Sorry for tricking you with the title, but “developing” painting style? You just can’t do it.
I wish someone had told me when I was just starting to paint that style emerges over time, as long as you provide ample opportunity for it to do so.
In the beginning, most students are focused on learning new skills and putting new tools in their artist’s toolbox. They’re trying so many new things that it does appear as if their style is all over the place. So not only are they worried they’re not “good enough” to be artists, they worry they’ve “got no style” too. Let’s bust through all that, ok?
1) Stop worrying about your originality and just learn.
Learning to paint is a lifelong, often humbling experience. And then there’s the misconception, fueled by misguided university art programs the world over, that it is even possible to thwart your unique voice if you don’t laser-focus on it 24/7/365 right from the start.
Consider how musicians learn: they don’t jump right into their studies by composing the most original, genre-busting concertos. They might dream about it, but they learn theory. They practice scales, endlessly. They even (gasp!) play things that other composers have written in order to improve.
The visual arts equivalent of this is the Master Copy. It can be an important learning tool, if you’re interested amassing a lot of knowledge in a very short time.
2) Pay attention to the artists and genres you love.
Think about why they move you. Do you want to say similar things, or different things in a similar way? “Follow your bliss” is great advice here. That doesn’t mean your style will necessarily resemble any of the styles you love, but they will provide you with important inspiration along the way. And if your inspiration happens to be a living artist, chances are they offer classes or workshops.
3) When studying with a mentor, forget what you think you know – for a little while.
If you’ve chosen someone to be your mentor, do both of you the honor of becoming a receptive student. As the Buddha would say: “become an empty vessel.” Be humble and engage with the information they present with an open mind.
For a little while, try to do everything exactly as they do. You’re going to get a lot out of learning that way, and I promise you, you won’t become their clone. You will take the things you learn and decipher it in your own way.
4) Paint, then paint some more.
Though the “10,000 hours theory” has been debunked, if you want to be a great painter with a distinctive style, you need to paint a lot.
The best piece of advice I ever got was this: paint 15 minutes every day for a year. So I did. I constructed a simple still life, then set a timer for 15 minutes and I painted on a canvas no larger than 9″ x 12″. If the painting wasn’t done I stopped anyway. I dated the canvas, then moved on. My the end of a month I was astonished at the progress I was making. How quickly I made decisions, how sure my strokes and color were.
Developing your own painting style takes time, a deep love for art, and a lot of faith in yourself. Hopefully these reminders will help you make the most of your journey. Do you have any of your own about learning how to paint, or tips on how to improve? Share them below!