Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Helping Artists Discover Their Personal Voices- Part 1


Whether we know it or not, when we embark on the journey of becoming an artist, we open up. We have to. It’s part of the process. And it’s in that process that we create ourselves.

The artist's voice is a mixture of style, technique, and the message they wish to impart. But that can change. It’s not fixed in stone.  Kirkegaard said, “We create ourselves by our choices”.

Many years ago I made the choice to become a painter. It was for me, a life-altering decision. It took a long time to make that decision and then more time to call myself an artist. First I chose to work in watercolour, then later, in oils. I chose first of all to paint landscapes and still life, moving much later into dark and mysterious paintings of vessels. Choice. Choice. Choice. I continued to make choices about my subject matter and as I grew as an artist and a person, so my work continued to change.  Eventually I moved into abstraction, where the world becomes very large and the choices are endless.

I had to learn to put limitations on my work in order to paint abstractly. I had to make decisions.

There is an underlying connection between our various bodies of work that says ‘this is me’. This is who I am. It doesn’t mean that each body of work has to have the same colours or lines or shapes. It doesn’t mean an artist has to choose one topic and paint that endlessly for the rest of their lives.  But what is of major importance is to make one body of work at a time—to follow an idea through until it wants to stop, or to pause for a while. Each body of work that I produce varies between 30 to 100 or more paintings.

Is there only one voice or artistic style an artist can have? I am reminded of an exhibition I saw in Barcelona in 2010. I was doing an artist residency at Can Serrat, just outside of Barcelona and spent some time visiting galleries in the city. The Tapies Museum, was showing an exhibition of the work of Anna Maria Maiolino. I wrote about this in an earlier post. Hers were complex works, developed through a variety of media: poetry, woodcuts, photography, film, performance, sculpture, installation and, above all, drawing.  In her artist statement, she explained that the connection between the various works and media was her. Her body. Her body's relationship with the media. She was the rhizome. And the various works came from that same root. If I had only seen each body of work separately, I’m not sure I could have seen the connection between them. But seen together, there was a link, some sort of sensibility, an idea, a way of handling materials that was particular to Maiolino.

 A couple of years ago, I came across a video of Jim Dine speaking about his retrospective at Pace Wildenstein Gallery in 2009. I have always loved his intense and wide-ranging creativity.  One of the main objectives in his art practice, he said, is to explore his own unconscious. He intuitively goes wherever his intuition takes him, whether making sculptures of his childhood love, Pinochio; or writing poetry on walls and objects and then photographing it; or drawing self-portraits on museum walls and then washing them away at the end of the exhibit. There is a thread, a link that runs through his work—the nervous line he makes, and the odd, dream-like nature of the images he repeats in his drawings and sculptures. It’s a quality that is hard to define: the essence of a person perhaps.

I think one of the things I enjoy most about teaching my Abstract Painting Workshops, is trying to help each student discover that voice, the thread that connects. It's often easier for someone else to see this than to see it yourself.

It's like a puzzle trying to figure this out. I ask students to bring in images of their work to show the class. Looking at those images, as well as watching each student paint in class, I try to help them make connections, to figure out what they are most interested in, and work with them to further develop their interests.  One student for example loved texture and filled the entire surface of the painting with texture. There were no shapes in the painting, no value contrast, just bright colours and lots of texture. So the challenge was to offer the artist some suggestions to focus the painting, to make some choices, to continue to work with texture and maintain the importance of it, but to find a way to limit it, to contain it, to give it space to sing.  It’s important to work with the natural interest of the artist and to encourage them to develop that interest and refine it.

Our personal voice is with us all along. It's who we are. It sticks like peanut butter does to the roof of your mouth. We can't escape it. That doesn't mean we can't improve on our work, or change or grow. It just means that there is a certain way that we are—the way we move, the cadence of our speech, the way we dress, the way we laugh. I can see this right from the start in my classes. I have students do an exercise on shape and value contrast on the first day. The instructions are very simple with definite rules and limits, and yet everyone does the exercise in a unique way. It is incredible to see. And I point that out to them—the beauty of that. Even if they can improve these drawings, there is some unique part of them that is different from the person sitting beside them and my goal is to take that uniqueness into account as we continue through the workshop.

In Part 2, I’ll write about finding out what you like and how that is crucial to finding your personal voice.


  1. Thank you so much Janice, this post, and those which will follow, I 'm sure will be an enormous help. I'm still floundering!

  2. I love this post, I am still trying to define my voice and this will be a great help.

  3. thank you Janice. What an insightful piece. I find that the second hardest thing is to find integrity in the starting again, after the pause, after the 30 to 100 paintings of a phase or period of work on a theme. But the hardest part is the pause. To stop. To consider. To not rush back at the work. To believe that a true 'flow' will come again in its own time. So hope that we will meet one day, we have a connection from the heart I believe