Like the immediately recognizable Vermeer, El Greco, and Rafael, famous artists throughout history are well known for their distinct creative style. So how does an artist arrive at their style?
Is style found, created, or cultivated? Is a style the same as a voice or point of view? Or is a style inevitable, like a thumbprint or signature that naturally expresses our uniqueness?
Canvas explores these ideas and queries some of New Masters Academy’s artists and thought leaders in art about how they define ‘style,’ and the processes or influences that lead them to this place. We asked them the same question:
What is style in art, and is it even preferable or important to have a style?
New Masters Academy instructor Steve Huston states,
“Our job is to have a point of view. Finding our voice and style comes from this central question: ‘What do you care about?’ Because art directs you to ‘look at this.’ At what? And why? I see real style as the natural and necessary expression of a very particular worldview. Sargent saw his patrons as nouveau royalty. So he painted like one would paint Greek gods. Even little old ladies became Hera, queen of the universe. How does an artist develop a style, and or point of view?
“By cross-pollination. You look at all the things you aren’t, all the disciplines you aren’t master of. You look, as T.S. Eliot suggested, to collect lots of fragments, and then begin puzzling them together.
“An artist needs to be a visual poet, using different parameters than our literary cousins. Art doesn’t work on the intellectual level but on the emotions. It needs to be open-ended enough to allow the viewer to participate in the meaning of the piece, inviting dialogue rather than announcing its worldview, or tell a story with a prescribed ending.
“A metaphor is a lie–but a lie that tells a truth. God as a rock is a metaphor. But, by comparing something we know well to something we don’t know, and possibly even can’t know, we get insight. Not so much intellectually, but in the gut. The best art, I believe, does that.“
Joshua Jacobo, founder of New Masters Academy cautions,
“Many artists are told that they need to develop a unique style, to set themselves apart in a competitive space. I understand the idea behind this, but that fixation can become distracting and counterproductive for artists.
“I think it has a lot to do with the expressionist idea that the artist sees the world differently. But artists don’t look around the world and see chromatic swirling colors, or ugly warped figures.
“Of course, our psychology affects perception, but the goal of the artist is to create an experience in the mind of the viewer. They must be in control of the visual language. Look at professional animators and you’ll see that artists are able to work together, often in large teams, in a shared style depending on the requirement of the show. The artists in Ruben’s studio, from apprentices to brilliant artists in their own right, could work in the style of the master on a wide range of projects.
“So it’s clear that style is something we can control. But, what happens if we aren’t being told by an art director or our employer ‘what style’ we should be working in?
“I think style has to do with artistic priorities. It should have everything to do with the art that we ourselves love. There are trade-offs in art. We each have to make decisions about what’s most important or beautiful, and that along with our life experiences, our personality, and our training, is our style.
“I love the art of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, the Gothic, Renaissance, and the Flemish Baroque periods. I have admiration for other periods, but some works become part of my style and others don’t and it’s hard to say why. Although the composition of impressionist painters is interesting to me, I don’t bring those sensibilities into my work. When it comes to influences, I don’t ‘calculate’ what I should be bringing to my work. I study the art that feels right for me and it makes its way into my style. Besides influences, I think style is a result of the process. ‘How’ you draw or paint or sculpt determines how it looks.”
According to artist Noah Buchanan:
“Style finds the artist, as opposed to the other way around. When fledgling artists set out to make, or rather contrive, their style, it assuredly looks that way and doesn’t feel authentic. So I say, ‘Let your style find you.’
“I look at my paintings and I think, where does this look and feel come about? It certainly isn’t something I’ve ever tried to do. If my work has a style, it came about as I went about studying and practicing painting, and by paying attention to artists whose work excited me.
“At about 16 years old, I registered irritation at being constantly asked to consider the works of Picasso and Mondrian and having these artists’ works held up as great art. Not to say that they’re not great art. But, not knowing much about art, my gut reaction was that I wanted something other than the Modernism being served up; I didn’t find the raw bliss in the work that I craved on a primal level.
“My mother randomly brought home a book on Jusepe De Ribera from the library. At around that time I got my hands on a copy of National Geographic, which focused on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. These things created a visceral excitement for me. So, moving through art school I just allowed my own level of honest visual excitement to guide me toward the work that inspired me.
“At art school, my peers would say, ‘You have to look at Basquiat, Warhol, and Pollock. That’s where it’s at. They’ve got the deeper meaning you need to look for to become a mature artist.’ But the work didn’t hold anything for me. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t find value or appeal in it. It all felt empty to me.
“I poured myself obsessively into my anatomy classes. I spent late nights drawing Greek and Roman sculpture. I sat in on night classes for portraiture, just to try and be better. I found pure elation and feelings of sacredness in the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Durer, Caravaggio, Rubens, Ribera, Velazquez, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. So these became the ingredients in the work that I yearned to make. I don’t make any claims at being able to touch their works, but at least they’re the names of the artists that inspired me.
“I tell students they need at least three embers to build their own, unique ‘fire,’ your style, or your voice. So I ask them to identify three artists of different periods they feel passionate about. I ask them to imagine merging these voices together, as a way of guiding them toward the work they want to make. And often a style finds them. Imagine someone saying, ‘I love Monet, Turner, and Homer.’ Imagine what might come from merging those elements.
“And that’s how it has come about for me. I sort of found ‘myself’ through an attempt at being the sum of my influences, not just in subject matter but in ways of thinking about light and form, and very much in the handling of paint.
“A colleague of mine labeled me a ‘Neo-Classical Painter,’ and I thought, ‘What?!? I’m not a Neo-Classicist!’ I don’t see that my work strikes the same tones and appearances as Jacques Louis David or Jean-Auguste Dominque Ingres for example. On the other hand, the Classical Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus do appear in my work. Maybe I’m proud to be ‘Classical.’
“But, to think about this label from broader contemporary perspectives, I suppose that in the sense in our time we’ve come to think about anything pre-1870 (ish) as being Classical, I suppose my work does seem to remind the audience of painting methods and themes that have happened before in history.
“I find real grievance with the argument that we shouldn’t do what’s been done before. When I think about the many things in life that have been done before: breathing, eating, making love. These are major pillars of our experience of being alive. So to me, it feels like meaningful work to make paintings in the practices of the old masters; images about being alive in a way that humanity can relate to; making the viewer think on their existence, what meaning there is or could be, and the prevailing hope that our existence might be one of beauty and harmony.”
“An artist cannot be partially sincere any more than art can be an approximation of beauty,” says philosopher and filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky. “It is his duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen, even if not everyone finds that truth is acceptable. Of course, an artist can lose his way, but even his mistakes are interesting provided they are sincere. For they represent the reality of his inner life, of the peregrinations and struggle into which the external world has thrown him.”
Thus, it is not ‘originality’ that we should strive for, but rather an authenticity – a truthfulness. When we look into someone’s eyes, it is not an original smile we seek, but rather an authentic expression that comes from a being full of truth and light.
So too, art should elicit a similar experience, affirming and uplifting our humanity, connection, and existence.
With a dedication to our craft, and in service of truth and beauty, an authentic style will certainly emerge.
Once, the Hassidic Rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Zusya, what’s the matter?” The Rabbi told them about his vision: “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ And that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’”
Zusya sighed. “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”