When I started this journey of being an artist, I didn’t realize how many different kinds of artists or artist markets exist. I am not talking about styles of art, realism verse abstractionism or folk verses traditional. I mean artists who focus on local/regional content only, those who are driven by social/political issues, those who seek to be nationally or internationally connected, those who produce work only for its aesthetic beauty, those who are driven by cultural/ethnic content, those who seek out new and innovative approaches and cutting-edge techniques, those who just want to paint whatever comes their way, etc. I struggle, as most artists do, with identifying what, which market I want to be a part of. So I ask myself the question what kind of artist do I want to be and what unique contribution can I make to the field?
Do I want to be a portrait painter, a landscape artist, or an equine painter, consistently producing the same kind of artwork, using the same media in the same style? As I looked closer at art history, I realized that famous and not so famous artists did not stick to one subject matter, one style or one media. Pablo Picasso, for example, painted all kinds of subject matters, worked with clay, created etchings, made sculptures, and produced drawings. According to The Art Story.org “Picasso had an eclectic attitude to style, and although, at any one time, his work was usually characterized by a single dominant approach, he often moved interchangeably between different styles – sometimes even in the same artwork.” Yet consistency is supposed to be the hallmark of an artist work.
If we continue with the example of Picasso, we see that over a lifetime he was anything but consistent. He was, however, consistent during certain time periods. Thus we can identify his Rose or his analytical cubism period. However, none of these periods lasted very long, some for two years, others for 10 years. I once read that consistency in artwork is based on six elements; style, palette, subject matter, theme, medium, and presentation, and while you needn’t have all six elements in your work to be consistent your work should exhibit at least three or four of these elements. Perhaps the answer is consistency in a particular body of work and not consistency over a lifetime. Will consistency help you develop a unique contribution to the field?
How exclusive can one be when there are thousands of artists out there striving to be ‘unique’? In Picasso’s case, it was his contribution of seeing form in a different way, cubism. He was influenced by a number of sources, other artists and cultures. And he worked to step away from many of the academic conventions of his time. So even though he was an excellent draftsman and could render in a classical manner, he chose to see things differently. So ‘unique contribution’ is important if your interest is in transforming the field, turning it on its ears. But what if you just want to paint, what could be your unique contribution? Could it be theoretical exploration, a new way of visualizing an idea or notion, a different way of developing a composition, etc.? While these are all interesting concepts, they take lots of time to explore, develop and perfect. Wasn’t it Chuck Close who refused to exhibit his work until he had perfected his technique? But what can an artist do especially if s/he has to eat, make money to buy supplies, support their art habit? Do you ‘go with the flow’ and create work that is trendy so it can sell? Or do you take the time no matter what to explore, to do work that connects the past and feeds the future, to produce work that is truly unique? Which are you?
So now I come back to the questions at hand, what kind of artist do I want to be and what unique contribution can I make to the field? Even though I have selected oil painting as my major medium and figurative art as my content, I enjoy painting birds, horses, still life arrangements, which might include fruit, shoes, candies, bowls, etc., landscapes, and whatever I find appealing. I feel that the skills I use in painting people are applicable to painting landscapes. I might have to work a little harder at landscape painting, but the principles are the same. And what I learn from painting landscapes, especially plein air landscapes, I apply to my figurative work.
As for consistency, I personally find it hard to stay with just one subject matter for consistency sake. So I focus on creating series or bodies of work that allow me to explore different elements of ideas or related subject matter. One series may focus on a particular subject matter and a special palette while another might focus on composition and a theme. What remains most consistent is my medium, oil painting, my style, loose brush strokes, and my theme, people. As an artist who started her journey late in life, I am not sure I have the time to explore the notions of a truly unique contribution to the field of painting because as I said before it takes lots of time to explore, experiment, and just play. Therefore, I have determined, that my unique contribution, while not earth changing, is really about my voice and vision. The scenes I select to paint, my personal vision of what is important in a scene, my unique voice of expressing my subject matter, the internal logic I use in developing my compositions. Do these choices come naturally? No, not necessarily, I am always looking at what other artists past and present have and are doing, how they manned brushstrokes, the color palettes they use, the compositional arrangements they select. I use what I learn from them sparingly, because creativity is, “knowing how to hide your sources.” While this might not change the face of painting within the next century, it is what I enjoy doing. How about you?