Saturday, April 18, 2015

Your Artistic Voice


Being a creative type entails many unique challenges, doesn't it? We’re faced with time management, prioritization of projects, learning new methods, refining our ideas, struggling with existing works, and meeting the demands of our own expectations. It’s enough to keep you running in circles! Yet one challenge that often gets taken for granted is nurturing our Voice.

What is a Voice? It’s that unique artistic point of view that makes your work unique. It incorporates your style, your ideas, and your convictions, and when strong enough, it makes your work as distinctive as a fingerprint. Those artists with particularly fresh Voices can revolutionize a genre, or challenge the establishment.

Artists with a Voice share three important characteristics, even if their styles vary tremendously. First, they tend to take their work seriously, respecting both the quality and integrity of their work. Second, they typically have something to “say,” and say it clearly and confidently. Third, they submit to the will of their Voice and work to protect it.

Your Voice is perhaps your most important creative asset. It sets you apart from other artists and establishes a body of work that cannot be duplicated. Your Voice also lends diversity to the genre, enriching its development and expanding its market appeal. Perhaps most important, however, using your Voice is artistically fulfilling because it reaffirms what you love to do. Truly, the more you use your Voice, the more enjoyment you find in creating through it!

Yet finding your Voice can be a difficult task. There are many distractions that can sabotage the process. Therefore, finding it takes a level of self-awareness and dedication that requires a degree of conscious effort. Yet once you’ve found it, it can fizzle out as you maneuver through the market, especially during fickle times. Beware! You can lose your Voice if you’re not careful!

How can you find your Voice, and when do you know you’ve found it? How do you know when it’s distinct and meaningful? How can you culture it into its full potential? Then once it’s bloomed, how do you protect it? Finally, how can you apply it in ways that promote your goals? 

Both Soothing and Shrill

The interesting thing about an artistic Voice is that it cannot be taught or givenit must be discovered individually and earned. 

This creates a dual meaning for the concept, one that’s both demeaning and supportive at the same time. To advise you to find and use your Voice is to imply you don’t already have one. This can not only be confusing to you, but insulting! At the same time, this advice offers you an opportunity to peel away safe artifices to reveal a truer, braver self in your art. 

The essential problem is the inherent Catch 22: Only through using your Voice can you attain your full potential, yet to find your Voice, you must admit to a fundamental artistic deficiency. This is no easy thing to do. Not only is it uncomfortable to acknowledge, but also it may be difficult for a developing artist to recognize her inadequacies.

Yet finding your Voice is possible. However, using it can be a risky prospect. While it has the power to elevate your work, it also can put you in the line of fire. You cannot hide behind artistic contrivances, such as copying another’s style or methodologies. You cannot mask your inner self with safe ideas and superficial interpretations. You won’t be able to get away with “halfway” because “average” won’t be good enough. Instead, you will bear your true creativity in full view of an often critical public, and this takes a degree of temerity. An artistic Voice is only for the confident and those who truly are dedicated to their art.

For those artists, however, the rewards are well worth the risk. A Voice creates a kind of creative monopoly based on the unique vision that no other artist can duplicate. This helps to develop a collector base, which is the essence of making a living at art. It also creates its own kind of marketing, since your name can be attached to a specific visual of the subject matter. When people can recognize your work at a glance, you’ve made a distinctive mark on their memory. Using your Voice deepens your creative experience and opens up dimensions in your work that were previously veiled. In the end, your respect for your work, the subject, and the work of others, grows and reflects positively in your artistic life and in the larger community. Only when you create a genuine piece of artwork with your Voice do you come to appreciate deeply the process, the subject, and the work of others.

Finding Your Voice

Your Voice is a funny thing. It’s both a part of you, but also not. It’s guided by your hand, but guides it, too. It works best in that “unthinking” state of creation, but needs thought to be unlocked. It thrives on freedom, but appreciates pathways. It also can take on a life of its own and is quick to argue when you impose on it. It’s uncompromising, honest and bold, and knows exactly what it wants. It’s your true artistic self. When you fight it, its qualities appear as negatives, but when you accept it, those qualities become welcomed positivesit’s all a matter of perspective.

Uncovering your Voice is no small matter, however. There’s no linear process to discover it, and some artists simply stumble upon it, while some need years of effort. One thing is certaina Voice doesn’t magically appear, fully formed and potent. It’s not like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s more like a seed buried deep inside every artist. It requires cognizance and nurturing to growit cannot do these things on its own.

The good news is that there are ways to tease it out, to coax it to sprout. One useful method is to study the work of other artists you admire or disfavor, and try to pinpoint exactly why you like it or why you don’t. Don’t stick to the obvious, either. Study works from the vast spectrum of art, from the ancient to the modern. Only through full exposure to “light” can your seed begin to grow by helping you establish a set of boundaries that will heighten your awareness about your own work. Correspondingly, seek out training and instruction, through workshops, books, advice, etc. Exploring the subject from other points of view, and being exposed to the processes of other artists, can help you hone your artistic characteristics.

Along those lines, joining artistic groups or guilds can be similarly helpful. Essentially, look for inspiration anywhere you can, and it doesn’t have to be just within equine art, either. Finding out what inspires you is half the battle for finding your Voice, because that’s what provides its fuel and essence. Consequently, a useful trick is to immediately sketch out every inspirational idea you have, while that iron is hot. It doesn’t have to be painstakingjust capture the energy and the idea. Snatching those inspirations out of your most creatively buoyant moments and capturing them on paper is a terrific means to develop an overall picture of what your Voice values. This can help you map out your boundaries rather quickly, too, because this works almost like the sonar “ping” on a submarine. Keep these sketches and reflect back on them from time to time because each one is that “ping.” Your reaction to it over time is the “ping” bounced back onto your creative radar.

Once you have an idea of your artistic boundaries, then is the time to experiment and take risks. You have to work outside your comfort zonesthere’s no way you’re going to find your Voice unless you go out on a limb! Take all your inspirations and lessons you’ve learned and work to make them yours. Don’t copyallow yourself only to be informed by admired works. This also means you’ll probably careen through the extreme points of your boundaries, but keep “pin-balling.” You’ll overstep and overdo artistically, or be too timid or milquetoast, but that is part of the process. You have to test your boundaries along with your moxy to push them. Finding your Voice isn’t only about discovering the roots of your work, but also finding a bit about yourself. Eventually, you’ll find yourself pulling those boundaries in ever-closer, and your work will communicate a more rounded expression of your Voice. Subsequently, you’ll find your work becoming more consistent and distinctivewhen this happens, you know your Voice is growing!

As you explore, be conscious of which admired works or ideas are working to influence your art, and also be aware of what parts of you are making it your own. Note which parts “flow” and which parts cause you to struggle. Yes, you have to get into the “groove,” and thinking about what you’re doing can disrupt that. Learning to be reflective at key points during the process allows you to pick apart how that development is evolving. Becoming a Zen master with your work is indeed about letting go, and to do that you need “artistic memory” as autopilot. To gain this, you must first be hyperconscious of what you’re doing. Only in the knowing can you learn to forget! 

Don’t let your Voice slide into easy speaking during this process. Timidity won’t let it bloom! Gently prod it forward by allowing yourself the freedom to follow your predilections and curiosities without qualification. This nurtures your Voice’s eccentricities, those things that make it distinct. As you progress, continually seek to accentuate those idiosyncrasies and work to minimize a generic or “safe” interpretation to guide it. Once your Voice has become confident, it can take over as autopilot, but it needs this initial “programming” first.

Some Caveats

However, some common traps await you at this point because it’s easy to drown in these inspirations rather than be guided. Honestly, it’s often at these moments you can find yourself disliking your own work! For instance, you may come to believe that the genius of your mentors allowed their Voices to appear quickly and effortlessly. You begin to think they simply have a unique gift you’ll never have. It’s true they may be naturally gifted, and creating their work comes to them easier than it does for you. However, don’t forget they also worked to find and refine their Voices. They may have struggled and stumbled just as much as you are now. So perhaps the reason why you cannot achieve their heights is because you’re trying to speak with their Voices rather than with your own! There’s only one artist who’s an expert with your Voiceyou!

Another temptation is to believe you’re failing in comparison to those works you admire, no matter how much you try. This can lead to a lot of unnecessary frustration, possible disillusionment, and a desire to quit completely. What you may not realize is that when you reach these low points, it’s not that you’re “failing,” it’s because you may be stifling your own Voice. Take an objective look at what you’re doing to identify where you’ve run counter to your Voice. If that means taking a breather from the piece, do so. Forcing the issue doesn’t work. At this point, it may be a good idea to study the body of works of your mentors to discern how their Voices appeared and evolved. Seeing how they worked through their issues may prove helpful to your efforts. 

One thing to keep in mind, however, is the nature of realistic equine sculpture. Remember this is an absurdly narrow focus with a rather stringent set of demands. This means that those Voices that respond well to these demands will succeed, whereas those that don’t will struggle. There is risk inherent in this because we cannot control the nature of our Voiceit is what it is. While we can attune it closer to those demands, it’s a delicate balance to weigh your Voice against the peculiar expectations of an ever-exacting market. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that realism demands more than simple mimicry to be convincing. A level of “artiness” is necessary to create an impression of realism beyond what is technical duplication, while also infusing the soul, moment and “spin” that makes it art. This is precisely where your Voice can shine! Nonetheless, realize that discovering your Voice in this realistic venue is rather like rouletteyou’ll never know what your winning number is until you spin the wheel, but the odds aren’t stacked in your favor. The choice is to sacrifice everything in your pursuit of artistic authenticity, or to stay safe and never be true to yourself. It’s up to you.

"Inevitability, Mr. Anderson"

In many ways, finding your Voice is inevitable with a serious artist. It’s akin to artistic maturity. Over the years, you naturally will want to cut the umbilical of safer copying and formula to walk on your own two creative feet. When you do, you’ll find comfort in your own creative language regardless of the subject matter or artistic challenges. 

So how do you know when you’ve found your Voice? Well, it’s something you just know when it happens. It’s an ease in the mind and the hand, and a serenity that comes with acceptance. Your work will “flow,” anxiety or desperation will vaporize, and you will find a “still point” of quiet confidence. Furthermore, you’ll know it’s meaningful when you create unique, consistent quality, results that people can recognize easily as your work. When your Voice has resonance, it generates its own meaning and authority, sometimes independent of your original intentions! A developed Voice also allows other people to layer on their own interpretations of your work, which enhances their experience and appreciation for your unique point of view. In this way, a mature Voice is distinct and allows other minds to experience it on their own terms.

Like adulthood, artistic maturity is earned through slogging through the developmental yearsit cannot be circumvented with short cuts. You will come out the other side as yourself, with self-assurance and composure. When you’ve reached this other side, you may find that those aspects you tried to mimic in your mentors’ work do not exist in your new work. This is because your Voice has made your work entirely your own...and better for it!

Cultivating Your Voice

There’s no simple path for cultivating your Voice once you’ve found it. However, what is necessary is that you (1) recognize it, and (2) believe it to be worth protecting. 

So perhaps cultivating your Voice is more akin to weeding around your little sapling, to give it optimum space to grow. One way to do this is to check yourselfare you being informed by your mentors, or copying them? It’s seductively easy to lose yourself in another style or approach and become a copycat. Another way is to make sure you aren’t falling into a creative rutare you doing the same things repeatedly? Yes, your work should be coherent with your Voice, but this doesn’t mean playing it safe all the time is good for it, either. Unless you’re taking a risk with each new creation, you may be smothering your Voice over time. Do you find yourself getting bored with your work? If so, try different strategies to invigorate your creative juices! Sculpt different subject matter, or adopt new methodologies. Take a field trip to a museum or stable to reconnect with those inner drives. Attend workshops or retreats to relearn the passion for experimentation and learning. More often than not, your creative engine just needs a good jolt.

You also can over-fertilize your little sapling! Too many ideas and too many unfinished projects can spin you around in a big whirlwind of nothing learned. In order to find and develop your Voice, you need to create a lot of art piecesfrom start to finish! This is where a kind of prioritized discipline comes into play. You need to dedicate what it takes to focus on finishing enough similar work to create the “control group” that allows your Voice to reveal its patterns. Too much chaos will simply drown it out. With consistency your Voice will bloom, and then you can apply it to all those other ideas waiting on the sidelines. In turn, you’ll find the expression of those other ideas are stronger for it, as well.

Be sure not to over-prune your little sapling either! Let it grow wild for awhile and develop its own character. Do we like trees that are perfect, or those with appealing eccentrics? When it comes time to prune and how, you’ll know itthat’s your Voice starting to reveal its boundaries. Let it inform you, however. Don’t force it. Otherwise you risk chopping off branches of unforeseen benefit. Getting input from seasoned artists can be useful herethat bonsai master may have gems of insight for you!

Applying Your Voice

Now that you have your Voice, it’s time to start using it! The handy thing is that no matter the subject matter, or the artistic style you choose to express it (i.e. realistic, abstract, impressionistic, etc.), somehow your Voice will come through. So don’t be afraid to create through it! What you’ve found is something special and unique, so be proud of it! It will give your work distinction and a foothold in the market. You’ll have clarity in how you want to approach your work and find that it’s fun to apply your Voice to all sorts of challenges and new ideasso don’t hold back!

Curiously, you’ll find that whatever goals you previously had, your new ambition will be to use your Voice once you’ve discovered it. In other words, using it becomes the driving force, the journey and the destination. As you continue to develop and apply your Voice, you’ll find that your prior objectives may change, sometimes dramatically, taking your artistic future into unknown and unexpected directions. Follow it. As Joseph Campbell wisely advised, “Follow your bliss.” Only you, in all the Universe, have this path, and in many ways, our unique gift obligates us to walk it.  

Nevertheless, you may wonder why your Voice is importantwhat do you have to offer that’s so special? Why can’t you just create as you want and stop trying to be “more?” These are valid questions that are important for you to ponder. Indeed, art is a pastime for many, not the overriding passion as it is for some. Undoubtedly, the measurement of your zeal will determine not only if you find your Voice, but also how exuberant it grows. Again, the choice is up to you.

Yet whether you throw yourself into your art or entertain it as a diversion, your Voice may be more important than you know. To begin with, when artists work from their Voice, plagiarizing other work tends to diminish. Your Voice demands original ideas and original authorshipit seeks to communicate its individualism. Also, your Voice asks for effort, it expects you to try your best each time. This not only has a cumulative effect on your body of work, but it also helps to advance the art form. Similarly, your distinctive Voice adds to the diversity of ideas and interpretation of the subject matter, which isn’t only important for the genre, but also inspiring to artists who have just started cultivating their talents.  Finally, using your Voice is a statement. You’re staking your claim in the creative world and showing you have confidence and pride in your work. Collectors value commitment and dedication, and they respond positively to artists who do not compromise their creative identity. In this way, using your Voice makes your work distinctive and collectibleonly you can create it! This can add value and novelty to your work, too, which are important factors towards the creation of a collector base.

Maintaining Your Voice

As with our work, our Voices refine over time. Expect it to change and evolve as you grow and age. Even artists who’ve been creating well-received work for decades are still exploring their Voices!

Stay open to new ideas, methods and interpretations. When you choke these off, you squelch your Voice’s full potential. What usually results is a creative plateau you seem unable to escape, or an urge to “do more,” but an inability to achieve it.

Challenge your Voice from time to time! Stretch it and put it to harder work. For instance, try tackling work you believe is “too intimidating,” or “beyond” your scope. You’ll probably surprise yourself, discover more about your creative drives, and learn to trust your Voice. Sculptors often are benefitted by occasional flatwork of some kind, whether as quick sketches or full-blown finished works. Also, consider creating work entirely outside your creative focus or habits. For example, if you create mostly miniature works, try working big. If you create mostly full-body sculptures, think about sculpting a bas-relief or bust. Reinterpreting the subject matter in different styles, such as abstract, is useful for developing your Voice, too. It forces you to perceive things with altogether different ideas, offering new routes for your Voice to explore. In doing so, you’ll bring this wisdom back into your usual work to enrich it in ways you couldn’t have predicted.

Allow your Voice to set down roots. Don’t try to force it into something it isn’t, but don’t keep it in hibernation, either, by not finishing what you start. Don’t confuse your Voice with too many ideas and projects at once. Stay focused. It needs to develop a root system first, then it’ll be robust enough to handle the creative onslaught. Listen to your Voice and allow it to guide your choices. During the process, sit back and cogitate what you’ve created. Try to identify how your Voice is informing your hands and where you’d like to push a bit harder, or where you need to ease up. Learn to trust it and submit to it. A deep-rooted Voice is like an old treeyou can lean against it for relief and savor its shade when things get “too hot.”  

However, no matter how well-developed your Voice becomes, it needs continual care. You’ll always have to employ steps to protect and feed it, and give it room to transform. In many ways, this is a good barometer for your own creativityif your Voice has stopped evolving, perhaps it’s time to take an introspective moment.


Finding your Voice takes time, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t find it immediately. Don’t try to “fake it” either, but let it emerge in its own good time. When you do find it, your Voice will give your work authority and distinction in ways otherwise unattainable. You’ll find new dimensions of enjoyment and expression, creating a positive feedback loop.

Artistic identity and integrity are the essence of your Voice. This means that only when you find your Voice can artistic authenticity also emerge from your studio. It's these things that define quality and meaningful work, regardless of its style or skill level. So plant your tree, protect it and help it grow. In the end, we all can enjoy a collective forest with far more diversity than we ever imagined!

Recommended Reading
Finding Your Visual Voice: A Painter’s Guide to Developing an Artistic Style (spiral-bound) by Dakota Mitchell. 2007. ISBN-10: 1581808070 or ISBN-13: 978-1581808070.

Art and Fear; Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. 1993. ISBN: 978-0-9614547-3-9.

"Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens." ~ Carl Gustav Jung

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