Practising art is about improving your skills and knowledge, but it’s also about developing authenticity and beginning to find your art style.
A signature art style can take years to refine. It’s often something that matures and flourishes organically. However, there are ways of getting inspiration, fine-tuning your tastes and evaluating your own work that can make you more aware of how your style is developing. These factors can also inform your practice and encourage you to take your work in new directions to help you find your artistic voice.
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What is an art style?
An artistic style is a personal set of techniques, mediums, approaches, ideas, subject matters, themes and use of colour that makes an artists’ works recognisable as their own. It’s these characteristics that make it unique.
Artists who can be categorised as being in the same art movement, like post-impressionism, share similarities in their work. However, there are notable differences for example between Van Gogh and Monet who were both post-impressionist landscape oil painters. Van Gogh used more striking, contrasting colours with shorter more textured brush strokes. Monet’s paintings are softer, the colours less contrasting and the subject matter is almost exclusively particular kinds of landscapes, often including bodies of water. Monet used a limited palette, with more pastel shades.
Once you start describing other artists’ works, it can make art feel less abstract and more approachable. In turn, this can help you to define your own style.
How do other artists develop their style?
Some artists have strong tastes and a clear style from the offset. This is because they gravitate towards a particular painting medium and have a set of techniques they love using. It may also be because they base their style on a few set influences that have inspired them to paint and therefore shaped their own art applications.
A lot of artists, however, like to experiment. That’s what makes art fun! So usually, as a beginner you may find yourself trialing different drawing and painting mediums, experimenting with a range of techniques. Then after some time, you may find yourself using particular styles, mediums and techniques that people start to recognise as being your own.
Van Gogh is a great example of an artist whose style developed later in his art career. He made most of his famous works in the last few years of his life. He started painting and drawing in much more muted colours, compared to his famous textured, vivid pieces. Van Gogh created just as many paintings in a realistic style early in his career when he lived in Paris, as he did in his Post-Impressionistic style when he lived in Provence. He experimented with painting all manner of subject matter, from portraits to still life paintings, to his famous nocturnes, landscapes and cityscapes.
To find your art style, first master your chosen medium
It’s important to understand the materials you’re using and their working properties. For example, if you choose painting, understanding how pigments combine and interact so you can mix colour effectively. If you want to create detailed paintings in oil or acrylic, you will have to know how to make your paint runny with an added medium and use soft brushes that taper to a point.
Harness the properties of your medium to achieve your desired effects and practice. Read up on our painting guides for beginners, for oil, acrylic and watercolour to get a comprehensive understanding of how to take your skills to intermediate level and beyond.
Find your inspiration
If you’re keen to find your style, look for inspiration. What are your favourite art movements? Which artists’ works do you gravitate towards? Make notes of observations about their paintings and what inspires you. Is it in the texture they use? Or the details? Are you attracted to the way they use colour?
Create your own private mood board of your favourite artists, from contemporary to the Old Masters.
Another great practice is to copy the Old Masters’ paintings. Create a sketch, oil sketch, watercolour painting or small acrylic painting of a famous old painting. Look at works by da Vinci, Vermeer or Rembrandt. You could choose any painting you like. This will force you, not only to develop your observation skills and painting techniques, but to see how you are different from them.
Note down the differences between your copied Old Masterpiece and theirs. There may be details they included that you would have omitted. They may have made their paint more fluid and appear softer than you do. In doing this, it can help you understand your own style better.
Refine your tastes
The amount of art, artists and art movements out there can feel overwhelming if you’re inspired by multiple disparate styles. There are thousands of great artist predecessors and the number of amazing artists seems to be increasing exponentially—especially now that more people have platforms to make their work visible.
If you’re the kind of person who’s inspired by everything, marry techniques and elements that seem to contrast. Paul Klee is a great example of this. He used oil and watercolour paint together. He had a highly recognisable and individual style inspired by surrealism and cubism. It’s unusual to use watercolour and oil together. With his understanding of the working properties of the paint, he was able to create a completely novel technique. He worked by painting oil transfers on paper that resisted watercolour washes, allowing him to combine the two elements.
This is why it’s important to describe aspects of artwork you like. For example, you might like the dynamism and sense of atmosphere J.M.W Turner created with his abstract scumbles. But you may also like the high key, bright pointillism used by Paul Signac. Then you might decide that you want to use soft pastel for drawing.
Then by elegantly combining these aspects and relating the techniques to soft pastel drawing, then using your own references and subject matter and conveying your own themes, you will have something totally unique and never seen before. And of course, you don’t have to take such a top down approach to dictating what your style will be, but I’m just illustrating how researching different artists’ styles and medium choices can over time influence the techniques you try, colours you use and effects you create.
How does colour influence your work?
Are you attracted to bold, bright colours? Or are you inclined to using a muted, sophisticated palette? There may be combinations of colours you come back to again and again. Having an understanding of colour theory and how to use colour schemes in an artwork can help you plan your overall composition and create more harmonious, or impactful pieces with intent.
For example, by using complementary colours (that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel) you can create dynamism and striking effects that people’s attention will instantly be drawn to. By using a more muted colour palette of pigments that can be arranged with their dominant hues as sitting next to one another on the colour wheel, you can create peaceful harmonious effects. This is the psychological impact colour and art can have on viewers.
Many artists choose to paint with a limited palette of colours to create harmony in their work. Anders Zorn was a wonderful example of this. For many of his paintings, he only used three muted forms of the primary colours and white. His palette choice was Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, Ivory Black (which is actually a low chroma blue) and Titanium White. His palette gave him good chromatic range and a large tonal range. It also gave him the ability to mix muted skin tones. The orange-red of the Vermilion pigment often took centre stage.
What subject matter are you drawn to?
It’s important to follow your passion and paint what inspires you. If you love hiking in the mountains, you may want to document the splendour of the landscapes you see in a way that taking a photograph couldn’t portray. You could start by thinking about the perspective and composition. Then study the texture and colours of the rocks and sky if you choose to paint the details. All of this will impact how the landscape is represented, what the focal point of the artwork is, which elements are accentuated and which fade into the background. Paint plein air (outdoors). This way you will really get a feel for the scene before translating it onto the canvas.
A landscape painter, when getting inspiration from nature will be influenced by the sensory input of the sights, sounds and weather. Whereas portrait painters might be drawn to paint the expression on someone’s face and the emotion they convey.
A good place to start when figuring out what you want to paint, is to take photos with your phone or camera. It could be a cityscape view from your window, a plant in the park, or a view from your favourite hiking spot. Taking photos will force you to think of composition and how the elements in the picture interact with one another. If you’re not comfortable with painting outdoors just yet, take these photos back to the studio to paint.
Practice some different techniques
Another way to hone a style as an artist is to use a combination of techniques in a particular way. Using the example of Van Gogh again, he used a technique called impasto. The impasto technique, which can be used with acrylic or oil is the act of applying paint thickly to the canvas. This can be done in short, sharp strokes as Van Gogh did, or to create almost sculptural looking paintings.
Techniques used for oil painting and techniques used for acrylic painting are similar as they are both versatile viscous mediums that can be altered with additives and used to create innumerable separate layers on the surface. Harness the properties of either medium to create transparency or opacity. To create hard edges or soft blended areas. Paint in ultra fine detail, or with thick paint that retains brushstrokes and palette knife marks.
Watercolour is slightly less versatile as it is a runny transparent medium—these characteristics cannot be altered in the same way. Also, watercolour is resoluble when dry, so you would have to add a medium to create separate layers. If not, colours will blend into one another. Experiment with creating different kinds of washes, with lifting colour to create whitespace on the paper, painting wet on wet, dry brushing and scumbling. Read about all the different watercolour techniques you can use to enhance your skills.
If you do want to seriously elevate your art skills, practice painting realism and trying to mix realistic colours. For portrait artists, it’s helpful to read about anatomy before trying to render the human form. Once you’ve learnt to paint by the rules, you can start breaking the rules with control and intent.
Learn from mistakes
The main way artists find their art style is by practising and making mistakes. We learn by failing.
However, it’s useful to read about the medium you’re using to prevent yourself from making mistakes that can be easily avoided. For example, if you paint with oils, you must paint fat over lean. Fat paint is oil rich and lean paint is mixed with solvent. If you paint with thinned paint over oil rich layers, this could cause the painting to crack over time.
So my advice is to spend some time learning good habits and best practices. Then put this knowledge to the test and try to regularly critique your own work. Take a step back from your painting and ask what you’d do better next time. You could even get people you know to give you some constructive criticism. As you paint more and more, you will look back at your first pieces and notice how much you’ve improved.
Analyse your own work
It’s feels amazing to finish an artwork you’ve spent hours on. A good tip is to sleep on it, then come back to it the next day with a fresh perspective. Think of how you would describe your own artwork. Are there themes, techniques or use of colours that keep cropping up in each piece? Have you used very fluid paint with soft blends, or do you use more striking texture? Start writing an artists’ bio, about your influences and how it impacts on your style.
Build a body of work
Create a collection! This is a really fun thing to do when you feel ready. Plan five or more paintings or drawings that are united by a single theme or message. For example, you could create a portrait collection.
Display your collection on social media, like Instagram, Pinterest or Behance. Set up an online portfolio by creating a website. This way, if anyone’s interested in looking at your work, or buying a piece, they have a single place to refer to. Add your artists’ bio to your portfolio to give others an idea of what you do. Building a collection can help you to evolve your style quickly. For your next set of artworks, you could take it in a slightly different direction.
Engage with the arts community
There are so many incredibly talented artists who are active on social media.
Instagram is a great platform to use to find artists to support. Follow their profiles and get updates on what they’re painting. You can find artists at a similar point in their journey to you and support one another. Just a comment or like can give someone else the encouragement to carry on painting. If you like an artists’ painting—tell them. People appreciate their work being recognised and it creates a positive sense of community on these channels.
Find niches within the broader arts community. Look for hashtags to follow on Instagram. If you’re interested in oil landscapes, you can look for artworks tagged in this category. By posting your artworks tagged with relevant hashtags, people interested in what you’re doing will be able to find you.
Pinterest is another great network to share your work and find other artists. If you’re worried about art being shared or ‘repinned’ without attribution, put a watermark with your website name over the artwork. Use a free tool like Canva to add in the watermark.
Go to galleries and shows and talk to other artists. It can help to join an arts class and engage with others who are at a similar skill level and working to improve in similar ways too. Engaging with the community in this way can help you find your niche and get recognised for what you enjoy doing.
Give yourself time to doodle
What do you draw or paint when there’s no judgement, no instruction and you’re essentially just playing with the materials? Make time for freeform expression. Often when we’re trying to improve a skill, we create goals or try to set up a routine that starts to feel too regimented. It’s important to remember that we start drawing or painting because it’s enjoyable and because we want to feel that creative flow that comes from doing an activity to relax.
Artists can learn a lot from letting go and just putting pigment to paper. You might find a new method or way of applying paint that you wouldn’t have otherwise found if you were practising a set of taught skills.
Finding an art style for most people is an organic process. For a lot of artists, it’s something they discover, not decide. So go with the flow, create what you enjoy. With learning any new skill, there will be challenges, frustrations and obstacles, but the most important thing is to feel passionate about what you’re doing. It will keep you riding through the times when you feel uninspired and through short periods where your skills are plateauing.
It takes time to find your art style. A style is not something that you need to put pressure on yourself to develop. It’s something that will come naturally. Art is for the enjoyment of the process, so you don’t have to force yourself to be too repetitive if that’s not your thing. Let me know in the comments what art styles you like and what has helped you develop your artistic voice!
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