Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Have you got a style?

Artichoke series #1
7" x 5", pen and ink on Arches HP

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Have you got a style? Are you trying to find a style of your own? How does style develop? Do you even want a style?

It occurs to me at times that some artists may worry more about how they sign their work than how they complete it. In reality, from my perspective, your real signature is your style - the subjects or motifs you choose, the way that you see things, the materials / colours / processes you use to express what you see and/or feel and/or think and, finally, what you produce at the end of the day.

You may have a colour signature for example - only working from a specific palette of colours. This becomes very obvious when looking at a gallery of works by one artist who chooses to work with a limited palette. You can be renowned for only painting one subject (which seems to be one of the main ways people try to express their style) or perhaps working in a very specific way (Van Gogh's brushwork springs to mind) or having a particular concept of how you should produce your art.

When looked at in that context, for me how I sign my work will always be much less significant than how how I produced it in the first place.

Why style is important

When you have a style, your work is coherent in some way or other and you will acquire a clear identity as an artist - maybe even a 'label' (eg "the woman who does the fun cats", "the man who does those stripey paintings". People recognise your work straight away which can then mean that it's easier to
  • market your work
  • get accepted by a B&M gallery (because they know that you can produce it in quantities).
  • pitch your work to gallery clients - as galleries have something coherent to describe.
How do we develop style?

I can see a distinctive style most clearly in the artwork of artists who have been working in a very focused way - who have chosen a theme or a way of working and then explored it in whichever way they choose. When that approach has been developed over time, for me their signature style says something about their work having acquired a degree of maturity. Persistence = refinement.

It's interesting to look at the development of style in the context of a life cycle.

When young and immature - or starting out in art - we seem to be very curious. Being childlike can be very creative. It can involve lots of exploration, dabbling and enjoyment of doing lots of different things. As we get older and start to mature, our feelings abour our identity start to change. Teenagers become very clear about what they want to be associated with and what they don't want to be ("like our parents"). Teenagers for example tend to split between those who'd simply "die" if they weren't part of the 'in' crowd and those who'd simply "die" if they weren't seen to be unique and considered to be different from everybody else. As we get older again, we may have different roles but we also start to specialise - after all we need to have a career and get a job - or we need to understand what our share of the daily chores comprises. We get more accustomed to the notion of routine and steady application and working things through. However, as we get older if we don't stay alert to new things or enjoy change we can also become very staid and set in our ways.

I realise these are sweeping generalisations but it seems to me that what tends to be "true" in life also seems to me to underpin the way style develops.

We often start off curious and wanting to try out anything and everything. As people do more art some will start to aspire to being successful - a "name". Some may see the route to success as involving becoming part of the latest 'trend' - whether it's 'a painting a day' or whatever - while others insist that they will never ever compromise themselves and will always remain true to their own particular vision of artistic integrity. However 'making it' and survival as an artist can often mean knuckling down and getting on with the routine of life - at which point the 'stickability factor' comes into play. I've used stickability in the past to describe how people achieve success - but one might also apply it to how one develops style.
As is common in a number of walks of life, people's stories about how they achieved success tend to focus on what they did or what tools they used to become successful but skip the 'grind' that very often accompanies the use of those tools and which also preceded success. That 'grind' for artists is about hard work, practice and refinement. It's about 'doing' again and again and again until you get it right. Which means getting it wrong quite a lot of the time too.
Some people are better at others at finding the routine that works for them, at finding the style that works for them.

Style also changes

Style need not stay the same. Style can change. Those that remain happy to tread the same path day after day may well have success but they may also go 'out of fashion' over time and only have a limited audience for their style.

I'd go so far as to say that those artists whose work never ever changes become very boring in time. I've caught myself on a number of occasions walking into a gallery spotting a painting from a distance and knowing that "so and so" has done another one of their "whatevers". It has to be a subject which delights me - such as Elizabeth Blackadder's watercolours of flowers or David Hockney's drawings in coloured pencil - for me to then walk over and take a look straight away.

More importantly, the artist can get bored with their own style. If you become known for something and successful, then everybody may want a piece - and then it can be very difficult to walk away from the money that can represent. It's not been unknown for artists to have a style which generates the "bread and butter and then some" income and also to work on what they really enjoy doing at the same time - sometime even using a different name to show it - as for example Thomas Kinkade does. Personally speaking, I find nothing wrong with that. It's a neat solution to the challenge of generating some sort of steady income which allows people the freedom to experiment and develop their art and their style.

I was advised very early on to find out what I enjoy doing and to make sure that I enjoy doing it before settling on that as the subject to be associated with my name - by an artist who became known for his sunsets and now is unable to sell anything but sunsets! I do know of artists who have galleries who ask them for things like "another red one like that last one you did which sold quickly".

By way of contrast, what particularly delights me is to walk into a gallery and see something which echoes things I like but in a way I've never ever seen before. Drawing and paintings which make me want to walk over and inspect - only to find it's a favourite artist displaying new works associated with a new direction for their work. What I recognise was elemental qualities associated with their work - their style or signature if you like - explored in a new and fresh way.

One only has to look at really great artists - in all branches of the arts - to be able to see that their work develops and changes throughout their art career. Within modern art, from Picasso to Hockney, one can identify very clear periods where they were deliberately working in a particular sort of way - whether it's Picasso deliberately limiting his palette early on to Hockney exploring how multiple photographs could be used to create much larger images. It can be a joy to go to a retrospective exhibition of an artist's work and to be able to trace the pathways which run through their work as they change their way of working and their style. Only then do you begin to see some of their preoccupations and bigger statements about their art.

What's really interesting about great artists is their capacity and ability to reinvent themselves and their style and yet still be recognisably the same artist. One wonders whether they have somehow managed to combine the curiousity of the child, the determination to be unique of the teenager with the endurance and persistence of the middle years - in a fight to fend off the potential for becoming a 'boring old **** in one's later years!

Who knows? What do you think?

Interior, St Bartholomew the Less
16" x 12", pencil in sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

And this was supposed to be a blog post about the artist's garden - and then Wendy said that my artichoke reminded her of my church interiors. Wendy's comment slightly took me aback until I realised that what was similar in style between the drawings is the particular affection I have for drawing subjects with a strong structure - in both monochrome and colour.... and I started to think about style.

Alternative perspectives on style

After writing this I thought I'd have a quick look round to see what other people have had to say about style. Here are some links to articles which comment on an artist's style. The first couple link to the impact it has on marketing effort.

It's very clear that some websites equate style with art movement whereas I would argue they are different because artists associated with a specific art movement also have their own unique style.

11 comments:

Wendy said...

Well I'm just going to have to make comments like that more often :D I really enjoyed this post Katherine, I think alot about style. Sometimes I'm sure I have one, others I moan and groan and wish I did. I think I'm finally getting somewhere with something I can call my own. There's no mistaking a Tyrrell though!

Anna said...

Fascinating reading as it seems that many of us are thinking about the issue of style these days. I wrote about something related in my Aug 10 (art)& Aug 16 (blog)posts and am in no way "done" defining my style. Does one have to choose one style or can one labor on several? What if the current style does not quite match future dreams? So many questions... Thanks again for such an informative blog!

Regula Scheifele said...

Again a great post Katherine - and as Anna said it seems as if many of us are thinking about their style (and how to get there) these days...
At the beginning of the month I looked at that question myself - trying to define 'Style', looking for
'my style'
... and deciding to focus on building a body of work in order to develop 'a style'. And at the same time allowing myself to be curious, to do some experimenting, to allow for changing moods.
I still aim at getting a recognizable style but feel like this cannot be forced (at least I can't) but will develop with time. So until then I concentrate on getting a consistent look by choosing a subject matter, or a colour pallet, or even a canvas size and stick with it for some 20 paintings. And see where this leads me...

vivien said...

one of your best articles :)


I think people worry far too much about developing a 'style' and not enough about working hard at developing their skills - because then the style develops naturally.

Style evolves from the issues that interest you in your subject matter, the way you choose your compostion, the materials you use and the marks you use to express your feelings about the subject, more than a conscious 'I'll do this in the style of ....'

Katherine said...

I'm getting the impression that my reference to Tracey Hegelson in this post - and the need to create a consistent and high quality body of work before you can become a serious proposition for a gallery show has resonated. To recap, I had a a few words to say on the topic before highlighting some examples.........

"One of the things galleries look for when assessing artists' work is whether an artist has a consistent style. Subject matter is possibly less important but they do want to know how they can best describe your subjects and style to potential customers - in brief."

but I still think that photo of Tracey's work featured in my post conveys very powerfully what I'm getting at.

Vivien - I'm with you on this one. I'm regretting now that I didn't emphasise more in this post about not forcing it and trying to let the subject matter speak to you. It works so much better if you try to draw and paint the things which ask you to draw them - even if you haven't got the skills - then to work at subjects which seem more 'appropriate' in some way but which just don't do anything for you in an emotional sense. You can always acquire the skills but the emotional response is something which can't be manufactured or forced.

For example I started to draw more trees (see my trees gallery) when I realised that I very much liked looking at trees and would go out of my way to move through or past particularly good stands of trees which I enjoyed looking at.

I spent some 10 years or so of my career doing a lot of travelling all over the UK. While driving on quiet roads I often used to spend my time observing the trees in my view either side of the road. I looked at them in different seasons; I used to work out which bits I liked the best and thought about compositional choices for how to treat a particular view, etc. I never ever had the time to draw - but the time spent observing trees was enormously beneficial. I then spent time looking at how other people drew and painted trees - and still do. I then tried developing different ways of getting trees down on paper - and in doing so developed 'my way' of seeing and representing trees - which is still evolving. When I draw now, I'm drawing my experience of the trees, rather than the detail. My aim is for people to see what interests me.

Robyn said...

A very good article indeed, Katherine! And so reassuring for a kindergarten level (if not kindergarten age) artist who often feels undisciplined and unfocused because of my kid in a candy store lust to try every medium, when some people are saying: choose one and just get on with it.

Katherine said...

Robyn - you enjoy the stage you're at - and every stage of your personal development as an artist. You've certainly never given me the impression you're planning on becoming an old fogie anytime soon! ;)

There's a great deal to be be said for just letting things progress naturally albeit in within a natural cycle in which we do develop and move on. I tried for ages to be a watercolour artist because all the people I knew were watercolourists - and it was a wonderful revelation to meet a pastel artist, get into pastels and then become committed to working in dry media. I felt like I'd 'come home'.

I'm a great believer in the notion that you will KNOW when you've found the medium which works for you. It will always make you feel good and give you that frisson of exicitement. So if you've not found it yet, keep on experimenting and trying different things. And have fun! :D

vivien said...

I've actually done a blog post in response to this :) as it's an issue that I really care about :)

yes, yes, yes to the looking as you travel - I love the light on the landscape and watching the trees and hedges and fields change - I work out of town and have a 15 mile drive but it's a pleasure to watch the changes in light and colour and pattern and the skies :)

Lisa B. said...

Bravo Katherine! Great artists have changed their style as well as their subjects over the course of their lifetime. (Monet, Van Gogh)

It's unfortunate that the court of public opinion doesn't readily accept anything new or different- at least not until the artist is dead.

Katherine said...

At which point I want to record Lisa B made that comment before I published my very next post - about Van Gogh - which makes exactly the point she puts so succinctly!

You can find Vivien's blog post on style here.

TET (David) said...

I'm very new to this blog but I'm glad I subscribed. Always good to find someone that can write more than just 'sound bites' (or is that 'text bites') on a regular basis.

Personally I think emerging artists should not even think about style as part of their marketing. Your personal style is something that develops over time. It emerges, grows, evolves until one day you can see clearly that this style is uniquely yours.

Sure you can emulate another artists style but it will always be another artists style until your influence changes it over time. You can't force what your style is simply by copying someone else's style.

I've never thought much about my style yet people tell me I have my own unique style. Certainly I'm inclined to agree (not sure how unique but enough to set me apart).

Buyers may like your style but it's important to remember it's not the only factor that will get your work sold. People generally buy art on an artwork by artwork basis.

My cat paintings sell quite well partly because people like my style but those same people wouldn't even think twice about buying an artwork of mine if it didn't feature a cat.



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