Thursday, September 17, 2015

About Style

Here's a painting made by Monet around 1864.
("Rue de la Bavole, Honfleur")
Compare its style with what Monet painted in 1894!

Painting by Monet in 1894, 30 years later.
("Rouen Cathedral, Morning Effect")

A student asked me recently, "How do you develop a style?" The short answer is, Don't worry about it. Style will take care of itself.

But let's dive a little deeper and start by defining "style." Style is the "look" of a painting. It's the result of how a painting is made. For example, blending your brush strokes gives you a different look than making short, snappy strokes.

When we speak of an artist's style, we're talking about the general "look" of his body of work. It's how we tell a Monet from a Van Gogh. But style changes over an artist's lifetime and, quite often, without any conscious effort on his part. Examine Monet's work over the later years, and you can see the subtle shift in style. (The changes at the end of his lifetime, long after he had gone down the road of Impressionism, had to do with the onset of blindness.)

In some ways, this shift is akin to the way you develop your penmanship style in grade school. As a child, you printed the same awkward letters like the rest of your classmates. You got better at it, and maybe you gave your letters an extra flair with a little circle over the "i" instead of a dot. Later, you learned cursive writing, and you strove hard to achieve that rhythmic flowing line as demonstrated by your teacher. But over the years, the more you wrote, the more your script began to depart from the classic model. You began to think less about calligraphy and more about what the words represented. Substance became more important than style. Yet today, your style, thanks to every malformed "r" and docktailed "q", remains unique to you.

Although style arrives unbeckoned, it can be forced. Like a forger, you can copy another painter's style, and over time, that style will eventually become your own. Another quicker way is to just change your materials or their application and see what happens. If you like it, stick with it, and it will become your new style.

Sometimes forcing a style is useful in that we learn a little more about our craft. But then we are worrying more about how we are saying something and not so much about what we are saying. We back off from substance, a sublime and more difficult aspect of art, and retreat to the comfort of a merely decorative craft.

Of course, both style and substance are vital in painting; without substance you can't have art, and without style you can't have beauty. Over time, as you paint more and more, you will develop your own beautiful way of saying important things.

By the way, I can help you with this!  Consider my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops at this fall, winter and spring in Arizona.

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