The short answer: Sketch a lot. Whatever you think “a lot” is, triple it. The biggest hurdle to get over when trying to be an artist is to actually make art. Don’t try and be too cute in your sketchbook either. It is not about that. Sketching is how you learn to get over yourself. You have to get used to making something that you hate. And you have to do it over and over.
You’ll have more complicated thoughts about your art than to just mindlessly draw but it all boils down to, you have to make the work. You cannot rely on working out ideas in your head; train yourself to get the ideas out into the real world. Part of that is that you’ll realize that your imagination and your actual creativity are two separate things. I’ve grown to understand that the ideas I love and that come up with in my mind are not the same I love making with my hands and my heart. That is where your style is. Even understanding that, it will take you years to finally build confidence in whatever you choose to work on.
I find whatever draws us to become artists isn’t the drive to create a particular vision, but it is the desire to be a certain kind of person. Living the life of an artist that connects to others with their own unique expression, that is what we want. So we set off trying to find whatever that expression is.
Sitting down for that first time with blank paper may feel overwhelming, there is literally an infinite amount of possibilities to choose from. Every time you start a new piece you’ll have those same infinite possibilities. It is not in your best interest to live out in that infinity. You can make as many different types of work as you want but your most potent stuff comes when you are working from a place that is specific to you. Getting there is a long and meandering journey and there is no real starting point. You just have to pick a direction and go.
The direction I chose, was figuring out what I wanted my work to feel like. That to me was more important than what it looked like even. Thinking back to the art that inspired me, its impact was felt more than seen. Trying to translate those feelings visually is how we come up with our own language. Your style is based on what you are saying but more importantly how you’re saying it. What I wanted to communicate with my work was the weight of the world we live in, both the physical and the existential. At the time, I was nowhere near capable of being able to translate that visually but it was an intention I set to guide all my sketching I was doing. That’s a lot to try to analyze while you are working so think of what you want to say before you even start drawing. The sketching is where you figure out how to say it.
With that in mind, I was making a bunch of technical, representational work. I thought that would be the most effective way to impact people. It never felt right though. It was all just what I thought I should do. The problem was that I was making work that I thought other people would like, making work that I thought others would interpret as weighty. It wasn’t coming from a genuine place in me though. Your mind, imagination, may be saying one thing but you have to do what your hands and heart, creativity, want to do. It took me six years of learning to trust the ideas I was having while making work to finally settle on what is now firmly my style. It took that long to make work that I could connect with. Once I started to trust myself all of the representational elements I was trying to use got left behind and I started to make more minimal work.
Something I struggled with once my work became more minimal is what if people think I’m not skilled. Being self-taught, I didn’t want to be seen as taking the easy way out by making very minimal work. I still have that thought sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. I knew what I had to do because that’s what my body naturally wanted to do. That is why the traditional stuff felt empty, it was all synthetic. It was me being too afraid to be who I am. You already have a style; it’s just about having the courage to make the work.
And the courage to continue to fail. Even if you find an idea or aesthetic you want to explore it still takes a lot of mistake making to develop those ideas truly. I don’t know if I can stress enough how important it is to get over the discomfort of failing. It is insanely harmful to your growth if you don’t. You need to be free of that restriction. One simple way to do this, only sketch with a pen. That way if you do mess up it is permanent. There is no erasing or taking anything back. Each mark must be made confidently and with intention. You’ll make tons of mistakes and won’t be able to hide from them. Your sketchbook should be filled with good drawings ruined by an errant pen stroke. It will not be the end of the world. Almost all of the personal learning you’ll do will be in those mistakes. Studying them will help you further understand what you don’t want to be in your work. That’s almost as important as settling intentions on what you aspire for your work to be. Recognize the mistakes, sit with those mistakes. Don’t run from them.
I said it took me six years but three years in you can find the very beginnings of the concepts I’m working on now. They were just some more drawings in the endless stream of consciousness I was filling my sketchbooks with. For me personally, I know I was just not aware enough to pin down what was so effective about the idea. All I had was a feeling something was there. Even though I realized it I just kept working because I had to continue to grow so I could eventually understand what I was missing. I know there is still something I’m overlooking with my work now. That to me is the pleasure of personally expression through art. There is unlimited potential for growth. Never will we be the best we could ever be. There is always room for improvement. That’s another reason why it takes courage. You’ll have to learn to appreciate that and understand why your work will never the best in your eyes. You will have moments when you are truly excited by your work, please take a breathe and let those moments sink in. They will never last. Even if others love what you are making, you’ll always return to the truth that there is more inside you to explore and improve.
That is why having our own unique style is important. Not because we want to be different, we all are different, but because it’s the only way we can explore and unlock the never ending potential we possess. If we copy someone else’s style, we would be working within their limits. Don’t cage yourself in like that. Stay away from imitating others. It may feel good to actually make something you like for once but that dissolves quickly because that little personal merit is unfounded.
Stay vigilant and work through your own thoughts. You may end up somewhere that someone else has been but you earning your way there is what is most important. The unique path you take to get there is what will set you apart. Have fun, have patience, and trust yourself.