“Well, nuts. I guess I'll just paint”....were the sentiments of artist Jean Mannheim (1861-1945) in response to the changing styles of painting he observed in the last decade of the nineteenth century in Europe. “Composition and drawing, which had heretofore been stressed so forcibly, was now a secondary consideration. Everything was colour. When I first went to Paris, the impressionists were painting with big dots of colour. Two years later, I went back, and the pointillists were painting with little dots. Then came the post-impressionism, cubism, and other extremes. Finally, I thought, 'Well, nuts. I guess I'll just paint.'” (From the California Art Club Fall 2011 Newsletter).
Jean Mannheim (1861-1945) self portrait
There could not be a better example for how artists ought to approach their daily work. And yet, how does the imperative to “just paint” jive with developing a “signature style” a common quest by many artists? In their blogspot radio program, Artists Helping Artists, hosts Leslie Saeta and Dreama Tolle Perry have interviewed many successful artists posing to them that most common question by emerging artists: how can I develop a signature style? I believe the emerging artist is really asking two questions: First, how can I make the mark--the stroke on the painting surface--look distinctive, like mine and mine alone? And second, how do I develop an artistic voice? The most common answer given to the first question by successful artists interviewed on the program is time, lots of time.
When we recognize a signature mark in another artist we admire, it appears that those marks were made effortlessly. But analyzing the development of handwriting as a corollary to the development of a painter's signature marks, this skill comes by way of lots of practice. We start out by printing, carefully and slowly, gradually moving to cursive. Over the course of many years, writing our name over and over, our signature becomes a very distinctive and unique graphic mark. Here is what Julia Layton says:
When we were all kids in primary school, we learned to write based on a particular copybook - a style of writing. But with the passing of time, those writing characteristics we learned in school - our style characteristics - became only the underlying method of our handwriting. We developed individual characteristics that are unique to us and distinguish our handwriting from someone else's. Most of us don't write the way we did in first or second grade. And while two or more people may share a couple of individual characteristics, the chance of those people sharing 20 or 30 individual characteristics is so unlikely that many handwriting analysts would say it's impossible. Handwriting analysts can pretty much ignore the style characteristics, which are only useful for determining with a fair degree of certainty which copybook the writer learned from. The individual characteristics are what matter the most in determining authorship.
Similarly, as painters, if we “just paint” (a lot), a signature mark will emerge over time.
And what about artistic voice? How does that develop? My expanded answer to this question and the “signature style” question is inspired by artist Daniel Gerhartz: Paint with honesty. This is where art and art making moves to a new and more difficult level. It implies that the artist combines technical skills based on an honest visual response to the subject, with an honest emotional response to the subject. That honest voice—honed over many years of developing skills and sorting and sifting through style characteristics (by other artists, strokes, marks, subjects)--eventually finds its roots in our own unique individual characteristics. Artist Robert Genn further emphasizes that we ought to pay attention to our “mistakes” or deviations from the standard which point to individual characteristics emerging.
It seems we could say then, that when we paint with honesty, we paint with our own unique DNA. The result is both signature style and artistic voice.
Over time, as with learning to sign our own names very simply but also with total uniqueness and a reflection of ourselves, each paint stroke becomes both simpler to make and more weighted with meaning. Indeed, the result can look simple to the viewer; perhaps it feels simple to the artist because he or she is no longer paying attention to process but instead to expression. In the words of composer and pianist Frederic Chopin: Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.