Many people assume that finding your voice is a natural by-product of creating art, but having the whole world to wander through may make you a Jack or Jane of all subject matters and master of none. To find your unique voice in a world that is filled with noise, I suggest a well thought out plan which you impose upon in order to be noticed in this chaotic world.
How do you find your own unique and original voice as an artist? I want to share with you three steps to consider to accomplish this.
First, what are you passionate about? We all have things that we find enjoyment in. For example, it might be going camping in the woods, your dogs, your garden, restoring something old, old Victorian houses, rock collecting, your family, or countless other interest that we have that make us unique as we gravitate towards them. Consider the things that are outside of your art practice, what are the other things do you find important?
You may have several interests but for this illustration, identify just one and we will work with that passion.
Second, don’t think what is the most popular in the culture and will translate to sales, when it comes to the interests you have. Think of what is your greatest passion and work with what makes your heart sing. You’ll find love grows best when it is directed towards something that is chosen.
Third, it’s best to confine yourself to a set of guidelines and make sure you remain in the boundaries to find your voice in your art.
Let’s expand each of the three steps and see how and why we may want to apply them to our art practice.
What are you passionate about? I have gone through three stages with my art over the last thirty years. Stage one was wildlife art, stage two was painting dogs, and today I paint glass vessels. Each step of the journey has always been where I am at with my life at the time. I have heard it said that when an artist moves to a new subject matter, they commit artistic suicide. By this I mean they leave behind the current following of customers who expect the artist to continue to provide the subject matter they know and love. Leaving dogs for example, in order to paint glass would be an example of this. I have experienced a loss of customers who use to buy my art because I have made this change. I have reasons for the change, however, and have seen results that make me wonder why I waited so long to make the change. However, this doesn’t mean that I will be changing my subject matter anytime soon from what I paint today.
This brings me to my next point, popularity, let’s use cats for example. If you do not have a passion for cats, but accepting commissions to paint cats can be lucrative and this is your primary reason for painting them, I think the lack of passion will override the popularity of your subject and you will soon be on the hunt for a new subject matter. When I started painting dogs, it was because I had a great hunting dog and all my friends had great hunting dogs. I had spent so much time in the woods painting wildlife, I already loved the landscape these hunting dogs belonged in and it was a natural fit for my passions. In essence, it was just one step removed from wildlife. I would go hunting and find that I wanted to observe the dog more than participate in the hunt. I loved the way a setter would lock up on a bird and the intensity that would overtake their whole body. It was something beautiful each time I witnessed it. It was never a problem for me to want to capture that on canvas and I would have done it for free, even if no one was paying me to do it. It was a passion of mine that was true and at the time I can say was my greatest passion.
A person might say, yes but how do I know what if what I am passionate about today will last me a lifetime? Though I concede that this is true and have illustrated myself as someone who has switched subject matters, I did stay with each of the subjects for a decade or more, and the first two blended seamlessly. I still think that a person should start with what they have now and build with the passion that currently motivates them because chances are the people around them are of like mind. For example, if someone is a quilter, chances are they have many friends who also are a quilter. So if you have two beautiful children in your life and you painted them napping on the bed with a beautiful quilt wrapped around them, a person would find the social group that they are currently in would respond favorably to the paintings. It’s something that makes you happy and your heart sings when you think about capturing those moments.
Having a set of rules you apply to every painting provides confinement and guidance to your work. I find that I do better when I consistently do anything and confine myself in the discipline of imposed guidelines. This confinement brings forth many benefits to a body of work. I believe that consistency and discipline are attractive and rewarding. I am not sure that a cohesive body of work can even be produced with our applying this to your studio practice.
A set guideline of what each painting must contain produces a consistent body of work. I’ll use an arbitrary number of twenty paintings that are necessary to enter the professional art world. If it is art festivals you will need a body of work to photograph in a show booth, for your booth shot to be seen by the jury, before you can even participate in a major art show. Finding a gallery is similar because they want to see that you have enough discipline and passion for your subject matter to have already produced a body of work. Each of these venues wants the work to be consistent.
When I was in college, my freshman year, I walked past a class going on called Senior Show. This class is for graduating seniors who will have a show of their work in the gallery as a final crescendo in their undergraduate pursuit. I overheard the professor say, don’t have a charcoal drawing from your freshman year, a ceramic coffee mug you made in your sophomore year, and a poster you made in Graphics class as your body of work. It looks schizophrenic as if there were several different artists occupying one body. I took note and decided that my senior show would have a consistent body of work.
To use the quilter as an example, if they would require a quilt and a person in every painting, each painting would inform the next work and the work would grow deeper in meaning and they would be able to articulate this to the viewer with a passion that deepens as the years go by. The consistency would show a mature artist who belongs in the gallery or marketplace.
The folks in the Ivory Towers may say this is a pedestrian way of looking at art and at best you will end up being an illustrator in the annuals of art history. I concede that this may be true, when I was younger the Ivory Tower people thought Norman Rockwell was nothing but an illustrator. Terry Redlin told me in 1990, he was working for a company as an illustrator when he was younger, they had a closet full of original Rockwells they had used in their business sitting in a closet. Redlin would bring his sack lunch and sit in that closet looking at this work. The company would have sold any of them to the employees for one or two hundred dollars. Today you’ll find those paintings awed at in many museums around the country and worth slightly more than $200.
In addition, I was watching a documentary about Thomas Hart Benton and some art critic was talking about a book Benton wrote called, An American Artist. The critic said that Benton should have been a writer because he wasn’t a very good painter. It’s funny I don’t remember the critics' name but I do know Thomas Hart Benton’s, first, middle and last name.
Working for the future fame and glory of a name after you are dead, seems foolish to me. It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion because the dead know nothing. Especially if you are a Golden Retriever living with a family who loves you, feeds you good food, and lets you sleep in the bed with them. That dog is happy in each day of his life.
Finding your voice takes time and work. By work, I can only speak of painting because this is what I know, but I believe it is transferable to other forms of art. The work I did five years ago was good in my opinion but today’s work is so much richer and deeper in meaning and technique, which is the natural way things should go. Each painting informs me of what I need to do for the next work. There’s not a short cut to the work either. It’s either you painted today or you did not. The reasons you did not paint do not come into play. Sometimes we live as if we have a thousand years of life and we don’t take advantage of the opportunity that is there before us in time.
Stealing time may be worse than stealing money because it is irreplaceable.
In short, to find your voice in your art, I submit to you that you’ll focus on a passion that you have. That you don’t consider, popularity alone for the financial reasons, and finally you set some confinements or guidelines what each piece of work you create must-have in order to have a consistent body of work.
I would love to hear how you have developed your unique voice in your art in the comments below, until next time, Happy creating everyone.