Avoid the Smorgasbord
For creative people, absolutely anything is possible. You can create whatever you want, and too often that unchecked power can lead us down some dangerous paths. Not dangerous like venomous snakes and shards of broken glass, but dangerous in the sense that too much “creativity” can actually dilute your message and weaken the impact of your work.
As artists, we want to try everything – abstract oil painting, pottery, watercolors, found object sculpture, film, collage, photography, and so on. If it can be considered “art,” we want to give it a try. All too often, I see the work of artists that have what I like to call “Smorgasbord Syndrome.” They present a portfolio that has far too much variety for me to even try to begin to understand what the artist is about. While the artist may consider the variety a way of “showing their range,” it can really send mixed messages to the viewer.
What viewers want to see when they look at your work is a sense of who you are. They want identity. They want to see that you have confidence in the direction you are taking your work. If you look through an art history book, you can easily tell the work of the greats because they have such unmistakable and iconic identity tied to their work – Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, Pollock’s drips and spatters, and O’Keefe’s subject matter. There is no mistaking their work because they have a consistent style.
Viewers want to see that you believe in your work. Cy Twombly creates paintings and drawings that look like they were scrawled by an infant. Some people love him, some people hate him, but you have to admit that there is an incredible amount of power on display when you see an entire body of work in that style. If he had only one “scribble painting,” we would see it as a joke thrown in for a laugh, but when we see hundreds of paintings that are clearly a part of an ongoing, developing series, you realize that this artist is really on to something.
As much as we claim to appreciate variety, I think that we tend to value consistency more – both as artists and consumers. Imagine if Adele, known for her emotional pop vocals, decided to release a death-metal single or tried out some explicit –laden gangster rap “just to show her range.” What if AC/DC decided to drop the guitars and try out some four-part harmony Southern Gospel songs on piano? Both of those scenarios would be quite a disaster, not only to our ears, but to the careers of the performers.
I will admit that there have been a few artists that have been able to be chameleons throughout their careers. Picasso immediately comes to mind as an artist that tried almost everything and somehow made it work. Many people take this as license to do the same, but those people aren’t Picasso. Picasso started young, lived to be over 90 and created more art (good and bad) in a week than most of us create in a year, so he gets to be a rare exception. Even with his diverse range, he would create within a certain style for a number of years before moving on to something a bit different – evolving all the way.
Let me be entirely clear that there is nothing wrong with TRYING different styles, different media, different methods of working. Trying new things is important to your growth as an artist. The problem arises only when you try to present an inconsistent body of work as a unified whole. You might paint like Vermeer while making really cool high-fashion pajamas for cats. Both bodies of work might be exquisite, but presenting them simultaneously would certainly send mixed messages and leave your audience scratching their heads.
Absolut Vodka had a running series of ads that collaborated with artists, starting with Andy Warhol in 1986. The artists would put their own particular spin on the Absolut bottle for an ad. The ads were a great success because they distilled (pun intended) the artist’s style into an easily-identifiable “signature” that worked both for the brand as well as the artist. If you were not familiar with the artist, you would be able to take one look at the ad and quickly see the distinguishing features of that particular artist’s style.
A good exercise to help develop your style is to imagine you are put in a position where your style has to stand on its own. Much like the Absolut campaign, imagine that people around the world have to be able to say, “That’s clearly a (your name) piece,” just from looking at one iconic image. If you can’t come up with what your key elements are to your own personal style, you might not have a style at all. Having no style means that you will have a greater difficulty establishing yourself as an artist.