Finding Your Artistic Voice
The greatest mistake that any student of art makes is confusing technical proficiency for artistic voice. The greatest frustration any student of art will face is realizing the distance between the two, and the necessity of each to give meaning to the other. You may have a perfect, absolute mastery of shadow and light, line and figure, and none of it will matter a wit if you have nothing to say through the exercise of your skill. On the other hand, you may be bursting with intention, have a clear and poignant point to make, and find yourself foiled again and again by the technical difficulty of whatever medium you’ve chosen.
For technical improvement, the only solution is practice. It’s awful advice, because everyone already knows it, and hearing it does nothing to help one towards achieving it. Yet, that is the fact of the matter: practice and only practice can get you anywhere in any field of art. If you supplement that practice with guidance, study, and discipline, all the better—but you must have practice or have nothing.
Luckily, we’re here to talk about the other side of the equation: voice.
Your artistic voice can be defined an almost infinite number of ways—it’s your perspective, it’s your message, it’s your unique you-ness that you give to your art automatically (but not so automatically that you’ve successfully done it in that piece—here’s a polite rejection slip, please try again). After over a decade moving between the side of the teacher and the side of the student, I’ve noticed four elements that help artists figure out their own voice, which I will break down here:
1. Know yourself
The best advice that I have ever come across for any artist is simple: go to therapy. Spending an hour a week thinking about what matters to you and why, what sort of things keep you up at night, what aspects of your own psyche you disagree with and which you will defend to the grave—it is hard to imagine anything better for a creative mind. But that is expensive and time-consuming. Barring that sort of guided, verbal self-exploration, I recommend as thoughtful and continuous an examination of yourself as you can muster.
Keep a journal. Video, audio, written—it doesn’t matter. Just spend a bit of time every week checking in with yourself. Ask yourself if you’ve noticed any themes in your work so far. See if there’s anything you’re avoiding thinking about, or anything you are unusually fixated on. If you don’t want to write about it or talk about it, draw a picture about it. Just take some time to create something that exists for only you, as an exploration of yourself for yourself.
2. Know your tastes
Consume art. Museums, galleries, street art, books, movies, reality TV, philosophy, the high drama of corporate social media accounts—whatever it is, consume it, and notice how you react. Do you like it? If not, why not? If so, why? Would you change anything? Do you think it is doing what it set out to do? If so, what techniques is it using to achieve the artist’s desired effect?
3. Indulge your fancies
This last bit of advice is most essential, and for some the most difficult to take: indulge. Do not ration out slivers of enjoyment, saying, “Oh I’ll have fun doing this for a bit, but then I will turn to serious matters.” Instead go with the grain of your own inclination.
A few examples: pay attention when you are practicing (whether painting, sketching, sculpting), and notice which part of the process you like the best. Try indulging that, lingering there if it’s towards the end or stopping there if it’s towards the beginning. Notice which materials you gravitate towards, and stock up. Challenge yourself to use only those, and see what you come up with. Try the frantic, exhilarating energy of working to meet an unreasonable deadline, then luxuriate on a single project for double your usual time. See which feels better, and try that one again. See if you can replicate one of your own favorite pieces, or attempt anew an old failed project, now armed with the thrill of newly acquired skills. Explore and experiment, and repeat only what you enjoy.
There is plenty more to be said on this subject, but hopefully I have given a useful starting place.