March 23, 2010 | Alyson Stanfield

What is Artistic Style?

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 find your style.

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.

Julie Blackman
©2009 Julie Blackman, Columbia River Gorge East. Oil on canvas, 22 x 32 inches. Used with permission.

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 genres. It's 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 were 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. Alexander Calder added primary colors + black to organic shapes for his kinetic sculptures. Cindy Sherman transforms her own image in each photograph she prints.

What are you known for?

©Tiffany Tuley, Abstract #8. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 35 inches. Used with permission.

If You Have More Than One Style

You can work in as many styles as you want, but if you have two very different bodies of work you will do twice the work marketing it. For three different styles, you should exert three times the marketing effort if you want to do it right.

Each body of work that looks like a different person did it should be marketed to its own audience.

3 different styles of art = 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.

You don't have to stick to one image as Gottlieb and Rothko did in their maturity. Having a 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 Julie Blackman painting!” from across the room. (Unless, of course, your name isn't Julie Blackman.)

You won’t find your style under a rock or by wishing for it. You can only do it through hard work and dedication.Here are 7 steps to finding your artistic style.

20 comments add a comment
  • 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…

  • 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.

  • […] 23 03 2010 Alyson Stanfield’s post What is Artistic Style? hit the nail right on the head – An artist’s style is not good or bad. It just IS. The […]

  • Deb Stewart

    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.

  • Philip Koch

    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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Mary

    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.

  • Bruce M. Mackh

    I like your blog!
    Best, Bruce M. Mackh

  • Brenda

    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.

  • IamANT

    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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