In any creative pursuit, it will eventually come up with the idea of an Artistic Voice. The unique expressiveness that makes you’re art yours, your take on the world. It’s a combination of materials and inspiration, methods that make you different from others.
Find out what you want to say and how you want to say it. The next question is, how does anyone find it? It places responsibility on our shoulders, and we worry about how to find the answer.
We ask this question because it’s a fear of not being authentic. But like most crucial advice, it’s asking us to search for something without knowing what it is or even how to recognise it. As I will explain below, it reveals neediness and insecurity towards taking risks and the unknown.
I have worried about this a lot during my creative endeavours with painting and writing; such desire to find answers only results in getting confused or losing our way.
Below are some thoughts I have on the subject.
Voice is not a choice.
One mistake is thinking such a search is based upon choice. We make decisions, so we choose the style we like the most.
Our voice is not something you consciously and deliberately find or create. But instead, it will arise as you create.
We fall foul of the common mistake of thinking creativity solely an act of will and choice—the idea we have to be in control for anything to happen or arise.
It’s the metaphor of an archer. We see what we’re aiming for, take aim, shoot the arrow, it hits the target—all nice clean and simple.
But the reality is different; we can’t see the target, we don’t know what we are aiming for, or in the early years, even how to aim. Even if we have a target, we will still doubt it’s the right target for us.
Our voice is not something we deliberately fashion. Instead, it gradually reveals itself over time.
Voice doesn’t come first
‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.’Steve Jobs
Another mistake here is in thinking you have to have it all worked out before you can call yourself an artist or start making money. Find out what it is and then create our art.
We can’t know the future; it’s only the past we thread together to give meaning and see connections.
So when it comes to our voice, we can only understand when we have some experience under our belt.
Voice is your subject matter, what matters to you, and the style or way you convey the message.
Our misunderstanding is we can know what our voice is first.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse. Or saying to ourselves, I’ll go to the gym when I have bigger muscles. No, you goto the gym to get bigger muscles.
Being an artist is the practice of finding your voice; it’s in the work you do, your message and style arise over time.
Your artistic career is the quest to find the answers. You share what you discover along the way.
Voice can only be discovered in the doing. You can’t work it out inside your head; it’s just endless speculation.
Think of your voice as like a colour gamut. You know those colour shapes that represent all the possible colours you can get from a palette of pigments.
Your artistic voice is just the same. It’s not a pinpoint in a map, but an area, a range.
Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics points out an artist voice or style has three axes. Our voice is spread over a three-dimensional volume, just like colour, which also has three axes.
Different artists have different area defining their voice. The lesson is don’t try and define your voice too narrow too quickly.
You will find your style may vary over time, moving from one area to another, the gamut changing.
Trust the process
One of the most important lessons I learned is mastery is effortless. It’s the Fourth stage of competence, Unconscious competence. Our subconsciousness, when well trained, takes over. Like speaking extemporaneously or walking down the street, we do it without thinking.
We practice, so our skills become automatic they defy our awareness and description. It’s why we hold onto the training wheels far too long. Lack of confidence in our abilities has us hold onto the novice mindset even when our work betrays our increasing skill.
Our voice is a mystery in many ways, it’s why masters and experts can’t explain how they do what they do; it’s automatic, effortless.
Wu Wei is the Taoist idea of unconscious skill, where you forget time and self and merge with the task; in psychology, it’s called ‘Flow‘. It’s in this process that or voice comes out, effortlessly. To find our voice and expertise requires practice, which immerses us in the process. The thinking mind falls away.
It’s a recognition that you have to put in the work. Through creativity, the answers will come; mistakes will be made and corrected.
In a creative career, follow where your curiosity leads you. Try many things, and in time you will find out what you like and what you don’t. What matters, what doesn’t, what you like, and what you don’t. A process of progressive discernment, refinement reveals your particular viewpoint, what matter to you.
It’s a recognition that to find our niche or skill, our artist’s voice, even our place in the world, requires us to let go. Please stop trying to have it all worked out! The practice, the art is what you do to work it out.
Instead of taking the question so seriously, let go and remember that life is more about play than work. Play is about enjoying the moment aiming for a goal at the end. You play to enjoy your time playing.
Through play, we let ourselves try new things, experiment, see for ourselves and explore. It’s in these moments; we stretch ourselves in new directions. Moving out of our comfort zone, we learn new skills and come across new ideas.
So don’t think about what you’re aiming for; let curiosity have its day. Because you can’t be told your curious about an idea, you either want to learn more or don’t. Curiosity is always authentic.
Authenticity and Imposter syndrome
We often forget that our creative voice can and will change over time. Artists do change over their careers. Pissarro moved away from Impressionism for a time into Pointillism. Is that a different voice or just a different style?
Renoir eventually had two different client bases. His Impressionist work went to his dealer, but he also painted commissioned portraits for wealthy clients.
Picasso tried many things in his life. Monet’s style changed from his teacher’s realism to the signature impressionism to a more post-impressionist later in life.
We have many passions and interests that arise and fall over our lives.
It’s a myth to think there just one voice, fixed and waiting to be discovered.
This obsession with voice is like our fixation with authenticity. We believe there’s a ‘fixed self’, a stable core inside that we must discover and conform to.
I don’t buy it. I say whatever you produce is authentic. Every sketch and attempt I do is an expression of me and my curiosity and desire to learn. In other words, you can’t avoid being authentic; you always are.
Uniqueness is overrated
Voice has to be unique. Yet, how is that possible with so much art out there? All art is a reaction to what went on before it. To say it’s unique is to claim it’s unprecedented. But art isn’t like that; all artists have their inspirations.
Is a unique voice necessary? Those who claim so are often at odds with the art they produce. Uniqueness is overrated; you can spot the influences an artist has.
Many artists today look like each other because they have similar influences; the Impressionists are popular. I’m sceptical about the idea we need a unique style.
I think an excellent way to put is why paint like an impressionist, it’s already been done? The answer is: ‘yes, but not by me’.
The same with travel, why go exploring, America, or Africa, it’s already been discovered? Answer: ‘Yes, but not by me.’
Art is a journey of exploration and discovery and is a very personal take on existence; that is your voice.
Art, in any form, is about what grabs you as an individual. It’s the reaction of a person living in the world. We are not isolated creatures but living the world of forms, ideas, words etc. Art and being an artist (being human) is a conversation.
So pay attention to those things that make you take a second look. Those things that where you sit up and pay attention. It can be someone else’s art, which can help you inform your art. Or it could be something you see elsewhere in the world, an item of news, a form or a play of shapes or light, a smell, an idea. It’s a feeling, a curiosity.
What makes you want to know more, what makes you stop and think, or stop and appreciate it. What makes you want to take a moment and create something from it.
That’s you and uniquely you. It’s what you noticed; it’s you reacting to something. The problem is so often; we drown the inner voice with questions and distractions to the point we can’t hear, the desire, the calling inside.
Here the practice of tranquillity, quiet, and contemplation allows us to listen.
The notion that there’s a signature voice we have to find doesn’t fit with the reality we have to face.
Not to mention the fact that voice is not something easily defined. Such vagueness means the ideas of ‘voice’ is misleading, idealistic and false.
Finding your voice is touted as essential, but no-one seems to know how to find it. My insight is, don’t worry about it. Just keep creating, and the answers will come.
We spend far too much time worrying about the work instead of doing the work. We think what’s inexplicable is unimportant, even impossible.
Voice is the manifestation of our desire for answers, for control, but we’re terrible at control, so we work to control even more.
You can’t find your artistic voice by looking for it. But you can’t find it by not looking for it.
Let go of the need to know. It feels scary because we’re trusting a process we don’t fully understand. Creativity is dangerous because we take the risk of trusting the unknown.
Let in the mystery, take a risk; that’s an artist life. Put aside the book and pick up a brush.
The answers are found in the paint.