Sunday, October 01, 2006

Question of the Week: What are your thoughts on style?

Our question of the week is: What are your thoughts on style?(For example: How would you describe your own, and how do others describe it? Is style something the creator develops unintentionally? Are there those who foster or even strive toward a certain style in their work? Do you ever feel tempted/pressured to confine yourself to others' perception of "your style"?)

Please send us some new questions! Ask in the comment area or send us an e-mail at bluerosegirls at


Oh boy, style! Here is a sampling (large, sorry!) of what I did in college:

I tried different mediums... different looks--realism, collage, cartoons... things in-between...

One teacher told me to do landscape paintings and get gallery work (he said I had the talent to do so). Another teacher told me that not many people can do photorealism so I should do romance novel covers (I decided that wasn't for me!) and a bunch of teachers told me NOT to do kids' books (perhaps it was the "smoke" illustration that did it). I tried EVERYTHING and was confused for a long time. But as time went on I found myself doing the cartoon stuff more than the rest. I thought it was fun and I decided that photorealism wasn't of much use since a photograph was about the same. So slowly... slowly... a progression happened and now I'm doing cartoons today! My cartoon work, of course, has some realism in it, if you look close enough.

Style is a hard thing to define, and an even harder thing to teach someone to create... I guess because your approach to composing a picture is so personal, and depends on so many factors. I think ultimately the only way to discover your own is to be very prolific with your experiments until you start to notice what throughout your work is consistent, the thread that ties together your work over the years. My style evolved out of a love for drawing from life (figure drawing, observational drawing). I spent my time as a student rendering very careful portraits in black and white such as this one.

When it was time to corral my work into an illustration style, I used the same cross hatching technique in my figure drawing to render my children's book characters. Instead of charcoal, I used pen and ink, introducing soft watercolor washes over the linework.

As my work has evolved over the years, I've let paint and color play more of a role, depending less on the black and white linework that I used so much as a student. I'm experimenting more with graphic shape and texture, things that I think were always present in my work but now I play with them differently.

I think for most people, their style is ever evolving. It is important to be recognizable, but also push yourself as an artist to refine, and sometimes redefine, your approach to making pictures.

In school, I spent a lot of time trying to draw realistically, imitating others and trying to prove to people that I could draw. But I was never fully comfortable with what I was doing--I was always searching for my own visual voice. I remember feeling this especially when I was studying in Rome, Italy. Here I was, a contemporary Asian-American imitating Renaissance Italians. Where was I in my own work? I actually did a whole series of paintings of me looking for things--I was cataloging my search literally in my paintings.

It was only when I decided to put all my classical training aside and said to myself, "Okay, I'm just going to paint something that makes ME happy," that I really hit upon the start of my own "style." Even though this new painting lacked a lot of the sophistication of my earlier work, I really felt I had created something that truly showed the joy I had while creating it and was something uniquely me. So I have continued in this direction, polishing and growing. I love patterns and color, so that is dominating character in my work. Though, now if I don't paint swirls in the sky the publisher comes back to me and says, "You forgot the swirls." Somehow I have branded myself as a swirly sky painter. But I don't really mind-- to be honest, now if I leave the sky blank it doesn't feel finished!

Some artists seem like chameleons in their range of style, others always seem to have a constant tell tale trait in whatever they do, like me. I've tried to change my style, but despite different media, different subject matter, it always looks like me.

I think style comes about as much through weaknesses as it does through choices of personal taste. Every artist develops ways of getting around the things they're not good at, or just don't enjoy doing. I'm not talking about cropping people at the knees because you can't draw feet. But if you don't enjoy edge work, you might utilize line to distinguish figures from background, for example. I find it difficult to make people realistic and organic, so my characters are slightly formalized and posed. Of course, I enjoy medieval art very much more then realistic portraiture, so I look at medieval art a lot more, so there's a lot more of that in my brain to influence me.

Rome was a turning point for me too. I got messier, less precious, and darker there. On returning I couldn't do delicate watercolor anymore. Once in a rage I destroyed a hopeless watercolor painting with sandpaper and acrylics, and my new technique took off from there. But the style has stayed pretty much the same.

Images: a pre-RISD watercolor (1990), an oil from the Rome Program (1995), and an acrylic from a Cricket cover (2006).

My style just evolved from reading and writing -- stories when I was a child, thousand-pages journals mostly writing down other people's conversations and all the drama of the age group as a teenager. I never think about my style -- though I do edit fiercely and clean up before sending things in; otherwise my writing can get too conversational and blabbery -- but my best writing just comes and I leave it alone after that. I don't want to analyze or describe my style; I'd sound like a pompous English teacher, the kind who makes people hate reading. I'll just say my style suits me and leave it at that.

Structure is something I AM thinking a lot about these days. For me, it's much harder than style, and too often seems super-imposed on a novel rather than growing out of the characters.


Anonymous said...

You can learn the rules. You can practice different techniques. But in the end, with both illustrators and authors, you have to be true to yourself. You have to write or paint/draw what flows from your heart, your innate talent after you have explored different media, different styles. You have to say what you have to say--what no one else can say--in words or pictures.

And you have done that, Grace, in your colorful, exuberant picture book illustrations. You have developed your own unique style. And, after all, that is what art is all about.

Linda S. Wingerter said...

Grace I barely remember you ever doing work like that. But I remember that fountain!

Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

I worked in graphic design for 15 years, always as in-house illustrator, usually asked to mimic other people's styles. So when I broke out on my own, I had no idea what my style was. Surprise!

After years of trying to come up with "my look" I came to two conclusions.

One, your medium is the first hurdle. It took 30 some-odd years for me to figure out I like to work digitally (with the mock oil paints ironically enough). For most of my years of searching, my medium didn't even exist. Go figure.
Once I had that part figured out, I sprouted wings.

Two, you can't create your style. It finds you. You work like crazy and your look percolates to the surface. (Grace, I love the idea of your series of "looking" art!) I've been pleasantly surprised by what's come out of my fingers, but I have to admit, it's a look I never expected. (Good thing I like it!)

I've heard people say I work with acrylics, or pastels, but my favorite description is "glowy."

Abigail Marble said...

This is a great question -- thanks for discussing it. I have a teacher who says don't worry too much about it, because ultimately you can't escape your style, even if you want to. All you can do is hone it.

alvinaling said...

I love seeing the progression of all of your art. Libby, I think you can answer this question from a writing point of view--I'm sure your style has changed over the years, too!

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks, Alvina...I'll try.