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How Important is Developing a “Personal Style” at Early Stages?

In the olden days, when young artists were apprenticed to a master, they probably were not overly concerned with developing a personal, “signature” style –– at least at early stages. We can easily imagine students hard at work to develop their skills, without much thought to cultivating a personal style; the primary thing was to be able to draw and paint, first! Later, after the basic skills were mastered, they would undoubtedly become aware that their own handling of the material resulted in a certain kind of mark making, palette, subject matter, and way of approaching that subject matter. This seems like the natural way of approaching the issue; first just learning to draw and paint, then giving more concern to issues related to style.

Jan van der Straet (Stradanus) Depiction of an artist's studio

Nowadays, however, a lot of teachers put emphasis on personal style, at a very early stage. It is easy to see why this is: modern art shot off in a different direction, about 130 years ago, with the work of the Post-Impressionists. Perhaps for the first time, artists started searching for highly personal ways of making art –– ways that not only broke with tradition, as the Impressionists had, but even broke with styles of their contemporaries in a way that was far more extreme than anything that had come before. Compare, for instance, the difference between a Renoir and a Monet; yes they are different, and we can appreciate those differences and talk about them. The Renoir’s brush seems lighter, more wispy; he blends the colors together more than Monet. Monet’s paint application is thicker, with more unblended dabs –– an anticipation of the pointillism. And yet, despite the differences between Renoir and Monet, they still have more in common than they have in difference: they both paint with a loose brush, both deal with nature as subject matter, and are concerned with creating a sense of the fleeting impressions of light.



Now compare the differences between these Post-impressionist artists, as seen in these images by Toulouse Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Signac. Their ways of handling the paint are more diverse, as are their subjects, palettes, and compositional devices.




And this trend towards the highly personal style has only increased during the last century. Certainly, it is fun and interesting to see works of art that show us such diverse and unique approaches to painting. It is also fun to explore the freedom open to us today, while we develop a personal style. On the other side, though, if too much emphasis is placed on this, at early stages of a student’s art education, then the student may feel a lot of pressure to be highly unique and original, instead of just enjoying the process of art-making for its own sake, in a way that comes natural to them. We shouldn’t make our students feel self-conscious by imposing this sort of preoccupation, early on. A good teacher might take notice if a student shows a natural propensity towards a particular kind of mark-making, and encourage them to explore it consciously. This sort of natural growth is always better than a forced, artificial effort to be “unique”, and it is –– at any rate –– the inevitable outcome of any protracted engagement with an art education. If such apparent “uniqueness” is missing at early stages, it will assert itself at later stages. Continuity in practice is all that is needed –– and all that requires is loving the process of learning.


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