How to Develop Your Painting Style

Dan Schultz

As I began my training in painting I remember being told not to worry too much about trying to develop a personal style, but that it would simply take care of itself. This was probably good advice at the time (it allowed me to focus on learning the technical fundamentals—drawing, design, value, color, etc.). But I was led to believe that style was something that could not be controlled—something that was bestowed upon me and would “show up” when I was ready. I do think that is partly true, but I am beginning to believe that certain aspects of style must be thoughtfully considered if I want to experience full satisfaction from my art.
Style in painting refers to a combination of things that can be broken down into three main components. The first component is the artist’s choices regarding how he or she will execute each step of the painting. The technical skill of the artist is the second component (which develops as the artist learns, practices and experiments). The third component of style is the artist’s personal artistic tendencies.

The first two components tend to be closely related. For example, if the artist chooses to paint in the style of Rembrandt but doesn’t know the techniques to achieve it, chances are that he or she will not create a successful painting in that style (without further practice). Regarding the third component of style, you and I each have definite personal artistic tendencies when we paint. These are either tendencies that are related to what we have learned and practiced, or tendencies based on the indefinable qualities that make each of us unique.

We can purposely change tendencies based on things we have been taught, and we should challenge those things to make sure they are the best ways to achieve our painting goals. Suppose I was taught to use only a #4 bristle brush throughout each and every painting. It may prove to be a helpful decision to challenge that teaching by introducing different brush sizes and types in future paintings because of the different effects that can be achieved that were not possible with a #4 bristle brush. It might open up a whole new world of possibilities that will bring me more and more satisfaction with my paintings.

If we desire, we can also choose to change tendencies that are related to our own unique qualities. I might love to apply paint with little dabs throughout my paintings, but choose to change my approach and begin to paint with smooth glazes because so-and-so is doing it (and getting lots of attention for it). I am free to make that choice, but I must decide if I am still being true to my individual tendencies; to who I am as an artist. Chances are that I’m not.

Let us imagine that we were able to challenge any artist we would consider a “master” to paint in the same style as another artist. I think that the master would be able to replicate the given style (at least eventually) because of his or her wealth of knowledge, experience and technical skill. But the reason master artists paint the way they do is that they have found their favorite way to paint and they have mastered it. From subject matter to technique, they paint what and how they love to paint. Of course, masters may choose to employ specific aspects of different styles when the need arises, but they still strive to be true to who they are.

I believe that we, too, must discover our favorite way to perform each step of our personal art process if we are to develop our true styles. We should make choices in our working methods that will bring us greater satisfaction, but be careful to be faithful to our unique personal tendencies. The result will be the development of our true personal styles as we continue to learn, experiment and explore this artistic adventure.

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