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How to form a painting style, so you can stand out from the crowd

Updated: May 14, 2023

If it’s one thing I am repeatedly told it is how #original my #work looks. The line is always more or less the same: ‘It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you can always tell it’s a Paul Talbot-Greaves’.

In today’s ‘brand heavy' world, standing out from the crowd with a unique #style is something many people wish for. So just how do you choose a style to work to?

Well, in short, you don’t. You can’t. It’s not something you forcedly manufacture. In fact, it’s not about what you do to form your #painting style, it’s about what you don’t do, but first let’s examine what a style is.

Across the valley to the South side, watercolour 56 x 38cm

Combinations of drag brush, soupy washes, strong values, varied brush sizes and timing, all combined and applied through habit, repetition and personality.

What Is A Painting Style?

In simple terms, it’s you. A #painting style is a reflection of you, your personality, your temperament, your thoughts, fears, decisions, your joy! It's the unique you, yes YOU! You are just one #human being amongst 8 billion similar humans, but essentially you are unique. What you do, what you like, how you do things, where you go and when, is as unique to you as your hair, nose, chin, eyes, face, etc. There isn’t another one of you. How you apply #paint, the pressure you use on a #brush, the #colours you choose, the timing of application, the interpretation of #shape is entirely unique to you and totally different to how someone else paints. I see this all the time in my courses. Work that I set for individuals to tackle in their own time always turns out different to everyone else's, even though people have worked on the same image and to the same brief. The parameters for difference are massive. You don’t choose to be you, and you don’t choose a painting style because your style is YOU.

It’s not about what you do to form your painting style, it’s about what you don’t do.

How To Maintain Your Uniqueness.

Have you noticed the proliferation of similar or same subjects painted in the same colour schemes or moods, especially across social media? Ever wondered what happened to originality? The culprits in this are #distraction and #imitation. We become distracted by the works of those who pave an original way forward and we want to imitate in order to taste part of that #success. But we wouldn’t do that in our lives would we? Well, maybe a little inspiration, but you wouldn’t try to imitate your neighbour by dressing in the same clothes and colours and adopting the same hair style and voice. That would be considered a bit odd. In our lives we accept that we are #different and have different tastes and make unique choices. But this goes for painting too. Accept that you too have your own unique way of working and that nobody else can replicate it. Think about that and embrace it.

An early evening in summer, acrylic on paper 28 x 19cm

Even working quickly in front of an audience, with the heart pumping, and paint drying faster than I'd welcome, I still can't alter the 'style' of my work because it reflects my decisions, thoughts, confidence level and timing of application.

Stay Focussed

So how do you focus on your own #development without absorbing the styles of others? First off, don’t copy. Well, not directly. I know this sounds harsh but there’s a good reason behind it. The thing is this, the way an artist paints reflects their personality and their thoughts, decisions and cognition. How and when they put their brush to paper is entirely unique to them as it is to you. I’m not saying never be inspired, I’m saying don’t copy. Sometimes copying can be useful for example, if you are learning techniques, but you must remain focussed on the techniques, and not become distracted by the finished painting itself. If you copy paintings a lot, you will expend far more energy trying to imitate someone else than you will if you try to solve the problems yourself. There are also legal and moral implications to copying. My own teaching ethic is always to encourage, inform and inspire, not to create Paul Talbot-Greaves clones. Having said all that, I know it can feel painful seeing a painting style you just love, and you can’t help but want to imitate it. So how can you allow the style or technique of another #artist influence you without copying?

You don’t choose to be you, and you don’t choose a style because your style is YOU.

You Need To Answer Your Own Questions

We live in a quick fix #world, and there exists an enchanting temptation to #emulate, sometimes the wish to bypass years of #training and #skill building can be a difficult pill to swallow. It’s a hard fact, but none of us are born #artists, and there is no substitute for hard work. Nipping across to #YouTube to learn how to paint water in the style of artist X won’t make you a great painter, but it will make you an emulator of artist X. The only way to paint like YOU is to answer your own #questions. When you’re painting and you come to a question, let’s say, 'how do I paint trees?', the answer is to go and learn how to paint #trees for yourself, set your own project – go out, look at trees, sketch them, paint them, walk in the woods, take wax rubbings of textures, sample the colours, make full worksheets, collate a data bank of photos. It is immensely exciting and such an enjoyable experience #learning in this way. I often prefer this self development work to making finished pieces. Be prepared for your learning to be a #lifelong journey and if you put the work in without being distracted too much by other artist's work, you will begin to form your own style.

How To Learn From Others.

Sometimes you might feel so inspired, maybe it’s the way an artist uses values and you really want to use the same or similar in your work. Again, resist the temptation to #copy directly and instead use memory filtering. Memory filtering involves looking carefully at the #painting that inspires you, working out mentally how the artist might have achieved the effect you are interested in, then removing yourself from the reference and trialling the #techniques from memory. This was a fairly simple concept once upon a time. In pre #internet days the number of artists you were exposed to was much more limited than today. Is that a good or a bad thing? I don’t know, but it sure made life simpler, as there was much less distraction. I would visit the local library and maybe take out a #book and I’d literally stare at a few paintings. Or I might visit an art #gallery and do the same thing. In fact, you still can. I recommend putting away the social media for a bit and go and stare at paintings on walls. It’s immensely rewarding and inspiring. You’ll see passages in them, and you will ponder how they have been done. This is memory filtering. There was no YouTube to show you how to back then, no saturation from #social #media, so the only way to learn was to try your own techniques inspired by a limited number of images in your mind. I would advise you look at a painting, think about the #technique or #colour or whatever it is that inspires you, then put the image source away and make test paintings, sketches, swatches, projects, whatever it takes, just trial it from your head, not the book, not the screen, not copying directly. That way you filter the information through your own mind, and you will begin to see you are forming your own style and approach that is unique.

You are just one #human being amongst 8 billion similar humans.

Filter The Techniques.

If you watch a demonstration or purchase a video or go to a workshop by your favourite artist, you have to be focussed on what you want to learn. In these circumstances you are once again presented with distraction. The magic of watching the painting appear can be distracting in itself, so you have to #focus hard and try to ignore the bits that are irrelevant to you. What you should expect to learn from these moments is about ten percent or less of what you are seeing. Try to ignore the finished product and instead, concentrate on the technique, because this is what you can take away, make your own and add to your growing style and #approach. If you are watching #video, it can help to turn the sound off as you study a technique in action, and when you learn it, be aware that how you interpret it, is uniquely you, so don't be hard on yourself if you don't achieve an exact replication. Knowing this can help ease the #frustration of learning too.

Sundown over Manchester, oil on board 20 x 20cm

Paint what inspires you. I loved the limited values in the shade and used variations of violet to keep the colour buoyant. Even though there is limited detail and the value ranges are close, 'you can still tell it's a Paul Talbot-Greaves'.

Learn The Theory.

I once met a young lady who had not long #graduated from university with a #fine #art degree. She attended one of my tutorials that I was giving on a painting course, and it happened to be on #colour. I painted out a colour wheel, showed the participants where my palette colours were situated and how they interact with each other in context, then moved on to using a simple #colour #scheme in a #demonstration. Afterwards she told me how mind blowing my tutorial was and how much she had just learned. As we discussed colour it became clear that she hadn’t known any of the information I had imparted, in fact she admitted she had not even used a #colour #wheel before. To me, that is like driving a car and not even knowing what the accelerator and brakes are called. Know your skills, you will know your craft. Learn your tones from your values, your saturation from your shades, learn colour, explore, understand, experiment, be creative, think, look, ask, be original. Don’t paint a subject because your favourite artist paints it, paint a subject that you personally find interesting, engaging, and enlightening. Take it and make it your own.

Give Yourself Honest Appraisals

We can all be hard on ourselves at times. #Creativity is not a static process. Our #mood can enormously affect how we work. Sometimes painting time might be short, or you might be a bit tired. There might even be no reason why you managed to paint like #Turner yesterday, yet today's efforts resemble a five year old's #drawing. To paint means taking the ups with the downs, and to paint like YOU means it can also be quite isolating at times. It helps to have honest #appraisals with yourself at certain intervals and to be constructive with your own messages. 'This is awful', is unhelpful, whereas, 'the trees aren't quite working here' is more sympathetic. Work out why the trees might not be working. What do you need to do to make them better? How might you go about it? These are your vulnerable moments and it is essential not to #compare your work to other's, so put away the social media and distractions, and immerse yourself in your own painting world as you discover how YOU paint those trees.

It is essential not to compare your work to other's.

If You Do Copy.

If you do copy someone else’s work and you decide to display it or even sell it, you must acknowledge copyright. #Copyright exists to protect #creators and that includes you if you generate your own original work, however from the advent of the internet, the morals of copyright have become diluted and I've come across many people who don’t even know it exists. You can read more about copyright here. At it’s most basic level, let’s say you copied a painting and entered it into a local exhibition, the very least you could do is first ask permission from the #originator to use their image, then if they’re happy for you to do so, acknowledge them in your entry, for example; [title] from a painting by [artist X]. Copying a painting and making a small change or using a different colour, does not mean copyright no longer applies, so to avoid any copyright issues ever arising, it is always best to create your own original work. If you frequently #copy work or emulate someone’s style to the point of confusing who’s identity is who's, and you also exhibit and sell that work regularly, then you should check in with your moral self, and work on forming your own painting style. This can happen unintentionally, especially if you have become over inspired by another artist's work. Copying and #selling work by someone else without disclosure is not only in breach of #copyright #law, it is not fair to the originator, it does yourself no favours, and it misleads any potential buyers. Besides, it is far more satisfying to hear someone saying 'I just love your work', and not, 'This painting looks just like one of artist X’s'. Generally you should never use #reference #material or any #sources for painting that aren't yours, without first asking permission from the originator, so #copyright extends to using source material as well as replicating finished work.

Your own style starts at the point of composition, so seek out and use your own reference because it forms part of who you are, your experiences, and what you choose to paint. Being #YOU allows you to share with others a bit of your own #world and how YOU personally see that. If you have any other tips for developing your own painting style that you would like to share with readers, please post them in the comments below.

Paul Talbot-Greaves RI, Artist, Author, Tutor

Paul Talbot-Greaves is a member of the Royal Institute Of Painters In Watercolours, and has been painting and writing for 30 years. He writes many articles for The Artist magazine (UK), has four practical art books published and has contributed to various others. He is represented by numerous galleries based around the North of England. He can be found on Instagram and Facebook where he regularly posts up to date pieces and inspirational stories.

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13 apr 2023
Valutazione 5 stelle su 5.

Great article and so true. So many beginners only do copies. because it looks better than their own work. And when you tell them they should better paint their own work, they simply don't believe you. They copy the style, paper, brushes, pigments, easel everything to get better. And all you need is to learn the techniques and a few simple design rules. Beginners groups on Facebook the most asked questions don't even go about techniques. Just what is the best paper and the best pigments. And then you see other beginners answering with what they use. And what about the new thing on Instagram, follow our program for just 250 dollar and become a master in 3 months! its…

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Valutazione 5 stelle su 5.

Good article that left me a little confused around the subject of copying. I guess that's because I've never really stopped to define 'copying' for myself. So many workshops are based around this idea. We're told that this was central to the Renaissance idea of the master's studio. Attending workshops, online or otherwise, a lot of the effort is expended in attempting to work out the 'how' of the artist. I would dearly love to paint trees with the sheer abandon of a Paul Talbot Greaves. What I find is that it runs against my nature. 'Loose' has become something of a virtue in the watercolour community and 'tight' is tantamount to a sin. Wasn't it Picasso, who said "Good…

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