Creative Style vs. Creative Voice

Using my studio journal to experiment with style and voice.

You can’t plan your way to a new style

In our recent series, most of our planning was concerned with how to create a painting that would look at least somewhat like the photograph. That gives us a “target” to aim for, something to guide some of our planning decisions. We’re solving problems like Which of these methods gives me a look that I like for suggesting my trees? (or reflections?) How can I help the viewer understand this is a river? How can I add a believable-looking boat to this scene?

But what if you’d like to make your paintings more unique to you? What if you want to paint something a bit more stylized? What if you want a painting that conveys more of how you felt on that day at the river, instead of just reporting how it looked? What if you want to convey something about the special meaning of that river in your childhood? How do you go about making your work more personal and finding your own creative style?

Finding your own style and voice is harder than learning how to plan a realistic painting, because you don’t have that target to aim for anymore. And no one else can provide you with one. Instead, finding your own style and voice requires you to do some sleuthing and experimentation. You need to gather clues, make some guesses, try out possibilities, and winnow out bits that don’t fit. 

Gather clues

Fortunately, you don’t have to go from wherever you are now to your unique style and voice in one giant leap. You can make some smaller changes to what you’re doing now, and try things on for size. You can gather clues from your own work and the work of others and even other areas of your life besides painting. Instead of being able to visualize a target and plot a course to get there, it’s more a process of evolution. 

The most useful tool I have for developing (and constantly evolving) my own style and voice is my studio journal. This is a sketchbook or portfolio where you can gather your experiments, notes, and questions, and revisit them over time to look for patterns or insights that emerge slowly. I encourage you use some sort of journal, sketchbook or folder to collect notes, questions, lists and journal entries, in addition to your painting experiments. (If you don’t have a studio journal and would like to try using one, here’s a free intro course to help you get started.)

Between now and next week, I invite you to make some notes about what you already know about your creative style and voice. Are there stylistic changes you’re already trying to bring into your work? Aspects of other people’s work that you’d like to try emulating? Techniques you love and find yourself using again and again? Paintings of your own that have an area that’s especially intriguing? Questions that you feel you really need to address? Feelings or ideas you especially want to convey in your work?

Two aspects of an artist’s creative identity

As you make these notes, you might find it helpful to think about style and voice as two pieces of your “creative identity” that come together to create the overall effect you want your paintings to have. 

This is just my made-up division, but for the purposes of this series, let’s say style consists of things about how the work looks that we can just freely decide to adopt or abandon, like putting on different kinds of clothing. And let’s say your creative voice, just like your natural speaking or singing voice, consists of the things that are a part of you. Your voice might change slowly over time, or as a result of some life event. You can learn use it in different ways or to say different things, but it has a natural range, cadence and timbre that people recognize as your voice, even in different settings. 

So, for the purposes of this article, at least, let’s say:

Creative style refers to things that are intrinsic to the artwork, such as color schemes, tools you use for mark-making, subject matter, whether you tend to use lots of geometric shapes or mostly or organic shapes, etc.

Creative voice refers to things that are intrinsic to you, such as your temperament, values, history, passions, abilities, pet peeves. 

Not everything fits neatly into this breakdown. For example, after long practice, your brush becomes essentially an extension of your hand and your brushwork develops little idiosyncracies and becomes as unique as your handwriting. At that point, it’s really a part of your voice, even though you might have started out imitating how someone else’s brushwork looked (style). So don’t go nuts trying to categorize things. 

Looking at the work of other artists for clues to your own style and voice is a great starting place, but there are some pitfalls to this strategy. Not everything you like to look at will turn out to be something you actually like to do. Not everything you like to look at will feel like a natural expression for you. And, especially for beginners, it’s easy to find yourself thinking, “I’ll never be good enough to paint like that.” 

No matter how skillful you are, there will be some things about another artist’s work that you simply can’t imitate, because they are a result of the artist’s life experiences, passions, values, and temperament. You can copy style, but you can only share voice (to a greater or lesser extent).

For example, I deeply admire the work of Karl Mårtens, but even if I were to magically acquire all the same painting skills he has, I’ll never paint birds like Karl Mårtens. I don’t “speak with the same voice”; I don’t have his lifelong fascination with and deep study of birds. 

His intimate knowledge of bird behavior and rich visual memory is absolutely essential for his work. A few hours, or days, looking at photos or in the field with spotting scope would not give me anything like his understanding of birds. His longstanding kinship with birds is part of Karl Martens’ creative voice, intrinsic to who he is as a person. 

Trying to separate aspects of style and voice helps me think about what (if anything) about his work I might want to emulate in my own work. I do want to emulate his expressive and economical brushwork, and his masterful use of wet-in-wet watercolor effects. These are stylistic elements I can choose to try to incorporate more in my work. I am interested in birds, so I’m excited by what Karl Mårtens has to say with his creative voice, but I don’t speak with a similar voice, or only a little. It would be frustrating and unsuccessful to try to copy everything about his work, just because I admire it. Besides, struggling to imitate his voice (badly) would rob me of the opportunity to see if some of the stylistic elements I like in his work would help me better express something I want to say with my creative voice. 

Sometimes, its the other way around, and what draws me to another artist’s work is a sense that we share experiences, interests or values. Paintings with dramatic clouds call to me, regardless of painting style. I love the skyscapes of Mary Bentz Gilkerson. But they’re small oils, painted with a knife. Trying to emulate her style in watercolor would probably be difficult and not satisfying. But it’s her voice I’m interested in. 

Looking at her work feels like having an exciting conversation with another artist who was as drawn to clouds as I am. I’m asking “What caught your eye and drew you to paint this scene? What were you paying the most attention to? What did you decide to emphasize or simplify? How did you find the essential underlying abstract forms and colors that create the sense of drama, light and expansiveness?” I am studying how she’s using her creative voice to say something that I want to express in my work, too. 

Your assignment (if you choose to accept it):

Style vs. voice. See if thinking about an artist’s creative identity this way helps you separate out a few aspects to emulate from the work of artists you admire. Maybe do a little writing in your studio journal. (Feel free to include clues you’ve discovered from other sources besides other artists’ work.)

Next week, we’ll start looking at some ways to take small steps in the direction of finding your own creative style and voice. (You can also use the same activities just to shake things up and inject a little fun into your painting practice.)

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