Reframing “Artistic Voice”

I have no problem making stuff.  My starting point might be a design I see, a new technique, the materials themselves, or a need I hear about.  Random inputs and ideas float through my head and long to work their way down to my fingertips.

But for years I have been running across this idea, that it’s not enough to create a well-crafted piece.  Somehow every piece I make should also communicate my particular set of artistic sensibilities in a recognizable style.  My “artistic voice” should distinguish me from other artists.  It would be nice if it summed up meaningful opinions about the world too.

Here is a quote typical of the ones I see in books and magazines:

When your life energy flows onto that canvas unencumbered by the thoughts and desires of others, your true self will emerge.
-Herb Alpert, quoted in The Artist’s Muse, by Betsy Dillard Stroud

I am pretty sure statements like these are meant to be reassuring, but actually, this idea is a little intimidating to me.  I feel like it prevents me from using any subject matter that someone else has ever used, or trying out an idea that’s not Original.

Even if I never came up with a big important Artistic Vision, I would still be happy making things, from chicken coops to wall hangings.  I am okay being in the “artistic chorus” so to speak, just supporting the art world as a stage hand or audience member.  (And for another post that expressed this view so well,  you could check what Candy wrote over at Buried in Scraps.)

But if I did pick an artistic direction, I can see that it would benefit me.  I think I would make better use of my art time if I knew what I wanted to accomplish, instead of dithering around trying to decide on a subject or technique.  I could clear out all those art supplies that I have held on to, in case I ever decide that I am really meant to be a mosaic artist or a calligrapher.  I could choose from among the myriad of hypothetical projects in my head.  I could draw in my sketchbook without hearing the Art Police in my head, quietly whispering, “Pardon me, but that’s exceptionally derivative.”

So over the years I have tried different things to help me find direction.  I often pull pictures out of magazines and make inspiration notebooks, and then try to analyze what it is I like about those images. (It usually boils down to “composition” and “color.”)  I have purchased art inspiration and technique books, but whenever I sit down to look through them, I find myself being very persnickety and Goldilocks about the whole thing – I rate the samples as either “too advanced” or “too simplistic” to be applicable to me in my befuddled search.

Just lately, I found the spark I have been wishing for.  I got the book Conversations in Paint: A Notebook of Fundamentals, by Charles Dunn.  Dunn ties art to brain research, explaining why certain pictures hold our attention and satisfy our minds better than others. In concise, colorful 2-page layouts, he explains the principles of art and shows options for making pictures stronger.  His approach might seem formulaic to some, but as I read, I could remember artworks of my own that had seemed incomplete, and for the first time, I could figure out what it was that those pictures needed.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, I got a new perspective on artistic voice with this statement:

Still, art is always about making choices. The sum of the choices that an artist makes equals his personal visual idiom or style.  As long as those choices are reasonably consistent, the style will be recognizable and personal.  (p. 152)

I don’t have to find some brand new mode of expression!  All I have to do is make choices!  That I can do!

He follows this up with a questionnaire to help you find an initial profile of yourself as an artist.  From Dunn’s section on the principles of art, I realized that one thing I am fascinated by is the interplay of subject and background.*  I really love pictures I have taken where everything flattens out and becomes just abstract shapes in high-contrast colors (huh, who would think a weaver/quilter would like flat pattern?), like these:

tupleo leaves in fall

tupelo leaves



So I decided to start by playing with that concept.  I have been taking photos of bees around the pond,and  it turns out that common little Waterleaf in the background looks spectacular up close.  I zoomed in and cropped a photo to just an abstract color play of some simple forms.


Waterleaf or False Fiddleleaf, Hydrolea ovata

close-up of waterleaf

close-up of Waterleaf

I could immediately see it as a mini-quilt, just a quilt equivalent of a sketch.  The important thing to me is that to achieve what I had envisioned, I had to try some new techniques – nothing major, just some fusible webbing, and a cording foot to couch some weaving yarn scraps.  But having a purpose in mind did help me make progress.

waterleaf mini-quilt

The Waterleaf as a mini-quilt.

It has some issues, but I can see where I need to go from here.  I think I will try another version – maybe make 4 variations and hang them together.  It feels good to have a direction in mind!

*For a wonderful artist who does a lot with subject and ground interplay, I love the work of Joseph Raffael.