Recently I had the opportunity to once again explore life as an artist on vacation. (See my article “An Artist Goes on Vacation”; parts one and two, here on Live An Artful Life). I managed to paint a few small abstracts and a landscape that I feel particularly proud of.
Having just visited Canada, I was channeling my artist crush (which you are probably aware is the Canadian artist Tom Thomson) and created a small piece reflective of his palette and subject. The problem is, it looks nothing like anything I’ve done before. I’ve noticed this trend in my work over the past year as I’ve experimented with my work.
I look at other artist’s work and see that they have a distinctive “thing” that makes their work unique, and I realize that I have a style for landscapes, another one for domestic farm animals, a slightly different one for wild animals, a more serious style for farm animals and an abstract style. I know now, that I am at the phase in my artistic development that I’m ready to morph all of these and create an entirely new thing that is me alone and is evident across all subjects. I’m ready to find my own voice.
Are these paintings by two different artists? No, but it looks like it with the exceptions of both being colorful and having noticeable texture.
An artist’s voice is what makes their work recognizable as their own; it’s the distinctive flick of the brush, or the color palette, perhaps the subject…all of these and more. It’s what makes a Monet a Monet, a Matisse a Matisse and your art your very own. It may be present at the moment of first creation for some artists, but for most of us it develops over time; often a flash but just as often a slow and subtle change in course.
I read a great analogy once from Ginger Davis Allman in her article “How Do You Find Your Artistic Voice?” describing this process as being like a teenager trying on different outfits and clothing styles, searching for their “look”. Artists naturally do this also in the beginning; we “try on” different artists, through their color palettes or brush strokes, experimenting with their styles. Allman goes on to point out that, although there is nothing wrong with this and it can be really fun, there comes a time when we begin to wonder what our own style is.
How do you find your voice, though? There’s no precise formula, but there are some ways to guide yourself. One of the first things to consider is to separate yourself from all of those artists you’ve been “trying on”. It is so easy to compare ourselves and emulate other artists in today’s image-saturated world. There are so many websites dedicated to the art of others, museums with their own online presence, magazines, books, and on and on. It is near impossible to disengage from it all completely, but try not to seek out the art of others for a while. Allow yourself time to experiment, to express your ideas in your own way, without comparing yourself to anyone else; and try not to question whether you’re doing it “right”.
Pay attention to what inspires you. One suggestion I came across was to keep a journal, to scribble down thoughts or images, colors that strike you and eventually a trend will emerge that will guide you to what you want to convey with your art. As I go about my day, or when I travel I notice animals…cows in the field, the baby goats next to my local garden center, my dog’s expressions; and I like how they make me feel. Animals will always have a place in my art. What makes you feel strongly? Take some time to really think about that. It may be one thing or many; if it’s many then narrow your focus to one thing to begin with. It may feel like you’re starting over, but you’re really not; you are simply hitting a pause and reset button.
While you’re turning your focus inward, take some time to reflect on the work you have been creating. If you’ve been creating for a while then you probably have a number of pieces to go back and take a good hard look at. Even if you no longer have them physically, hopefully, you have photos of them. Tack them up, hang them up, lay them out, just find a way to analyze what you really like about each one. Perhaps you dislike the subjects but love the colors, or you notice that you always seem to use really bold lines in the ones that you are most happy with. Keep what you love and let the other go; in other words, find a way to morph the individual aspects you love into one stylistic theme.
Work in a series. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it a million more times, but working in a series allows you to create a cohesive body of work since it’s all being done at the same time. The times I’ve followed my own advice on this one, I’ve never been disappointed; that’s when I see the glimmers of my own voice as an artist. It’s when I hop around that I find myself wavering and my style losing strength.
Finding your voice, is different than developing your voice, however. “Finding” or discovering your voice as an artist, indicates that your voice is actually already there. It is an innate part of your being. Like Dorothy discovering she had the ability to return to Kansas all along, we each have our own artistic voice inside; we just have to listen to it, to validate it, and give it room to grow. Being an artist isn’t a destination…it’s a journey. Your voice may grow and change, and that’s great; it should. You aren’t the same person at 30 that you are at 50, and as your perspectives change so will your voice…and that’s the beauty of it; it’s still your voice.