Monday, February 19, 2007

In Search of Personal Style

I recently taught a workshop for portrait photographers. While working with this group, I was struck by the fact that each photographer had a distinct style. For instance, one had a strong sense of color; another made great use of shadow and highlight. I began to think about what style is and how an artist acquires it.

During their formative years, artists focus much attention on these questions of style, and art students often question whether they have their own styles. A good approach to developing style is to look closely at the work of well-known artists whose styles you are drawn to. As a learning aid, try to emulate these artists’ unique styles. In doing so, some of what you emulate will likely rub off on your own work. By emulating existing styles, you will begin to develop a personal stylistic vocabulary that you can use to balance your personal preferences. As your personal art matures, these bits and pieces of other artists’ influences will be absorbed into a look that is unique to you.

Style is an elusive beast. The more you concentrate on it, the harder it is to obtain. Conversely, if you simply keep producing art over an extended period, you’re likely to discover that a style—your own—has crept into your work.

In a basic sense, everyone already has the essence of a personal graphic style. Try writing your name, and take a close look at it. You created this complex expressive gesture effortlessly. No one else can sign your name exactly as you do. This is style in its purest form. It manifests itself only through repetition.

If you use the default settings of the brush variants in Corel Painter, your images are likely to resemble those of other artists who have used the same variants. Play with the brush variants you are interested in, and try making adjustments to them. Corel Painter retains these changes. In fact, the more you use and adjust your customized brush variants, the more effectively you can use them as tools for self-expression.

Although Corel Painter has an abundance of brushes, try not to fall into the trap of thinking that more is better within a single image. As a general rule, I don’t use many different brush variants at the same time. When the early desktop publishing applications became available in the mid-1980s, people unfamiliar with typography suddenly had dozens of fonts available to use within their printed materials. Being somewhat naive, these users quickly established what has been called the “Ransom Note School of Design.” This type of graphic work was quickly identifiable: a single page of type would typically contain every font style available to the so-called designer. The moral of this story is that in good design, less is more. The same axiom applies to the number of brush variants used within a single image. Restricting the variety of mark-making tools helps the image maintain an inner consistency.

This is not to say that you should not experiment with a wide variety of brush variants — you just shouldn’t use them all within the same image. A good alternative is to set up a test image, on which you can try out several brush variants that interest you. Let the various marks intersect and affect each other. This kind of creative play can lead to unique expressive discoveries that you may end up using in your work. In time, these discoveries may become part of your unique personal style.

Is style a big deal and should you be concerned about it? In the long run, probably not. Given enough time, an individual’s sense of style typically develops on its own. It is a good practice to analyze and understand what makes your art unique. Getting into an artistic rut is often the result of relying on an established personal style without working to move beyond it. In the best circumstances, one’s personal style is a continually evolving entity. Some aspects of your style tenaciously remain, despite your artistic evolution. Other facets are discarded when they are no longer crucial to your personal expression.

So, how do you attain and perfect your own personal style? The same way a pianist gets to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice. And practice makes perfect.

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