Ahh, the Artist’s Voice. The illusive ‘brand’ that makes your work recognisable and valuable.
Inexperienced creatives often worry about finding their voice. I see it all the time with my clients and on social media threads. Cries for help that say:
- “Should I restrict my colour palette?”
- “I don’t know whether to pursue digital illustration or watercolour”
- “I studied Fine Art, can I really call myself an Illustrator?”
- “Will anyone want to hear what I have to say even though I am self-taught?”
In our quest to define our voice, our brand and to ‘get it right’, we box up our curiosity for fear that it leads us astray and dilutes our message. Instead, we rely on analysis, opinion of others and vanity metrics like followers or hearts on our social feed to determine what we should create.
We think finding our voice will set us free. But, we treat it like a creative cage: a constraint that defines the boundaries of what we’re allowed to make, what materials and colours we’re allowed to use and what subjects we’re allowed to talk about.
Constraints can be a really useful creative tool – but they’re not the best way to find your voice.
If you truely want creative freedom, keep reading.
There’s an easier way to find your voice and it’s a hell of a lot more fun.
Use your curiosity like a gold pan.
At first, throw everything in. Nothing is off limits. Rocks, dirt, gold: it’s all just jumbled together. As you shake it up, the dirt starts to float to the top and you can skim it off.
You see what I’m saying? You try lots of things and each time you ask yourself: “Did I like that? Was that fun? Am I interested in learning more about this?” If the answer is no, skim it off. If you answer ‘yes’, keep it in the pan.
We shake a little more and skim the rocks out while the gold sinks to the bottom.
Once we’ve been through this process, shaking and skimming, we can see with clarity the treasure that remains.
As you sift through your interests (broad at first), you will start to notice common themes: subjects you like to learn about, mediums you like to use, people you like to work with. These are precious clues to help you develop a point of view and an artistic personality that is uniquely your own.
The temptation is to try to make diamonds instead of mining for gold.
Diamonds form under extreme temperature and pressure.
You’re exposed to creative expression and you think, “I’ve got the material of a diamond here.” You might start to lump pressure on yourself. You hold yourself to a high standard, the get it perfect, to figure it out, to commit already. You scold yourself for falling behind, for not knowing with certainty what you’re passionate about because you haven’t tried many things yet. You compare yourself to others.
Underneath, you hope this pressure and hard work is enough to turn your carbon into a diamond.
The problem is that creativity is not geology. It’s better to learn how to mine for treasure, than to try to force it out of the first stuff you find.
I talk about this a lot because it’s important: judgement, comparison and pressure stop creative thinking.
When you judge yourself, you activate the executive centre in your brain, the part that stops you behaving like a fool at parties. You inhibit your ability to take risks and become hyper-vigilant. It’s basically like inviting the nervous Mum inside your brain to the party and she keeps reminding you to do your chores and mind your manners. Meanwhile, you turn down the volume of sensory information and associations – the parts of your brain important for spontaneous creative insight and free-flowing thought.
There is no shortcut, so you might as well stop beating yourself up and embrace the process.
Mining for gold is messy.
You may not strike gold at first.
You might mine through topic after topic, try medium after medium. Sometimes, you might mine in a completely different location just to see what comes up.
The beginning is a bit messy.
You will make mistakes. You will get dirty. And that’s part of the fun.
Trust the process. You will strike it gold eventually.
You see, creative endeavours are naturally risky and unclear. There is no roadmap to follow.
Intuitively, you might think that the secret to creative achievement is repetition (practicing your skill over and over), experience (creating the same kind of stuff for a long time) or resources (the fancy brushes, the expensive marketing budget, the high-profile contacts). But, you would be wrong.
Alva Taylor (a professor of Dartmouth business school) and Henrich Greve (a professor of the Norwegian School of Management) also thought that repetition, experience and resources would be the key when they studied thousands of comic books to determine what helped creators make better comics on average and innovate.
So what did help? Broad experience.
Creators who had worked in many different comic book genres were more likely the be better on average and innovate.
As you need to keep panning, following your curiosity, developing broad experience and trying new things, you will get information and feedback. You can use a tool like Austin Kleon’s Influence Tree to track your curiosity and look for common themes as I did here.
Over time you will learn how to read this data and you will start to mine gold more quickly.
When you strike gold, don’t drop your tools.
Your voice isn’t something you suddenly find.
Gold doesn’t mark the finish line, it validates the process.
Even experienced creators need to keep adding more dirt to their pan: keep experimenting and learning new things.
Creative thought is made up of three basic building blocks:
- Semantic knowledge (information you learn)
- Experience (things, places and people)
- Skills (abilities you develop)
You have your very own unique combination of these three building blocks that no one else has. That’s what your voice is made of.
The broader the range of these areas, the more possible combinations, unusual associations and possibilities for creativity. You get to choose what these building blocks include: your curiosity will guide you.
Still wondering if you should pursue digital illustration or watercolour? Can it not be both?
Can you combine them into something new? Can you switch between them and allow them to inform each other? What would happen if you used digital illustration, watercolour and collage?
Learn what you’re curious about, try new experiences and develop your preferred skills (and throw in a new skill once in a while too).
Keep allowing your curiosity to delight you with new experiences.
Allow your point of view to be challenged and changed. Allow your voice to evolve as you evolve.
This is what it means to be artistically free.
You don’t have to do this exploration alone. Collaboration is a really important part. If this article has resonated with you, I’d love to invite you to reach out and connect over a breakthrough clarity session.
Be Brave and Curious,