“How do I develop a personal style?” is a question often asked by budding artists. Whether one is new to painting––or not––we all want to stand out, to produce paintings that separate our work from the rest.
Often, these questions of style are actually seeking the answer to something else. I’ll get to that in a sec.
In the meantime, here is good news: Like the characters along the Yellow Brick Road, you may be confounded to learn you have a personal style within moments of picking up your first paint brush. In fact, it is impossible not to have a style. Granted, it may not be the style you wish to have, but it is definitely a style. By the end of a workshop I can tell whose painting is who’s…by their style. The quality of brushwork is certainly a clue, but hardly the only one.
This might be a little deflating, but primarily “style” is what you paint. It is literally the things you choose to paint––whether they are your surroundings, your favorite objects, your favorite pastimes, your favorite people. Secondarily, it is the way you apply paint (whether or no you use a brush). Lastly, it is your choice of palette. You can come up with other things, but those are my big three. (The Abstract Expressionists can write their own blog).
Let’s play a game to prove my point: Word Association. Quickly now, first word that springs to your mind:
John Singer Sargent
Sir Alfred Munnings
Charles M. Russell
Now, to keep you from cheating, I’ll dance around here a little so you don’t immediately spot what my answers are. No rush, I’ll wait. Okay––enough dancing (and your answers may differ), but for Toulouse I came up with Can-can. Maybe you came up with Folies Bergere (more properly Le Moulin Rouge), or Dancers. Whatever. My point being: you came up with what T-L painted, before you came up with how he painted it. Now take John Singer Sargent: Portraits––am I right? Munnings: Horses; Russell: Horses (maybe Cowboys); Degas: Ballet…Dancers…extra credit given for horses or absinthe drinkers.
Proof that subject matter trumps brush work––and certainly palette––lies in this: you would likely recognize unfamiliar work by any of these artists, even if you saw the reproduction in black and white…so long as the pieces fall within the normal oeuvre for each. When presented with an obscure portrait by Degas or Munnings––now its not so easy––because the work falls outside the pale.
Sargent and Munnings each handled paint in such a bravura manner, I have called them twins––Munnings was Sargent out-of-doors––and vice versa. Munnings and Russell (and Remington) all painted horses, but you would never mistake one for another. You have to look long and hard to find a galloping horse by Munnings, while Remington ate them for breakfast. Each painted the horses that were part of their world, in the settings that surrounded them. Munnings captured the soft textures of English light, Russell reveled in storytelling and the glows of sunset, Remington explored light’s extremes, from high noon to midnight.
So…we are back to your style.
Style, properly, is seeing or imagining. Given the best case, you see what others carelessly––or willfully––overlook. You began by painting trees, the same way I began painting trees. You painted a house, or a brook––the same way I painted a house or a brook. The same way every beginner paints a house or a brook or a tree. You graduated to figures, continuing to paint in the same old way, because that’s how we all learn. When the process becomes a bore––that is your opportunity.
Your “style” remains stagnant until you learn this trick: to see and discern what is around you; to be passionate about your discovery––so passionate you want to show others what you see, and how you see it––using your imagination: the gift of the great “What if…” Do you think there was a convenient little chap standing around in his plus fours every time Munnings wanted to paint; that the sun shining down the spine of every one of his horses is a coincidence? Do you think Degas got all those girls to stop in mid-rehearsal? That Sargent showed up at Lord Agnew’s door saying, “Whatever Gertie wants to wear will be fine with me?”
As if. They controlled every detail. They discerned what was possible.
Try this: If you love horses, paint what horse-lovers love. Depict them being bathed, saddled, shod, fed, ridden; being tacked up, led, galloped, raced, hot-walked, lunged, jaded, brushed, clipped, groomed, competed, rolling, rearing; paint them at dawn, at midnight, in a herd, with a foal, in a hunt, in a creek; with a pony clubber, under a cowboy, with a gypsy, with a Coldstream Guard, at Waterloo, at a re-enactment, pulling a carriage. If you can imagine a scene that is not likely to happen before your eyes, figure out how to set it up. Look what Lucy Kemp-Welch did with an artillery team in Forward the Guns. You find a way.
And finding your way, that process…will be your style.