Often art enthusiasts advise new artists to be consistent in their work. Gallery owners, it is said, are at the head of this line. After all, the gallery owners spend money and energy helping to create the image and reputation of an artist. As a result, over time and if successful, collectors will be interested in the work of that particular artist and the artist will profit from a growing audience eager to buy their work. If the artist is too varied in his or her artistic expression, the collectors may be confused about what they are getting when they “invest” in that artist. A successful artist, then, must not only have a good product but also art that someone can look at and identify.
As an artist and an enthusiast, I get it. I know the thrill that one gets from building up their body of art knowledge to the point that they can look across the room in a museum and say, yes, that is a Picasso, and that is a Monet, and that is a Georgia O’Keefe, and later – once knowledge of more great historical and contemporary artists is acquired – that is a Marsden Hartley and that is a Stuart Davis, and that is a Kehinde Wiley (now becoming widely known as the artist who did Obama’s official portrait). Some collectors and art lovers appreciate the art of their state or region and learn the “canon” of artists at the state level and the local level. They too get a thrill from being able to tell which painting is the work of a particular local artist. The art enthusiast is rewarded for her studious observation, if only to smile inwardly and say to herself, “I know who did that.”
But what about originality? An artist does not want to spend a career producing work like a machine – all precision with one piece just like the other. Those who have an artistic temperament are well known for “wanting to color outside the lines,” and do not want to be dictated to or to endure narrow confinements being imposed on their creativity.
Similarly, a collector values originality. She does not put the same value on a piece of art that looks exactly like the one in her neighbor’s living room. She wants something new, exciting, and DIFFERENT! After all, the collector is attracted to artists largely due to their creativity, so too much consistency gets boring.
This paradox means that an artist has a sweet spot to aim for. Her work must be original, yet identifiable, at the same time. How can this be accomplished?
The great masters have exhibited both originality and consistency. We know them both because they presented something identifiable, but at the same time excited their patrons with the new. They surely value their originality, but, at least for the last hundred or so years, artists have felt free to be consistent even to the point of creating not just one, but a whole series of the same subject matter. Many examples come to mind. Monet had his haystacks and his Rouen Cathedrals, and, for goodness sakes, hundreds of paintings of his lily pond produced over a twenty-year period. He and other artists frequently chose the same subject, but made it a different painting by having it depict different moods and angles and times of day. Other artists work months or years on a style and then take a turn to another style. Picasso had his Blue Period, his Rose Period and his Cubism Period, plus many others throughout his long life. Matisse did his odalisque paintings and his African masks; he went through his Fauvism period and his work that resembled Pointillism and the style of Cezanne. And so on.
The emerging artist may have a hard time figuring our which style to adopt, and might resist a career of getting known for one thing and being stuck with it. How does she negotiate her desire for identity while maintaining experimentation? She might, like the great artists mentioned above, use the approach of creating a series of similar paintings in order to identify a style – developing one idea, and then moving on at some point to another style. But artists are advised not to put too many different ideas out at once, and especially not into the same exhibition. The buyer, it is said, will be confused by this approach.
It does take awhile for an artist to “find herself” and identify what she is most passionate about – what medium, what subject matter, what style. Abstract or realism or somewhere in between. Landscapes or still life or portraits of people or pets. Oils or acrylic, or cold wax, or encaustic or collage, or pastels. Brushes or palette knives or stencils or dead sharks. (See Damien Hirst.) So many choices! If this sounds like a confession, it is! All except for the encaustic (not yet) or the dead sharks (never). However, if artists are lucky, they might be able to keep making art across these categories with a certain style that allows the viewer to see the references from one of the artist’s pieces of art to another, even those in a different category.
It is this ability to find a style, eventually cultivated by mature artists, that allows them to keep experimenting throughout their careers yet still be recognized for their “consistent” body of work. Matisse’s paintings move from mostly oils to pin-up collage in the end; but throughout, he was still celebrated for being the unique and masterful and recognizable artist that he was. Picasso moved all around from painting to drawing to ceramics to sculpture to prints to tapestries to rugs to creating art with bits of scraps. All of it looked like Picasso.
So grant the emerging artist time to develop. Recognize the desire to create, the desire to be original, and the desire to perfect craft and attempt to evolve through experimentation. In the end, we, the viewers, are rewarded when new artists add originality in creating and expanding the canon of art, and, in the end, we the viewers receive much more than a cookie cutter cliché.