The Pitfalls of Style

Style has no formula, but it has a secret key. It is the extension of your personality, the summation of this indefinable net of your feeling, knowledge, and experience.

~Ernst Haas

Art, by its nature, is ambiguous. If we wanted to express something definitively, we could do so more readily and unambiguously in writing or in speech, or in some form of evidentiary photography (photojournalism, etc.), rather than in art.

In reading, or when listening to speech, we form meaning by way of a shared pre-defined vocabulary and by certain rules of grammar. In viewing evidentiary photographs, we simply take what we see to mean whatever it would have meant if we saw it with our own eyes. In art, on the other hand, we form meaning intuitively, not by accepting what we perceive as literal and obvious (if that is even possible), but as metaphor. And some art, by design, has no meaning at all, its value being in simply arousing the senses.

Since our intuitions are not necessarily identical to those of a given artist, and may be influenced by subjective perceptions, experiences, beliefs, moods, and sensibilities; meaning in art is always, at least in part, subjective. However, despite lacking the precision of other means of expression, by appealing to intuition rather than to intellect, art may impress in ways—and to degrees—that definitive statements-of-fact can never accomplish. Also, by appealing to intuition, art may communicate perceptions for which there are no words.

Just as meaning in art is ambiguous and subjective, so are the meanings of some terms used to describe qualities associated with art. One such term is style. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines style, among other things, simply as, “a distinctive manner of expression.” By this definition, anything that is unique to the work of a given artist may fairly be considered as that artist’s style. However, a style by this definition is no guarantee of value or meaning. It just means that one’s work looks different in some way, that may be entirely contrived, from others’ work. So what?

I think that it is much more profitable to examine not so much the simplistic definition of style, but its function. Getting the obvious out of the way, consistency in style might make an artist’s work more recognizable, more marketable, more appealing (to those who like the style), etc. But I think that a personal style serves its highest purpose not as a marketing gimmick, but when taken literally to mean a style representing the personality of the artist.

In my work, style is not a goal but a byproduct of working according to my personal sensibilities, goals, intents, skills, and limitations. I believe, as Nietzsche did, that, “Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.” After all, if one aspires to a personal style, what can be more personal than one’s feelings and beliefs?

A paradoxical question among artists and students of art is, “how do I find my style?” The question is paradoxical because any answers attempting to instruct a person in what to do (or not do) to “find” their style, may lead that person to a style, but never to their style. I believe that the proper answer to this question is, “you don’t find it; it finds you.” Anything you may find, by necessity, has to already exist; and anything that already exists, will not be your personal style (unless your style is imitation, or plagiarism). A style is not something you find; it’s something you evolve—by, and of, yourself. A personal style is not something you impose consciously onto your work, it is something that ensues out of your work—something other people recognize in your work as saying something about the person who created it.

Style is not a skill. It’s not a quality or an ability that, once learned, you may check the “found my style” box and move on to something else. A style, if it indeed reflects your own sensibilities, perceptions, outlook, goals, etc.—the person that you are—cannot be a fixed quantity since it is a product of things that are (hopefully) not fixed quantities. As you change and evolve—as a person and as an artist—your style should change and evolve with you.

If your personal style today is the same as it was a decade ago, that may be reason for concern, since, by extension, it means that (assuming your style represents important aspects of who you are) you have not progressed beyond the person you were a decade ago. This is an important distinction between style and mastery. In time, and with practice, you may improve your skills as to make masterful works, but if your style remains identical, then you have accomplished technical mastery, but not creative mastery, which in my opinion is considerably more venerable.

In the words of Oliver Sacks, “Many creators—whether they are artists, scientists, cooks, teachers, or engineers—are content, after they have achieved a level of mastery, to stay with a form, or play within its bounds, for the rest of their lives, never breaking into anything radically new. Their work may still show mastery and even virtuosity, giving great delight even if it does not take the further step into ‘major’ creativity.” This is one reason I never liked the term, “master,” because, like so many other things in art, it is ambiguous, and not necessarily as worthy of admiration as some (especially those who self-apply it) would like.

A style changing and evolving? I can almost hear the grumbles from marketers and others in the business of art. If a style is not consistent, then it may not be recognizable, not have a “signature look,” or some other quality revered by sellers and collectors. So what? Recall that if the likes of Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, or Mondrian, settled on some style early in their careers, certainly they may have sold some art (they were all masterful drafts-persons) but it’s doubtful that any of us today would have even heard of them, let alone benefited from their immense contributions to the arts. But beyond such things as fame and notoriety, if these artists stuck to some contrived style and did not have the courage to express their unique selves, their own lives likely would not have been as rich or interesting.

So, stop worrying about style. Worry about living your life in the most meaningful way you can, and strive to express in your work what is meaningful to you, your convictions and epiphanies, your revelations and hard-won lessons—the things that shape your life and personality. By necessity, the more deliberately you live, the more differentiated you become as a person, and some unique personal style will arise naturally as a byproduct of this differentiation.

If you wish to shortcut your way to a personal style by inventing some unique and popular look that differentiates your work from others’ but that is not a product of some unique aspects of your personality, you may succeed. And if you promote this stylized look to the world as your personal style, and force it onto your work from that point forward, believing you have found some holy grail, you may unwittingly stunt your own growth as an artist. That is a great danger.


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2 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Style

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  1. I always enjoy reading your writing but this piece is absolutely fabulous. It is so well written and clear. And most importantly, I totally agree with you. Thank you for putting it down.

  2. When I was first introduced to the concept of personal style, the idea was foreign to me and I was sure I didn’t have one. My quest to discover my personal style turned out to be a journey of self-discovery. Over the years I have been aware of how my personal style has changed and,by extension, how I personally have grown as a person and an artist. In this cortex, which is in the same spirit as what you are saying, personal style at its best is not a box to be built around oneself but a window into ones development as a human being.

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