We all know very competent painters whose best students end up painting exactly like their teachers. This is not what any of us set out to do. It happens because the teacher focuses on technique, not process.
I occasionally talk to my students about mark-making, but only in a cautionary way. “Don’t dab dots of paint,” or “You can draw that line with more authority.” A person’s mark-making is their handwriting. It’s highly individual, and should be left alone as much as possible.
Most students see their early mark-making as very raw, which it is. They immediately try to cover their insecurities by copying someone else—often their teacher. This is a mistake. Style is a very slow thing in coming, and it requires its own space to evolve. Decide too soon that your style is blocky brushwork or heavy outlines or impressionism and you’ve consigned yourself to a box you can’t get out of.
Even experienced painters can fall into this trap. When artists start copying themselves, they stop growing.
Most successful painters don’t really think about style much. The real question is what we’re trying to master at the moment: line, form, color, composition, atmospherics or any of the other millions of things that bedevil our work. True style is just the artifact of personality that gets in the way of perfectly executing our interior vision.
Victoria Brzustowicz is a well-known printmaker and designer with a degree in studio art from Wells. I was flattered when she signed up for my class two years ago.
Victoria needed absolutely no aesthetic guidance. Her goal was to learn to apply paint to a canvas as efficiently as possible, so the process didn’t get in the way of her own ideas. She heard my caution against jumping to conclusions about her style and took it to heart.
In January, Victoria decided to paint a tree in her own garden once a week for a year. As she has proceeded, her brush has gotten out of her way, and her own internal mark-making is coming to the fore. It’s worth looking at the whole series to see the evolution.
“Knowing that I will be painting the tree over and over has made me freer to start with an open mind,” she told me. “I know there is always another painting in which I can explore some other aspect of the composition, the drawing, my palette, or my brush selection. I’ve been able to try what I’ve seen other artists do (or to do what they’ve recommended), and see what works or doesn’t work for me.”
By not locking herself into an artificial style from the beginning, she has managed to get to her authentic voice much faster. She has sidestepped a trap that even experienced painters fall into.