There are so many ways to put paint on a canvas that it can seem overwhelming, but that also makes it fun. My style has gone through countless transformations over the years as I’ve experimented with as many tools, colors, and mediums as I can get my hands on, but no matter the style, I’ve noticed that my favorite works have had the most authentic representation of my voice.
First, let’s talk about the difference between style and voice, which I view as interconnected but distinct concepts. The style of a painting is defined by its overall look and construction. For example, a painting’s style might include its colors, composition, how geometric or fluid it is, whether it is dark/light, high contrast/low contrast, minimalist or saturated. The voice is what the artist uniquely brings to the painting through their artistic intuition, including how the painting’s style elements are arranged and executed to create an intangible “vibe.” The voice of a painting is what draws in and connects with a viewer. A style can be imitated to a certain extent, but a voice cannot. If you try to copy another artist’s work, you might be able to imitate the style, but you will stifle your own voice. A voiceless painting is a soulless painting and will not grab the viewer’s interest.
Whether you’re just dipping your toes into abstract painting or you’re a seasoned veteran looking for a different perspective, here are some key points I’ve learned through trial and error and countless hours of exploration that might help you strengthen your voice in your own artistic journey.
1. Let yourself explore.
Your painting tool, paint consistency, and surface properties all affect how the paint and the surface interact. I recommend exploring as many of these variations as possible in order to learn what kind of different effects you can create and what feels the most rewarding to you. It will also help you troubleshoot when your paint isn’t interacting with your surface the way you’d like.
What happens when you hold the brush more loosely? More firmly? Closer to the end? Closer to the bristles? What happens if the brush is dry versus wet? What kind of effects are achieved when the bristles are stiffer versus more flexible?
Try big brushes and small brushes. Different bristle types. Try alternative tools, like palette knives, silicone wedges (including textured wedges!), scrapers, sponges, or even your fingers.
Experiment with dripping or splattering.
What happens when the paint is thick versus thin? What about when it’s starting to dry versus fresh and wet? What if you dampen the surface before or after you apply the paint?
Practice painting loosely. Practice painting with tight control. Practice hard edges and softly blended edges.
You can also experiment with different mediums to change the texture, sheen, or transparency of your paint, how it behaves with the surface, or even just how quickly it dries. If you don’t know where to start, I review some of my favorite mediums here, and brands like Golden and Liquitex have video demos and other resources. I was first inspired by a book called Acrylic Revolution by Nancy Reyner, and I still flip through it when I’m feeling stuck. I cannot recommend this book enough for learning about the effects of various mediums.
Different colors and color schemes set the mood of a painting. I recommend developing a basic understanding of the color wheel and color schemes. Analogous colors, which are next to each other on the color wheel, can help the painting feel serene or calm. If you’re just getting started, you can’t go wrong with analogous colors. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel and give maximum contrast. They are also great for creating muted, more neutral hues. For example, I find green straight from the bottle to be a little too artificially green, so I’ll add just a touch of a red tone. This also means that if you mix equal parts green and red, you’ll get a muddy brown, so using complementary colors together can take a bit more thought and control.
What colors make your heart sing? What colors do you just not click with? What colors are easy to use together?
Experiment with composition: where you place colors, areas of dark, areas of light. Try to create drama or serenity—sometimes both in the same painting. A lot of times, this is achieved through layering, so don’t pressure yourself to do it all in a single layer.
How does your painting feel when you don’t include much white space? What about when you don’t include darker areas? What if you use color minimally? What if you spread a color throughout the canvas versus areas or focal spots of the color?
Overall, experimentation helps you develop the foundational techniques and knowledge that will help you express your voice. It also allows you to identify colors, tools, and composition styles that bring you joy, and that's when your artistic voice will sing the loudest.
2. Find the balance between control and chance.
When you watch videos of artists creating abstract art, it might look like they randomly move a tool around a surface and it all serendipitously comes together. While I can’t speak for every artist, there’s intention behind my movements. I focus on sculpting the paint, reinforcing the shapes that work for me and reworking the ones that don’t. The painting isn’t any less expressive or abstract if I refine and edit, such as by scraping, smudging, wiping, or even overpainting once the area is dry.
However, if I force the painting in a certain direction by deciding how it “should” look, the painting will lose its voice. Therefore, it’s important for me to watch the painting develop instead of pushing it toward an image in my head. I also watch for “happy accidents”—areas that didn’t turn out how I intended but give the painting its character. Too much editing, and the painting loses that.
The balance between control and chance is the balance between technique/technical knowledge and intuition. Both can be strengthened through experimentation, which is why I think it’s so important to to let yourself explore.
3. Don’t limit yourself.
If you’re just starting out, don’t force yourself to quickly develop a “signature style” and especially don’t decide ahead of time what your signature style “should” be. Maybe the type of art that excites you when produced by others isn’t actually in line with your own unique artistic voice. Instead, focus on listening to yourself as you experiment and explore.
If you’ve been making art for a while, don’t limit yourself to your past paintings. Instead, chase what brings you joy, even if that means changing it up and letting your “signature style” evolve over time. If you keep working with the same colors, composition, and techniques not because it feels good, but because you’re afraid it’s what others expect from you, your paintings will become formulaic and lack expression. Even if the style remains the same, your paintings will lose their voice. That being said, if you feel called to the same colors, composition, and techniques that you’ve been using, keep on going—but I challenge you to experiment now and then, too!
4. Be inspired, but don’t copy.
Here’s the truth: I have to limit the amount of time I spend browsing art on social media or it affects my creative process. Maybe this won’t happen to you, but I become subconsciously affected when I overload on art social media, and my paintings become a confused, muddled mess. It doesn’t make you any less of an artist if you have to unplug from social media to get into your own creative headspace. Likewise, it doesn’t make you any less of an artist if you can maintain your own creative headspace while also enjoying regular scrolling through other artists’ feeds. The important thing is to be honest with yourself about what works for you.
Along those lines, it can be all too easy to see art posted by someone else and think, “I wish I could paint like that.” Maybe you like their use of color or texture or their composition. Maybe you crave their success and think they’ve found the perfect formula. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, if you try to imitate another artist, it will be just that—an inauthentic imitation lacking a voice.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t take inspiration from others. Maybe you really like the technique used by artist A, the color palette of artist B, and the composition of artist C. If you follow your own intuition for how it all comes together, your voice will shine through.
What successes or challenges have you experienced while strengthening your own artistic voice? Let's discuss in the comments!
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