How does an artist/designer forge a "signature style"?
June 12, 2013 5:22 AM   Subscribe

I've always had a problem with finding a "signature style". How does an artist / designer (even filmmaker) go about having one? Is it a natural progression from one's interests or preferences, or is it more of a calculated choice? My problem is that I am a chameleon, and my work is very eclectic since I mastered a lot of different styles which makes me virtually unidentifiable. I've always had the project dictate the suitable style, but I realized that this got in the way of finding a unique voice in the midst of a very noisy market.

Additionally, I work in a lot of different disciplines: photography, illustration (mixed media), graphic and editorial design, and I dabble in animation/film. To make matters worse, since I am a Westerner living in Egypt, my work tends to give a political/activist vibe, so I have no idea who will be interested in working with me once I go back to the US.
posted by wisetree to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
By working your ass off for years and years. Eventually you'll either find a niche or you won't.
posted by colin_l at 5:23 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's a bent. I cook and I eat. I've been told I'm a good cook. I have a repitoire of recipes that I can execute perfectly and they always come out yummy.

If I listed them, you'd see a common theme: butter, onions, garlic are at the foundation of many of them. There's a certain flavor profile that I like and I lean towards stuff that uses it.

Tarantino's work is informed by his love of 70's exploitation movies.

My writing echos the writers I love: Jane Austen, P.J. O'Rourke (I love his style, not his politics) and Cynthia Heimel.

Who are your muses? Who are your loves?

That's how you get a signature, that's how you get a voice.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:37 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

This develops with time naturally as you build a body of work. It changes over time, too. You need to consistently/daily be working on one or another of the various forms of art you've mentioned. I think it's just as important to regularly view other people's work/new works, as well.
posted by marimeko at 5:52 AM on June 12, 2013

Response by poster: What if I love a lot of things? I am afraid of focusing on one style, only to get bored with it and feel trapped by it and want to go after another. For instance, as far as designers are concerned, I love the work of Neil Kellerhouse, but I also love Olly Moss', Seb Lester, ..

In the world of film for example, I really like Wes Anderson's style but sometimes I get bored by it, and would rather watch a Scorsese. Kubrick and Malick are two of those greats that have no discernible style (save for a few signature shots here and there) but are immediately recognizable nevertheless.. But that is a tough act to follow.
posted by wisetree at 5:53 AM on June 12, 2013

Certainly composition, subject, color, etc. all work together to create a style. I'm often told that people can tell that a photograph was taken by me, or that it looks like "my style." Now, whether anyone could tell something was mine without knowing beforehand who shot it is another question. But I know what they mean, because I do tend to favor a certain look and feel to my work, even though a lot of my work may not fall within that realm at all.

For images that are my "signature style" (if it can even be called that) there certainly are deliberate choices that make the images look that way. But the choices are not made in order to check elements off the style checklist, but rather they come from how I choose to see the subject.

Additionally, keep in mind that many artists "signature styles" are a result of the way the work is presented. In marketing artists, having a signature style is important, so artists will often curate their own work in a way that makes it easy to recognize. You may never see the "other" work because it doesn't fit the niche that made the artist successful.

My favorite (very commercial) example of this is Warren Kimble. He is knows for his flat, Americana folk-art. But I read an interview with him years ago, and if I recall correctly, that kind of work was almost a fluke. He painted some pigs and cows on old barn wood on his property to sell at a local craft show. Someone from an art publishing company happened to see it, and they made a deal to license his work. So, the fat cows and pigs and other scenes of Americana became his "style." Meanwhile, he said what he really enjoyed was painting abstracts, but he couldn't give them away!

All that to say: I don't think it has to be either/or. I think some artists happen to find a style organically, because it stems from their vision and interests, and others make a deliberate effort, either by choice or in response to demand.
posted by The Deej at 5:54 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a recurring feature in the New Yorker this year in which John McPhee talks about his writing/revising process. In one of those articles he shares a conversation with his daughter, who also writes. I'm paraphrasing here, but the gist of it is as follows. She shares her anxiety that everything she writes bears significant stylistic traces of the very disparate things she'd recently been reading. His response was something like "You're 23. It would be a much bigger problem if this didn't happen." The basic point was that integrating influences is part of the whole process, and it will not happen immediately.
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:55 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You have to play and experiment more. When you are sketching; whether with pencil, watercolor, pen, crayon, etc play loosely. Focus on elements or techniques which attract you or particular media and workflows. Continue playing along that theme. Make conscious efforts to continue themes that you like. A style is developed and shouldn't remain static as your interests develop and evolve. The great artists who developed their own styles were continuously experimenting their entire life. This goes the same with illustration or photography.

Mastering other styles is great in play but when you are working on your own final product you should do so without holding samples of other's work. Other work should be ingested but it should be filtered and digested. Your imagination should be your only filter.

Edit: One other thing that bears mentioning is the need to sometimes restrict yourself with materials. In photography, for example, shoot with an old Polaroid camera as experimentation. In sketching, restrict yourself with a ballpoint pen.
posted by JJ86 at 5:59 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think quite often, the "signature style" thing is something people impress on the artist in retrospect, and can be a pretty loose fit.

Take for example, Michel Gondry and his highly impressive repertoire of music videos. It's easy to decide you can see a theme like "quirky, original" etc, but really, you could say that about a whole lot of music video director's outputs. The main reason he's been successful is probably more that his videos work really well with the song - they fit the brief incredibly well, in an original and interesting way.

My personal take on this is that a lot of artists, of all kinds, spend a lot too much time focusing inwards on how they can find their own special niche. The better thing, in my opinion, is to just do it - just produce, produce, produce, and make sure that you and your collaborators are happy with your product. You won't find your own niche, or target audience. It will find you. And you probably won't consciously settle into a "signature style" - your critics and admirers will decide what it is for you. Probably right at the moment you've decided you don't care what it is :)
posted by greenish at 6:00 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are three ways to get a "signature style":

1. Only ever have one good idea, and do it over and over again
2. One of your ideas really catches on with the public and/or with buyers, and they keep paying you to do it over and over again
3. Simply by virtue of you being the same person, commonalities in your work that you may not even be aware of will naturally arise over the years.

The third one is the one to aim for, and you do that by not aiming. Just make good work.
posted by ook at 6:03 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think some people are more versatile than others in their creativity, and that versatility is part of their signature. Since you do lots of different things, you know that it's a new process to make something, every time. But you have certain techniques, or ways of accomplishing the needed steps, that are unique to you, either because that was the way you were taught or the way you discovered was best for you, and those things create the underlying structure of your signature style.

For example, in painting, people often have signature stroke gestures. And the final subject matter of each painting might be wildly different, but to make up the different paintings they're still moving their brushes in a signature gesture for some part of that image, which can guide their other choices, leading to an identifiable style.

Maybe you have a way of timing the rhythm of the clips in a film project? Or a composition you're drawn to in photography? These little things are what make your work different from someone else's, because you're building on each choice as you create a piece. A favored color scheme can influence a choice of subject matter which can change the composition which can change the display method and so-on. Being able to make dramatically different choices depending on an end goal can also be part of this.

I think a lot of the above advice is excellent. Don't hem yourself in or try to find that perfect thing that is you; by creating you are engaging in the process of building your signature in every different piece. The methods you use and the choices you make will make that happen on its own.
posted by Mizu at 6:05 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Attempt to rip off all the artists you love. You will fail, but succeed in synthesizing your influences into your own voice.

"Good artists borrow, great ones" steal and the like.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:09 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wonderful responses. I love you all.
posted by wisetree at 6:17 AM on June 12, 2013

Also--and I don't mean to sound snarky here--if you think you have "mastered a lot of different styles" you are probably either wrong or missing the point. I'm not sure even what that's supposed to mean. Did you master painting? I'm sure that's not it. Did you master Impressionist painting? Again, probably not. Did you master Impressionist painting in the style of Monet? I doubt even Monet would say he "mastered" his own style.

All of this is just a process, not a destination. I'd focus less on "mastery" and more on "beginning."
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:45 AM on June 12, 2013

Don't confuse a "signature style" with a personal aesthetic.
It seems to me that a "signature style" is an external classification applied retrospectively, and is therefore irrelevant to your creative process (though possibly relevant to your business interests).
You personal aesthetic, on the other hand, is something that is wholly internal and informs and shapes your creative process throughout. As over time your aesthetic becomes more or less consistent and/or more or less identifiable, it can manifest itself in your artistic products in a way that becomes identifiable to viewers as a personal "style", but worrying about whether or not that happens isn't necessarily beneficial.
Deepening your understanding of your aesthetic (what you like, why you like it, how it reveals itself in your work, how it changes as you change) is what gives your body of work a sense of integrity, consistency, and cohesion, whether or not it is visible to the viewer.
Aesthetic is dynamic, a "signature style" is static.
While an aesthetic may at some point manifest itself in your work as a series of traits and commonalities that an outside person might label a signature style, and while it might make good business sense to market your work as possessing such, neither of these things are necessary or even related to the making of good work. Let your agent/manager/client/etc worry about your "signature style". Focus on honing, refining, and articulating your personal aesthetic. It'll make your work (even) better, I promise*.

*Results not guaranteed. ;)
posted by Dorinda at 7:18 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Signature styles may be a visible manifestation of an artist's activity, but they are rarely what an artist is really striving for.
Many artists (musicians, whatever), even, or especially, talented ones, struggle enormously with the why-do-I-do-this-at-all question. So they continuously try to find things to do that provide some deeper meaning - to them. To keep that illusion alive is really hard work, though, and one tends to spend little time with the question of how it all looks from the outside.

In short, signature styles are a typical thing that critics may worry about, but the artists themselves often don't have the time for stuff like that.
posted by Namlit at 7:22 AM on June 12, 2013

I've had the same problem, reaching a solution when I was trying to build a portfolio to get work with. People want to have a fairly good idea of the work they are going to receive, and they can't if you do something completely different every time you create. So I took a long hard look at every style I was playing with and chose one that I would consider both marketable and something that I had some passion for. I still fool around with other styles and mediums, but that's not work that will be put in my top ten portfolio. I think playing helps prevent going stale.

I also agree that you aren't "mastering" a ton of different styles and mediums. You're dabbling, becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. You don't have the skill in illustration / graphic design / photography / animation that you would have if you only focused on one of those. (Or oils / watercolour / clay / etc when you start drilling down.) If you chose one for the next 6 months and worked 8 hours a day on it you would notice a really large jump in ability over the rest, and it's not like you can put in 8 hours a day on 4 different disciplines!

If you want to be able to market yourself and actually live off your work, it is probably best to start being a bit brutally honest with yourself about what will pay the bills and focus on that. Not to say throw everything away - I still dabble in all four, I just spend the bulk of my time honing the skills of one.
posted by Dynex at 8:28 AM on June 12, 2013

A lot of good answers above, and I have one thought to add.

Many years ago I was an illustration major in college, and I recall a guest illustrator talking about how, in that field, you usually have a style and you have to stick to it to be successful. Imagine you are known for loose, gestural watercolors, and Life magazine hires you to do a cover illustration. Are you going to give them a geometric pen-and-ink illustration because you're kind of bored with the watercolor thing? No way, not if you want to keep your career going.

On the other hand, in the fine arts, music, filmmaking, etc. we give the artists more leeway, and evolution is not unknown (though it can also be risky). But it's a different business model.

So, some of this depends on what you want to do, and also on your willingness or unwillingness to lock yourself in to something. And of course, it's all fleeting anyway. You might be the hot illustrator of the moment, but in 15 years your style might seem outdated.
posted by see_change at 10:19 AM on June 12, 2013

I teach at an art school. I always warn my students against becoming "jack of all trades, master of none." It's important to experiment with different media and have some proficiency in a variety of areas...but you also need to be really freaking good at ONE thing.
posted by gnutron at 11:28 AM on June 12, 2013

If I might be so cynical, if you are adept at many different styles and you want to make a living out of it, you find the most commercially viable style and do that. Have a look at Etsy. You'll see many similar styles of artwork (especially those fluid abstract paintings that you see in show homes) all over the place. That's because they sell and are pretty easy to keep churning out.You can't weak the look to give it your own unique twist but the idea of finding a look that people like and producing that is how artists eat. Why do you think there's so many 50 Shades of Grey knock offs now? Because that's the authors' signature style? No. People are buying it.
posted by Jubey at 11:40 AM on June 12, 2013

"Stay on the f*cking bus" aka The Helsinki Bus Station Theory of finding your own vision
posted by TwoWordReview at 11:40 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I see this question ALL THE TIME on art forums. To the point where I have a standard responses:

Style is like love. It sneaks up on you when you're not looking.

It's the bits you're naturally good at. It's the cheats and abstractions of reality you've internalized, whether you figured them out yourself or stole them from another artist. It's the things you just can't get a handle on, no matter how hard you try, and the ways you've evolved to make this look intentional.

You can appropriate someone else's style, but your style is what you get when you pick apart the styles of all your influences and stick them in a blender along with observation of reality, analysis, and practice.
posted by egypturnash at 12:47 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Tom-B at 1:59 PM on June 12, 2013

Dude. The whole "style" question is irrelevant on it's own, and the very assumption that you "mastered" different mediums sounds tricky enough already. You probably didn't.

Even more so, style is a shallow identifier; which colours you use, your line thickness or some such crap which honestly nobody cares for. Sure, people want to identify but you also have t show conceptual strengths.

You can make the coolest looking noir looking drawing, but it's conception might be worth nothing, which is usually the case with artist's that focus on style over content (a la olly moss, whom I truly dislike).

You may lack a style, but you can equally bind it together in a "way" you treat things, and it that case work in many different disciplines but always making sure that conceptually your approaches define you.

So, my suggestion is to completely drop the whole style mumbo jumbo and have a good deep look into how you actually construct stuff, and what meaning they carry.
posted by ahtlast93 at 4:35 PM on June 12, 2013

"Style is not a way of saying something but rather a consequence of having particular things to say." - Mick LaSalle
posted by oulipian at 2:46 PM on June 17, 2013

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