How Do I Develop A Personal Painting Style?

What is it that makes a painting meaningful and gives it a personal touch or style? Most artists spend a lot of time and effort practicing technical skills and learning technique. They study and practice to improve their competence.

Nevertheless, a well-executed painting, even if technically perfect, can be lifeless and without feeling. What exactly do we mean by style? How can an artist paint with feeling?

CHOOSE SUBJECT MATTER AND INTERPRET IT:

Style is more than the SUBJECT MATTER an artist chooses to paint, although it begins there. Style includes a personal INTERPRETATION of a subject. Each of us will see and describe a scene in a somewhat different way. When we paint, we hope to express our own POINT OF VIEW, our FEELINGS about the scene. By omitting or SIMPLIFYING details that seem unimportant and highlighting other details, you can focus on what is important to you. You might make an effort to limit your reliance on reference material, at least to some extent, to allow for more interpretation. Decide what touches you about a scene, rather than blindly copying (without thinking) all the details of what is before you. Do this, and you will begin to develop your ‘style.’ Tell your own story!

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GET TO KNOW YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND LET THEM SHOW:

It is not easy to create art that expresses your feelings and personality. You may need to get to know yourself better and begin to identify what truly interests and excites YOU. Instead of copying other artists by painting what they paint in the way they paint it, don’t be afraid to do it your way. What makes you an individual is what will give your painting style. It’s your feeling about a work that helps the viewer to connect, on an emotional level, to your picture. Strive to show an imaginative, original, unusual, perhaps even surprising, viewpoint. Experiment!

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PAINT BOLDLY:

TIMIDITY and FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES are two obstacles to developing your painting style. When you paint with hesitation and uncertainty, you tend to create tight, stiff, overworked images. Strive to loosen your BRUSH STROKES, painting more BOLDLY and with LARGER brushes. Small brushes make it too easy to paint minute details, leaving nothing to the imagination of the viewer. Instead, suggest and omit nonessential details, thus allowing a viewer to become involved in imagining and filling in ambiguous specifics for themselves. One technique to increase viewer connection is the use of LOST AND FOUND EDGES in painting. (For example, vary your edges by using hard edges as well as soft or disappearing edges to create interest in your picture.)

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USE COLOR IN YOUR OWN WAY:

COLOR CHOICES can play an important part in developing your style. The paint pigments on your palette affect the feel and flavor of your paintings. The Zorn palette, for instance, created and used often by Anders Zorn, consists of primarily four colors: yellow ochre, ivory black, vermillion, and titanium white. Vincent Van Gogh, on the other hand, tended to prefer other color combinations, as did Johannes Vermeer and Claude Monet.

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CAREFULLY OBSERVE AND EMPHASIZE SUBTLETIES:

Beyond the colors on your palette, style also depends on how you ’SEE’ what you choose to paint AND how you might choose to EXAGGERATE subtler colors. (For more information on ‘seeing’, check out my blog post entitled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.) Painting with style thus involves looking carefully and analytically at a subject, and taking the time to observe. Without careful looking, your paint colors can tend to be flat, conventional, tired, and uninteresting. We have all seen beginners who paint trees or grass an unvaried, unnatural green. Strive instead to observe subtle color variations which are almost always there to be seen. Further, use your imagination to emphasize some of the subtler, more elusive colors to suggest to your viewer WHAT YOU FEEL about your subject.

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CAPTURE THE LIGHT:

Observing and capturing the QUALITY OF LIGHT in an everyday scene will help you to paint with style and feeling. Again, study your subject and really look for the nuances and subtle variations of light at different times of day and in different locations. Light affects how everything appears, whether it be the strong golden light of summer or the soft purple-gray mist of a rainy day. Shadows, whether cast or reflected, also tend to have rich and subtle color variations that you will want to get across to the viewer of your art.

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IN SUMMARY:

One artist will interpret a scene differently from another. In choosing the essentials and leaving out unimportant details, a painter begins to develop a personal style. Further, your selection of colors, materials, and techniques to use in painting will be unique, contributing to your style. Over time, each of us develops our own characteristic and distinctive shorthand for dealing with familiar objects; these habits can become recognizable. For instance, I often paint trees by scumbling the leaves, and I use lots of dry brush when painting rocks and stone walls. An artist’s selections, simplifications, and techniques are individual, making style a natural evolution within an artist’s work. However, to develop style fully, you must move on from simply considering materials and techniques to delving deeper and getting to know yourself and what you value. Be sure to express your feelings about a picture; be creativeRemember, your style is yours!

To delve even deeper into the subject of creativity, check out my blog posts entitled “Fostering Creativity” (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/,  and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”  (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy!

Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays.  The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, raw, cool, and trendy; that realistic painting is merely like a copy of a photograph.

Well, realistic painting (the seemingly straightforward representation of objects as they appear in the physical world) can be every bit as CREATIVE as making an abstract image.  Good realistic painting has a great deal in common with abstraction.  Paintings of each type may assume different positions on a continuum from more realistic to more abstract, but both need to use sound structural designs (that is, well-organized images) to be effective.  Good design directs the viewer’s eye through the picture by using shapes, line, color, edges, value, and manipulation of space.  Planning and structuring your painting do not stifle your creativity.

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Artist Georgia O’Keefe commented on the dispute over realism versus abstraction:  “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract.  Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense.  A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree.  It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.”  Even the ideal subject must be shaped and adapted to fit the idea and emotion the artist wants to express.  Copying an image exactly without determining a focal point or eliminating distracting details does not improve that image.  Painting does not involve simply copying what you see; slavishly reproducing an image is not the goal.  To create good realistic art, you need to make it PERSONAL.  Your art needs to reveal what you want to say and what the image/scene means to you.  The goal for most realistic painters should be to combine the realistic image with a distinctive INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTION and expression of the subject.  You must select and arrange colors, lines, shapes, and other design elements.  You can create an unusual color scheme; use a dramatic value contrast; emphasize texture, pattern, or line.  As an artist, you transform the subject by filtering it through unconscious thought processes so that it reflects your past experiences and personal beliefs.

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If something intrigues you, it is worthy of your interest and of your audience’s interest.  Explore any subject if you feel you have something to say about it.  You paint best what you know best.  One artist may seem successful at selecting unusual subject matter.  Another artist may be a people person and prefer portraits.  Yet another may enjoy the refreshing feeling of landscapes.

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In the classroom, students often copy the work of other artists.  Copying can be useful for practicing skills and techniques – that is, as a way of learning – but a number of pitfalls to copying can emerge.  It is difficult, for instance, to capture the emotion expressed by the artist who made the original.  You might also simply copy mistakes or poor techniques without being aware of those flaws.  Furthermore, copying prevents you from learning to organize a picture on your own; some people become dependent on copying.  Since the creative experience is missing when you copy, you need to move beyond copying to become a creative artist.

Much better sources for images to paint are your own photographs.  However, you need to adapt even your own photographs when you use them as source material; remember that even a well-composed photograph needs editing to become an effective, forceful painting.  Also try working from life to design your own picture.  Observe carefully.  Pick and choose, simplify and rearrange until you have transformed a literal image to fit your impression.  Leave out distracting or extraneous details.  Focus on essentials to turn nature into art.  Use your memories to visualize something that isn’t there now, and imagine or invent something if you think it would make a good picture.  In any case, strive to be selective and imaginative rather than literal.

In composing your picture, think about what you want to say.  You might make a list of descriptive words that characterize your subject; include details about its physical appearance and qualities that make it unique or interesting to you.  These could be related to mood or emotion.  Brainstorm as many ideas as possible; then narrow these down to one clear meaning – this is your concept, what you want to say.  Concentrate on this meaning; you can have only one focal point.  Start with the real, but enhance it!

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Creativity Can Be Learned!

CREATIVITY CAN BE LEARNED!

By adopting a creative outlook, you open yourself up to both new possibilities and to change.   You become able to find new answers, new solutions, and new ideas.  A creative mind can transform one thing into another – can look at the same thing as everyone else but think something different.  Creative artists can change their perspective and, by using their knowledge and experience, can make the ordinary extraordinary.  Creative ideas come from manipulating and transforming your resources, and you can choose from many creative techniques and strategies when transforming those materials. The stages of this creative process include identifying, preparing, incubating, reaching a breakthrough, and finding a resolution.  In the preparation stage, techniques for modifying and changing your vision can include comparing, reversing, connecting, imagining, eliminating, and rearranging.

Everyone has the potential to be creative.  In other words, with a little effort, you can increase your level of creativity.  The quickest way to kill your creativity, however, is to think you have neither talent nor creativity.  Believing that you have insurmountable limitations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In other words, if you think you are not creative, you hesitate to try, and – sure enough – you fail to be creative.

Instead, believe in yourself.  Attitude is important!  Develop your skills: skills build confidence.  Improve your drawing, and practice your painting techniques.  Improvement comes with practice.  Emphasize the fun of creating rather than the achievement of results.  Try to notice the good things you’ve done, and don’t dwell on mistakes.  Set yourself achievable goals, and persevere.

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Try new things, and expose yourself to new ideas.  Look at artwork in museums and galleries and at art fairs.  Read books and magazines.  Look around you, and observe.  New experiences stimulate your imagination.  Similarly, vary your routines, and do the unexpected.  CHANGE jumpstarts your creative thinking, and creativity becomes more accessible when you can begin to act more impulsively in your life.  Change a problem by sneaking up on it from a different direction.  You can try something fresh – a new way with an old theme, a different point of view, a new technique.

A childlike playfulness allows you to relax your mind so that creative images come to you.  IMAGINATION plays a large part in the process.  Take a few minutes every day to work on freeing up your imagination.  Think of this as a way of stretching your creative muscles, getting them limber.  You should aim for a state of relaxed attention, when you can be free of interruptions.  Let yourself daydream, and empty your mind of all the distracting “clutter” of chores or things that need to be done.  (Natalie Goldberg calls this negative state of mind “monkey mind.”)  Allow spontaneous images to come and go.  These images express your connections with your inner self, and that connection is what creativity is all about.

OBSERVING AND BEING AWARE of what is around you is important to developing your creativity as well.  People tend to look at things without really seeing them.  They block out the unfamiliar and allow access only to what they feel comfortable with.  (See my blog dated 12/18/18, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, at leemuirhaman.com.)  Try to focus your awareness on what is around you and discover things you may have overlooked, details that others don’t see.  CHANGING YOUR FOCUS increases your creativity.  Train yourself to look closely and refocus.

While no subject is totally new (everybody has painted water or mountains or trees), your unique experiences and observations influence everything you paint or draw.  You modify, add to, or subtract from what is there to make something new.  Your subject often chooses you.  It doesn’t matter how ordinary the subject is: what you bring to it that is new is YOURSELF.  Your point of view is different from everyone else’s.  Tap your inner resources to find your responses to life’s experiences.  What makes you happy, angry, calm, nostalgic?  Use your EYE, MIND, AND HEART in your artwork.  Strive to make your art your own and not to copy; copying denies your uniqueness.  When you paint or draw, you are making visible something that you might not be able to express in words, something that combines how the subject appears to you with what you think about it and how you react to it emotionally.

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There are definite steps to the creative process, whether they occur over a long period of time or happen very quickly.  The first step in the creative process involves the IDENTIFICATION of the subject or problem to be solved (for example, selecting what to paint or learning a new technique).  Nothing creative can happen until you recognize what you want to do.

The PREPARATION step follows, during which you consider many possible solutions.  You may make a thumbnail sketch, plan color schemes, consider altering the composition by eliminating or adding components, decide on the placement of a focal point.  You also consider the mood, time of day, and season of the year for the painting.  In watercolor painting, most of this THINKING AND DESIGNING phase is done before you start to paint.  It is advisable to decide exactly what you are trying to do and consider possible plans of attack.

In the INCUBATION phase, you set the project aside for a time.  All the information that you accumulated and thought about in the preparation stage needs to be sorted in your unconscious mind.  This stage may take only minutes while you organize your paints or take a quick break.  On the other hand, it may take a much longer time for all the information to gel into a final solution.

BREAKTHROUGH is the next stage in the creative process, when the solution/plan becomes apparent.  Your solution does not come out of the blue fully formed but is a result of all of your previous thinking.  At this point, RESOLUTION completes the process, and you’re ready to try your solution and see how it works.

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Okay, so you’re ready to be more creative!  Where do you find ideas?  If you can observe carefully, approach your art playfully, and not concern yourself with the approval of other people, you will discover painting ideas everywhere you go.  Ideas are in familiar places like libraries, malls, food markets, farmers’ markets, coffee shops, the beach; at work, in newspapers or magazines, at museums, galleries, art fairs, at home, in sunlight or moonlight, outside on a walk or inside looking out the window.  If you can change your focus to discover things you may have overlooked  and things that others don’t notice, you will have many images and ideas come to your attention.  Some images will interest you more than others, because we each have different passions.  It is helpful to get in touch with yourself and come to understand what issues and ideas are important to you.  Are you repeatedly drawn to animals in their natural surroundings or to baby animals?  Do you enjoy images of the hustle and bustle of the city or see people as isolated in the city?  Do you find connections between the grandeur and power of nature and an individual human?  The subjects that suddenly surface in your mind and pique your curiosity are usually topics you feel strongly about, and thus they will likely be excellent topics for you to paint.  If it feels good, paint it!

The faculty of creating is never given to us all by itself.  It always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation.  And the true creator may be recognized by his ability to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note.

Igor Stravinsky, The Poetics of Music

Get In The Mood!

Mood is only one of the important effects we create in our efforts as artists to get our viewers to see what we want them to see. (Other main effects that we use include unity, dominance [or emphasis], variety, contrast, gradation, transitions, perspective, balance, rhythm and movement, pattern, and so on.) Establishing a mood will bring character and interest to your painting, while enhancing your subject. MOOD is the pervasive feeling evoked by your painting — for example, calm tranquility or languid, hazy heat. Mood conveys emotion to your viewer.

To intentionally create a different mood (also sometimes called ATMOSPHERE) in your painting, you might manipulate COLORS, VALUES, or CLARITY. To think about this issue more simply, you might consider first whether you want your picture to have a warm or cool feel to it ( COLORS lean toward warm or cool temperatures – see The Paint Colors and Brands on My Palette…, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/08/28/the-paint-colors-and-brands-on-my-palette/,  my blog published 8/28/18.); then you could decide on the dominant VALUE ( lightness or darkness, such as ‘bright and cheery’ or perhaps ‘dark and foreboding’); then, you could define the CLARITY (level of detail) you hope to achieve.

You could also create mood by manipulating the SPATIAL DESIGN of a picture. For instance, a large empty expanse in a painting could be used to create a sense of ease or openness, or even bleakness or emptiness. Converging lines could be used to make the viewer feel confined, closed in, or up close to a subject. To suggest calm and tranquility, keep your main lines HORIZONTAL, with one or two vertical lines to break up the monotony. (Water in a calm scene should be smooth, with mirror-like reflections, and with clouds echoing the predominance of horizontal line.) Strident VERTICAL lines will enhance feelings of awe, even fear. (Crags and mountainsides can appear intimidating, castles will seem impregnable, especially if trees, dwellings, or figures below are made smaller.) Strong DIAGONALS suggest a sense of dynamism and movement, and diagonally directed clouds with ragged edges will produce a sensation of strong winds and restlessness. (Diagonals guided toward the focal point emphasize its importance.)

Both value and clarity will determine the lighting in your painting, which in turn, will tell you the intensity of the colors you should use.  It is the literal atmosphere that creates figurative ‘atmosphere.’ For instance, the amount of humidity, snow, rain, dust, or fog in the air determines the quality of light that gets through it, as well as the colors and amount of detail we see. Think coastal fogs, dark clouds, or misty mountains! Mood often has a tonal range or value – these ranges can be described as low key, high key or middle key. A low key painting would be dark and could give a viewer a heavy or somber feeling. A high key picture would instead have a bright and cheerful effect. A middle key painting uses a wider range of values which could be used to create a wider variety of moods.

If you want a bright, sunny picture (also called high key) with sharp clarity, you want to use colors that are mostly pure. Do a lot of wet-on-dry painting for sharpness, show distant detail, and use shadows and highlights. In contrast, if you are striving for fog or haze, most of the colors you  use will be dulled because of subdued lighting. Use wet-on-damp techniques to produce soft edges, and flatten the background shapes so that they have few details. In this way, atmosphere contributes to ‘mood.’

Why should you worry about mood? Why should you care whether you create a specific mood in a painting?  Painters care about mood because a watercolor painting without a mood is dry, generic, uninteresting, and without feeling!  Try to move beyond a mere representation or photographic copy of objects in your art. Rather than precisely copying every detail in a picture, you should aim to suggest and imply.  While creating ‘mood,’ strive to interpret a scene by choosing the details to include and the ones to leave out. There is no need to tell the viewer everything! Mood adds drama and appeal. Allow each viewer to see something different, to use THEIR imagination, to feel their own emotion, and to participate in your painting. By creating mood and atmosphere when you paint, you will be on your way to creating a visual poetry that stirs deep feeling in your audience.

I Have an Image I’d Like to Paint. Now Where Do I Start?

As you approach a painting, it is absolutely vital that you think hard about what you’re doing. You can avoid many problems if you PLAN ahead and think through the sequence of painting steps. Before you begin to paint, you must stop and analyze the subject to be painted.  Learn to ask yourself some basic questions.  First, determine what it is you want to show and what you want to say about your subject. Why did you choose to paint this picture? Why were you drawn to this image? Does your image remind you of a favorite place?  Does the picture make you feel calm? Do you feel like laughing when you look at your subject?

Think about your MOOD. How does the scene make you feel? Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? Respond to your emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions! For instance, does your painting depict hay being baled and loaded onto a truck on a sweltering hot, hazy summer day?  Can you just imagine your clothes clinging to you and your skin itching where loose hay sticks to your sweaty skin? You would definitely be looking forward to a tall glass of cold iced tea later while sitting in the shade! The mood and setting of this kind of picture should suggest certain paint color choices and techniques to you. You might use rich, warm summer greens for trees, ochres to show for dried grasses, bright, warm blues in a sky full of billowing cumulus clouds. In the distance, details might be a bit soft, paler, and obscured by the haze and humidity.  Cloud formations and vegetation during sunny high summer have certain characteristics they do not usually show during other seasons or weather conditions.

Come up with a plan of attack. Remember that there is not just one way to paint a scene! What approach are you drawn to? Will you paint background first? Do you want to paint all your underlayers first? Have some idea of what you want to do, but be open to adapting your plans as you proceed. Feel free to rearrange objects to strengthen your composition. You can also change the atmosphere, season, time of day, or direction of the light source in your picture. Decide on a center of interest to anchor your painting; then in view of what you choose as your focus, pick what details you will emphasize and what elements you will remove. It is best to SIMPLIFY your image – learn to really look at your picture and see Shapes, Values, Edges, and Color Changes – instead of “clouds,” “trees,” “roads,”or “faces.”  Then, ELIMINATE some things. Sometimes less is more! Don’t copy every detail you see – filter the details through your own eyes. Wouldn’t a few details be more interesting than having everything in precise imitation of the reality? (If you detail everything, you have NOT created a CENTER OF INTEREST to draw the eye of the viewer.)  Making such choices is one of the important steps in moving from being a painter to being an ARTIST. Your painting should share your impression of and emotions about a scene. You should not be striving for a rote photographic copy that expresses no feeling.

Once you determine the mood of your painting and think about what paint colors and techniques would give your painting the desired feeling, you can progress to make a light pencil sketch of a few IMPORTANT details of the image. Consider whether you intend to save the white of the paper with masking fluid before you begin painting. With masking complete, decide which parts of your painting you will paint first and with what techniques. Every picture is different, so in a way you will need to be a bit of a detective. If you enjoy puzzles, as I do, figuring out how you proceed through a painting can be an enjoyable challenge. The goal is to have a PLAN, with the construction of your painting broken down into small, manageable steps from the start to the finish of the process.

Often I begin a painting by painting the sky. If there is no sky to paint, I tend to start with the background and work gradually toward the foreground, painting light colors prior to darker colors, building up layers to create shape and form. Watercolor is seldom painted as one layer. I like to have light colors surrounded by dark, or vice versa, to create emphasis and impact, and to attract a viewer’s interest.  I also consider adjusting the colors in a painting to suit my own taste or to set the mood that I want to create. Fine details in the foreground or at the center of interest I often paint last.

As you gain experience as a painter, you will find it easier to rearrange objects, adjust colors, or simplify in your art. Try to be BOLD! You are a unique individual unlike anyone else.  Get your OWN feelings down on the paper. Dare to be yourself, and work to master your techniques of painting, and you will develop your own style and be likely to have success as a painter. And remember: the more you paint, the faster you grow!