In my previous post, I talked about how my experience in changing my way of sneezing taught me how hard it is to change a habit even in instances where we know it would be better for us if we did. Habits don’t merely concern things like the way we sneeze, however. For example, habits writ large are what define a culture, for a culture is nothing but a vast collection of shared habits that go by the more lofty designation “customs.” And though it’s not apparent at first glance, habits also deeply affect artistic style.
In my case, for example, after more than forty years of painting, I’ve developed a “mature” style (or what’s known as a “signature” style). People who have seen my pictures easily recognize one of my new paintings even when they encounter it outside my studio or gallery. All serious painters, no matter the quality of their work, inevitably end up with a mature style.
Although my compositions and colors change from one picture to the next, they don’t change so dramatically that they no longer resemble one another. You could say that my paintings resemble one another in the way that children in a given family, even when they have different heights, hair color and eye color, all manage to look as if they are related.
The most famous explanation for artistic style came from Émile Zola, who wrote that “art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament.” Even though the observation sounds profound, I’ve always found it deeply unsatisfying when it comes to understanding artistic styles. Temperament clearly affects style, but it doesn’t explain what, aesthetically speaking, binds together all the art of any given culture or historical epoch. Nor does it address the evolutionary nature of an artist’s art—the way artists develop and change their art over the course of their lifetime.
Although there’s seldom an actual “eureka” moment for artists—a moment where they shout that they’ve finally discovered their mature style—when people look back at any given artist’s complete oeuvre, it’s fairly easy to spot such a moment. Art historians rarely talk about artists in terms of temperament, but frequently talk about them in terms of artistic “development.” Talking about artistic temperament by itself is pointless, since it ignores the very matter that’s of interest—how artists respond to the “form and pressure of the times” (yes, Hamlet again).
More than one student has asked me why I don’t ever change my painting style—to which I respond, “It’s not so easy.” My artistic habits—the way I put on paint, construct compositions, and come up with colors—are deeply entrenched at this point, and are as big a part of my style as my temperament. To alter them is not impossible, but there’d have to be a reason beyond anything I can imagine.
When I was in college, a teacher once told me, “If you have one good painting idea in your life, you’re lucky.” Because I was convinced I’d already had several good painting ideas, I stared back at him blankly. What in the world could he mean?
Only now do I get it.
All painters, no matter their style, start off as whales going through plankton—soaking up as much as they can from their teachers and from the history of art and all the art going on around them, and playing around trying out this or that way of painting a picture. Gradually, however, they evolve into horses with blinders—painters trotting along at a rapid clip, mostly focused on their own art, but occasionally looking to the right or left and seeing something that affects their gait. In their mature years, painters turn pigheaded. It’s the time of their lives when they can’t help themselves from stubbornly pursuing their one painting idea, whatever it is. If they’re lucky, that is.