Part III in a series on developing your voice. In this we look at some actionable steps.
I began this series by encouraging artists to find their own inspirations rather than merely going along with what everyone else embraces. In part II I explored ways that artists seek out higher meaning while providing value to their audiences.
In this part of the series, I’d like to expand on some actionable steps that we can take to develop our unique artistic voices. The steps take some explanation, so I provide some thoughts on them and offer some examples when appropriate. In other words, this will be a little different than an easy-breezy listicle you might have read elsewhere.
A couple of years ago, Ira Glass, the radio personality behind This American Life, explained that at the start of his career he felt, as many creative people do, a gap between the work he created and the illusive vision of what it could be.
Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut, the writer who gave us Slaughterhouse-Five, said this of his writing efforts: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” If world-class artists like Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut can acknowledge their creative struggles, then it makes it a little easier for the rest of us to do the same, right?
Artistic expression takes effort for almost everyone. I can’t promise that the steps below will make the journey any easier, but they might offer some guidance for what steps to take next.
No guarantees though. The steps I’ll mention below are just based on some patterns I’ve noticed in artists I admire or in things I’ve read in related books. Anyway, they’ve been helpful to me, and I figured they might be helpful to some of you too.
For those of you who are just joining the discussion, I also want to reiterate once again that I’m distinguishing between developing an artistic voice and developing craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship teaches someone how to shape raw materials into discernible forms. It’s important, but it’s not the whole package. There are a number of craftsmen who can carve statues out of marble, but it took an artist like Michelangelo to produce the statue of David.
Others can imitate that statue now that it has been created, but no one else created a statue in that exact form before Michelangelo brought it into existence. It is a statue that could only emerge from Michelangelo’s unique skills and sensibilities, that ineffable thing that is his artistic voice, and his alone.
No else can be a Michelangelo. He’s a one of a kind, but so is everyone.
The hope is that these steps will help you and me both develop our own artistic voices so that they will someday seem as distinct, if not as accomplished, as the voice of any artist out there.
With that out of the way let’s dive in.
1: Be methodical about finding inspiration
As I suggested in Part I, mediocre artists tend to have a surface-level appreciation for conventional influences; exceptional artists tend to have more deep-rooted and diverse influences.
Wynton Marsalis is an accomplished trumpet player who was born in New Orleans, so I take it as a given that he has noteworthy perspective on Louis Armstrong, one of the world’s most beloved trumpeters and a fellow New Orleanian. Marsalis is one of the featured musicians in Ken Burns’ Jazz miniseries, and his comments about Louis Armstrong did’t disappoint, but I was surprised to hear how articulate Marsalis was in also discussing jazz musician Sidney Bechet.
Bechet’s primary instruments were the clarinet and the soprano sax, and unlike Louis Armstrong, he died before Marsalis was born. Even so, Marsalis was well versed in Bechet’s music but also in his fiery personality and how that affected his performances. In other words, Marsalis had spent a bit of time trying to understand a musician who played a different instrument and grew up in a different era.
In contrast, think of all the artists who are just barely familiar with their contemporaries. To an extent, that is understandable. All the magazines and media outlets give more attention to the next big things, so it takes some effort to seek out and appreciate the artists who have come before, but those who avoid doing so limit the pool of inspiration from which they can draw.
The more we take in, the more sources of inspiration we can draw upon when we create. It’s not just about finding inspiration though.
2. Keep a Journal
This one took longer for me to appreciate. Maybe some of you are in the same boat, so I will spend more time on this one point.
Merely being able to recite who created what work of art can score points on trivia night or make an impression at certain dinner parties, but it does very little to advance artistic expression.
It is more important for artists to be aware of their own reactions to what has come before. That might seem evident enough, but it’s counterintuitive to how many of us were taught in school.
In science and math we learn facts and formulas. Well and good. I don’t want the engineer who builds bridges in my town to have his or her own subjective take on the load that certain materials can handle. (Still, a more personal approach to those topics could instill more of a sense of wonder or a joy of discovery in students, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
Even in the humanities though, the emphasis seems to be on regurgitating details. This is partially due to how much easier it is for an English teacher to ask test questions about the lines spoken by Polonius than to inquire about how reading Hamlet might affect the way we see the world. And yet, I suspect that Shakespeare cared more about influencing perceptions of the world than about ensuring that his audiences remembered which lines were spoken by Polonius and which by Laertes.
This is where keeping a journal comes in. It’s an opportunity for us to process our reactions to the things we encounter, reactions that can add texture to the creative work we produce at some later point.
A number of the artists profiled in the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey kept some kind of journal or scheduled other activities into their routines, like walking or meditation, that allowed for reflection. This suggests that there is a strong correlation between people who take time to process their reactions to the world and people who become distinguished artists.
There are all kinds of ways to journal. It doesn’t have to be something that is hand written. Some people find it easier to record their thoughts by speaking into a recorder. I’ve even heard of some artists who prefer to sketch out their daily impressions of the world.
I journal in a couple of ways. The old-fashioned approach of pen and paper still works for me, at least for some things. The tactile feel and the ability to scratch things out makes it a little easier for me to get ideas out, no matter how rough they might be. In other cases, I prefer the more pristine look and the organizational tools that certain tools like Evernote and Day One offer.
I’m writing an early draft of this in Day One, in fact. The uncluttered interface offers welcome counterbalance to the often messy, tangled nature of my thoughts when I first put then down to paper. (Untangling them is the real trick of it, right?)
I also keep albums of images that captivate me for one reason or another. The albums have fragments of designs that I like, but also interesting textures, color combinations, and reminders of feelings I want to remember.
I first realized the value of keeping a journal when I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I cannot recommend that book highly enough. It shatters the myth about creativity being an innate ability that can’t be developed.
Brian Koppleman, the screenwriter behind films like Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen and the creator of Showtime’s Billions, swears by the Morning Pages, the journaling approach advocated in The Artist’s Way. You can hear him talk about it in this podcast interview he did on The Art of Charm.
Let me give you two examples of how journaling has influenced my work.
I use Evernote to catalogue some of the memorable aspects of some of the films I see. Nothing fancy there, just some impressions of the film while the memories of it are still fresh. Occasionally I will do a screen grab if something about a shot catches my eye. Here’s one from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl:
It caught my attention because it is the most confining shot of the film. The framing in the alley seems to give the main character very little breathing room, which matches the character’s state of mind. He’s just faced something tragic that has shaken his sense of possibility. But, I also noted some green vegetation in the background, suggesting a little bit hope, the coming of spring, and so on, and that’s not out of step with what happens later in the story.
The filmmakers behind Me and Earl and the Dying Girl seem to be very deliberate about their framing, color choices, and camera movements, so I would be surprised if the shot above wasn’t planned to communicate something kind of like what I described, but it doesn’t matter if I’m way off base here.
The point of taking in inspiration, at least for the exercise I’m describing, is not to document precisely the intentions of other artists but to make note of how their work affects us. Let’s say the green in the background was there just because someone happens to enjoy planting beautiful shrubbery by desolate-looking alleys. OK, Fine.
But, wouldn’t it be interesting if it was done on purpose for something else? Confession time: I would be absolutely thrilled to use beautiful shrubbery in such a symbolic way, and I earnestly hope to get such an opportunity someday.
Changing gears here, let me tell you about the impression that some Picasso paintings had on me. The paintings are part of his harlequin series, and they depict one or more clown-like figures with pensive, almost mournful expressions. The paintings resonated with me, but at the time I couldn’t explain why. I wondered about why that was and explored the topic from time to time, but mostly the paintings stayed in the back of my mind, out of conscious awareness.
After years of journaling and thinking about art, I can now say that I am captivated by seeing the private melancholia of performers who normally put on happier faces in public. That resonates with me because for much of my life I would try to present an overly agreeable veneer to the world so as to keep the hurting parts of my life out of the limeligh, and even out of my own awareness, for as long as possible. It took me a long time before I could admit as much.
A moment of private grief from someone who has to smile in public has found its way into a couple of my stories, in some form or another. Taken as a group, Picasso’s harlequin paintings are just one of many influences on me, but I suspect that some of my stories might have taken a somewhat different shape if I had never seen those paintings and thought about them from time to time.
The things we encounter, whether paintings from Picasso or beautiful shrubbery, can be like seeds that take years to bear fruit. To journal is to water those seeds of inspiration.
3. Find a way to differentiate from what came before
Simply rehashing what others have done is not all that interesting. Building on what came before is one way to go, but sometimes what came before can crystallize all the things we don’t want to be. Entire art movements have grown out of strong reactions against the prevalent art of an era. Consider the Romantics who developed their sensibilities in response to Neoclassicism.
The differences are so stark that we can almost imagine the Romantics writing a manifesto to defiantly stake out their territory: “Let our smug and distant Neoclassicist brothers have their rationality, symmetry, and science. We’ll show those stuffed hats true sentiments of the heart, sublime desolation, and supernatural revelries!”
OK, so as far as we know, the Romantics never phrased their differences quite like that, but they were a brooding bunch, so who’s to say they didn’t write such a manifesto, now long-lost, on some dark and craggy moor, draped in fog and inhabited by ravens?!
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a Romantic like Edgar Allan Poe writing a manifesto like that, right? Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be all that unexpected even coming from a more contemporary embodiment of Romanticism, like say Edward Cullen.
That’s right, a little Twilight reference for all you Bella and Edward peeps out there!
Hmm. That line seemed to get a better reaction at the Vampire Convention.
Wait, this audience is not big on Twilight? I’m just saying that Stephenie Meyer probably drew on past Romantic literature to flesh out a contemporary classic—uh. Right. Well contemporary classic means many things to many people.
Scratch that. No need to throw things. And, moving right along.
Another example of one style developing as a reaction to another is the Pixar style. Many of the artists who work for Pixar are Disney enthusiasts. Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter even worked for Disney, at first as a tour guide on the Jungle Cruise ride and then as an animator.
And yet, from their first foray into feature-length films, the Pixar creative team made the determination not to make Disney films. Instead of reimagining classic fairytales and children’s stories, they would tell original what-if stories. Nor would they have their characters reveal their motivations through song as the Disney ones do. Think of Ariel singing “Wish I could be part of that world,” or Belle’s opening number in Beauty and Beast. Instead Pixar characters tend to reveal their motivations in more subtle ways.
As explained in this Rotoscopers blog post, even the villains have different roles in Disney and Pixar films. Disney protagonists are often forced into action by near omnipotent villains like Maleficent or Jafar. In contrast, the Pixar characters are more likely to set a story in motion through some kind of intrinsic motivation. Pixar films don’t always have a villain in the classical sense and when they do, the villains tend to be mere mortals with character flaws that are just exaggerated varieties of those that the heroes struggle to overcome.
All that to say, the distinct Pixar style developed out of a affection for, but also in reaction to, Disney animation. I don’t see how that could have happened if the artists at Pixar weren’t both intimately familiar with what came before but also willing to question the popular conventions that others in animation took for granted. (I go into more detail about what makes Pixar so distinct in this blog post.)
I have a few more suggestions for you to consider, but this post has gone on long enough. You’ll have to come back next time to find out what the rest of the steps, and you’re not going to believe step 7 !!!
Just kidding. None of that here, although I did want to seize upon this opportunity to end an art discussion with cartoons and not Picasso. Not a lot of opportunities to do that, so carpe diem and what not.
What can I say? I do enjoy unsettling the snobs on occasion. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some shrubbery to go plant.