Cow Creek Sunrise, gouache, Vinita Pappas

A question I often get from students is, “How do I find my own style of painting?”

This is a common question with no easy answer, and perhaps I’m not the best person to ask! My style over the years has been all over the place. I often felt like I should settle down into one style of painting. But I love testing out new methods and new mediums. Looking back, I can see how all that experimentation was necessary and continues to be so for the type of artist I am. Repetition equals death to me. Okay, maybe not death, but at the very least, boredom. With time, I have comfortably settled into a style that feels authentic and yet still allows plenty of room for growth and change. Coming from that place, I offer you guidance on how to develop your painting style. Keep in mind, I believe your style should always be developing. Creating art is a journey with no end point.

1. Understand your connection to color

It’s obvious that most painters love color. It’s an integral part of being a painter. We are attracted to color and color is a major form of our expression.

Most people can identify their favorite color and least favorite color. The important question to ask yourself is why you have a favorite color. If you love the color blue, ask yourself why. Do you simply like how it looks? Or do you like how it makes you feel? Maybe it reminds you of something special. Understanding why you like a color will help you know what value it brings to your artwork.

It’s also good to understand how color affects your mood. Right now as I’m writing this, I’m wearing gray yoga pants, a white tank-top, and a gray cotton shirt. This is pretty much my default painting uniform. I choose gray not because I don’t like color. I really love all colors! But I also know that I am highly sensitive to color. Wearing a bright color significantly affects my mood and my mindset. And so when I’m painting or writing, I am more comfortable wearing gray because I feel like I’m coming from a neutral space that’s not influencing or clashing with my work.

For similar reasons, I don’t paint bright, colorful paintings very often. I use a lot of color in my paintings, but I prefer the color to be more subtle with some accents of brighter colors. For my personality, a painting that has bright color everywhere can feel a bit too chaotic. This is not only because of my sensitivity to the emotional impact of color but also my visual sensitivity to color. When complimentary colors vibrate in a painting, some people are drawn to that vibration while to me it looks too intense and actually bothers my eyes (common with people who get migraines).

I have a good friend who is completely the opposite. Bright colors cheer her up and give her energy. She enjoys painting with a LOT of color. Her style of painting is influenced, as it should be, by her connection to color.

When it comes to discovering your connection to color you can ask yourself what types of color schemes you’re drawn to and why are you attracted to those color schemes. That will help guide you in the process of choosing your palette. This doesn’t mean that you always have to use the same colors, but it will help you develop a consistent look from painting to painting.

2. Acknowledge your work personality

Do you have daily routines that you follow faithfully or are you more inconsistent? Are you very proactive or are you more of a procrastinator? Do you enjoy change or do you deplore change and would rather things stay the same?

Understanding your personality will help you understand what type of work will come easier for you as a painter. For instance, I am not very consistent in my daily activities, and I don’t like to follow a schedule. And I tend to procrastinate. I also love change, and I like experimenting and trying new things.

How does this translate to my style of art? I know that I need to stay away from the style of work that would require a lot of consistent, deliberate effort. I also realize that I am better off finishing up painting within a day or two rather than working on something over the course of two or three months. And trying out a slightly new technique will keep me motivated to paint more.

For painters who are the opposite of my personality, the idea of completing a painting quickly may feel overwhelming. They may be much more comfortable knowing that they have a month or more to work on a piece in a deliberate and calibrated manner. Someone who doesn’t like a lot of change would be better off with a style that has more predictable outcomes.

Matching your painting methods with your work habits is an effective way of developing a style that feels inherent to you. The good news is that there are no right or wrong ways of painting, so no matter what your work methods are, you can find a style that fits well.

3. Identify art that appeals to you

This is a pretty obvious way to define your own style. Look at art, decide what you love, learn to paint like that. But what if you like very different styles of art? You may be better off asking yourself what types of art do not appeal to you. You can eliminate a lot of styles by deciding what does not appeal to you.

When you’re looking at art, you can also notice when a painting makes you pause. When do you go beyond just liking it and begin to dissect it? “How did the artist do that? What type of brush stroke is there? I wonder if I could try that?” When you find yourself asking questions like that then you know that style of art appeals to the painter within you.

You can take this one step further and begin to document particular paintings and techniques that pull you in. The colors in the sky of “___.” The broken edges in the vase of “___.” The value contrast in the water in “___.” Before long, you will have a clear understanding of styles that you like.

4. What are you willing to deliberately practice?

Your painting style does not need to be dictated by your current skill level. What should be influencing your painting style are the skills that you’re willing to practice over and over again. Because that’s what it takes to develop skills, hours upon hours of practice. You may not be very good at painting detailed portraits right now but if you can easily see yourself dedicating hours of practicing portrait work then perhaps that is something that can be incorporated into your style.

You will not be able to adequately express your style until you develop strong technical skills. And you develop these skills by deliberate practice. You would be wise to choose to skills you will happily practice. I’m pretty sure that I could become skilled at painting detailed portraits. But I also know that I’m not thrilled about the thought of practicing that skill. I don’t feel a pull in that direction.

5. Integrate your life with your art

Ideally, your paintings should be a reflection of your life. If you are someone who loves the outdoors, then maybe you should be painting landscapes. If you love to garden, then perhaps you should paint florals. This is a clear method of choosing your subject matter but you can also go one step further and allow your lifestyle to influence your painting style.

What are you passionate about? What do you do for fun? When do you feel the most like you? What personal experiences have you gone through that could narrate your artwork? The answers are most likely already influencing your style of work, but you can deliberately expand the influence.

In my life, I enjoy a lot of quiet time. I like to be around people, but I also really need the quiet. Given a choice between a loud, fun, crowded party and a small, fun dinner party, I would always choose the dinner party. And because of that, my artwork has a tendency to be quieter with muted colors and softer edges. This doesn’t mean that all of my paintings will be subtle, but the majority of my work should be reflecting my personality in a meaningful way.

6. Your style of art should include a process that you enjoy

Your painting time is for you. We should never paint because we might sell a piece or win an award. We should paint because we enjoy painting.

Think of your favorite parts of the painting process. Do you like the paint to be unpredictable and somewhat free? Do you like to be very deliberate and methodical while you paint? When do you become engrossed in the process and lose track of time? In my work, I enjoy the process of the painting developing on its own in a somewhat unpredictable manner. I like experimenting, and I also enjoy creating a little mystery.

If you’re not enjoying the process, then you have two options; change your outlook or change the process.

7. Let your newest painting influence the next one

Probably the best way to develop your style is to completely forget about the word ‘style’ and just create a heck of a lot of work. Create a painting, determine the best parts, let those best parts influence your next piece. Repeat. Over and over.

Many artists work in a series developing a body of work with a cohesive style or theme. The series may take weeks, months or years and may contain 3 paintings or 300. Again, no rules here. If you haven’t worked in a series, you should try it. You may find this method very helpful as the process can guide you, help you gain momentum, and expand your art in directions you didn’t expect. Allow your artwork to become your best teacher.

If you find yourself in turmoil about developing your style and feel like you’ll never get there, relax. Even some of the most recognized artists in history changed styles drastically throughout their career. And besides that, unless you have a gallery requesting work with a consistent look, who cares about your style? Would it be okay to paint whatever and however you wanted to? Do the painting police even exist?

Paint in a manner that feels right to you. Paint from a good space. Create a lot of work. Let us see who you are. The process can be quite natural if you allow it.

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