looking at other art all day while my to-do list grows ever longer...."

"Do you have any ideas how I can preserve my integrity? Is it abstinence from this modern-age diversity, or going back to the roots that inspired me to become an artist in the first place."
—Concerned

Dear Concerned,
I sympathize. There's so much great artwork out there on the Internet, and so many fun videos to binge-watch. Studying the work by others can be very helpful if it blazes a trail and shows you what's possible. Your own style will inevitably be a synthesis of what you've absorbed from others, mixed with your own invention and discovery.

But too much looking at the work of others can be paralyzing. It's good that you identified the problem, and that you haven't lost touch with your own personal vision.

Whenever you feel that way, it's time to stop looking at other people's art for a while. Close the book, shut off the computer, and leave the art museum. The farther you get away from those influences, the more your own style and approach will surface. Get out your sketchbooks and reserve one for your own pure imaginings, and the other for drawing or painting things in the real world that get you excited. You don't have to show them to anybody. Your personal sketchbooks will bring you straight back to your roots.

I remember reading that when Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot first went to Italy, he didn't bother to visit the Sistine Chapel and he didn't spend much time visiting art collections, because he was too enthralled with painting Nature. Be like Corot. That's the way to overcome being contaminated by other people's styles.

Nature is, of course, is the ultimate source for all great art. If Michelangelo and Raphael and DaVinci and Velazquez could be magically revived, standing next to their paintings, I am absolutely convinced that they would have advised us to go outside and look at Nature instead of at their mortal efforts.

16 comments:

Paul Sullivan said...

Wonderful advise.

Anthony Ross said...

Thank you for this!

gordie said...

Nick Meglin wrote the best advice ever,hold on to the why of a work how will follow.

junkgrl said...

Thinking the same thing just a few minutes ago right before I opened your post, about my own style and the low level anxiety I feel when I continue to look at so many other artists work. Maybe it's time for me to turn off stuff. I kind of feel the same about selling. I have returned to painting after 30 years. I just want to paint and selling is not the point right now and EVERYONE seems to want me to judge me by if I am selling or not. Sigh.

Marque Todd said...

I agree with everything you said. I would add that another major issue with viewing so many works is that you quickly realize that many ideas that you have are not really "new". Someone at sometime has likely done something similar and maybe even someone contemporary to you. The very hard thing about this is that then you become paralyzed because you don't want others thinking you are just copying the ideas of others when you know you came up with it yourself all on your own! Not sure there is anything to be done about this but it can also be somewhat frustrating and depressing.

Lester Yocum said...

This is wise, timely counsel. Looking at others' work it is too easy for me to say "I'm not good enough" and bag my brushes. I don't paint for a living but I paint a _lot_ as a hobby and the effect can be just as stifling. I _am_ good enough. Just do.

Jim Serrett said...

Thank you,thank both of you for sharing that.

Loretta said...

I started a poster for myself called " reasons to avoid painting today"

This would be right in there.

Luca said...

Let me be the voice out the choir. The more i look at other people's works, the more i have will to improve and set the goal higher. Of course, the impact is always depressing and the first reaction is to give up. But when the moment passes i say to myself: "ok, this guy makes wonderful art and i am not at his level. but how did he managed to get at that level?magic?inner talent?luck?or simply hard work and dedication?" Ans even if i am afraid i won't never get to that level i get back to work and i do it harder and better than the day before. I have to say i'm not interested so much in style, i think it will come with time and the art that catches my attention is oriented to the one i'd like to develop, so i see them linked things. As Marque said, you'll discover your subjects are not "new",but i feel it as a way to be pushed to find new subjects or new ways to express them! :)

caddisman said...

I have to agree with Luca on this one. I believe "style" is something that develops naturally over time spent working, as James describes, and consciously attempting to develop one should be avoided in fine art. If used in a positive manner, the web allows us to admire, and become inspired by the work of old masters as well as contemporaries, but spending time viewing their art is time spent away from creating your own. There has to be a balance.

James Gurney said...

I agree with what you're saying Luca and Caddisman. I remember when I was in art school some of the teachers put a lot of emphasis on style -- Develop your own style, they kept telling us, it makes you more marketable. But I wanted to get rid of style, to make my paintings transparent. I still often have that feeling that i want to do away with conventionalism. But of course that's impossible, and inevitably everyone makes a series of aesthetic choices that's recognizable to others. For students it's pretty normal to imitate other artists. That's part of how you learn. But as long as you gather lots of influences and move on from any single one, it won't hurt you. Just part of the growth process.

David Webb said...

I remember doing life drawing in a class at school. It was a once a week trip to the local art college and I was among a group of about ten students, sitting in a horse shoe arrangement on donkey stools, with a model in the middle. After a few weeks we all got to be quite reasonable but, as is normal, there were one or two standouts among us. I remember being struck by one fellow in particular, who had an exaggerated, sketchy style, which I thought was brilliant. So, what did I do? I started imitating him. I did this for a little while, but it was not natural to me so I slowly went back to my own way of working (I almost said style then).
Over the years there would be other artists who would inspire. It never stops. However, I learned to appreciate inspiring works without copying. Sometimes I pick up a little trick, or new technique, along the way. However, I adapt them to suit me, not the other way around. If you forget 'style' and concentrate on good drawing, observation and just painting to get better, I believe a style emerges almost subconsciously.
My brother called me up one day to tell me he'd spotted one of my paintings in a magazine. He said 'I knew it was one of yours. I'd know your style anywhere.'

Luca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luca said...

I totally agree with James and David Webb, adapting techniques to our tastes and gather influences from differents sources perhaps is the perfect balance between being in an ivory tower thinking to style and being a sponge absorbing everything at
random. I think that when you start selecting the sources, the influences, the techniques, you start working on your style, without noticing it. I don't see it as a conscious process, as caddisman said.

There's also a second reason to surf art on the web: being up the date on what the world is doing. This doesn't mean following the new trends as a sheep, but if the goal is to "sell the product", knowing what's selling may help, in a sense or in another: to produce more marketable pieces or to invent something new and totally original. If i want to build cars and sell them but my idea of a car is still the T Ford, perhaps my business plan is missing something... :D Yes, going out our safe and friendly cave and discovering that, on the other side of the hill, people are not painting horses on cave walls any more is scary, but we have to do that to evolve.

Of course, if all our time is spent on the web admiring art, we won't produce a lot. But this is true for every field: a cook watching cooking shows all day long will have little time to invent new recipes. "Cum grano salis" said the romans: there's a right quantity for everything!

caddisman said...

"There's also a second reason to surf art on the web: being up the date on what the world is doing. This doesn't mean following the new trends as a sheep, but if the goal is to "sell the product", knowing what's selling may help, in a sense or in another: to produce more marketable pieces or to invent something new and totally original."

This statement makes me even more happy that I no longer need to make a living selling my sculptures and paintings (70's and 80's). As an amateur I can focus on making art that is personal, and related to my life experiences without trying to figure out what will sell within those same values. I'm free to study, and practice art without concern for the market. It does, however, beg the question; how do I get rid of all these works sitting in the basement? heh-heh.

Bill

Luca said...

Well, i had in mind "commercial artists", like illustrators, concept artists, comic artists, etc etc. They are the fields i'm interested in and i think that knowing what's going on around the world may be useful. For "fine artists" it may be different i suppose, but i know nothing about how galleries and private collections work.
Perhaps the ideal situation is having a commercial success but finding also the time to do personal things (and often personal and commercial works of artists have totally different styles, the personal things show more freedom, experimentation, etc etc).
The lack of space is a common problem, anyway :D perhaps it's a bit complicated with statues, but every now and then i take all my sketchbooks, put them in a box and put it away. A new box means that - hopefully - i am a little more experienced. :D