This is something that has caused me a certain amount of grief. Many years ago I was warned by a really well known illustrator that a very distinctive personal style was often a problem. He pointed out that once you had established and were known for a distinctive style you wouldn’t be asked for anything else. What is more if your style was a hit and then went out of fashion you were left high and dry with very little work.
This in the event was not a problem for me. I am a born mimic and can usually paint in most styles in a reasonably convincing way. Indeed a lot of my illustration work came with the requests like, “Could you do this in whatshisname’s style as he isn’t available.” I became quite useful and garnered a fair bit of work on this basis. It broadened the range of skills that I had which was I suppose a plus. The disadvantage was that I didn’t develop much of a distinctive personal style myself! I would have an idea and think that it would suit this style or that, swopping between them as if changing hats.
This problem was brought into focus when I started to paint pictures for myself not for commission. At first my acrylics were so varied in style that if they were hung on the wall side by side nobody would guess they were by the same painter! In watercolours I had more to build on as I had been filling small sketchbooks for years with topographical paintings from holidays etc. Here at least my style was reasonably consistent. With oils however I tended to swing between the finished and sketched or the broad and the detailed. Looking at my wall of recent paintings I do at last see a style emerging, which has led me to think on it further.
I now think the matter of style can be a very thorny issue. The same problem occurs with easel painters as it does with illustrators. If your style is very distinctive, say you outline most things with a primary or some such, then if you stop that practice then the pictures won’t be what people expect of you. Also you will only be able to do such pictures where that particular quirk works well. A subtle misty mood for example would be nigh on impossible. You have in essence painted yourself into a cul de sac, you can only paint the subjects that suit your style.
It happens I think because people wish to reprise past successes. They paint a nocturne which is very much of a hit and thereafter do nocturnes until they turn up their toes!
Looking back at art history you can see examples of artistic type casting. De Chirico is quite a good one. He became famous for his surreal paintings, but later in life attempted to paint in a more classical manner. (much to the horror of art historians who really don’t like you to step outside your box!). He came to the other style without the required skill and so visibly struggled. The technical hurdles of drawing, observation and paint handling for the classical inspired work being far higher than for the surreal ones. No one really wanted his new work so he had to keep on knocking out the old surreal stuff to make a buck. The problem for De Chirico was he had become type cast, his style had become a straight jacket that imprisoned him. De Chirico is laudable I feel because he at least tried to throw off the chains. Other artists having established their own comfortable little walled garden never thereafter step beyond its bounds.
Another example would be Samuel Palmer, in his youth he had mental problems and painted in a visionary style. But later he settled on to a more even keel and painted in a fairly straight observational manner. In both styles he is very good, but due to the existence of his hallucinatory and romantic early work the later efforts will never be really appreciated. Indeed books on him often only feature later work briefly at the end!
Other painters, just peg away at the same dreary stuff year after year. Oddly the art world gives brownie points for dogged persistence. If you spend 30 years arranging pine cones into mandalas in the depths of Siberia it must they argue be more than a passing phase. I can’t imagine what a dreary existence it must be to be someone like Bridget Riley knocking out the same Op art tedium year after year. Mind you she no longer bothers to do them herself but has helpers do the donkeywork. Not that the end results aren’t very decorative, but I’d prefer to have a William Morris on my wall any day!
So I now feel that too strong a personal style is a bit of a handicap. We all hope to be different and noticed but in a world where everybody is trying to be just that, different becomes the new same. What you hoped might separate you from the crowd does just the opposite. The real rare thing in life and art is not someone doing something different but someone doing something really well.
I have as I believe mentioned before decided to draw more in pen and ink. This is already paying dividends as by reducing your choices of tone and mark you are forced into finding ways of explaining your subject that only require line and tone. With such a limited menu of marks everything has to earn its keep. Hatching with its strength order and direction becomes very important. If you do a building wall in just vertical lines then it becomes dead and featureless. In real life there are many variations so if you break up mostly vertical lines with the odd angled group then you are showing both that it is vertical and flat but also that it is varied in its surface. For a smooth concrete wall you would add very few disruptions, for a worn dirty tenement far more.
This is Royal Hill in Greenwich. I have decided that dip pens though lovely are too much to fight with en plein air so this is done in fibre tip. I am using a watercolour Moleskin as I quite like the fact that if you move the pen quickly you get a faded dotty line.
Another one, quite a fearsome subject but it only took about an hour to render. It is one of the hardest things to learn to leave enough white to allow the subject to breath. In reality the sky was much darker than the sunlit dome but IMO the drawing would not have been improved by hatching the sky area.
A very quick sketch done battling the wind. It was a super day with wonderful light, hopefully I will get some studio pictures from the day. This is the entrance road to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. It is now a music college so you draw to the sounds of music issuing from various windows!
Watercolour 5in by 7in.
This is Blackheath, painted on an early morning expedition with Graham Davies. I had spotted this subject looking very beautiful several times but never been able to stop. I have to sort out the figures as they make an “M” it is odd how things like this can strike you several days later when your eye passes over a painting.
Oils, 10in by 14in.
This was done on the most gorgeous day with the Brass Monkeys. We arrived at dawn and were faced with the most astonishing light. The problem with painting at dawn is that the subject starts out gorgeous and then gets less so as the light increases. As result this had to be painted very quickly. I am attempting to paint a little bigger so it was the first serious outing for my new larger pochade. I must say it worked very well, I was surprised that painting a notch bigger did not really take that much more time. This is St Pauls from Fleet St. I will do a studio painting from this but decided not to work up the sketch any further.
Oils 12in by 16in
The next one of the day. I had textured my board more than I usually do as an experiment. It works well but I got it a mite to strong I shall have to experiment to find a prime finish that suits me. Up until now I have been painting on quite smooth boards. Which is quite difficult but good for you as the brush strokes must be well thought out. But for this sort of atmospheric subject a textured surface works better.
Oils 12in by 12in.
I don’t know what kind of coffee I had early that morning but I painted like a demon all day! Partly it is being out with a group of fellow painters which is very pleasant and inspiring. Another that would be worth taking into the studio. As I posted this I noticed the tower cutting the sky was too strong so had to stop typing briefly to soften it! St Pauls again, which means I did it 4 times in the day!
Oils 12in by 20in.