In order to project a professional image as an artist, you must be able to distinguish yourself and your art from a sea of other talented artists. To do this, you must first develop your artistic style.
As most artists have come to learn, developing an artistic style all your own is easier than it sounds. It means that your work doesn't look like your instructor's work, but that it is also cohesive when shown together.
What is Artistic Style?
Style is a word we use freely and without much thought. But what does it mean?
In her book Living With Art, Rita Gilbert writes that “style is a characteristic or group of characteristics that we can identify as constant, recurring, or coherent.” She goes on to say, “Artistic style is the sum of constant, recurring or coherent traits identified with a certain individual or group.”
An artist's style is not good or bad. It just IS. The execution might be criticized, the colors might be perceived as ugly, or the composition seen as weak, but the style is what it is.
Your style is a combination of the mediums, technique, and subject matter you choose. It's not just that you make contemporary quilts or that you paint landscapes. Those are mediums and genres by themselves. No, style is that extra little thing you do to distinguish your work from that of other artists.
Two quilt artists might each create abstract, colorful compositions using the same traditional block. If both are mature artists, however, we'd probably be able to tell one artist's work from the other. For example, a fiber artist might employ one or more of the following in creating the quilt.
- Hand-dyed fabrics from organic dyes
- Loose threads hanging on the surface (rather than hiding them)
- A particular fabric that becomes a signature of sorts
- Text written with ink on top of the quilt
In other words, she becomes known for works that contain a certain characteristic. For a painter it might be loose brushstrokes, impasto, or a repeated image. Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of President Obama, is known for his highly decorative backgrounds around his subjects. Sarah Sze brings together hundreds and thousands of found objects to create detailed multimedia landscape installations.
What are you known for?
Multiple Artistic Styles
You can work in as many styles as you want, but separate bodies of work might mean separate audiences. It might also mean that if you have two very different bodies of work you will do twice the work marketing it. Three different styles might mean exerting three times the marketing effort.
3 different styles of art = [possibly] 3 different audiences = 3 times the marketing effort
[The Successful Artist's Guide to Writing Your Artist Statement ]
Some artists choose to have a very narrowly defined style and seem to produce almost the same artwork over and over again with differences in color or scale. Adolph Gottlieb, for instance, painted his trademark Bursts over and over again. Some were better than others, but they all have the same basic elements.
His close friend, Mark Rothko, became known for large bands of thin pigment floating on the canvas surface. The colors differ, but we know a Rothko when we see it.
Style v. Subject Matter v. Medium
Style shouldn't be confused with subject matter or medium.
You don't have to stick to one image as Gottlieb and Rothko did in their maturity. You don't even have to stay true to a single medium.
Developing a recognizable artistic style doesn't mean you must produce the same work over and over again. It simply means that you have created work that others identify with you.
There isn't a higher compliment you can receive than for someone to exclaim, Hey! That looks like a Linda Hugues painting! from across the room. (Unless, of course, your name isn't Linda Hugues.)
Your style isn't birthed at the beginning of your studio practice. You won’t find it by wishing for it or thinking about it. You can only develop your artistic style through hard work in the studio and an intense dedication to your craft.
You must make a lot of art. A. Lot. And then make more.
I can tell an artist isn't ready for an art business when their work looks like a mishmash of styles, perhaps reminiscent of their instructor's art.
If you're struggling with figuring out who you are as an artist and where your work is going, consider these 7 steps to developing your artistic style.
1. Be devoted to your studio practice.
I said this already, but it has to go at the top of the list.
This is the most important thing you can do to become a professional artist. If you can’t devote non-negotiable studio time, you aren’t going to get very far. You need to make art. You need to make more art!
Without the art, you are not an artist.
Without the art, you have no art business.
Most artists who have other jobs to pay the bills will find this difficult to manage, but the commitment is critical. Everyone gives up something to pursue their dreams.
If it is a struggle to honor your commitment, block out time on your calendar (in ink!) for the week. Treat it as any other appointment and respect this promise to yourself. Say No to those who request your attention during this time.
It’s the first step toward professionalism.
2. Draw. Doodle. Write.
Wherever you go, whatever you are doing, get into the habit. Sketch a scene, write down your responses to other artists. The goal is to keep your pencil on the paper and to capture your brilliance before it disappears.
Many artists gain insight into their art by blogging. I hear over and over again from artists that the most important reason to keep a blog is for self-discovery.
If you don't envision keeping up with a blog, at least learn to be articulate about the work. I can help you find the words in my Magnetic You course.
3. Look at art.
Look at lots of art! Some people are afraid of copying other artists. Don’t be. How do you think the Old Masters learned?
If you do enough looking and copying, you’ll work through the influences and find your own voice.
But there is a caveat here. NEVER try to sell art that was copied from another artist or relies too heavily on the work of your instructor. This is inappropriate. You're learning. Once you have found your style, you can consider turning your art into a business.
If you missed out on art history classes, consider taking a few at your community college or higher education facility. You can also check out films about art and art history at your local library or through Netflix.
Check out my updated list of art documentaries.
4. Allow yourself to experiment in the studio.
Take classes to acquire skills with new mediums and techniques, or to learn from a new teacher.
You don’t have to make art to sell. You can, and should, make art to grow as an artist.
Try a new medium, practice a new style, copy a favorite historical work, enlarge or decrease the size, or use a color outside of your normal palette range. You are making art just for you. No one else has to see it.
5. Step away from the art.
It’s difficult to evaluate progress while you’re in the throes of production.
Know when it’s time to take a step back, get away and return with fresh eyes.
6. Evaluate the work to this point.
After you have taken a break, look at your work critically to figure out your strengths and weaknesses.
What do you like? Not like?
What can you adjust? Add? Subtract?
Does it convey the message you want to get across?
Ask a variety of other people (friends, family, strangers, other artists, non-artists, etc.) the same questions. This conversational exercise is a process I walk you through in Magnetic You.
Developing your artistic style and making good art is the result of being utterly devoted to your craft.
Keep doing all of the above. Again. Again.
This post was originally published on March 23, 2010 and has been updated with original comments intact.
24 thoughts on “7 Steps to Developing Your Artistic Style”
Definitely an interesting subject and something I always wrestle with. I especially like that statement about genres versus styles…I have often thought that a certain medium sort of defines a specific style, although it’s really you the artist that makes all your work a particular style. At least, if you aren’t one that experiments in a lot of stuff…I understand the want for others to be able to recognize your work on sight…but it also seems so narrowing…I’m not sure…
Linda–I also felt that way before–so I refused to have 1 style until it happened on it’s own..I used to paint 9 different series in different styles at a time…so atleast the work could show cohesively…then one day the styles got married–Alyson is right when she says it comes from doing a lot of work…it’s a natural process verses forcing oneself to only paint in a certain way….When you find a style that feels like you–you will likely feel you are expanding verses being limited…you will want to create in your way…other people recognizing your work is the bi-product of the goal…not the goal…if that makes sense…
Last year I submitted some new pieces to a show and when I went to drop them off, the lady said, “Didn’t you have a show year a couple years ago?” I was so flattered! The paintings were completely different in terms of their media, but it was the style that she recognized.
I don’t that style can be forced. It develops as a natural progression when you devote yourself to your work and is formed by your conscious decisions as an artist. As you begin to see patterns emerging, you can emphasize them even more and strengthen that sense of style.
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I believe that I am finally arriving at my “style” and it seems to be a synthesis of so many things that have come before it. It has probably taken me much longern than others because I have always worked. But the last few years I have been pretty driven or obsessed with finding my own way. I’m beginning to learn from my own work and not trying to replicate what I see others do. I’m letting one work be the inspiration for the next and starting to rely more on my own internal intuition as to my own direction. But all of this has taken so many years, starts and stops and feeling lost at times.
Style works when it’s an authentic reflection of one’s internal self. It is something one works towards, sometimes as Deb Stewart notes, for years.
Rothko is an interesting case. He no doubt suffered from depression, but I’ve always wondered if a contributing factor in his suicide was his feeling trapped by the signature style of painting for which he had become so well known. Everyone wanted “a Rothko”, by which they meant another painting that looked just like the last one. In someways the guy had painted himself into a box, and not one with much elbow room.
Style is something that has been a struggle for me since I got back to painting full time. After not painting for many years I felt like experimenting. I think that now my work is finally starting to have it’s own style. The interesting thing is that a few months ago I unpacked a lot of my paintings from many years ago and a lot of it is so similar to my paintings these days, especially the colors and the use of shapes which I have been using in all my latest paintings and drawings. I liked this post!
I think your work has been recognizable for awhile…although maybe I missed some of the earlier ones
Thanks for this post. It took me about 6 or 7 years to arrive at the painting style that I enjoy today. It slowly evolved over time and I think it will continue to evolve, if I want to continue to grow as an artist. I will never stop experimenting, but common threads will carry through as my work evolves so that it will still be recognized as mine. If we stop growing, I think our work suffers.
I get why having a particular style is important; and in some regards I do have an artistic style….or more like several styles. I’ve been told to narrow my focus, but to me it feels like forcing myself to work in a box. Why in the art world is creativity, in so far as having varying styles, frowned upon? In a perfect world it would be the other way around, where being able to show proficiency in several mediums or several styles would be an indication of creative depth and mastery.
I used to feel this way…although on the other side of having a recognizable style and the benefits of that…I get it…it doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability to paint in other styles…I just understand the limitations of many viewers…It’s not totally about us as artists…it’s about the experience of the viewer to recognize artwork…and I say this in a world where a lot of people have facial recognition issues…if the average person has trouble remembering people’s names and faces…how can they remember art? If they see something they like…they want to see more of that…Often people don’t feel smart when they look at art–if they can recognize an artist…I’m guessing that does something for them.
Even myself–when I fall in love with a particular work of an artist…and discover that there is nothing similar in their collection…I feel disappointed…cause there is likely no chance I can dream of purchasing something similar…because there isn’t anymore in that style.
I’m unlikely to refer them to others or galleries because galleries generally want to market something that is dependable…and I do refer other artists a lot
Creativity is always about you—what people want is always about them…we can be disappointed by this…however I bet most of us wouldn’t buy something we didn’t want just because someone else was being creative…unless it was for charity…
What I see emerging here is the committment to the work, which then develops into a personal style. When artists of all kinds work hard at what they love, their style is evident though perhaps subtle even through changes in genre and time.
Style without the work and the committment behind it, is simply gimmickery.Like the house built on sand it never lasts, and no one wants to spend much time there.
i think this is probably true and probably why i am not successful in the art world at all. interestingly enough, i don’t care any more…i am so tired of realizing that just being me isn’t enough, is wrong, is out of whack…is everything but right….and today, oh well….i do what i do. i’m old enough to realize success is a transient and superficial thing that one has to constantly tweak and maintain. i hate all the positioning, maneuvering, marketing, etc. blech.
a wise friend who travels the world, works little and has a wonderful life told me over 20 years ago that he had realized that people lived really well on the two extremes. those who had millions and those who chose to have little. by choosing to have little to maintain he doesn’t have to work a lot and he does what he likes….and no, he is not a loafer or a bum or a borrower…he works 24/7 at a resort area for 3 months and travels the rest of the year….more and more i like his style. maybe that will be my new artistic style this year….
Being known for my use of color and an Afrocentric point of view is my style. I used to be annoyed when people would pass by my booth at juried shows and just say “Oh, I love your colors!”. Now, I try to engage them, and ask them why, or which colors resonate with them. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s great.
I like your blog!
Best, Bruce M. Mackh
I was recently told (by a juror who works at a recognized gallery in my state) that my two best pieces to date “seem stiff. Perhaps I should loosen up the brush stroke, and leave more to the imagination.” Hmmmmm. Interesting.
My attention to detail, and my desire to actually make my paintings “LOOK” like the subject I’m painting, is the defining factor of MY style. The detail in my work has been the one thing most people comment positively about, especially those who’ve purchased my work.
And I believe the style of my work, is becoming recognizable as my own.
Of course, there is always room for an artist to grow and improve. But, I find it interesting that someone working in a well-known gallery would try to influence the defining style of an artist. I’ve been dealing with that mind set since college. Professors tried to influence our work to be more impressionistic or abstract, because that was the “hip, and upcoming thing”. The art world can be so subjective, and politically influenced. I have to agree with Mary…..blech.
I think it’s important to remain true to your own creativity…..and never let someone else try to define your growth, or your defining style, as an artist. Some will like your work, and others my not. But, no matter what your style, each artist should always remain true to themselves.
Something I wrestle with is how to define or name my style. People always ask me what style I paint in and the only answer I can come up with is “a combo of illustration/comic book line work on top of cubist/Cezanne/expressionistic acrylic work on tile board “. Not exactly the shortest/best description, imo.
Anyone have suggestions on a shorter/better description for my style? lol
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Great article, Alyson. I’ve noticed that when I do an art festival it is way to see my work as a whole and at a distance. I often get a new perspective on the image my work is projecting and where I want to go from there. Plus I can pay attention to the reactions of the attendees to hear how they perceive my work. It’s always eye opening.