Differentiate in order to Clarify
Developing a style of one's own can be a confusing struggle for many artists working in all creative realms. To clarify the issue, it's important to differentiate style, branding, and artistic identity. My focus is on visual art, but the points made apply to writers, poets, musicians and other creative talents seeking to make their mark while keeping faith, if you like, with their creative urges.
What is a Style?
Describing works by given artists often means referring to their identifiable styles. Style refers not so much to what you paint but to how you paint it. Although some artists are best known for one content area (portraits, landscapes, abstracts), others work across several genres. An artist's style is what lets us recognize their work, their manner of expression, regardless of content. We know if it's Ella or Lady Day singing the same song. We know if it's Cézanne or Caravaggio who painted the apple. Even if we can't name the artist, we can see that one portrait painter uses heavy, textured, brushstrokes in all her work while another uses thin glazes of impressionistic color in his. One artist emphasizes geometric and angular shapes in her abstract works while another prefers fluid organic shapes in his. And so on. The main points are that artistic styles can differ in recognizable ways; that artists may prefer one style over another; and that people like to categorize artists in these ways.
Is one style "better" than another? No evidence exists for this, either in art history across cultures or in different stylistic periods within the productive lives of given artists. Picasso's early "rose period" paintings differ greatly from his cubist works, which differ greatly from his neo-classical and later modernist figural distortions. Which style you like best is a personal preference. Same goes for artists. Personal preference rules. Some, like Picasso, are experimenters in style who pursue multiple stylistic approaches. Their styles change as they change. A series of paintings may differ very much stylistically over time or even across different media or content within a given period. Still, most of Picasso's works are unmistakably his. Other artists, like Andrew Wyeth, retain a similar style across their entire life and output. Both are master artists in terms of creativity and skill, and It seems a fool's task to weigh artistic worth on the issue of style or stylistic consistency.
Style is about preference and choice
For artists, style is the way they chose to express and communicate an intent, idea, feeling, or whatever impels the art. For both artists and audience, stylistic preferences can be broad or narrow. There's no accredited "school of style" despite changing stylistic fads in art as in fashion and much else. Knowledge, skills, reinforcement, and personal comfort zones contribute to whether our preferred choices as artists or art appreciators are broad or narrow, inclusive or exclusive, and whether they remain consistent or seek diversity.
Some pundits claim style is about being consistent, and that narrowing one's stylistic range results in more clarity and focus. I take a somewhat different view. My view of artistic consistency is that style needs to accord with the artist's personality, with their manner of personal expression and discernment of what matters in work they create. You can dress for success and you can dress the way you feel best. If style is important to you, it shows up across both because it's how you choose to look and feel. On the other hand, if style doesn't matter, you just grab what's handy, without choice entering into your decision-making.
An individual's style can look consistent or varied. If it's recognition you want, consistency makes things easier to recognize. That's why "branding" is so important in commercial enterprises. Branding is the promotion of a product or producer by means of a recognized design and advertising mode. It's easier to market and sell products with trademark recognition. This holds true for artists as well as running shoes. Artists with a consistent style who work within a relatively narrow product range are more recognizable, more easily branded, than those with diverse styles working across a broad range. If you weren't familiar with Picasso's work, you might think it was done by a pack of different artists. But, if familiar with a stylistically diverse artist's work, you can see connections across their output. And if not, you can still appreciate whichever of their styles you prefer. You may prefer Picasso's early versus late paintings or Gerhard Richter's blurred photorealism to his abstract expressionist style. Stylistically diverse work gives us more choice but is harder to brand as a commodity.
It's important not to confuse artistic Style, which is an individual's preferred manner of expression (cohesive or diverse) with Brand, which is a generic product label. Fine art has its own creative ideals. It's not about establishing a brand; it's about creative expression, the freedom and skills to communicate whatever matters to the artist. This can be expressed in a body of work that is either cohesive or diverse.
What Do You Want?
What is it you desire most as an artist? As a consumer of art? Creative persons (both artists and art lovers) need to focus on whether sales and recognition are their primary goals. If so, we know that branding plays a role. Once famous, your name becomes your brand. Until then, something consistently recognizable helps to make it: your repeated use of certain motifs or your outrageous diversity,. Consumers of art may want recognized brand-name products, or they may curate their own style and prefer items that have the greatest meaning, beauty, originality, and fit or them personally. Artists may want freedom of creative expression but also want commercial success and recognition. Be mindful of what you want. Be careful of how to coordinate possibly conflicting goals. Here's where delving into your Artistic Identity may help.
Artistic Identity is the final critical factor in developing a style of one's own. "Artistic Identity" is a committed sense of who you are as an artist, what you value and want to express. Both personal and artistic Identity achievement involves a process of development that requires exploration and openness to change. Artistic identity, like personal identity, requires that you make commitments based upon exploration of alternatives. Commitment without exploration is like mimicry of already established givens. In contrast, an achieved identity results from exploring personally relevant choices that lead to commitments. Whether that exploration is broad or narrow depends upon the individual and their social-cultural environment, as does the broad or narrow range of commitments made. But once achieved, identity does not necessarily remain fixed. The core is stable but permeable, permitting new choices to be made.
Take a moment. What are you like? What do you want? Is it your preference to explore broadly and to push stylistic diversity? If you know that's you, then that's how you will construct your style and artistic identity. If you prefer a relatively narrow stylistic range, then that's how you construct your style and artistic identity. Neither path necessarily has more depth or reach to to it. Broad doesn't mean shallow, and narrow doesn't mean deep.
Given that style boils down to personal preference and choice, those who prefer broad and inclusive versus narrow and exclusive may have a more difficult, more question-filled and exploratory time establishing an Artistic Identity. But this is also one of the most vitally interesting developmental routes to take, with marked ability to encompass changes.
How to know if you are on the "right" path for you?
If art and life are connected (as I believe they are), then consider how this works in your life.
For example, I struggle with the issue of stylistic consistency in my artwork. My urge is to follow the creative impetus along whatever stylistic route expresses it. One painting, prompted by a nostalgic moment, looks calmly impressionistic in style. Another, depicting a harsh reality, is vehement in expressive brushstrokes. You wouldn't necessarily know the same artist had made these two paintings. Yet, it's my artistic vision and chosen technique that is expressed across both paintings. I know it might be better to narrow my methods of expression in order to obtain gallery support and public recognition. But, then, why was I an artist if not to express my vision my way?
Inclusivity as a Style
So, the critical question becomes: what is "my way"? You must answer for yourself. For me, I've come to my answer by reviewing how I've lived and what I value. I've studied and worked in diverse fields: my interests range wide; I value diversity and multiple perspectives, and I remain curious to explore new directions. I can be fiercely logical and linear, as needed, or fantastically imaginative. I don't feel scattered or lost. I'm clear that my path, my Artistic Identity involves a commitment to exploration, diversity, and inclusiveness across a fairly broad stylistic range. If I had to label or brand this style, I'd call it Stylistically Inclusive, meaning a preference for a range of stylistic approaches, each suited to a given work.
Conflicting Goals? Creating YOUR Art and Getting it Seen
I want to make my art in all the ways that fit me. Yet I also want my art to reach and connect with others in ways that matter to them. A useful compromise occurred when I started to work in series. The paintings in one series shared a similar style. I worked on several series at once so that I could switch styles if creative impulses directed this. The lesson I learned was bi-directional : to be true to the inspiration of the artwork, even if that might make it harder for others to see "me" (the identified artist) in it, while also to accommodate to viewers' perspectives by organizing stylistically similar works in a series.
If you care to look at my website galleries, you'll see paintings within a series that share a similar style. Overall, however, you'll still see much variety. I know and accept that this makes art harder to categorize or brand. But this reflects my inclusive style, which reflects my Artistic Identity. I've worked, explored, and become committed to this way of creating. "Do I contradict myself?" I'm not as brave as Walt Whitman who replied, "Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Speaking for myself, there's no contradiction. What I produce is consistent with who I am and how I choose to explore and express my creative ideas. It may not be the best way, for sure.
"But I want my art to get into a gallery or a museum!" Curation by museums and fine-art galleries relies on many considerations besides artistic style or merit. "But I want my art to sell!" Curation-by-brand works best when you know your target marketplace and build brand-recognition into your product. It takes some time and interest for viewers to get to know any artist's style, particularly those with diverse approaches. It's up to each artist to make this as accessible as you can and wish. Nowadays, with internet and artist-direct sales, each artist can become their own gallery, museum, or branding agency. Personal choice matters more even more and works more directly.
The bottom line is for artwork to be done with all the skill and creative juice it needs to be effective. If so, it will communicate effectively with whomever it strikes as meaningful, delightful, absorbing, beautiful, or just right ... and that's the person for whom the work was intended. Why are you an artist if not to express your vision, your way? That's your style. Getting it seen is another thing.
I'm interested to know how this works for you. Please let us know in the comments.