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:
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.
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.
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.
The mini-quilt is beautiful!
Thanks! I saw some phenomenal finished quilts this morning on other blogs, and almost decided not to post this tiny thing – but I think it’s important to show process, too. That’s what I love about blogs – the range of aspects of a topic!
Lovely post! I am going to share this with my photographer uncle. Also, I adore that quote “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.” I think you could replace ‘art’ with writing, singing, cooking etc. and I think that quote can be especially helpful to people starting their own blogs and struggling with what ‘style’ to adopt….I think as a blogger picking a style and making it fairly consistent is what is eventually going to make you stand out, no? Thanks for this, and gorgeous quilt btw! 🙂 I’m obsessed with butterflies!!
You are right about replacing “art” with whatever your pursuit is. I think sometimes we are too close to our own work to even see that we have made some choices already – we just think that’s “the way to do it” or “the way everyone does it.” Like, a few places in Dunn’s book, he says that artists just naturally see things in their underlying geometric forms, like cubes and spheres, and my reaction was, “I don’t! I see lines and fractals!” I didn’t know until I read something I disagreed with, that I had a viewpoint different that other people’s. Finding your points of interest AND difference can help you choose your style.
I still struggle with choosing any consistent style for this blog though! 🙂
I agree, it can be very intimidating if you feel your art always needs to be an “expression of your true self” – that puts way too much pressure and if there’s anything to stop the flow of creativity that’s pressure . But I think it is true that art (or anything we make, if the word art is too grand) will naturally become an expression of your true self, just by itself, if we just keep playing and having fun with the materials we enjoy working with and making artistic choices that please us, so I agree that quote about choices is absolutely right. We already have our unique voices and styles, they are not something we specifically need to aim for. It’s a matter of being sensitive to those ideas and preferences that keep bubbling up from inside us, and choose to follow the ones that we like the most.
That said, we all like to progress our skills and like you, I have spent a lot of time thinking how to direct the process of “just playing with materials” to produce something with a more thought-out design. I use the same method as you, photographing things that I like, but I haven’t yet progressed as far as making much out of them, but that’s definitely my goal.
And your mini-quilt is beautiful, I am so glad you chose to post it! i too love blog posts that show the process, even failures (although you quilt definitely isn’t one) not just the very best end results.
Thank you for the lovely, long thoughtful comments!
I especially like your statement about the “bubbling up” – I can see that as an inspirational poster!
Dunn’s quote about just making consistent choices is really helpful to me, because I had really gotten to the point where I couldn’t feel comfortable even trying out a new watercolor technique or transfer paper, because I needed a Subject – and every one I thought of was “taken” by someone. It’s silly to feel that way about a sketchbook no one will see, but it was a road block, and I’m glad I found a way around it!
The quilt is so lovely! I wish I could think of some other way to express that thought. O.K. The beauty makes me speechless!
I am so thankful for my camera – the zoomed-in shots showed me the amazing beauty of these little faded-blue, one-inch big flowers that I have totally ignored for years. Then I wanted to do something with that image. Glad you like it!
Well, I was just about to urge you to continue “dithering” and advise you that when you decide to get rid of one tiny thing you’ve collected for use in the future … the next day you will begin a project & need it. After all, I have an entire studio of things I’ve been collecting for future projects. But, seeing the end result of your new perspective or “voice”, I need to shut my mouth! You’ve inspired me – so thanks! And, keep up the good work – looks like you’re on track. I’ll be retiring next month, so maybe I’ll finally find my voice also.
I think you have found at least one of your voices – your blog is so wide-ranging and complete. You have taken an ambitious subject and done it justice! I am usually happy to be a home body but your blog has got me wanting to travel to places to see all the things you cover! I often access it from a mobile device, which makes it hard to leave comments, but I will get over there via keyboard soon!
I highly recommend Dunn’s book – I have a ton of books on artistic voice but they are similar to each other – to me he offers a different slant that is very helpful. I’m glad you felt inspired here!
Somewhat off-topic, but: earlier as I was browsing around some databases looking for articles relevant to my current project, I came across a piece that caught my attention, and then promptly made me think of you: “Singing the Rug: Patterned Textiles and the Origins of Indo-European Metrical Poetry,” by Anthony Tuck in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 110, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 539-550. It’s a fairly short piece, and proposes what I think is a really compelling connection between weaving and song (and of course one that is used metaphorically in Homer!).
Here’s the abstract: “The prehistoric development of weaving ranks among humanity’s greatest technological accomplishments. The subsequent production of elaborately patterned textiles, as opposed to nonpatterned forms of woven cloth, requires a great degree of technical expertise and is highly labor intensive. Fabrication processes implicit in a complex woven pattern requires the commitment to memory of a substantial amount of numerical and color-related information. Modern observation of traditional weavers in India and Central Asia suggests that this numerical information may have first emerged in the form of memorized, rhythmic chants that allowed weavers to both remember patterns and reproduce them as frequently as required. Moreover, the linguistic and poetic associations between weaving and singing preserved in several Indo-European languages also suggest that these chants were, at some point, sources of rhythmic or possibly metrical narration in their own right.”
I expect you can get the article through your local library, but I’d be happy to send you a pdf if you like – I’m curious to know what you think of this!
So cool! I will try to get it through my local library and let you know if I can’t.
Even today, one of the ways of designing your own draft (weaving pattern) is to use a piece of music. Many looms have 8 harnesses (which raise the threads you want to go under), so you can assign each harness to one note of the scale, and thread the music!
I would love to try to weave by chant. Thanks for thinking of me!