Have you grappled with changing your painting style? Has a gallery told you that your style does not fit their clientele? Are you in doubt about what style is trending right now? If so you are in good company. The style-police are always ready with an opinion on what your painting style should be.
How important is painting style anyway? In this article I take on a few stereotypes and tired ideas. Let us see what does make a painting great.
Style: Either You Have it or You Don't
This trite idea about style may have more relevance with your dress code. But as advice for artists? If you want gallery representation you may have come across this advice. Look at the style of painting that is popular and follow something similar. Or you have heard people comment on a trending style.
Examples of this can vary from city to city. Cape Town seems to have a lot of artists painting large canvasses of ladies with pixelated faces. Another part of the country favours bright landscapes with texture combed fields. It is no coincidence then that several artists produce similar work.
Steal Like an Artist or Copy?
The pressure to follow another style can be hard to resist if you rely on a gallery. Especially one that needs to make lots of sales quickly. When your gallerist keeps asking for more pixelated-face-paintings you know what is trending. Does this mean you must follow along?
The old advice about stealing like an artist means to you must assimilate what has been done before. Then make it your own unique version. Not copy it. Picasso said bad artists copy, but good artists steal. He also said that art is theft. There it is then. If you want to explore this notion further you will like Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
The Truth About Style
It is not about style at all. What galleries, desperate artists and the general public may think is style is not style. Confused? In one of my workshops I had all the students work from one reference. All the artists painted the same subject. The result? Each painting was markedly different. The same subject, but very different in appearance. No artist was trying to make their painting look like another artist's. The difference is due to style.
What we see when artists churn out the same looking subject matter in the same method is copying. Charitable critics call it derivative. But copying is worse. Derivative is borderline stealing. This is still better than copying, if you follow Picassso's idea.
Signature Works Provide the Clue
You have heard the term an artist's "signature works". This suggests that the artist produces works in a certain style. No matter the subject. Even the materials used will not disguise the style. If you sign your name with a pencil, a crayon and a fountain pen your signature is still recognisable.
Why is this important? Artist must avoid falling into the trap of copying the trend and calling this their style. When the gallery says a certain subject is popular they mean paintings that look like the one that sold. When they want more like that they mean copying. (I generalise to make a point)
What Makes a Great Painting?
What is a better road to follow for the artist? Instead of fretting over style rather focus on the core techniques of good painting. Style tends to take care of itself in the process. Once you achieve mastery over the process of painting you will glimpse greatness.
Greatness comes when the master can tell the story. The message that resonates with the viewer. A communion that reaches beyond technique to your heart. You can see this in a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh for example. But not in a copy or in the latest trend.
Can Every Artist Produce Great Paintings?
Who knows what will happen if you follow excellent painting techniques for a long time. Anything is possible. But for most the music of art will remain elusive. For every Mozart there must be a hundred Salieris. Even thousands. But are we still talking about greatness or something beyond that?
Can we call Mozart great? Or Rembrandt? Were they not much more? If so then mere mortals like you and I may have some hope of creating great paintings one day.
Do this Instead
One thing is for sure. Stop worrying about any particular style. Stop worrying about the trend. Start to look at the strength of your technique, process and how you feel about what you are communicating. Then you will see growth in your art. Paint, persist and thrive.
What do you think?
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Interested in learning more?
Find out how you can use the strong techniques of master artists to develop your unique style. Join me on a workshop or my coaching program as we explore what makes great paintings.
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Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa