• Michelle Carlos

The Road You Take: Your Artistic Style Is a Choice

Updated: May 30

In this post you will learn how to recognize your artistic style through answering a series of questions.


Persuasion | Acrylic gouache and digital collage | 2022

What Is Your Style?

Are you at that point in your art journey where you are struggling to answer this question? Are you always asking when and how will you find that style uniquely your own? Or do you have it already?


Like most of you, I have also pondered on these questions especially in the beginning. It used to bother me a lot. A newbie mistake. People like you who are following my art already see a style that appeals to you. You could even tell it’s my art out of hundreds you scroll through your feed without seeing the name—a good indication.


Is it too early to talk about my style? A year ago I was still unsure and not at all confident about my own brand of art. But a lot has happened and changed in the past year that encouraged me to openly acknowledge the existence of a certain je ne sais quoi about my art. I love that phrase, which I believe befits the occasion. The popular French phrase is loosely but aptly used in fashion to describe a certain something about a person, a piece and style that captures the fancy of any observer. It literally means "I don't know what" but it is pleasing, mesmerizing and fabulous. True enough, a single adjective could not encapsulate the effect of that certain something and so it remains vaguely unidentifiable as though the right words are trapped on the tip of our tongue and we love it regardless.


Northanger Abbey | Acrylic gouache and digital collage | 2022

Cotton Candy and Salted Caramel

Hmm... my favorite flavors plus dark chocolate. Yes, I have a sweet tooth and a flair for the dramatic. When we talk about style, we think about the aesthetics right away. How will it look like? What are the colors? Everything is visual. A branding specialist, Nicole Harlow, CEO and brand strategist of Brand Better, thought otherwise. Harlow always asks her clients how will they describe their brand using the other senses, meaning how will a brand smell, touch and taste like?


If I would describe mine, my brand will:

  • smell like slightly burnt caramelized almonds and cotton candy

  • wear an embroidered blue tutu dress with camel leather jacket and suede ankle boots and red lipstick

  • taste like salted caramel dark chocolate tart or dulce de leche

  • sound like crossover/modern classical music (i.e. Vitamin String Quartet)


Do you sense a paradox in my descriptions above? The pairing of contrasting flavors like salty and sweet and the juxtaposition of textures in the soft layering of the tulle against the toughness of leather inform me that the kind of art I will create will not only be beautiful or tender but will also have elements of darkness or edginess in visuals or themes. Now try to fill in the blank with yours. This exercise allows you to explore other aspects that you could identify with your personality, your tastes and preferences.


My logo that represents my kind of art

What Is Your Logo?

Simply put, a brand is not just your logo but also your identity as well as your values as an artist. What is it about you that people would easily identify? If people only remember one thing about your product, what would you want that to be? Why should your audience choose it over the next artist?


Speaking of logo, I struggled with creating mine because first of all I hate making logos. Why? Because logos represent everything I detest in being an artist. The first thing any person would ask you to do once they learned about your profession is if you could make a logo as if that is the only thing an artist makes. If you are a graphic artist, there isn't a day when you are not making a logo and there isn't a day when you are not asked to make the logo bigger on any layout. But I digress.


It was difficult for me to create my own logo because at that time I did not have a brand as an artist. There was no clear style direction yet. Heck! I did not even know what kind of art I was going to sell. All I know is that I did not want it to look like any signature or a handwritten name. Logos are symbols and I wanted mine to represent me. However logos are usually simple and minimalist and I am not a minimalist. I know that now. And so I took that as a cue and created an artwork instead and just weed out the details until it is legible enough to pass as a logo. The idea was to make the logo look like a clouded head full of ideas and dreams just like the kind of artist that I am. Read the full story about how I created my logo here.


Emma | Acrylic gouache and digital collage | 2022

What Do You Like?

By identifying my inclinations and by understanding my weakness and dislikes as an artist, I was able to create a logo that could best represent my brand. Three years later, some peers could already identify my logo on a poster or an Instagram post. So ask yourself, what is it you like and not like?


This question is still vague, I know. So let us be more specific. Think of your style like your penmanship or how you choose your hair done or your outfit or even your coffee drink. How do you like it done?

It is almost instinctive but also informed. It becomes a mélange of your tendencies, interests, influences, media of choice and your personality.


For example, when I ask myself how I want my art to be in terms of these categories, it will be:

  • Technique: hand painted and digital collage, aka hybrid

  • Medium: watercolor or water-based paints and digital

  • Materials and tools: Schmincke Horadam watercolor, Holbein acrylic gouache, Faber Castell Polychromos, Prismacolor Premier, Hahnemühle Leonardo, taklon round brushes no. 10/0, 2 and 8, Adobe Photoshop, MacBook Pro, Wacom

  • Themes: fairytale, folk tales, classical stories, historical events, nature

  • Style genre: magical realism

  • Style elements: ornaments, embellishments, florals, botanicals, candy trees (stylized trees)

  • Typography: hand lettering or faux calligraphy

  • Colors: bright plus neutrals

  • Influential artists: Gustav Klimt, Antoni Gaudí, Kay Nielsen, Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Alphonse Mucha, Hokusai, Lizbeth Zwerger, Rie Nakajima, Isabelle Arsenault, Beatrice Alemagna, Felicita Sala, Julia Sarda, Aitch, Carson Ellis, Peter van den Ende, Shaun Tan, Jim Kay, Wes Anderson

  • Art movement: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Islamic Art, Baroque Art, Nihonga

  • Adjectives: beautiful, maximalist, elaborate, detailed, whimsical, semi-realistic, colorful, unique, inimitable, modern


The answers differ from every person, obviously. And sometimes you do not even have a ready answer for you will only discover these in time after making so many artworks, experimenting and practicing for years. So please take the pressure off yourself. Just try filling in the spaces that you might begin to understand your inclinations and tendencies.


Pride and Prejudice | Acrylic gouache and digital collage | 2022

What Don't You like?

What don't you like drawing? What mediums do you not like using? What themes do you usually ignore or avoid? Do you not like it because you are not interested or because you are technically unskilled to pull it off?


For instance, I abhor socio-political issues and therefore artworks that depict this theme are of no interest in me and so I don't make them. If an editorial illustration that tackles this theme is requested, it might become a struggle because it is the least appealing of subject matters although I might not completely shun it for opportunity's sake. Also I don't like making logos, so I don't add that to my illustration services. While I love seeing home décor pieces or dream of having my signature line, I am half-hearted in pursuing this because I do not want to contribute anymore to the damaging effects of capitalism when consumers buy things they don't really need in excess that only end up in third world country landfills after a year of gathering dust in their cupboards. Do you really need that pretty mug? I would prefer making art that has a meaningful purpose as in children's books.


I am an introvert, which means being around people is energy consuming. That seems to reflect on how I draw people and why I have very few people drawings. My earlier drawings of people or characters were either elusive or withdrawn. This may sound like a social suicide but I am also less interested in people and therefore I tend to draw them less, which then stunted my growth in illustrating human anatomy. As a children's books illustrator, drawing people is essential and so I am forcing myself to learn and actually proud of my progress.


Mansfield Park | Acrylic gouache and digital collage | 2022

As for mediums, I chose traditional over digital for many reasons but mainly because I like the tactile feel and organic look of paint on paper whereas I am not so impressed by digital simulations. In traditional painting, I chose watercolors because I found the effect of pigment on a substrate so beautiful and elegant. It is also water-based and less toxic than oil-based paints that require offensive smelling turpentines. Watercolor paintings are also much easier to transport and digitize.

When working, I dislike a chaotic set-up and couch sessions, no matter how inviting it is, because my back often hurts. I work at home and as a traditional artist, I tend to chase the natural light and work best on a proper desk with all my tools reachable at an arm's length. Moreover I would rather zone in on a piece of paper than on a screen. On the other hand, by combining traditional and digital techniques, I was able to create a unique look for my art.


Why are these relevant? By weeding out certain undesirable aspects in your process, you will be able to land on the ideal set-up or environment that would allow you to enjoy making art. You will also be able to steer yourself into the direction where you want to take your art such as which projects are most appealing to you or what kind of audience you want to cater to.



Sing!

Now that you have listed your likes and dislikes and identified you brand flavors, you could use this information to point you to a clearer artistic direction. You could also start listening to your inner voice as an artist that you may sing it out to your audience.


Through her interviews with various fellow contemporary artists, Lisa Congdon writes that "an artist's unique voice is their calling card. It's what makes each of their works vital and particular. But developing such singular artistry requires effort and persistence."


To know your artistic voice, you must ask yourself what is your message, what are the beliefs that you want to present to your audience through your art? What is your truth? What is your art saying?


Spread from "Cleopatra and Mr. Tibbles" by Zoë Tucker | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021


I have been sampling here the Jane Austen covers I have recently created for my portfolio. I have been developing this ornate style for some time now and I am even thinking of pushing it further into creating large scale fine art pieces. This style of decorative art has its beginnings from my wall art piece "Atomic Bomb". I have been subtly trying to add those decorative elements in my picture book illustrations like the "Cleopatra and Mr. Tibbles" or the "Mad Tea Party" spreads. By repeating certain elements and using the same techniques over and over again until you have hundreds of pieces belonging to a collection of artworks, you have a style.


Mad Tea Party | Watercolor and digital collage | 2021

For the Jane Austen covers, I wanted to veer away from the dainty wallpaper like designs typical of Austen books. (Note: Dislike) Instead I wanted to show wildness of character through bursting enlarged embellishments and unexpected color choices. (Note: Like ) Austen's sensibilities were way ahead of her time during that period of extreme polite society that repressed women. Though she lived under social rules and decorum Austen was a rebel in every way and I wanted to echo that wittiness and power through this unconventional style that might appeal to more politically correct and gender conscious younger readers today. (Note: Artistic voice)


"An artist's unique voice is their calling card. It's what makes each of their works vital and particular. But developing such singular artistry requires effort and persistence." - Lisa Congdon


A spread from "Escape to Dodo Island" by Zoë Tucker | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

Your Story Is in Your Art

"Drawing extracts from my vivid thoughts and lucid dreams." That is my brief artist statement and you might see this in my logo alone. Most of what I draw were inspired by last night's dreams or a burst of idea during the day or a memory from my childhood or travels. I often talked about the pink zebra I dreamt about while sedated in the hospital after a colonoscopy or the technicolor animals I invented much to my teacher's horror when I was in kindergarten. Soon enough those colorful animals began appearing in my artworks and guess what? Art directors come to me because of how I render my animals.


My greatest influence is Gustav Klimt. I only discovered his work through my ex boyfriend of many years ago, who collected books about the leader of the Vienna Secession movement. I love how his delicately rendered femme fatales emerged from his intricate patterned environments. "The Kiss" did it for me especially when I saw it in person in Vienna.


Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudí was also one of my heroes. I have first seen his whimsical oeuvre in my visit to Barcelona and from then on became a devotee. In my own illustrations, I often pay homage to his architectural design identified by free-flowing and elaborate natural forms and exuberant Islamic mosaics.



Other more contemporary influences are Lizbeth Zwerger and Isabelle Arsenault because of their mastery in watercolor and composition. In order to understand her techniques, I tried to copy Arsenault's artwork from one of her picture books to practice, similar to copying the works of masters. I soon realized it was never going to be the same as her work. Not only did the activity make me uncomfortable, I also learned that I could never naturally execute the same effortless brushstroke and line work as she does because I am not her! Meanwhile, Zwerger is known for her strong compositions and genius use of the negative space. While I love her overall aesthetics and carefully composed pages, the maximalist in me would always try to fill in the empty spaces in my composition. The main takeaway here was how to effectively populate my precious real estate while avoiding clutter. This epiphany made me examine and then appreciate my own techniques on a much deeper level.


Had I not looked up to these artists and experimented to emulate their techniques, I would not have come up with my own manner of rendering, designing and composition. Had I not come across their works, I would not have realized that this is the kind of decorative art I wanted to create. However, no matter how much you try to follow their exact footsteps, you will always end up telling your own story. Your artistic voice is in fact a collective expression of all these influences, memories and stories.



The colorful animals in my dream often star in my paintings.

Evolve

So do you think I have a style already? Honestly I have a few styles and will certainly not stick to one. I am aware that I am still evolving and an artist must always evolve. But I remember moments in my practice when I decided on this and that direction in illustrating or painting. I started making art again in mid 2016 through adult coloring books. I did it everyday until I moved on to drawing my own pieces and then painting. I decided on watercolor because I love the look and the challenge of using this medium—those little happy accidents it creates. I experimented and researched a lot while weeding out the techniques and materials such as paper and paint that are no longer working for me. I decided I would paint my trees this way or use digital collage to finish my painting. I recognized my tendencies in art making—even the colors that I always use and subject matter that I always paint.


Sense and Sensibility | Acrylic gouache and digital collage | 2022

Pay Attention

Do you know now where I am going with this? These are all information about myself as an artist. Those trivial details while you make art inform you. I made art almost everyday, obsessed the minutiae and then let the art speak for itself.

If you want to attract the ideal projects, make and show them. That was my goal with the Jane Austen series. This version of Austen covers is not just a fan art but also a way for me to touch on young adult book cover genre using this style.


Having a style is more about making choices than actively looking for it or idly waiting for it materialize. It is called a direction because you will need to make twists and turns along the way in which every decision is based on substantial information about yourself. So pay attention to your likes and dislikes in your practice and maybe you will recognize your own style.


Having a style is more about making choices than actively looking for it or idly waiting for it materialize.

There is no rule stating you should only stay in one style. Like I said, artists evolve over time. Pablo Picasso had his share of artistic periods as well as Gustav Klimt, Gerhard Richter and all grand masters, old and contemporary, because we artists change our minds all the time, right? So explore.


There is also no guarantee that everyone will love your style. Art is subjective. I have lost projects for many reasons and one of them is a change in style direction on the part of the client. But those I have won have been the perfect fit for me. Those clients sought me out for my magical realism style. Rejection does not indicate you are a bad artist. It only means there is a better project waiting for you elsewhere. So keep pursuing.


"Wanderlust" is another style-defining piece I created in 2019

That you need to get to know yourself is a good start while you make more art. Traversing as suppose to arriving must be the priority. It is the journey that matters more than the destination. More often than not, the end result is merely a product of coincidence.


If you dedicate yourself to creating, then you will eventually “arrive” but even after that I bet you’ll be bored and then move onto the next adventure. The best part is once you have figured out a style, you will tend to do less experimentation at some point and then will have plenty time to create more art.



"It's also boring to stick to one thing. It's more interesting to be insecure. You should have a measure of uncertainty and perplexity. What's happening? What am I doing? What can I do? That's how I ended up being changeable." - Gerhard Richter