Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Style guide - how do I get one???

A little while ago, a fellow artist, Becca Cox, commented to me about feeling as though she sometimes lacked a 'style'. I'm not talking about dressing in hip clothing, or being able to sing all the current pop songs, I'm talking about having *something* that classifies your art as being made by you. That undefinable quality that says 'I'm by Artist X'.

There is so much emphasis placed on this idea that we all must have a style of art that is innately recognisable. But why is that? What defines a style? Is style really so important? And how do we know when we have it?

What is style?
Style is about being 'classifiable' and 'recognisable' - hopefully in a good way! It's a trademark, a 'brand', it's your artistic avatar. It's developmental, it's unique. It can not be learned, so don't even bother to try looking for quick solutions. If you want a 'style by numbers' then you are going to be the Elvis impersonator of the art world!

Is style really important?
It depends... Where are you in your career? What type of work are you intending to do? What do you need your style to do?

To be honest, the more you worry about your 'style', the less energy you have for creating art. I think an artist needs to focus on skills and techniques before worrying about 'style'. The style will come... but if you don't have the technique to back it up, your artwork will never be as good as it can be.

That being said, you need to stand out from the pack when you're in a room of equally talented artists. You want to be known as the 'artist who does those paintings'. The more art you do, the more involved you become in art communities and getting your stuff out there, the greater chance of being recognisable there is.

How do I get style?
Just draw and paint! That's it. The more you do, the easier it is to pick up similarities and dissimilarities in your work. Each artist (unless you are a master forger) is different. The way you choose your colours, subject matter, paint skies, draw hands, whatever... each of those things is unique to you.

Also, lighten up, have fun! Having your own style shouldn't be a hard slog! It can be hard work from a technical point of view, but you need to love what you are doing! If you don't like your style, then change it. You're in control. You have the paintbrush.

Some things to think about...

1. Having a cohesive style can be boring

Some artists do beautiful work and you could look at their work all day without getting bored. You know exactly what to expect, what the subject matter will probably be, and how it will be executed. And you don't care, because no matter what they do, their art is great! Other artists, if you've seen one piece, you've seen them all. There's no inflection, no interest, their style has drowned any creativity they may have possibly. You have to constantly reassess your own work and be willing to try new things.

2. Style's change
When you were 5, you probably liked the music from Sesame street. When you were 14, it was probably some boy-band/ heavy metal rocker/ Emo music - something that annoyed the crap out of your parents with its angst/ cheesy lyrics/ anger. By the time you were 21, you'd settled into something equally different (though you still secretly kept those bad CD's/ records/ tapes in a box somewhere). Beyond 35 no doubt you'll change again. It's the same with artworks. What you do now, will be different from what you do in five years time (or you're seriously in an artistic rut/ or raking in the millions!) As our techniques improve, or influences shift, and our tastes change, so do our paintings. If you don't believe me, look at the kinds of things you did as a younger person. There may be similarities, but they're not going to be exactly the same.

3. You can have many styles, and still be recognised!
I work differently with different media. My cartoony sketches are different to my watercolours are different to my digital paintings. There is still something that seems to travel through the different media, but I don't push it. I'm having much too much fun pushing the boundaries of the media I use. I treat each media as a different entity - there are certain paintings that just work better in the traditional media.

4. Just because you have a style, doesn't mean you are going to be allowed to paint that way!
If you are a freelance artist, you paint what the client wants... and sometimes in the style they want. When you're being paid to do art, you get hired based on your skills/ something the client likes/ and artist availability. Sometimes you are being hired to fill in for another artist, or to continue a series of work, in the style already defined by another artist.

For example, I did a book cover recently in a style that I'd developed for character commission work. It wasn't something that I was sure I could pull off for a full illustration (I normally do fairly realistic work in a straight painterly manner), however in the end, it worked out fine. Had I been given the choice I probably wouldn't have gone with this style... and I would have missed out on creating a truly unique painting.

I know this probably all sounds wishy-washy, but I figure far too much emphasis is placed on style, and not enough emphasis on technique & enjoyment. At this point in time, I'm happy if I can paint something better than the last time I did it! And I've been out of art college for 10 years!

Monday, 11 February 2008

Artist shortcut #1 Copying great artists

Leonardo's Leda & The Swan vs Raphael's St Catherine of Alexandria ... Great artists (Raphael) 'steal' (from Leonardo)
Images taken from
for educational purposes.

No matter what kind of artist you are, it’s often tempting to take shortcuts. On the outset, they may save time, but in the long run they can prove costly in more ways than one. The first ‘shortcut’ I’ll be discussing in this series is ‘taking inspiration from other artists’.

There's an old saying that good/bad artist's copy, but great artists steal (attributed to Picasso). Do a search on, and you will see dozens of articles about the fine line between being inspired and plagiarising (i.e. copying/ stealing/ ripping someone else’s work and claiming it as your own). But while plagiarism is BAD, being inspired by other artworks can help you become a better artist.

So when does a shortcut such as being inspired by other artist’s work become plagiarism, or even just cross the line and become ethically or morally bad? How do you use this shortcut to your benefit? Here are some personal thoughts on the matter:

1. Good artists copy.
We learn through imitation. Copying great artworks or even our favourite artworks can help us improve as artists. When we analyse other artist’s work, we’re learning many different skills about composition, colour, and technique. By looking at a variety of sources, even artwork we don’t like but know are popular, we’re increasing our understanding of what makes us react to art, and therefore can incorporate it into our own.

One word of caution, don’t copy artworks to learn anatomy. Artists make mistakes, often exaggerate or stylise anatomy, and get it wrong all the time! Even photographs distort anatomy. Learn anatomy from anatomy books, life drawing, and from photographs when you understand what you are drawing. I can not stress this enough!

2. Great artists steal
- There are reasons why you are drawn to particular paintings. Great artists take elements of what they see and recreate them in a way that is unique, riveting and original. If someone can look at your artwork and instantly pick out another painting that look remarkably similar to yours, then you haven’t been inspired enough (unless your work is a parody). It’s not enough to do the equivalent of a cut and paste… you need to make it your own work. Something that defines the piece as representative of ‘you’ or ‘your style’.

3. Acknowledge your inspiration/s:
It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s ethical. The old masters would say ‘Painting X after Artist Z’. You’re effectively tipping your hat to your source of inspiration. If you’re concerned about copyright, contact the artist, or simply don’t make the artwork available for retail. Keep it as training exercise. You shouldn't be able to see a direct correlation between your work and the inspirational piece.

It always surprises me when I see works of art that have obviously been 'inspired' by another artist's work, yet the artist in question doesn't see fit to mention the source of their muse. I'm not talking about people who try out a 'style' or paint the same kinds of subject matter, I'm talking about artists that take shortcuts and directly 'borrow' a recognisable pose (say from Vallejo), an entire scene, or the whole costume (unless it's a historical or fan art piece). Sometimes it can be an oversight, simply forgetting what triggered the idea in the first place, but other times it shows a lack in judgement*.

* I'll be talking about the Good Decision Making Model in coming weeks.

Some ways to trigger inspiration by copying elements of other artist’s work:

1. Create your own reference file.
Gather anything that strikes your fancy such as photos, artworks, advertisements, books, jpegs, web pages, DVD’s and objects. Use this to flip through whenever you need a boost in creativity. I used to keep an art journal* for this purpose... now I have folders of stock images, websites bookmarked, and a filing cabinet filled with cut out images from all over the place.

*Look out for a future article on personalising art journals!

2. Use the image search on to spark off ideas. For example, say I wanted to do a painting with a medieval theme. I go to and type in something like ‘medieval France’, or ‘Templar knights’. The results that come back may be maps or photos of re-enactors, or medieval stained glass windows, or architectural layouts of a castle. These then can trigger ideas, and inspire me through the use of colours in medieval manuscript, or the composition of a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

3. Try and recreate a famous painting using a different context. i.e. Take Medieval icon and recreate it as a science fiction scene.

Above all, have fun, be creative, but also be respectful of other artists' creative property.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Fighting Artist block 1: Experimentation

Everyone goes through periods where things just don't go right. When you're an artist, it's called artist block. Some artists say their 'muse has flown'. I call it a pain in the neck!

There is nothing more frustrating than needing to paint, and not being able to draw a stick figure, let alone finishing that painting that's half finished. One tool I've found for avoiding the frustration of artist block is experimentation. It's a chance for you to create something that you don't care about, something that doesn't matter if you screw up, and who knows - you may find a technique that works brilliantly.

Have a list of things you'd like to try. Keep them near your art space so that if you feel like doing art, but have the inspiration or technique of a brick on that day, you've got something to try:

  • Speedpainting: it's a technique mainly for digital artists, where you force yourself to spend a limited painting time on a single topic. This can be great if you don't have a lot of spare time. Join up with a forum like,, or anywhere that has daily/ weekly or monthly challenges if you want a topic. Set a stop watch, and start laying colour.
  • taking a tool you've never used before and attempting to make as many different lines as possible. Some media you may like to try:
  • Follow a tutorial. It's even better if they've done all the line work or preparatory files so you don't have to think beyond what the tutorial is teaching you. It doesn't matter what the tutorial is on, sometimes the easier ones are more fun! Try lightning effects in Photoshop, or 'Sepia toning photographs', or tin foil hats. Anything creative is better than nothing at all!

  • Digital artists - trawl through many of the free brush sites and download a whole stack of photoshop brushes, textures, shapes and patterns. Then go wild! Do some photo manipulations, just bring together everything and anything.

  • Make avatars or icons of you art. Follow tutorials, hunt for icon 'stock', and have fun with them. Try and come up with silly slogans, make them gloriously tacky, add sparkles and frames and neon lighting! No one is going to see them but you so it doesn't matter how gorgeous or hideous they turn out.
Hopefully I've given you a few ideas so that the next time you feel stuck, you can still get rid of some of that creative energy.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Confidence and the part time artist - 7 tips

Two weeks ago I was promoted at work (day job). It was completely unexpected. I had applied for the job as ‘experience’ and seriously had so little confidence in my own abilities that I didn’t think I’d even get shortlisted.

But I did…

And after the interview I came out thinking, “Man, I wouldn’t hire me , I sucked!”.

But obviously I said something right and got put on the candidates list.

A week later I got offered the job.

I thought there had been some mistake. Why would anyone want to put me in that role? Surely there were better, more qualified people than me. I accepted the offer, still feeling like a fraud.

As an artist, I still have days where I look at my own work and wonder why people pay me to paint. Why would someone buy one of my prints? Why would someone ask me for advice? Don’t they know I’m not that great an artist? Surely there are other artists out there far better than me!

The reality is, as humans we are often our own worst enemies. We often perceive our own abilities differently to how the world sees us. Sure, I’m far from being a brilliant artist! I know that I’ve still got loads to learn, that I make mistakes, that I paint pictures that are not masterpieces.

But, that’s ok. Really it is!

Some days it’s easier to be ten foot tall and bullet proof than other days. Here are a few tips that I’ve tried, in my everyday life, and as an artist to help give me a confidence boost.

1. Mimic confident people. That is, take a look at the way they act and try and emulate them. Confident people take calculated risks, they try new things, they brush themselves off after failure and get back up again. It may take them a little while to get back on the horse, but they eventually will. Talk to them, get involved in forums where talented people hang out (make sure it’s somewhere you feel comfortable).

2. Ask yourself, what is the worst that could happen? For example, you want to try oils, but you’ve never painted one before. What’s the worst that could happen? You waste a few weekends, you create a piece of work that’s only fit for lining the bin or painting over, you realize that you will never be Rembrandt because oils just aren’t your ‘thing’. But… you may find that you are brilliant at them! You won’t find out unless you have a little faith and try.

3. Tell that critical, self-important internal dialogue to shut up and say something useful. Some people suggest that you imagine the voice has a volume switch that you can turn down, or giving it a really stupid voice, like someone who’s inhaled helium.
4. Sit up straight. Quite often when you feel down or are scared, you hunch, trying to make yourself invisible. So counteract this! Sit or stand up straight, puff your chest out a little and your shoulders back, lift your chin, relax your face (maybe try to smile J), make eye contact with others (not so much that you creep them out!), and breathe deeply. You may not feel more confident, but you will look it!

5. If you’re feeling a little ‘fragile’ about something, don’t put yourself in a position (if you can avoid it) where you’re going to be criticized or pounded. For example, don’t look at art critiques on your own work if you’re feeling like all of your art is bad. You’re not in the right headspace to receive them properly and you’ll either get defensive, or depressed. You probably will see the ‘critique’ as criticism.

If you’ve got a performance evaluation or someone is trying to give you negative feedback, ask to do it at another time when you’re better able to cope. Tell them, ‘This really isn’t a good time, could you give me five minutes’, or ‘Could we reschedule this?’ Often just putting yourself in control of the situation is enough to regain a little confidence.

Sometimes you can’t do this, and in this case focus on what is being said and ask yourself, or them, what achievable things you can do to improve.

6. Dress for confidence. The old adage about dressing the part works. In an office environment, managers wear suits, all neatly pressed, matching colours, the works. As an artist, you have to feel comfortable when you paint. If you’re feeling down, put on a bright coloured shirt, wear your favourite piece of jewellery, for girls, put on some makeup or a splash of perfume. It’s not about impressing other people, it’s about making yourself feel good, and therefore changing how you present yourself to the world.

7. Practice Gratitude. Try to focus on at least one good thing about your life. Write a list on a good day. Start it with something like, ‘As an artist I am grateful…’

Things might include

· Having access to a really cool art shop

· Knowing other talented artists

· Being able to get loads of useful artistic advice through forums

· Knowing that you can paint when you’re feeling better

Confidence can be learnt, it just takes time, and practice. There are loads of tips and exercise online, have a look around, try a few things! It can't hurt too much!