How to find your art style
There are so many factors perhaps we are not even aware (7 artists are talking about this in this interview). And along the way, you might adjust your art style based on the time available, the money you have and perhaps the art market trends.
If we really think about it, it comes down to decision making – it has been studied in the field of psychology, philosophy and economics. Based on what we make our decisions? Do the decisions we make reflects our free will? And when you ‘follow your heart’, is it really your heart or a set of possibilities and constraints?
If you have time, I recommend the books of Benedict de Spinoza. Spinoza is one of the most important philosophers and the most radical of his time. He wrote:
“In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity.” The Ethics 
About your life
To my understanding, the ‘free will’ decisions you have made today are the result of all the things that happened in your past, like dominos one pushing another. We can not track back to the first domino. We are in many ways, slaves to our own past.
If you ask Spinoza the same questions:
‘Do you choose or do you develop your art style?’
I think he would say that it is the exact same thing. You choose this style because of the development of your life. You develop or evolved into this style because the little choices you’ve made.
So why would you choose or develop this art style, not another art style? What mobile phone do you have? Why do you choose to buy this phone and not that phone? Here is a game: can you imagine choosing an art style is like buying a phone? What are the determinants?
“It’s wonderful when the first time you see something, it doesn’t look like art. When artists challenge what you think art should be about, what it should look like, that’s an experience I’ve been chasing all my life.”
Article on Bomb Mag – Photo: Henning Kaiser Getty Images
No. 1 Your Knowledge
You want to buy a new phone. What do you do? Based on your own experience of using smartphones, you choose a brand. You run quick research on the reviews of the latest models of this brand. Perhaps you talk to your friends about the pros and cons. Eventually, you get enough information to choose a phone that is best for you.
Same for the art style. You get some basic knowledge at school. Then you try different styles for yourself. You can also get more knowledge by visiting museums, watching tutorials and talking to other artists. Eventually, you will find a style that you would like to pursue.
No. 2 Current Technology
A thousand years ago we did not have smartphones, therefore buying a smartphone was not an option. Today we have iPhone XS, we have Huawei P20 Pro, we have Galaxy S9. Do you want a flexible transparent waterproof phone? Unfortunately, we are not that advanced.
It’s usually tech companies or military forces are behind the push of technological advancement, not art organizations. Of course, art plays a role, to inspire and to complement the technology. NASA sends us to Space, not MoMa. Today we have VR, we have 3D printing, we have the hologram, 4K cameras and we can develop art styles using these tools. The art styles we can choose are both powered by and limited by our current technology.
No. 3 Financial Means
The latest iPhone is great. But I am not going to pay over a thousand dollars for a phone. The price point doesn’t make sense for me. Price is like the number factor behind every purchase. Even the most insensitive person is at least price sensitive.
A lifestyle, a profession and, a business
Being an artist is a lifestyle, a profession and, a business. All of the three things cost money. You can say hey ‘I would like to make art only with diamond, like For the Love of God by Damien Hirst. That’s my art style.’ It’s great if you can afford it. If not, you will find an art style you can work for now until you have more resources.
How to develop an art style
How to develop an art style? Perhaps you just found your art style but you have hit a ‘glass ceiling’ in sales or in communication, so you would like to give your current art style a fresh coat of paint. This is what we are going to talk about today.
Describing your art style
My question to you is: How would you describe your art style? Is it photorealistic or abstract? Is it art deco or art nouveau? Is it pop art or manga art? Please quickly point out 2 equally dominant characteristics that best describe your style, followed by the medium. For example, colourful abstract painting, or a concrete outdoor sculpture, or monochrome surreal photography.
Adding to the style
If you can only find one word to describe your style, perhaps your current style is too ‘thin’, as a single thread. It means there are rooms to develop. I would challenge you to add something new to your art – a new style or a new element.
Here I found some random art styles on the Internet: cyberpunk art, rockabilly art, magic realism art, socialist realism art. Check out all these strange and wonderful art styles, perhaps some of them could inspire you. Why not mixing one of them into your current art style and make some new?
“Your artistic style is what makes your work feel like you.”
-Christine Nishiyama mightcouldstudios.com
Besides painting and drawing, what else are you interested in? Perhaps horse-riding? You can integrate the horse theme into your painting. I am not kidding, there is a huge market for horse paintings. When you integrate new elements, you will naturally develop new techniques to go along with it. If you love this topic, you are going to enjoy this process even if it doesn’t work out for you.
Unity in diversity
If you find too many words to describe it but none of them are very dominant, your style is too messy, like tangled threads. Too many elements can be confusing for your collectors. I would challenge you to narrow it down to just two main characteristics.
The Milu effect
Do you know what is a ‘milu’ or Pere David’s deer? It’s a special animal from Asia. It has the face of a horse, the horns of a deer, the feet of a cow and the tail of a donkey. NOW, let’s repeat. Although it looks like the four animals combined, we call it ‘the four unlike’ – when you mix too much, people lose the reference. This is something you should avoid as an artist.
Imagine your style a road. It can be a straight highway, can be a busy junction or roundabout. Ideally, your art style is like a crossroad, perfectly connecting two elements with fluidity. Let’s just call this the ‘crossroad method’. Check out some mashup art, you will find in most cases only two elements are being mixed together.
Do plenty of experiments, perhaps you will find something in the next crossroad. If you are not sure which direction to go, just dedicate 1 day of the week to developing new styles, like Google’s 20% project. This way you can stay innovative while working with existing clients.
How to find your art style?
How to find your art style? This is probably the most asked question by young artists. There are so many great old masters and contemporary artists in the world, known for their distinctive styles. What is your style? Perhaps you’ve started out imitating your favorite artists but you don’t want to copy them forever, and you want to find a style that represents you and reflects your personality.
Although I am not a painter myself, I have struggled to find my style as a photographer and videographer. It was not easy. I did my research online and bought some books. I have pieced together this exercise which I am about to share with you.
“If you never put your ideas out there, you will never know if it might be successful. I ended up doing my dream job, not knowing if it will be successful. If I never tried it, I would’ve never found out.”
Interview: Juxtapoz – Photo: SyFy
No. 1 What are your strengths?
The first question I asked myself is ‘what am I good at compared to my peers?’ In the beginning, I did not feel confident and I felt that I wasn’t good at anything. I knew there were so many ways I could do better. The light, the sound, the composition. One day, when I finished a batch of editing jobs, I grabbed a coffee. My colleagues were like: ‘You have finished? You are a machine.’ I knew at that time: ‘I am good at doing things fast’. There is an old freelancer joke: ‘We have three services: good, cheap and fast. Please pick two.’ At least now I know I am fast, I just have to pick between good and cheap to complete my market strategy.
What are you good at? Are you fast? Are you focused? Are you a team player? Are you good at planning? Are you good at certain painting techniques? Please write them down.
No. 2 Your weaknesses?
Photography started as a hobby for me. It was an expensive one. I was very frustrated when I see great cameras and lenses which I could not afford. I thought my biggest weakness is that I had no money to buy gears. I changed my mind when I heard this statement ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’ by Chase Jarvis. Smartphones have changed the landscape of digital photography and made photography accessible. Gears are not that important anymore just to get started in photography.
Today I felt my real weakness is the lack of patience. I used to shoot ID photos at work, 30 seconds per headshots. It is unimaginable to work as a wildlife photographer. I have to wait for days or weeks or even months to capture a good photo? No way!
What are your weaknesses? It could be something internal or external. Is it money or time? Is it your skill or your tools? Is it your motivation or location? Your personality? Write them down on that piece of paper.
No. 3 Name 3 artists you admire
I am sure you have many favorite artists. Pick three artists whose style you would like to follow. Look really close at their works. What do they have in common? What are the differences?
What they have in common? They are all Chinese artists whose work come from photographs or come out as photographs. Their works have strong visual impacts that capture both the normality and absurdity of life. Both Li Wei and Liu Bolin’s art style involve a lot of interactions with people or their surroundings. All of them are still active today.
What are the differences? Li Wei’s work has splash energy, upbeat and bright. Liu Bolin’s work has great attention to detail, meticulous and humor. Gao Brothers’ work has a strong critical message and expressed in many different mediums.
If I were an artist…
…I would make photography and video art, perhaps installations and performances as well. I’d like my works to reflect the realities, deeply embedded into our daily lives and expose social problems. For example, I will make a copy of the Rubber Duck and place it in rural areas where children were left alone at home by their migrant working parents. I want my work to be timely and timeless at the same time.
The Sweet Style Point
Now, can you have a look at the papers and find a sweet point between what you are good at, what you are bad at and who inspired you? Pin this paper on your wall so you could see it, edit it and update it. I hope this exercise will keep your mind open and your goals focused.
Can you patent an art style?
I imagine if you ask this question, is because you have invented a new art style and you would like to protect it. I would use the word ‘protect’ rather than patent. Because Patent something is a precise legal procedure.
Trademark and patent
Besides patent, you can register a trademark, a design or you don’t have to register anything to be protected under copyright laws… There are different legal concepts. It will be very useful for a creator to know these things.
More recently: Vantablack – Anish Kapoor’s Patent
Concrete patent example
Let’s take the example of Adidas running shoes. The logo is the trademark. This trademark is protected under the “Nice trademark class 25”: clothing, footwear, and headgear. The three-line layout is the design like we often say: designer clothing. The bottom of the shoe sole has this anti-gliding floor grabbing rubber with some high-tech, that is patent. The fabric is made of Gore-Tex, which is a patented material. If the 3 line design functions as a super shoelace, that is no longer a design. It’s patent.
In short, Design is beautiful but Patent is factional.
“if the “style” is created by an inventive method you may be able to protect the method for creating the artwork with a patent.”
-Kelly G. Swartz, Patent Attorney
Now that you know trademark, design, and patent are different concepts, let’s go back to patent. You cannot patent an idea. What you can patent must be a new technology, material or process that is super useful – a big leap forward of mankind. It has to be able to fulfil both the novelty requirement and utility requirement. You can read a bit more online in your language, by going to your local patent office website.
Now, can you think of any art style that fulfils the requirement for patent registration?
The Diasec patent
The best example I know is the patent Diasec, now it is known as Alu Dibond. The original Diasec production process was patented, and a trademark has been registered. Although the patent has expired today, the Diasec team still can produce the best quality prints today, thanks to the chemical composition, the top of the class machinery and their years of experience.
Can I patent my art style?
Diasec is the only example that comes to my mind. Can you patent an art style? I would say, no. You cannot patent an art style. However, you can register a highly stylish artwork as a design, like it is printed on some products. You can give a name of the art style and register it as a trademark. You can patent the machine used to produce such artworks or the special chemical material used. If the art style you try to protect only involves you and your conventional brush, the paint you bought from an art store, I am afraid I can not find any ways to patent that.
Can you copyright an art style?
About the copyright, the answer is ‘no’. According to several court cases in the U.S. such as Dave Grossman Designs v. Bortin, a style is merely one ingredients of the artistic expression. Copyright laws can only protect the finished artwork, not the style, the idea or the process. And there has to be substantial similarity between the original work and the ‘copy’ to be considered a copyright infringement.
Specific expressions of an idea can be copyrighted
The court’s ruling said: “The law of copyright is clear that only specific expressions of an idea may be copyrighted, that other parties may copy that idea, but may not copy that specific expression of the idea or portions thereof. For example, Picasso may be entitled to a copyright on his portrait of three women painted in his Cubist motif. Any artist, however, may paint a picture of any subject in the Cubist motif, including a portrait of three women, and not violate Picasso’s copyright so long as the second artist does not substantially copy Picasso’s specific expression of his idea.”
Copyright cannot protect your style
It’s clear that copyright laws can only protect your work, not the style. But can you still protect an art style without copyrighting it? I would say ‘yes’. Companies are trying to protect their market niche all the time by blocking anyone else from entering it. They are doing it so well. That’s why we have antitrust laws that prevent one company from becoming monopoly in the market. ‘Competition is good, monopoly is bad’, okay?
-Randy Kennedy – New York Times
“Appropriation art, by itself, is riddled with controversy. Many consider ALL appropriation art plagiarism and there’s no doubt that the art from pushes the boundaries of both copyright and authorship. That’s very much part of the intent.(…)Art is meant to help us better understand the world and, sometimes, it does that in unexpected ways.”
-Jonathan Bailey – Plagiarismtoday
3 examples – Protecting your art style
No. 1 Become a reference
The best way to protect your art style is by becoming a reference among your competitors. If you are so well known for this style, it will be named after you. The Picasso style. You have to make yourself well known in the world, not just in the art world. Soon you will have people who worship your style and imitate you. That’s not a bad thing. However, there is a risk that this style will absorb you – the style equals you. It’s hard for you to be something else. This is a very luxury problem to have.
No. 2 Innovate
Another way to protect your style is to innovate and raise the bar every time. For example, Jame Dyson is a British inventor. His company Dyson invented this bladeless fan that is very quiet and safe without buffering. They have registered the patent, the design, the trademark… They are trying to protect their IPR and occupy a market niche. Guess what, now you have a bladeless fan from almost every brand. If Dyson can’t always be ahead of their competitor, they won’t stay in the game. It doesn’t matter if they are the first one who had done it.
No. 3 Make it difficult to copy
Last but not least, make it almost impossible to copy! Always reinvent your style and make it better every time. If you make it really hard to imitate with a high level of skill and attention to detail, no one will be able to copy your style 100%. In China today you can still find counterfeit LV bags even though law enforcement is a lot stronger. But you can’t find the counterfeit of Mercedes engine because it’s still not possible to copy that the German precision machinery even if you have the blueprints.
It’s no point telling others not to copy it. If you want to protect your style, you just have to be well known like Picasso, or innovative Dyson, or highly technical like Mercedes.