Experimenting With Art Styles

Experimenting with Art Styles

Greetings fine people. Today I want to talk about experimenting with your art style, because it’s my favorite thing to talk about in the world. Art has an infinite capacity for exploration, learning, and expression and that is amazing. Style experiments can help you find your style if you don’t know what it is, improve your art at any stage of skill, and be really refreshing if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut. 

This topic could be huge, so I’m going to limit it to the example of some studies I did this week. There will be some tips at the end in case you want to try some style experiments of your own.

Enter the Experiment Zone

For my experiments this week I used a reference image of some free-range sea lions I took in Newport, Oregon. I painted this same image 3 different ways, none of which focused on realism. I honestly dislike all of them as paintings, but I had a lot of fun, learned a bunch, and gained a lot of insight into new things I’d like to explore so it was completely 100% totally super worth it and you should definitely try this at home.

sea lions newport oregon wildlife illustration reference image

Watercolor Wildlife Illustration

For my first attempt I decided to try the old school combo of inked lines and watercolor washes because I’ve never tried it in earnest. I stayed pretty limited on color choices, and didn’t really use the ink lines very expressively which is something I’d change if I were to do this again.

sea lion watercolor wildlife illustration study

Colorful Wildlife Gouache Paintings

For my next two studies I really focused more on color since the first one felt so dull. This second study was all about picking random colors and trying to make them work by fitting them into to places with a similar value to the reference image. I also challenged myself to use an oversized flat brush in straight lines, only to see if I could do it. The brush was hard too work with and I went way overboard on the colors so I decided to change things up for the third painting.

wildlife animal illustration art study gouache painting

This third study was done with a smaller round brush instead of the unwieldy flat one and I tried to mix in some more realistic colors. I also really focused on lost edges in places of condensed shadow.

wildlife animal illustration art study gouache painting

Like I said before, I don't love all of these studies as end results, but they were completely worth doing. I learned SO much trying these different things out and now I have many new ideas of things I’d like to refine and add to my personal paintings in the future. I can’t recommend doing studies like these enough. So if you’re game to try, here are some tips.

Art Style Tips For Experimenting

1. Work small and use the same drawing transferred to multiple sheets of paper. You save drawing time, and learn about the image each time you paint it, which can help you come up with ideas for new things to try next time.

2. Listen to artists teaching core principles for ideas of things to explore, or look at art that inspires you and try to incorporate something you like about it into your painting. These things are easily found on the almighty interwebs.

3. Look in unusual places for ideas. For example, I usually paint in a semi-realistic style but I've been doing a lot of studying in animation art books. Really skilled artists making things that look wholly different than anything you do can still have a lot to teach you.

3. Have a clear and defined goal or focus for each study you do, and write it down on your paper before you start to paint. It helps remind you what your focus should be and what the point of the study is so you don’t get lost or discouraged halfway through it.

4. Use a really ugly sketchbook that you kind of hate and don’t mind ruining. Don’t use anything that makes you feel restricted or precious about painting these studies. Rejoice in the freedom an ugly sketchbook can offer you.

Good luck and stay experimental!

Using Reference Images Artistically

Using Reference Images Artistically

There seems to be some controversy on social media over whether "real artists" use reference images. I'm not going to attempt to convince you either way, but over time I've learned that there are many different ways and reasons to use reference. These ways all come with limitations and the need for creative thinking. But then, so does making art without reference! So I'd like to share what I've learned about using other people's images for reference, taking your own photos, and why in the world you'd want to paint something you already have a picture of. I'll also share some reasons I can imagine not using reference to be a valid choice because you do you boo.

Other People's Photos

I need to preface this by saying: It is SO IMPORTANT not to rip off a photographer's work - they're artists too and it would suck just as much for them to have their images used without compensation or permission as it would for you if someone stole your art so don't do it, it's not okay. If you simply must paint a replica of someone's photo, contact them and ask their permission to license the work. 

All that doesn't mean you can't use other's pics for reference at all though. I use other people's photos to see what animals look like that I've never seen in person, especially when I need to understand their anatomy, or what their markings look like, or how they look in some particularly obscure position. Since I don't own the rights to the photos I use for this, I look at many images by many people and compile bits and pieces together for my own sketch. This makes for my own original composition but also leaves some difficulties when it comes to painting things more realistically. It leaves questions like, "How would that fur look in a warm setting sunlight", or "How would the shadow lie over this leaf", etc... In this case the best you can do is use your artistic license and study of real life lighting and animals to imagine what seems appropriate. Also don't think you need to limit reference to photos. You can take stills from films or live camera feeds and use those too. 

Your Own Photo Reference

Taking my own reference photos is my favorite thing to do, and yet I absolutely never used to do it. I questioned why I would want to paint something that I already have a perfectly sound picture of. I just didn't see anything creative or self-expressive about the idea. But I believe that was a limited way of thinking, and I'd like to show you an example.

Here's a Blue Azureus Arrow Frog I painted this week.

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And here's the reference photo I took of this frog and made this painting from.

blue azureus frog reference image artist use

Obviously this photo is terrible, and seemingly useless as an image. BUT. There's a lot of great information in here about the way the frog's skin reflects lighting, the way his color mutes in shadow, and most importantly his personality (which is one of bravery and exploration in my humble opinion). I found this little dude in a local pet store that I specifically went to in order to take reference images, because I realized after ruining two paintings in as many hours that I'd forgotten how to paint and needed some inspiration to help me power through it. I've loved these beautiful frogs from afar for a long time, and had no idea I'd find one in a pet store so it was completely exciting and lovely to get the chance to see one. I went home to paint him immediately. I wanted to imagine him in his wild state so that's what I thought about while I was painting him. The painting process was effortless and helped me feel confident with painting again. Importantly for my point here, the painting isn't a copy of the photo and still required some creative leaps but was definitely informed by the picture I took.

So in summary what I'm saying is that if copying directly from a photo, even your own photo, isn't your thing then don't do it. There's still a lot of room for creative exploration. Taking your own reference is a perfect excuse to get out of the studio and spend time with the things you care about, go to new places, and find new things around you. It's also a great way to make art that's more personal to you, since the things you can take pictures of are quite literally in your life somewhere, however tangentially.

Reasons Not To Use Reference

  1. You don't want to. No explanation required.
  2. You struggle to let your imagination loose and feel constrained by images of reality.
  3. You don't have access to any reference at the same moment that you want to draw something. Draw anyway.
  4. You want to draw something the way that you remember it rather than the way it is. This can be a lot of fun, and for some people it's a huge part of their style.

Reasons To Use Reference

  1. You want to. Still no explanation required.
  2. You're trying to make something that looks "convincing" or more accurate to life.
  3. You have your own reference photo and would like to make the memory into a piece of your own artwork.
  4. You're doing a study to improve your physical drawing or painting skills and want a challenge.

If you do or don't want to use reference it's totally cool and completely valid. Everybody has their own process, which is great because otherwise art wouldn't be as diverse. Do "real artists" use reference? They do if you're making art and using reference. It turns out that real artists do exactly what you do when you're making art - what a crazy coincidence! I hope this has been helpful because it's been a lot of fun to talk about. Until next time, stay wild my lovelies.

How To Find Your Art Style

I'm not going to give you a style magic secret in this post, because I don't think there is one. But sometimes we find permission for ourselves in the lives of others, so I want to share with you some of my long and winding art journey and talk a little about why I made things and why they changed over time. I don't have any art from my childhood, or even 8 years ago, so I'll start with the oldest stuff I've got.

MAKE ART IF YOU FEEL LIKE IT

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Here are couple drawings from a sketchbook I kept about 5 years ago. It's REALLY weird to look at these now! At this point in time, I only drew as a way to enjoy myself. As you can see, in these drawings there are people (after a sort), and lettering (kind of), and it's all ink and colored pencil and sharpie. I used those tools because they were what I had.  To this point in time I'd never painted anything - I think back then painting sounded like something only "serious artists" did, and I wasn't serious so it really never occurred to me to try. I specifically didn't want to be a "serious artist" because drawing was my stress-relief, not my own private Fight Club like it sometimes seemed later on. I'd work a job all day and doodle in the night to chill out. 

MAKE ART THAT CELEBRATES THINGS YOU LOVE

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I started at some point not just to draw for fun, but in order to celebrate something I wanted to spend time with. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was something I noticed myself doing. A lot of "developing a style" is just taking the time to notice what you're naturally doing and how it makes you feel. For example, this "Pure Imagination" lettering thing is something I made because I love the original Willy Wonka movie and the song these words come from hits me in the feels. The part of me that loves that song is the part of me that remembers what it was like to be a kid and feel like everything was possible and that every decision was a valid and exciting one. That's a part of me I love, don't want to lose, and that I helped to nourish by spending time drawing out these lyrics.

The goldfish piece next to it was something a friend of mine said to me and it made me really happy because of how wonderfully weird and heartfelt it was. So I drew it and gave it to him and then he was happy, too. 

DEEPLY EXPLORE THINGS THAT INTEREST YOU

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Let's suffice to say I am seriously passionate about food.  I adore fruits and vegetables and so I started drawing them. I was still using colored pencil and pen at this point, but the way I used them began to change. Because I wanted to churn out multiple drawings of different but related things I began making decisions about how I wanted things to look before I'd ever put pencil to paper.  This wasn't something I'd done before and is something I do literally every day now. Because I love food so much I really wanted to delve into it more than anything else I had done to that point and the experience of making my first series of drawings taught me a lot about stylistic decision making and consistency.

MAKE THINGS YOU WANT TO SHARE

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After I started drawing food and had a taste for what doing a series of things could teach me, I wanted to do another series of food. So I decided to make drawings of ingredients from recipes from Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". This was because I adore Julia Child as much as I adore food, and was also teaching myself to speak French. I eventually had the idea that I could share my love of Julia by taking the drawings I was doing and making them into a calendar that I imagined hanging in like-minded kitchens around the world. And so I did make all the drawings for the calendar, but I never actually made the calendar.

By the end of drawing all the things I realized that I didn't feel like my art was good enough to invest in having calendars made because I didn't think anyone would buy them. This was an important realization at the time because I could have taken this feeling two different ways. I could have made it mean that I sucked, would forever suck, and should stop doing the thing I sucked at. Or I could have decided I wanted to do it better next time and try to learn how. As I have always drawn and will always draw, the first way wasn't an option. So I took the second route and decided to try to get better at the things I wanted to do.

LEARN FROM LOTS OF REALLY DIFFERENT PEOPLE

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I'm a fan of learning from others because it's faster. Once I decided to really become a proper student of art I looked to online communities and teachers. I decided to try the 52 Weeks Illustration Challenge because I thought I could learn a lot from the critiques of the other people there. The two paintings above were based on word prompts, and they're really different from stuff I'd done before, both because I I'd started trying to learn watercolor painting and because the group I was in leaned heavily towards a children's book style of art and I was trying to fit in. I envied how easy it seemed for other people to tell stories with their art because that's never come naturally to me. So I started trying to imagine stories and characters for things. The painting below is the most successful I was at story and character creation during that time.

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I was enjoying trying a different style but ended up feeling severely out of place in the 52 Weeks group. At first I thought my restrictions on style were self-imposed, not iron-clad. But after deciding to do a piece that expressed a different vibe which REALLY didn't go over well in the group I moved on to find a different crowd. These are the legs that really pissed some people off, which I'm still kind of proud of :)

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I then tried a different prompt-based group with a different style and tried again to fit in there. I was doing things that were less children's bookish but still based on telling a story, like this drawing based on the prompt "Stallion".

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Unfortunately there wasn't a lot of community in that community, more people just sharing and leaving without critiquing others, and I was tired of "trying to fit in" places. So I basically gave up on group directed learning and moved to individual online resources like Youtube, Skillshare, SVS Learn, and Schoolism. As I learned from different instructors I still tried different things, but didn't try to make those things look any certain way to fit a group's aesthetic. I learned that trying different things is really important, but trying to fit in is a real bummer and you shouldn't do it.

FIND YOUR OWN SUBJECT MATTER

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Around this time I gave up on drawing people because I realized I don't enjoy it and usually I only drew them when I had something negative I wanted to express. So I just stopped drawing them. Animals are more interesting and expressive to me, and have featured more prominently in my life in positive ways than people have. So while I continued learning from different artists, and trying things like the character designs above, it all became animal based. The Beluga Whale character on the left is an attempt at anthropomorphization that helped me realize I don't generally feel good about anthropomorphizing animals. And the bunny on the right is a self portrait if only I'd been born in a bun-bod.

FIND YOUR OWN VOICE

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Once I decided I was going to focus on animals I decided to do an Inktober series all about animal exploitation. That way I could practice combining storytelling with more realistic looking animals. I thought I would be the personal champion of animals everywhere by learning about every horrible thing that happens to them and making people look at it and that I'd still somehow manage to have people like what I was showing them. In retrospect it was incredibly stupid but sadly I had to learn that by doing it. And despite how depressing those ink paintings are, I still can see how much I learned and grew in doing them.

FIND YOUR OWN MESSAGE

I learned a lot from that Inktober, but the most important thing was that people aren't going to want to look at things that bum them out, and there aren't enough anti-depressants in the world to support me while I learn more about animal abuse. Anyway I paint animals because I completely love them so I wanted to learn how to keep it positive and share the goodness. I started trying things like this Hammerhead, which was the first legitimate watercolor painting I ever attempted.

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When I finished this painting I struggled with what should be interesting to people about it. Of course, I'm an animal nerd and just inherently find the symbiotic relationship between Vagabond Fish and Hammerhead Sharks interesting, but how many people even know about it? Would this painting mean anything to them if they didn't? This led me to the idea of becoming an educator with my art and my first attempt was going to be a coloring book that taught people about rare animals and showed them scenes from their lives. Here's an example from that.

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I did a couple of animal spreads for that coloring book before I realized that being an educator was really boring. So if I wasn't going to be a champion of animal rights or an educator, then what was I going to do? Enter surrealism.

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For me personally, I've found that surrealism is a way I can use animals to tell stories that are personally meaningful to me, while being vague enough to allow viewers to imbue the paintings with their own meanings. This way everybody wins.

LEARN THE TOOLS OF YOUR TRADE

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A lot of the tools I've learned to use were because I had a goal in mind that necessitated it. The "Pure Imagination" drawing from before prompted me to begin trying to learn Photoshop to correct some errors in the original piece. The calendar series made me realize the doing things in colored pencil took way too long and was limiting for me in some important ways. The desire to cover large areas with flat washes of color helped me decide to learn to paint with watercolors. The need to be able to cover mistakes and make changes as well as the desire to paint on surfaces like wood (see above octopus) led me to learn gouache, and the desire to paint in layers led me to start learning acrylic painting. Each of these things taught me how to use my other tools better and so I kept learning. At some point I realized I'd gone a long way down a road of skill acquirement that most people won't go down in their lifetimes and that makes what I've learned valuable as a commodity. So I decided to make it my day job and here we are.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I don't think style should be something you create and then adhere to. I think style should be a reflection of where you're at on your life/art journey at any given time. This post isn't me saying, "Look I've learned all the things and now I do surrealism and people treat me like a rock star". Because I haven't and they don't. A year from now I can guarantee that my work will look really different, and that I'll get there by struggling from here forward without a cheerleading squad by my art desk. It's work you do largely alone, with help from others when you can find it. And if you engage in that conversation with yourself, it's because you feel driven to and you've chosen not to ignore that drive.  I don't think making art, or having a style, or finding an audience ever gets easier, and I don't think it would be a good thing if it did. The last images I'll share here are a picture of a dolphin I painted for a taxonomy just a few months ago, and a shark I painted for a new taxonomy this week. Already these paintings look ridiculously different and I think that's kind of fantastic and kind of a pain in the ass too, but I'm gonna roll with it because the alternative is being stagnant as an artist and as a person.

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Good luck and remember to enjoy the journey, because it's probably going to a really long one. Until next time, stay wild my friends.