Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Find Your Own Individual Art Style?

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“How do you find your own individual style?”

Style is important as a visual artist, it’s essentially what distinguishes you from other artists, and what keeps your work looking professional, cohesive, and focused.  The greatest artists throughout history had styles that were incredibly distinctive and unique. Think about someone like Hieronymus Bosch, who was so far ahead of his time in the 15th century with his surrealistic scenes densely packed with human figures doing all sorts of strange and bizarre acts. Once you’ve seen one Bosch painting, you can spot another a mile away.

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch


Or, consider an artist like Giotto, whose frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel revolutionized the way that emotions were articulated through the form, lighting, and color of the gesture of the human figures. Many times, the cultural context and time period has a lot to do with whether art artist’s style is distinctive. Giotto’s frescos may not seem so unusual to the contemporary viewer. However, within the context of his time period, by comparison, no other artists were painting faces that expressed such an intense, outward pouring out of emotion. In this way, his paintings distinguished themselves from all of the other artwork being created in that time.

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Frescos at the Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto


In an artist’s style, there are usually defined characteristics, a specific means of handling a media, or repeated strategies in an artist’s style that are consistently visible in every artwork.  When I think about the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whimsical, expressive, black and white portraits drawn with fluid, organic lines are signature visual features of his work. Once you’ve seen a few Al Hirschfeld drawings, his style is so distinctive that you can spot them from a mile away.

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Ella Fitzgerald, by Al Hirschfeld


Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was known for his startlingly realistic oil paintings which used chiaroscuro lighting and bold gestures in his figures to create an atmosphere of intense drama. Compared to the idealized and sanitized versions of figurative oil paintings that preceded Caravaggio’s work, Caravaggio’s oil paintings emphasized a grittier, more flawed view of figures.

For example,  Caravaggio’s depictions of Christ portrayed him as an ordinary man, looking as if he lived in our world.  This was a direct opposition to previous depictions of the time period Caravaggio lived in, where Christ was always painted to appear as an otherworldly figure who did not look like an real person. Caravaggio depicted the “ugly” side of real life:  he took the time to paint the dirt on someone’s foot, and heightened unflattering wrinkles in someone’s forehead with tremendous detail.  Given the environment and time period Caravaggio lived in, these visual decisions were incredibly different, and greatly distinguished his paintings from other works created during the same time period.  Think about any notable artist from art history, and it’s usually fairly easy to sum up their style with some key adjectives.

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The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio


This may sound like a contradiction, but I strongly believe that the best way to find your own individual style is to try out as many different ways of working as possible.  I teach freshman drawing at RISD, where I encourage my students to explore and try out different identities for themselves.  Many students arrive at art school with very little experience working in diverse media and approaches, so this foundation is critical towards laying a premise for their artistic careers.

I push the students to dramatically shift their approaches within one semester. One week they’re learning how to make highly detailed and rendered images, the next week they’re working in a loose, painterly style. If you were to hang up all of the drawings by a single student onto one wall at the end of the semester, you would swear that you were looking at drawings by ten different people. For a first year art school student, that’s a wonderful accomplishment because what they’ve done is they’ve essentially learned multiple visual languages that they will have access to for the rest of their lives. This set of drawings below were all created by one student within a single semester, you can see that there is an incredible range of different styles, even though the pieces are all by the same student.

I want my students to achieve a versatility that will empower them to become anything that they want to be.  By directly experiencing all of these different languages, you can build an overall understanding of everything that is out there. Only by exploring the range of options can you then narrow your focus onto what it is you want to be.

If you’re looking for ideas for art projects, check out our Monthly Art Dares, where we assign a prompt to create an artwork each month. Often times many students who are interested in studying art have a strong desire, but are at a loss for where to even begin.  That’s why our monthly Art Dares are a great place to start:  we provide the launching pad and you decide where your final destination will be.


The most common mistake that I see all the time is people trying to force a style on themselves prematurely. I went to art school with a peer who was remarkably talented and seemed capable of doing just about anything. Throughout his time in art school, he experimented with many different media, and worked fluidly in contrasting styles. Everything he did was original, inventive, and beautifully crafted.  However, when he graduated and started working professionally after school, all of that changed immediately. He quickly forced this very commercial style on himself and did some of the worst work that I had seen him do in years.  The work lacked the same original spirit and enthusiasm and looked generic and derivative.

Style doesn’t develop overnight, it’s a gradual process that can take years to emerge.  The process of finding your style is very slow, and you need to develop serious skills in patience.  Allow your style to naturally evolve.  Attempts to force a style on yourself will end up looking contrived and dishonest.

Below are several videos that discuss how I developed my stylistic approach to a series of drawings of elderly figures.


Keep in mind that style is not just about the way your artwork looks, the subject matter that you communicate and represent in your artwork is just as important.  Artists are known throughout history for the interaction of their technique and the ideas they wanted to communicate.  The visual look of an artwork is meaningless if there is no concept, motivation, or purpose behind the creation of the artwork. That’s why it’s important that while you experiment and hone a diverse range of skills, that you also work on your ability to brainstorm, develop, and ultimately execute a finished artwork that has a solid and intriguing subject.

Below is a video tutorial where I demonstrate how to get started brainstorming an idea, transitioning an idea into thumbnail sketches, and then realizing that idea into a finished drawing.

Once you do find a style that works, it doesn’t mean that the creative process ends there.  If you only stick to that one style forever, you may as well be a trained monkey who can only do one trick. It certainly does work for some people, and there are definitely people out there who are very successful doing that one trick. Historically, the most compelling artists have been the ones who are constantly reinventing and transforming themselves.

matisse

Collage by Matisse


Look at Picasso:  even after the smashing success Picasso had with Cubism, he kept innovating, experimenting, and pushing new ideas.   He created new pieces that were vastly different from Cubism, like his bull’s head made from a reconfigured bike seat. Matisse went from oil paintings to paper cut outs at the end of his life. Degas switched from pastel drawings and oil paintings to figure sculpture when he started to lose his eye sight at the end of his life. These artists weren’t satisfied to be limited to one way of working for the rest of their lives, and were willing to take major risks with their work to transform into something new.

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“Bull’s Head” by Picasso, 1942


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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23 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Find Your Own Individual Art Style?

  1. Hi Clara,

    You talked about your friend who experimented with many different styles and forced a particular approach after he graduated. As a commercial illustrator, I have heard that it is better to have one style that can be sellable to clients. It seems that a wide variety of work isn’t always a positive in the professional world. Or maybe I’m looking at this in the wrong way, and its the way that an artist shows their portfolio that matters so that even if they have a range, they are able to display it correctly.

    I’m in Illustration right now and I have been trying to experiment with different majors by taking classes in printmaking, painting, and ceramics. Although it is invigorating to continuously explore new mediums, when you try too many things–its harder to master one subject. For example, a peer who has been just steadily doing digital illustration has progressed immensely while I have been exploring with different random mediums. Therefore, her artwork achieves a much more finished and concise state.

    • Hi Dianna,
      You bring up an excellent point, and you’re absolutely right that as an illustrator in the professional world you need to promote one style to clients. At a certain point, it doesn’t make sense to be jumping all over the place trying out different things. If you do this for too long, like you said, it can be confusing and difficult to focus. So the question becomes, when do you make the shift from experimenting with everything to focusing more? I think once you start feeling like you’re being pulled in too many different directions, and not benefiting from all of the experimentation, it’s a signal that it’s time to buckle down and concentrate on one thing.

      I do think there’s a difference between forcing a style on yourself and simply focusing on one media or topic. For example, when I was a senior in the illustration department at RISD I was interested in becoming a professional portrait painter. I focused intensely on the subject of portraiture, but experimented with various styles and media. Working in lithography, drawing, and painting I explored contrasting approaches in portraiture. One can also do the same thing with media, for example your peer who is working in digital illustration could experiment within that media. This allows experimentation to occur within the limits of of that media, all the while developing a sharper grasp of the media.

      The way you present yourself is key as well, I see artist websites all the time where they say they’re a “fine artist-children’s book illustrator-graphic designer-sculptor” and have thin galleries to represent each genre. I don’t recommend posting everything that you’ve ever made online, this only generates confusion for clients. It’s important to edit your portfolio and present it in a focused, cohesive fashion.

      Hope that helps, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for this article. I am writing this down as a daily reminder: “Style doesn’t develop overnight, it’s a gradual process that can take years to emerge. The process of finding your style is very slow, and you need to develop serious skills in patience. Allow your style to naturally evolve. Attempts to force a style on yourself will end up looking contrived and dishonest.” Exterior pressure is style destroyer imo. You have to resist shortcuts.
    My personal experience is having started my journey as an artist in 2005 at age 27. For the first few years I worked on mastering sculpture technique. Different techniques but not style (style always develop to some extent but it wasn’t my focus at all). Interestingly I gradually lost my drive for creating, then found it again after last Summer, this time I have been in an intense style research and have to say that I feel overwhelmed because I love many styles and… I have just started with painting. I tended to think (and pressure myself) that my next two pieces are going to be key, that I have to affirm a strong style… But maybe they shouldn’t be “more” than two other exploration in order to get mileage, letting style happen gradually. The best advice I ever got is “try to stay ignored for as long as you can, because you need time to develop as an artist.” Let’s work, be patient and let this all happen. 🙂

  3. Hi, I’m trying to find the name of a type of art. Our professor wants us to fine an artist we admire and are interested in and try to understand their techniques. I know what I like, the problem is that I don’t know what its called to find any artist! I’m into dark paintings, kind of Gothic without much color. A pretty woman in the center, a frame around her, something suggesting death or agony. I’ve seen these kind of things around instagram (and my sketchbook!) but nowhere else. My professor suggested “art nouveau” and I guess what I do is kind of similar to that, except much darker and the women’s features might be a bit more exaggerated. I’m really lost! Sorry if this isn’t relevant to the post, but I really do need help. This project is due after tomorrow.
    Thank you!

  4. If you are trying to develop your portfolio for submission to art directors, agents, etc, should you wait to do so until you have a definitive style that is uniquely you…which as you pointed out can take years to develop. Or, do you submit the best work you have to date even though your style isn’t yet fully formed?

    • Art directors and agents are always looking for a cohesive looking portfolio. If your portfolio is too diverse, they will be confused about what kind of artist you are, which is actually a detriment to getting hired. It’s hard to say exactly what to do without seeing your work, but I think if you can, better to wait and submit stronger work than to submit before your work is ready.

  5. Hi, Ms. Clara,

    I have several questions I want to ask but I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you by sending them all at once. But anyway, my first question would be: I’m a 22-year-old female and currently unemployed. I graduated university with a degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts major in Industrial Design. When I was younger, I drew a lot. I even used to paint. But as I grew older, my interest in making art diminished. I wanted to take up a science-related course but my mother forced me into taking up Industrial Design instead and barely passed. Currently, however, I have no choice but to find a job that is suited to my course and where I will be happy with having to stay there for at least 5 years. My question would be this, how can I bring back my interest in making art? I just need at least enough needed to survive employment.

    I’m really sorry for the lengthy message but I’m really desperate and frustrated now.

    Thank you and more power!

  6. Hi Denise / Clara
    Very cool book on the topic of getting that creative spark back is “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron…for any creative in any field, it helped me tremendously to get back on track in terms of my Creative output.

    Thanks Clara for the informative article & I also enjoyed reading the comments.
    laters!

  7. Pingback: 5 Tips From Portfolio Day | art. college. life.

  8. Clara!
    Really great read! I especially agree with what you said here “I think the best way to find your own individual style is to try out as many different ways of working as possible.”

    The only real way to gain global recognition for your work in terms of style is practicing on it everyday, trying new things and following your gut. This article was very helpful when I was writing my own theories behind developing a unique artistic style on my blog at http://lettershoppe.com/the-secret-behind-finding-your-unique-voice-and-style

    Thank you and keep up the great content!

  9. Hi there!
    Just want to thank you very much for this article! I have been struggling a bit lately trying to find my unique style, I felt it was all over the place! I was experimenting willy-nilly. But thanks to your article I now see that it’s a good thing 🙂 I will keep experimenting until I discover what I really like and can hone in on that.
    Cheers!
    Marigold

  10. Developing a style to me is: know your mark (the way you draw since kindergarden. of course you improve with practice, but some thing never change, just like the colour of you eyes), draw spontaneously and include element from other artist you think will improve your drawing.

  11. Hello!
    I really appreciated this article it gave me a clear sense of how I would describe my situation of finding my “own individual style”. For years, I would consider myself as someone who loves to draw (mostly anime) but the problem is I draw anything I see that would make me jump to it! My lecturer describes my work as ‘photorealism’ by looking at an image and reproducing it as realistically as possible that befits me I guess. However, because of this I struggle to find and focus on one drawing style. I love to look at anime imagery and copy it but I lack originality in my drawings because i’ll go off and look for ideas then end up copying someone else’s work unintentionally. It’s a real pain to be honest and I also seem to jump styles – from geometrical shapes to anime. I would think it has something to do with my interests? then spending hours coming up with an idea and not being fully pleased with the outcome (I am a perfectionist). Sorry if i’m rambling but it is what’s bothering me the most in my daily life. I just want to be able to create my own original drawings. Is there a solution to my situation?

  12. Hi!
    Thank you so much for this really helpfull article!but i still have many questions!i always was wondering how some of my classmates started to have a conceptual style while they are not able to draw everything well by pencil yet!and i was thinking that im so behind them that im still working on my realistic drawings!im 18 and i graduated from art school last year!im good at drawing and in the school my teacher was satisfied by my drawings but she told me once that i havn’t got a special style that when people are looking at my drawings they can undrestand they’re mine!from that time till now i always was thinking how can i get my own style and how to be a great artist!i want my artworks to have a meaning and not just draw anything i saw around me! I want to be creative and draw the things that are in my mind!but im not succeeded yet!i dont know how to bring the things that are in my mind on a paper in a way that is realistic and understandble and not funny!you may not believe me but that is changed to sth that im suffering from in my life!and i can’t even have connection with my classmates in the art school cause they remind me those days which i don’t like!i don’t wanna suffer from my own major!i wanna enjoy it!but i can’t! Please help me!
    Sorry for making it too long!

  13. This is not as difficult and mysterious as people make it out to be. I’ll reiterate the question. How does one find or develop a style? It’s easy. Style emerges out of concept. Find your concept, and work out the style according to its parameters.

  14. Hi everyone, I’m 27 and I graduated from art school 3 years ago, I used to paint and draw a lot, I think while I was a student I tried every single style and subject and I still haven’t found my own style. On school people told me my surreal paintings where so like me but then I just liked to improvise depending of the task, I will appreciate any comments or criticism on my of what you think it’s original or anything will help my old portafolio website it’s here if anyone will like to help, thanks so much. Please reply or send a mail to andisacharms@gmail.com

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