Welcome to the first edition of my new series Q&A! This is how it will work: every few weeks, I’ll post an art or art-business related topic on Instagram, soliciting your questions about the topic in the comment thread (just follow me and look for the post), then the following week I’ll offer my thoughts on the topic (based on your questions) here on my blog. Some weeks I may select just one person’s question to answer, and some weeks, like this week, I’ll take on several questions that fall into categories under the topic.
For the first week of the series, the topic is FINDING YOUR VOICE AS AN ARTIST. In my own experience, the question of “voice” is one I have found intriguing — and sometimes really confusing, so I think it’s a great place to start. This is also a long post — there is a lot to say about voice, and you had a lot of questions! So grab some tea and sit back in a comfy chair.
I want to start here by sharing a little caveat. I am using the term “finding your voice” because it’s the term that we hear all the time. And I do think it’s an important concept to unpack. But it’s also a misleading term because “finding your voice” sounds a little bit like arriving at something final. It implies that once you have found your voice, something has been completed or that you have made it to something that will remain unchanged. But in reality, the voices of all artists change over time, sometimes in very subtle ways, and sometimes in significant ways. There is nothing final about finding your voice. Instead, I like to think of finding your voice as entering your own “orbit” — where you are circling around in your own sphere, with solid aptitude and skill, and an ever-shifting creative flow, set of interesting ideas, a distinct style, consistency and perspective.
Keep that in mind as you read here.
Thank you to everyone who posed such thoughtful questions. Most of them (not surprisingly) centered around three key themes:
- Consistency – is it important?
- Navigating social media & the influence of other artists
- Best ways to develop your voice
I’ll tackle them in order.
CONSISTENCY – IS IT IMPORTANT?
Yes!! Your voice is your voice because it’s consistent — consistently you. Consistency means you begin to develop and use a recognizable style (or set of styles), subject matter areas, approaches to using materials and color palette — and you apply them regularly when you sit down to make art (this applies also if you work digitally). Those elements might be similar to or in the same genre as other artists, but they are distinctly yours. By the time you have found your voice, you’ll already have a body of work (most of the time quite large) — and when you look at it, it hangs together because there are notable consistencies. People would be able to describe the work as having certain consistent qualities.
Consistency doesn’t mean you only use one type of medium, one color palette, one style or one subject matter. True, some artists do, and that is also totally fine. But some of us get bored with doing just one thing. I am one of those people! I have a few styles of work — some more flat and graphic, some more painterly, some digital. But I have developed a strong body of work and perspective for each of these styles which combines to form my overall voice. And part of that is because there is a consistency that runs through all of my work, including general subject matter, a specific color palette, and other more subtle things like use of negative space, repetition of shapes and symbols, the thickness of my lines and curves, etc. All of these consistencies help to make up my voice as an artist.
One of you asked, are style and voice the same thing? No. Your style (or set of styles) is part of your voice, but only one part. Your voice is made up of many things, including also other things like materials or mediums (and how you use them), subject matter, composition, abstractness, color choices, tightness vs. looseness, scale and on and on — everything that makes your work yours.
And while consistency is important, it doesn’t mean you don’t experiment and change. One of the best parts of being an artist is the challenge of pushing your work to new places. But that isn’t something you necessarily need to force, unless you are finding yourself bored or disgruntled with your work. Usually shifts happen organically, especially if you are prolific (you make work often).
One of you asked this great question: “I can’t seem to choose one way of drawing because I get bored with it and want to try something different. Do you ever feel trapped by your style or feel like it’s keeping you from new and different illustration opportunities?” The way I tackle this trap is by always pushing the boundaries of what I do as part of my art practice. In addition to my professional work as an illustrator, in which I work mostly in a very defined set of styles and mediums, I also make lots of personal work that is more experimental, explores new subject matter and occasionally new styles of painting. I do this mostly in my sketchbook (which some of you are familiar with from following me on Instagram). Sometimes I set myself a year-long project to practice just one thing. These experiments often, after I’ve made enough of them, become part of my portfolio — and then I start getting hired to do new kinds of work. Notice I said “after I’ve made enough of them” — developing a new style or getting good at using a new medium requires time and practice.
NAVIGATING SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INFLUENCE OF OTHERS
I got several of questions in this area, and that doesn’t surprise me. We are deluged with imagery now, especially on Instagram and Pinterest — and so the question is, how do we stay engaged and inspired (and learn!) but also make sure we are not simply copying what we see? And is it okay to be influenced?
I cover this topic in more depth in my Idea Generation eCourse, but unless you are a true “outsider” artist living in the middle of nowhere without access to media, you will have influences! In fact, having influences is a normal part of being an artist and in finding your voice. So let go of the notion that your work has to be completely original. That’s impossible! Austin Kleon talks about this very eloquently in his book Steal Like an Artist. And on that note, it’s also better actually to have more influences than just one, because that means you are honing your voice from several different perspectives and not from just one.
That said, you want to be extremely conscious of your influences and when you are using them! While it’s fine to be influenced, be honest about them, and if you post something on Instagram that is heavily influenced, give the artist who inspired you credit! That said, it’s never okay to profit from work that is heavily influenced by the work of another artist (unless over time you’ve made that work distinctly your own). I guarantee that will only get you in trouble sooner or later. Which is why it’s really important, even when you are influenced, to work hard to develop your own voice — especially if you plan to make a profession out of your art. I’ll talk more about suggestions for how to get there in the last section of this post, coming up next.
To summarize: finding your own voice is challenging when you are overwhelmed by wanting to be like another artist or make successful work. It’s okay (normal, natural) to have influences, but never okay to model your illustration or art career off of or overtly copy another artist. The key is to find the space between your influences and your own imagination and talents. That requires a certain degree of self-awareness (“I know I am being influenced”) and discipline (“I know I need to work harder to morph my influences into something different”).
BEST WAYS TO DEVELOP YOUR VOICE
My mantra (and you’ve likely heard me say this if you’ve taken any of my classes or listened to podcasts I’ve recorded), is that the key to getting good at anything is doing it over, and over, and over. So before I launch into specific advice for developing your voice, let me say that none of these strategies will work if you just do them once. The key to finding your voice as an artist is engaging in focused effort over prolonged periods of time and involves lots of repetition and practice. If you are looking for a quick and easy way to find your voice, it doesn’t exist.
Don’t despair, though, because the process of finding your voice can be enormously rich and satisfying, If you look at it as something you must “endure” in order to eventually become successful or happy, you are taking the wrong approach. Think of the process as getting in shape as an athlete. If you start working out after being mostly sedentary for a while, it hurts like hell. If you tried to run a race with no training, it would be a complete disaster. However, with prolonged and steady training, working out gets easier, and getting in shape can feel exhilarating in an of itself. We begin to look forward to the workout! And then, even once you are in shape, you still have to keep working out to stay in shape! The same is true in the artistic path. There will be painful periods (even after you are “in shape”), exhilarating periods, and there must be discipline. You are working your creative muscles. Embrace the process!
Okay, now for the practical tips:
+First and foremost, stay open, be curious, follow your intuition. Explore your crazy ideas!
+Make time to make art EVERY SINGLE DAY or, as often as you can. There is no better way to develop your own voice than simply doing what you do (drawing, painting, sculpting or whatever) as often as you can. The more you do your thing, the more it becomes yours.
+Furthermore, create focused parameters for yourself. For example, choose one medium or one general subject matter to experiment with for a period of time (or as long as you can handle it before losing your mind!). Working inside the same parameter for a period of time will take discipline, especially if you find the parameters challenging. But focusing will yield results. For example (and this is just an example), say you want to get better at drawing portraits of women. You might take a portrait or live drawing class, but you should also practice every day. I’d suggest choosing one medium then draw/paint one portrait a day in that medium for 60 days. I guarantee by the end of the 60 days you will not only have an awesome collection of portraits, but you will inevitably be better at drawing them. You’ll likely also start to see a style emerge — how you draw features, how “realistic” vs. “stylized” the portraits are, etc. Practice works. Also, this type of practice lends itself to developing consistency.
+Take classes — and take them from different teachers! Classes help you to develop not just more technical skill as an artist (especially if you are self-taught and didn’t study art in school), but also to learn about different approaches and perspectives from different working artists. What you learn in classes will help build your artist toolbox.
+Parameters are great, and I encourage focusing in order to develop skill and finesse in different areas. BUT I also think it’s incredibly important to have fun. Discipline is more more bearable when you are being disciplined around stuff for which you have at least an inkling of passion. Check yourself: am I having fun or is this abject torture? Why?
+Also understand that there are going to be moments, days, weeks of boredom, frustration and even heartache over the state of your work. Things aren’t always fun (fantastic artist Helen Oprey aptly noted this morning on Instagram that you must learn to bleed as an artist). As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic (which I highly recommend!!), “Don’t abandon your creativity the moment things stop being easy or rewarding – because that’s the moment when interesting begins.”
+And while you are drawing, take some space from social media or the Internet or politics or news. Listen to music or fiction. This will allow you to relax and for your imagination to run wild.
+Want to break away from your influences? Do not look at pictures of other artist’s work as you make your own. Does this feel scary? Let yourself into the uncomfortable space where you are creating stuff from your own imagination and not the safety of someone else’s imagination.
+If you do need to look outside your own imagination for inspiration, look to things like nature, history or other personal interests. I teach a whole class about this called Idea Generation: Expanding Your Creative Repertoire & Finding Your Voice. Dive into stuff that interests you and use it as fodder for your creations.
+Take the idea of focused parameters and turn your project into a public project that you share with others on social media. Sharing daily projects helps to keep you accountable to your friends and followers and is a fantastic record of your progress! I’ve done many focused personal projects over the years and I talk about how to start and maintain them in my Idea Generation course.
In summary: work hard, stay curious, have fun, be disciplined, make time for art everyday, make personal challenges, turn off media, focus, and repeat for the next five years. 😉
Happy Thursday! I’ll be back on Instagram soon with another topic. Stay tuned!