If you have any kind of visual creative practice, if you’ve taken photos or painted or drawn or written then you’ve probably heard that you should be finding “your style”. Even the everyday creative with an Instagram account is being told they should have a niche, a recognisable aesthetic, a consistent voice or brand. Yet, a quick Google search and you’ll quickly see that it’s a topic that many of us are struggling with. How do we go about finding our style? How will we know when we’ve found it? When we do find it, does that mean we can never create anything else?
In fact, there seems to be an almost palpable sense of urgency to lock down exactly what your art looks like.
I know I am guilty of this. I’ve spent many hours analysing my own photography trying to pick the magic thread that holds it all together. For me, it has almost been a quest to find my creative identity. Once I know what my works looks like, I’ll know who I am as an artist. I’ll know what direction I’m heading in, I’ll know exactly what to shoot and exactly how to edit and I’ll never question my work again.
While these expectations are somewhat unrealistic, is it better to have a consistent style as an artist, and if so, how do we go about defining it?
Why are we supposed to have a consistent style?
Let’s start with looking at the advantages of a consistent creative style.
- Your work becomes recognisable. – someone viewing one of your pieces knows it’s yours without having to see your name attached to it.
- You create a cohesive and reliable look and feel. This is particularly relevant when marketing a brand – you want to build trust with your customers and part of that is them knowing what to expect from you.
- You increase your selling opportunities. For example, as a reader, if I enjoy one book by an author I’m likely to go and see what else they have written and so I may end up purchasing several of their works. Many artists also use their distinctive style to sell educational resources to other artists on how they achieve their particular results.
- You stand out in the crowd. We are exposed to hundreds of images, words and sounds every day. Having a unique style can help you break through the noise.
- You have a defined direction for your art which helps guide your creative decisions. This doesn’t mean you’ll never run out of inspiration but you will have a clearer idea of what works for you and what doesn’t
Why is it so hard to define a consistent style?
As an artist, I’m always seeking inspiration, from my own experiences, from the way I see the world around me and from other creators.
This week in photography alone I have been inspired by:
- Noir style black and white images with a feminist twist
- Rural lifestyle photos from a flower grower
- Still life florals and tablescapes shot in a studio
- Moody and misty landscape photography from Scotland
- Work in progress photos from an artist’s day to day creativity
- Quirky and fun self-portraits with a fantastical twist
What this tells me is that my tastes are diverse – and why shouldn’t they be? Humans are complex beings. How many people do you know who have a mishmash of hobbies, interests and passions that don’t seem to go together at all?
When we create art, we draw on all of our ideas, thoughts, preferences and feelings. On top of this, we are influenced by more practical elements such as the resources we have available to us (I love a moody, sweeping landscape but I live in suburbia and don’t get much opportunity to travel). Trying to narrow down to a specific set of parameters can feel like an impossible task.
It can also be difficult to take a step back and look at our own work objectively. Often, we are too close to it and it becomes a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
How style evolves naturally
What if the key to finding your style is to let it find itself?
If you are actively looking for a style to call your own then you may inadvertently be cutting off the opportunity to explore and find new inspiration. Having a style shouldn’t mean restricting yourself to only shooting certain subjects or using specific colours or only editing one way. A style should be defined naturally by the things you are consistently drawn to.
If given a choice to photograph anything at all, what are the things that you find the most important to capture and how do you express what you see? For me, I find I’m overwhelmed by the big picture, especially if there is a lot going on, so I’ll reach for my macro lens to capture the small details or I’ll choose a single point of focus and use a shallow depth of field to blur out the rest. This means my portfolio covers many subjects. from portraits to nature to still life, but all captured in a similar way.
Style is also something that will change over time because we as people change over time. Take a look at some of my self-portraits below from the last 8 years of my creative journey and you’ll see that my style has changed quite a bit yet there are still threads that tie it all together.
Defining a style doesn’t mean that all your images have to look the same – what makes your style might be just a few subtle elements.
In fact, it’s entirely likely that you already have the building blocks of your style, simply because each one of us has a unique perspective. As long as you are creating genuinely from yourself there will be a part of you in each photo you take because it’s almost impossible not to. Just because you are not able to define your style in a few succinct words or you didn’t choose it with very deliberate intention doesn’t mean you don’t have one – it may just have evolved organically as a culmination of all the small choices you make each time you create.
How not to find your style
A quick footnote to wrap up, because this has been (and still is if I’m honest) one of my biggest downfalls.
Trying to find your style by looking at the styles of other artists is very rarely (if ever) effective. It seems simple to decide to shoot dark and moody images or flowery romantic images because you like that aesthetic in another artist’s work, but by doing this you miss the depth of what motivates that artist to create in that way as well as the individual elements you can bring to your own art. Study the techniques and the craft of others and take inspiration from them by all means, but incorporate this as part of your toolbox, not your entire approach.
If you are struggling with this I have another post on finding inspiration without copying other people’s work that you might find interesting. I also highly recommend Austin Kleon’s book “Steal Like an Artist”.