Finding Your Artistic Voice

My first oil painting class in college was “taught” by a man who was obviously a real artist as he wore a beret at an angle on his head and sported a silver-tipped goatee. He went on at some length about how painting was expression and that it was counter-productive for anyone to attempt to direct another’s path to personal expression. He told us that we needed to reach deeply into ourselves and find that center from which our voice would arise, let it come naturally and express itself in paint on our canvasses.

What followed was an entire semester without teaching. He went out of his way to avoid teaching moments. In frustration at the lack of teaching, I decided to come to class with a problem for him to help me to solve. I brought in a canvass on which I had loosely suggested a desert scene with thin washes of oil paint applied almost like a watercolor. On this, in one place only I had applied thick impasto passages with a painting knife. When he came around to me on his round of not-teaching erudition, I explained how I was stuck. I wanted to combine thick and thin on one canvas but could not see how to make them work together. He paused, then said, “Combining thick and thin is difficult…but…you’re doing great. Keep going.” This he said as he clapped me on the shoulder and walked away.

In frustration I muttered to the universe, “If I were a teacher I would at least try to teach something.” I didn’t realize what effect throwing such a pebble into the water of the universe could bring about. I ended up teaching – and enjoying it.

Because of that experience and many other discussions that took place in the hallowed halls of academia I got the impression that I should be spending more time trying to develop my own special unique voice as an artist, that personal style was something we started with and then developed the techniques and abilities needed to sustain it. I felt that I was somehow lacking, and might never be an artist, because I really just wanted to develop the necessary skill that would allow me to depict the elusive beauty that surrounded me in nature, never realizing that my “voice” would come, and would revolve around that concept of beauty.

It wasn’t until I had been painting for a number of years that I noticed that I was developing a personal approach, but by then it didn’t matter as much to me. There are some natural things that contribute to the development of our personal style,things that seem to attach themselves to the process of creation.

In the next few blog postings I will describe a few of the ones that helped form the way I work. Yours will be different, so while we can learn from other artists we should also watch what we are doing for evidence of the emergence of our own personality imprinting itself on the process.


In the beginning I was afraid of color, especially bright colors. My palette did not include red or bright yellow. I painted mostly with Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. Orange graced my palette in the hope that it would make me look more like an artist. This fear of color forced me to look at other aspects of painting. I became very aware of how the great artists handled values. Artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt showed me how passages of light could lead the eye around a composition. I viewed many art books upside down. People passing by in the library may have thought I suffered from a strange form of dyslexia, but I was studying how these artists had organized their paintings into connected patterns of darks and lights.

For some reason watercolor seemed to address my own personality so I studied top watercolorists to see how they organized values. I was converted, and became a devout valueist, (as opposed to colorist). Here are a few of the artists who influenced me along these lines.


“Rocks And Reflections” by Theodore Kautzky

I was giddy with excitement at discovering how powerfully I was drawn into this painting from the lower right corner in a strong diagonal to the line of surf at the left. Then Kautzky pulled me back along the light line of surf to the darker rocks on the right. These formed a value bridge to the line of rocks jutting out into the ocean and climaxing with the high rock form. It was simple and powerful. I was hooked on connected values and countering diagonals.

Another artist who cast a long shadow on my artistic development was Robert E. Wood, a watercolor artist who was a part of the California Watercolor group. They profoundly influenced  the development of watercolor in the USA.


“Deep Creek” by Robert E. Wood

If you squint at this painting you will see how the artist wove the lights and darks into patterns that seemed to embrace each other.  The darker values move across the bottom from right to left, then connect to  similar values moving up the left side. The transition continues from darker values in the rocks to darker values in the trees and sky, moving across the top of the painting before descending on the right side and culminating in the figures. This creates an interlocking pattern of lighter values that move up into the central area of the painting.

I never met any of these artists. Their influence was through the books that they wrote and which I found in the library. I am grateful to them.  Another artist who shone light into my corner was Philip Jamison. His book, Making Your Watercolors Work, provided examples of simple arrangements of light and dark passages.


“Looking West” by Philip Jamison

How beautifully simple in its arrangement. Just a band of darker values sandwiched between two bands of light. However he provided a subtle passage from the foreground lights through to the lights in the background. Most of the landscape is suggested with only a little clearly defined. Detail is not as important as the value passages.

I am indebted to these and countless other artists who showed me the power of values while I struggled with the fear of color. Looking back I realize that it was my fear that made it necessary to study the power of connected value passages. Later I addressed the fear of color and am no longer hesitant to use it, in fact I love it.

Next time I will touch on the impact of countering diagonals and the dynamic they showed me in organizing a space.






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