Are you an artist trying to find your way? Or unsure of what your “style” is because there’s so much noise on social media and talented creatives posting their work?
Finding your artistic style or your own voice is the gateway to attracting the RIGHT audience and potential customers, helps you cut through the noise and show up confidently online when it comes time to share your work. But, what is it? How do you find it?
In this post I’ll be giving you my tips on how YOU can find your artistic style and some of them MAY surprise you.
If you’re an artist, designer or in some form of a creative field, you have inspirations. If I were to ask you, “who are your biggest inspirations?” I bet you can easily think of one or two, if not more people. What is it about their work that inspires you? The colors they use? The way they capture light in their photographs, etc.?
So, my first tip for finding your artistic style MIGHT surprise you. In fact, it might piss some people off…
1. COPY the work of those who inspire you.
Now, if you’re clutching your pearls right now, let me just say one thing…
You have copied another person. Every one of us has. There is nothing new under the sun. Just accept that, let your brain digest it… ok! Now it’s time to move on.
I love this quote from one of my faves:
“As an artist you are only a link in a chain, and whatever you find or whatever you do not find, you can find comfort in it.”
-Vincent Van Gogh
In referencing the quote above by Van Gogh, there will always be an artist before us and there will be one after us…we’re all links in a chain and this chain is helping the discipline and practice of art and creativity evolve. Evolution is good and copying is a part of that process.
While I am NOT saying that copying is good (I will discuss that in a minute), there are obvious circumstances where it is ok to copy and that’s when you’re first learning.
Copying is the only way to get your bearings when you’re first starting out.
One must literally reference or be taught to replicate a piece in order to develop and train their technical muscles. This has been a long-standing tradition in the art world – copying the Masters (there are literally college classes on teaching and learning the paintings of Rembrandt and Degas, etc.) – and one that is carried over into learning situations today:
- Every beginner guitarist will learn and play (nonstop) the riff to Stairway to Heaven and try to play it exactly like Jimmy Page
- Painters recreate variations of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in high school art class and give it to their moms to put on the fridge
- Developers copy code directly from a site or book they come across (trust me, just watch Halt and Catch Fire on Netflix)
This is called learning by the experience of doing. Copying helps you better understand how something is made all while teaching the newbie technique and helps with developing muscle memory. When I was first learning watercolor I did this!
While trying out something new, using different colors or composition techniques, it’s great for finding your artistic style! Painting leaves like this person over here does and using colors similar to so and so is essentially how everyone has developed their own artistic style.
Now, let me clarify. There is a time to copy and then there’s a definite time to not copy. Here’s the difference: It is ok to copy to learn. It is NOT ok to replicate or copy someone’s work to pass it off as your own and use it for marketing or commercial purposes.
This is in fact why there are copyright laws and intellectual property lawyers.
Here’s the thing. It’s really hard these days to be completely pure in your work. Inspiration is everywhere: it’s easily searchable and something we stumble into often by scrolling on Instagram and Pinterest, and who knows just how much a quick glance through social media is actually seeping through our minds and impacting our ideas, our creative process, etc. BUT, there are a couple key points that I want to share with you from my own experience over the last couple of years that I hope will help you understand the deeper impact of copying:
If you continue to copy and replicate other people’s work, this ensures that you will never find YOUR truly unique voice. Ouch. (I have an entire post on copying dos and don'ts HERE)
Think about it.
Replicating other people’s work, while it will help you grow when you’re a beginner and gather bits here and there along the way that impact your style, it can ultimately hurt and stunt your growth as an artist if done for too long.
Are you constantly having to look at an artist’s work for ideas? If a client came to you and asked you to paint a banana leaf tree, for example, would you be able to do that by looking at the actual subject or photograph of a banana leaf tree, or do you need to pull up your favorite artist’s Instagram profile first to replicate his/her banana leaf tree painting?
Then, what do you do when that artist doesn’t have a painting of a banana leaf tree?
If you’re devoting your energy and time to copying work, you will have spent all of that valuable effort on something that may seem like it’s helping you at first (you’re getting likes and comments, maybe some sales and recognition), but the damage you’re doing to your career, in the long run, can be detrimental.
2. Practice your BOOTY off
Every artist has crumpled up paintings in their trash can. Every designer has iterations of the same word or phrase in their sketch book. Just because they’ve posted their best work on their Instagram profile doesn’t mean they NEVER mess up.
In fact, we all do! And those mess ups? They help you discover your best work. You’ve got to push through the screw ups and mistakes so you can uncover the gems in your work. The things that really help you enter that flow state. The work that lights you up and you're proud to share.
You will, over time, make small improvements and tiny adjustments that create your own path. If you stick to copying someone’s work forever, your eyes are set and your feet are following someone else’s path. But by practicing without consuming first, messing up along the way, etc. your feet start to make small turns and pivots along the way that help you dig your own path. Your style. It’s a journey or a path, not a moment in time where you just decide what your style is. It’s evolving and always changing because you should be growing as you practice.
3. Make time to play
Tip number 3 is to make time to play! Try things outside of your comfort zone, get messy, learn something new, etc.
This was huge for me when I felt like I was doing for years was work for someone else. When I used to design custom wedding stationery, I felt like I was booked to do the same types of things over and over again. Everyone wanted the watercolor crests, and the cute maps with the hand painted icons and the calligraphy details. While what I was creating was beautiful, it was no longer meaningful to me because I was doing the same thing over and over for each client.
This is when I started picking up painting more abstract watercolor pieces and posting them on Instagram. A few short months later, a yoga towel company reached out to me and wanted to hire me for a few of these abstract paintings to be on their towels! This time of playing ended up turning into a side project, and now licensing my pattern work to manufacturers and brands is a huge chunk of my work now! I found a way to merge my love for color and color theory, with my love for travel and patterns in tile!
There you have it! Three tips for finding your artistic style. Of course there’s more, but these are the 3 biggest ones. These tips have directly helped me not only put my work out there confidently, but have opened doors and huge opportunities in my career along the way. Had I just stuck to copying other people’s work in the early days, I guarantee you I would not be where I am today with the projects I get to work on.
Treat your story with care and your voice with respect. It may seem like your style or voice is hiding sometimes, but it’s there! Everyone has that ability they're just keep putting one foot in front of the other and seeing where it takes you.