How to find your painting 'language'
Often the driving force of a repetitive creative acts, in this case painting, is taking your creative craft to perfection. It is trying to present an image which is closer to your truth and portrays the subject in the manner which you want.
I feel this is very important, this is my motivation to paint, that each brush stroke is closer to the truth than the last, whatever that 'truth' may be, a literal truth, an emotional truth or a spiritual truth. This is the inexhaustible battery, the desire for improvement which drives people to paint until the day they die...I know I am one of these people. The constant battle of the painter is these micro judgements of the process, that works...that doesn't. Constantly wobbling between frustration and satisfaction, failure and success.
I think this leads to general sense of dissatisfaction with your work, always knowing it could be better, but in turn the dissatisfaction is the motivation! What a terrible day when I look at one of my paintings and see nothing can be improved or handled better for then I will have to stop.
The only real satisfaction comes from seeing a body of work produced over a sustained period of time, then you can hopefully see the upward trend of improvement. With each painting presenting a greater truth than the last or just closer to representing what you intended.
It is very easy to slip off this tightrope of constant improvement, like all artists I am always looking at the world around me in detail but also at the work of others which can provide inspiration and guidance. I am self taught but feel blessed that amongst others my teachers have been Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Freud, Auerbach and Giacometti, by looking at their work for hours in various books and galleries I have learnt so much, particularly ways of handling paint and light and as my skills and experience increase I learn even more by looking at such images.
Now here comes the tricky bit, this inexhaustible battery I spoke of can soon be destroyed by taking the judgements within your own painting and judging your paintings against others. This is dangerous, unproductive ground and leads to creative blockages. You can improve your work but you are not going to paint a better Rembrandt or Van Gogh and trying to will lead to failure and despondency. These artists found their own 'language' and through the micro judgement process I described, honed and refined their language, enabling them to portray their truth very closely.
As a token of gratitude, I recently sent a painting of mine to very well known artist who has painted everyday, all day for 60+ years. Now given that kind of commitment to his craft he has developed a visual perception so intense and precise that few of us will ever get to that point. To my surprise he replied and made some comments on my work which cut straight to heart of the matter, one of which was ' I can't really tell if you have found your own ways' in other words your own painting 'language'. This was exactly the kind of criticism I needed and I knew it was true.
So I began to search for my language...I now realise that is a pointless and superficial exercise, your 'language' develops over time as you follow a path of painting the things you find interesting and motivating. It can't be rushed or pushed, maybe a painter's language develops as visual shortcuts are found to express certain things and these are repeated and modified over time.
One of the main reasons I am writing this article is to remind myself, judge your own paintings within themselves constantly but don't judge them against others. I think if you can walk this tightrope for long enough eventually you will find truth and produce real works of art, which resonate with many people and also feel some mastery over your craft.
The images in this post are stills from the film about Gerhard Richter called 'Painting'.