There’s a lot of chatter on the internet about developing your artistic style. YouTube, Twitter, podcasts – all have commentary and instruction for developing your style. In this post, I’m putting my art historical hat on – woot! woot! the art history degrees are finally getting some use! – to talk about the step-by-step, tried and true method used by artists through the ages to develop your unique art style.
Seriously, relax. Finding your style is a natural – and ongoing – evolution of art making. It’s part of exploring your materials, interacting with your environment and responding to it. You will never be locked into a “style” – but your work will evolve as your interests change and your technique improves.
There’s so much stress around this, which I think stems from wanting to find a commercial style. The steps I outline below work for that, too, but I hope you embrace your uniqueness as an artist.
Step 1: Finding your influences
Whose art are you attracted to and why? Is there a certain technique that gives an effect that you want to incorporate into your own work? Do they use a particular palette that you find especially expressive? Find who you like and determine exactly why you like them.
For me, I am a fan of Rembrandt, specifically because I like the way he drew his subjects. There is a particular looseness in his line that I find delicate yet definitive.
And I really like the way he lit his subject to render form and play with textures.
I’m also a fan of Marie-Noëlle Wurm. I love her use of abstract shapes and expressive lines. While her work is rarely representational, it definitely evokes the natural world. Her art has an otherworldly quality, yet has grounding in this one. It makes me want to look closer at everything. Visit her website to view her work.
Trina Schart Hyman is another favorite illustrator. I loved her work in Cricket magazine and her narrative work in various fairytale picture books. She built worlds on those pages, and I want to emulate her method of visual storytelling.
My list is exhaustive and constantly expanding. Keep a file where you can jot down names and artwork you enjoy. I use Evernote, where I can clip visual examples and make notations. I also have a library of art books for reference.
Step 2: Becoming their apprentice
Once you start building your list, you’ll want to apprentice with one of your Masters. Apprenticeship is the tried and true method of learning art, and combined with practice (see below) is a reliable way to develop your style.
So what do I mean by apprentice? It involves research – looking at their art, reading biographies, articles or other writings that give you a sense of how they worked, what was important to them, and the historical-social-political-cultural climate they lived/worked in. Collect clippings and add your notations like I described above. Study their work. Visit museums and galleries, and take a magnifying glass with you so you don’t miss details!
Go back to where you make your art and copy their work.
Yes, you heard me – copy. Master artists passed technique and knowledge to their apprentices throughout the history of art by having them make copies. This is how you discover and learn. So get some art books from the library and start copying work that intrigues you. Do you want to capture light on figures like Caravaggio? Then copy him. Fill your sketchbook with images copied from his paintings. Grab your oil paints and make a study of one of his seminal works.
The objective is to put yourself in the master’s place and solve the visual problems he or she solved while creating this work. You’re not after a perfect copy – that’s forgery. Instead you are trying to capture result and decipher the technique, building muscle memory along the way (this is key!).The objective is to put yourself in the master's place and solve the visual problems he or she solved while creating this work. You're not after a perfect copy – that's forgery. Instead you are trying to capture result and decipher… Click To Tweet
Step 3: Practice, practice, practice
This is the third crucial step to developing your style. In fact I’d go as far as saying it is the foundation because just doing steps 1 and 2 means you are studying art history vs making art – something I wholeheartedly think you should do, but that’s not why you’re here, is it?
This is the step where the real work/magic happens. You’ll take your list from step 1 with the knowledge and muscle memory you developed as an apprentice (remember all those copies you made!) in step 2, and you’ll apply them to your own work.
It will frustrate you at first, but work through it. Soon, you’ll cherry pick the parts that work for the piece, and save the rest for another piece. You’ll adapt the technique to fit your process. You’ll appropriate the lessons that the Master acquired during her/his apprenticeship and passed on to you. You see how this works?
Step 4: Repeat steps 1 through 3
Do this over and over. Your style will begin to evolve. It’s important to remember throughout this process that you assimilate the technique to your process, your work. Not the other way around.
Step 5: Look at your work to see what you can combine or drop
What did you like making and why? Did something unexpected happen? Did you like the results? Why or why not? Was there anything you didn’t like and why? These are the left brain questions to ask yourself. Then see what you can duplicate and combine.
But don’t forget your right brain – what just felt right, good, satisfying… exciting! Do more of that.
Make Your Art
I hope this was helpful. I’d love it if you’d let me know how your style is developing – what breakthroughs you’ve had as well as obstacles you’ve encountered. Leave a comment below…