How Do I Settle on a Style for My Art?

collage of different art styles
With the help of some wonderful teachers, I made art in all of these styles this year.

It’s a question that every kind of artist grapples with:

I do these watercolor landscapes, but I also do abstract collage and sometimes I get really into architectural ink sketches. I can’t seem to focus on just one.

I write short stories, but I’ve also written three mystery novels and now I’m thinking about writing a biography. But successful writers pick their genre and stick to it.

I play classical guitar and I’m also in a blues band and lately I’ve gotten into the harmonica and I’d kind of like to learn percussion, too, but I’m never going to get anywhere if I don’t choose one.

Sometimes it’s a question of a creative person picking one of several very different pursuits:

I’m into photography, and I love to crochet, and also I do pottery. Why can’t I pick one?

So in the last year, during the shutdown, I’ve been meditating a little. Just a little. I put on the Headspace app for ten minutes in the morning. It’s not a big deal, and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in mindfulness or meditation.

But here’s something anyone will learn in their first ten-minute meditation session: Thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. You can observe them and let them float by, like clouds on the horizon, or like cars driving down the road, while you sit alongside the road in your lawn chair and watch them go by.

You don’t have to jump on board and ride down the road with every Crazy Thought Car that goes zooming past.

What this has taught me is that I can differentiate between the facts, and my thoughts and feelings about those facts.

Fact: I do watercolor landscapes, abstract collage, and architectural ink sketches.

Thought: I can’t focus! I need to focus. I have to pick one. Real artists, successful artists, know how to pick one and stick to it. There’s something wrong with me. I’m doing it wrong. 

You see? Those are thoughts. Not facts. As thoughts go, they might be awfully persistent. They might hang constantly around the horizon, rather than drift away.

But there are other, equally viable thoughts that could be attached those facts. Such as:

I’m a polymath. I’m well-rounded. I contain multitudes.

Or, simply: I’m versatile. Flexible. Agile. Nimble. I do several things and I do them well.

Or even: I do several things and I enjoy them all. The question of whether I do them well or not doesn’t matter.

The question of whether a person can be successful doing more than one thing is not all that interesting to me–what is success? A certain salary? A number of awards? If you want a list of artists who are successful at more than one thing, or who work in more than one style, that’s easy to find. Look at all the actors who paint. Look at all the musicians who write. Or look at the ever-changing styles of Gerhard Richter, including his late-in-life stained glass work. I grew up with a mother who painted in watercolor and acrylic and wrote and juggled many jobs, and a father who made a living playing classical guitar, jazz guitar, and “whatever pays the bills” rock and pop guitar. People called him for gigs because he was versatile–he could do a number of things, and he could do them well. He’s also a photographer. For many years he was a sailor. He studies French and sometimes dips into Spanish and Italian for fun.

But the reason this idea of “let’s find examples of people who successfully do many things” is not all that interesting to me?  It’s because this is also thinking.

What I learn from my ten-minute meditations is that mindfulness meditation is not about replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts. It’s not about judging one thought as wrong or inadequate and replacing it with some better, more empowering, more useful thought.

It’s about recognizing all thinking as thinking, and all feelings (the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones) as feelings.

It’s also not about eliminating all thoughts and feelings. That’s impossible. It’s only about recognizing them when they drift by, and naming them as thoughts or feelings, and understanding that they are separate from facts.

So I’m not suggesting that you replace one thought with another. (Wait, it’s not that I can’t choose! It’s that I’m a polymath! That’s better!)

Nor am I suggesting that you stop thinking entirely. (I just had a thought about my art! Bad artist! I should just stop thinking!)

Instead, I’m just suggesting that you can observe the facts about your art practice in a kind, non-judgmental way: I enjoy these watercolor landscapes, and I’m also playing around with these abstract collages….

…and then recognize that all the thoughts and feelings that rush in to finish that sentence (and therefore I really need to choose! And therefore I’m an agile, nimble polymath!) are just that: thoughts and feelings that your very big brain generated all on its own, because it saw some facts and decided that Conclusions Must Be Drawn From Those Facts.

And if you can do this–if you can recognize that the thoughts and feelings about your art practice are separate from the facts–then maybe, just maybe, that will open up a little space in your creative practice to explore your art, and to follow your preferences wherever they might lead.

On the subject of following your preferences, no one says it better than Nicholas Wilton. He explains it so beautifully in this video. Notice what he says about how when you follow your preferences in your art, your art gets better, and then you learn how to also follow preferences in your life, and your life gets better, and it turns into a feedback loop.

So really, all I’m saying in addition to his words of wisdom is that in order to get to that place where you’re really following your preferences, it helps to acknowledge that all that thinking about your art is thinking, and all that feeling is feeling, and that you are free to acknowledge all those thoughts and feelings as they float by, and then turn back to your art and follow your preferences and go where it lights you up to go.