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Finding Your Artistic Voice - Or Not

By Nancy Rowe

In writing, the author’s voice comes through as a personality on the page. If you’ve read several books by one author, you’ll begin to recognize the author’s written voice, just as you can identify someone’s spoken voice.

Nancy Rowe, "Looking Back"

In painting, you’ll often hear people use style and voice interchangeably. We can all recognize Van Gogh’s unique painting style, his short, thin overlapping brushstrokes and bold colors. Even the most novice art-appreciator would recognize a Van Gogh if they saw one. But what was Van Gogh’s voice? I’m a relatively new painter (I’ve been painting seriously the last 8 years or so), and I’ve certainly grappled with the question of having an artistic voice or a recognizable style. Do I have one? Do I need to have one? Are voice and style the same thing, or something different?

At some point, most painters will begin to wonder what their signature “voice” is. In fact, I recently remarked to a friend that I didn’t have a painting style, and I wondered aloud if I should have one by now. She told me that I did have a recognizable style, and then she began to spell it out for me – colorful, folky, graphic at times. I had to laugh because I had not seen it. To me, there’s nothing that says, “Oh yes, this is a Nancy Rowe.” Yet someone else saw it, so perhaps having a style is about perspective.

Paul Cézanne, "The Basket of Apples"

If you look back on Cezanne’s work, his metaphorical fingerprint appears to be on all of his paintings. You can recognize Cezanne by his colorful palette, the way his bathers seem to be pointed and tilting in odd directions, or the way his lush still-lifes have a few too many fruits. You’ll recognize Mary Cassatt by her impressionistic renderings of mothers and children or her more graphic, Japanese woodblock print style with the same motifs.

But I wonder if we are looking at this concept of voice not only as it relates to selling work, but retrospectively. That is, we begin to see style and voice when we examine an artist’s entire body of work, work that can span many decades. We’re looking backwards, where we have a broader perspective and a social, political, and cultural context.

Quang Ho, "By The Ohio River - Portrait of Jack Watson"

In a recent episode of The Undraped Artist, both a podcast and a virtual “live” interview by Jeff Hein, he interviews Quang Ho. While Hein didn’t ask the question about voice directly, he broached the subject of having a particular, recognizable style. It was clear that Ho was more interested in the “magic” that happens when you approach a subject matter with curiosity and openness but also with an eye toward challenge and problem-solving.

Sometimes the problem is about light or form or even the kind of brushstrokes an artist uses. Sometimes it’s about figuring out how to get emotion to come out on the canvas. Sometimes it’s about texture or depth. Ho tried and succeeded at so many different styles of painting and subject matter and has followed his whims. Ho admitted that he kept himself enthused this way and never worried about selling paintings or having a recognizable style or voice that would be easily identifiable by potential buyers, though collectors regularly purchase his work. Instead, he focused on solving the “problem” before him, playfully experimenting with different methods and subjects, and hopefully arriving at something he felt good about. His focus was on the creative process. However, as I looked over some of his works online, there is a thread that joins his body of work; maybe it’s his rich color palette or maybe it’s how gestural his work is – every mark seems both spontaneous and purposeful.

On seeing Ho’s interview, I began to think twice about the importance of voice or having a recognizable style. Instead, it might be better to just keep painting as much as possible, to learn from others, to remain curious, to experiment, to challenge, to entertain yourself with the process. After all, isn’t the process what we all fell in love with in the first place?


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