(If you haven’t already, please start with Part 1 of this three-part series of musings on my sixth anniversary since I started drawing.)
Every now and then I’ll have a conversation with someone who compliments me on my sketching style and asks how I came to choose or develop that particular style. I always say, “I didn’t choose my style; my style chose me.” I know that sounds facetious or like an attempt to be witty, but it’s something I believe. (I talked about it as far back as 2012 when I was only a year into sketching.)
I’m a little reluctant to talk about artistic style because, honestly, I don’t really know how to define it. We all say things like, “Oh, I like her sketching style,” “He has a distinctive style,” “I wish I could draw in that style,” etc., but what does that mean? Perhaps I’ll just say that style is the thing that characterizes someone’s work in such a way that viewers scanning their Flickr or Facebook thumbnails can identify who made the work without reading the name. You know what I mean, right? For the sake of this discussion, let’s just call that style.
When I first started out, I didn’t think I had my own style, so I looked at the works of many, many sketchers whose styles I admired, and I wished that I could sketch like they do. In some cases, I tried to emulate their styles, but more accurately I was just emulating the tools and materials or even color palettes they used. Sometimes the artist’s materials are so firmly tied to their style that they appear to be inseparable (an example would be KK and his twig), but as all of us who took KK’s workshop can attest, using the same tools does not give us the same style. If I were to draw with a twig every day for years (as KK has), I might eventually gain skill with it, but by that time I would have developed my own twig-drawing style that would look nothing like KK’s.
The reality is that instructors can only teach techniques, skills or how to use materials; they can’t teach us how to develop a style. We have to do that last part ourselves.
That seems so obvious, but believe it or not, it took me a while to understand this. My first two or three years of sketching, I read a lot of books, viewed videos and attended workshops taught by sketchers whose styles I admired. Somewhere in my mind I was hoping that if I learned skills and techniques from them, I would also adopt their styles.
As it turns out, regardless of my studies, my style has evolved on its own and is not of my conscious choosing. It has probably been influenced by others, but not in a way that I’m conscious of. Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, my style began with the very first sketch I made. (You’ll see from the sketches shown here that while my skills may have changed [I hope!], my basic style has not.) Certainly those books, videos and workshops were not a waste of time, since I’ve gleaned useful information from most of them. But whether I applied the information has been mostly a matter of how well the techniques and approaches enhanced and aligned with what I was already doing. I’m less frustrated if I learn methods and approaches that fit with my style instead of running counter to it.
Sometimes I hear people advise others to “loosen up” or “be bolder with color” or “draw bigger.” Perhaps that kind of advice is helpful. My hunch, though, is that someone who draws with tight, tiny details or prefers soft colors or a small scale will become frustrated trying to take on a style that is radically different from their own. Instead, it might be more satisfying to learn ways to enhance their own way of drawing. (Tomorrow I’ll talk more about how learning and style are related.)