Monday, March 9, 2015

Helping Artists to Discover Their Personal Voices-Part 2

In Part 1 of Helping Artists to Discover Their Personal Voices, I wondered if there was only one voice we could have. I said that so much of discovering your own path, is making choices, and then creating a body of work to explore those choices.

In this post, I'd like to write about discovering what you like.

What do you most love to paint?  When my children were younger and trying to decide what to study or what direction to follow, I would always tell them to follow their giggles. When we are on the right track, there is a gut feeling that is very much like giggling. Sort of bubbly. And I advised them to follow that. And they have. It's Joseph Campbell's expression, 'follow your bliss' integrated into a bodily sensation! 

What do you want most to paint right now? It helps if you tell yourself that the choice doesn't have to be set in stone for the remainder of your life. It's a choice for now. Follow that choice.  Make a body of work around it. If you feel excited about working in black and white with strong value contrast, create a body of work with these limitations. Make at least ten paintings. It's best if you can make more, say twenty or thirty. As you go along, you'll see if the idea continues to excite you. Do you get new ideas as you go for small variations on the theme?  Really work the idea. After you've finished five or ten paintings, check in with yourself. If you're feeling bored or drained, then that's the time to reconsider changing some of the limitations.

Can you let yourself paint what you like? One of my students told me about the Icelandic artist, Georg Gudni who died in 2011. I managed to find a book of his work. In it, Gudni spoke about how he decided to turn away from what he was seeing in contemporary art. Even though he worried that it would be difficult to say anything new about landscape, he decided to go ahead. And as he did, he found that he felt deeply connected to the work and to the land. He created beautiful, ethereal landscapes of Iceland.

When I am stuck sometimes, or between series, or even when searching for new ideas, I just play. I get out some Arches Oil Paper or Multimedia Artboard, and play. I make monotypes or small paintings, applying the paint in very different ways, using colours I normally might not. I stretch myself and explore. I might never show this work to anyone.  I'm not thinking about a purpose or a product; if I will get new ideas; if I will show this work; if I will sell it. I'm just playing. When you play, you bring passion and excitement into the work and the vulnerability that comes with trying something new.  Making art is combining that raw and playful quality with the techniques and experience you develop in the craft of painting.

Don't show your work too soon as it's being developed
Not every painting or print or work in progress needs to be exhibited in a show, or posted on Facebook. It's important not to show new work to people too soon. Develop the ideas first by yourself. When I'm working on a new idea in my painting, I don't let anyone into my studio, not even my family. I don't want either positive or negative comments.  I don't want a smile or a frown or my interpretation of a response. It's like a very vulnerable baby. It's wise not to take a newborn to the shopping mall. It's also wise not to show work that is still very raw and being developed. It can be influenced too easily and you might never know where it could have gone had you let it grow wings.

Decide what you like.

Journal writing has always been an important way for me to understand myself, especially if I am going through a time of transition. It helps me to see in another way and find answers I might not have expected.

Here is a simple question to journal about if you're in the process of trying to find your personal voice. What is it that you love about painting? Why do you paint? One of my students wrote a wonderful children's story as she explored this question. The child in the story experienced every aspect of life in a very creative way-from her sense of the wind and rain to the flowers in the fields. The writing of it reconnected my student with why she loved making art in the first place.

Small, wordless sketches might be an important way for you to explore this question as well.

Give yourself the gift of some silence in your day. It's difficult to learn about what you love and who you are if there is no quiet time to discover it.


Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

~Mary Oliver

In Part 3,  I'll discuss how to look at your own work for clues about your personal voice.


  1. I love this especially the "giggles". Looking forward to Pt. 3.

  2. Hi Janice, nice article wondering when part 3 might come out? Thank you for sharing :)

    1. HI Brigitte,

      Here's the link to Part 3: